As Dhanush huffs and puffs with his Hindi in the Raanjhanaa trailers, cynics and those who liked the Chennai Express trailer might dismiss him as just another mass hero from the south trying to make a fool of himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. His tongue may be perfectly lodged in his cheek when he looks into the distance and says, as if to himself, “Yeh Banaras hai, aur launda saala yahan bhi har gaya, to jeetega kahan.” And to be fair, his Hindi and diction is quite alright.
Dhanush entered the world of cinema with a sort of adolescent trilogy. His first film Thulluvadho Illamai was about a bunch of misguided school children dealing with infatuation, love and their deficient parents. The film was directed by his father Kasthuri Raja, with a story by his brother Selvaraghavan, and a 20-year-old Dhanush, with his skinny schoolboy looks fit the role perfectly. Though the film could have used a little more restraint in treatment, it had a successful run at the box office. This was soon followed by his brother’s own directorial venture Kadhal Kondein. Playing the role of a college kid with a deeply tragic childhood, Dhanush showed his impressive array of talents, right from the look of a pitiable kid to that of a murderous psychopath. Both his first films were blessed with great music and were huge hits and Dhanush had pretty much arrived as a performer. But this is Tamil cinema and you haven’t truly arrived as a star till you get that runaway hit, with all the true elements of masala to boot. That was his third film Thiruda Thirudi (not to be confused with Thiruda Thiruda from another of our treasured export to Hindi cinema – Mani Ratnam) that arrived with much less fanfare compared to his earlier films, but turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year. Along with it, the song Manmadha Raasa from the film made Dhanush a star who could more than just shake a leg.
Dhanush had his fair share of misses soon after this phase, essaying pretty much the same role in many of his films. His choice of scripts went from bad to worse and while some clicked, keeping him in memory, some hardly saw the day. But it was apparent that given a well-written character to play, Dhanush was always going to ace it. This was evident in two films that were well received, critically as well as commercially – Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai and Vetrimaran’s Polladhavan. In the former, he shone as a dreaded gangster rising in the ranks and his performance, though a bit conspicuous by his build, was full of energy. Dhanush was excellent when it came to maximizing his potential and that’s exactly what he was able to do over a consistent period to always be in contention. Polladhavan, a zany Madrasified take on Bicycle Thieves, is another of his landmark films, more so in retrospect as to what the same team would bring in 2011 – a year that marked the second wind of his career.
Dhanush may have slipped in choosing his films mid-career, but he never had that problem with his songs. He had a lean period between 2009-10 and his most memorable moment of the time came behind the mic for a film that was not his – Aayirathil Oruvan. The song Un Mela Aasadhan went on to be a super hit and is arguably his best as a singer to date. In 2011, Dhanush did two things in opposite ends of the spectrum to stamp his authority. One came out of sheer class and the other turned out from the ever giving school of mass – to use the Tamil film industry parlance. Vetrimaran’s second film Aadukalam, about rooster fights and resulting feuds in and around Madurai, had Dhanush’s greatest performance to date, a performance dancing between the notes of high drama and subtlety never seen before from him. It earned him a National Award. Soon after that, came the phenomenon that catapulted him to the national consciousness. The song Why This Kolaveri Di from 3 – a film written and directed by his wife and Rajinikanth’s daughter Aishwarya, may have sank without a trace, but the viral video with Dhanush playfully recording the song in a studio gave him pan-Indian recognition. For once, it wasn’t a condescending enna rascala that did it. From the northeast of India to south Bombay and to the planned streets of Chandigarh, people had a Dhanush Tamil (or Tanglish) song on their lips. And to top it all, all this fame and adulation had little to do with him being the son-in-law of Rajinikanth, however convincing the bad jokes and jokers may be.
For a long time, Dhanush wasn’t the automatic choice among familial audiences. He did not burst into the mainstream scene with lovable and family oriented characters. He was an actor who played the roles of troubled kids and psychotic youngsters, the star of “despicable” songs like Manmadha Raasa and Enga Area Ulle Varadha that involve vulgar dance steps against Indian culture. Or so they said. To be euphemistic about it, Dhanush did have unconventional looks. He didn’t have a Surya or Salman Khan six pack physique either. He did not dance like Vijay though he was way above the rest in that department. Even Bollywood is only now cottoning on to an Irrfan Khan and a Nawazuddin Siddiqui, where until recently we only had Ajay Devgn. But still, such complaints aren’t raised against the northern stars themselves. Ethnic stereotyping invades these situations and someone like Dhanush is bound to be at the receiving end of it all. Now he may not be all convincing in a single film, but here is a career for all to see. As self-aware as his great father-in-law, Dhanush did quip in one of his many masala films, “Engla mari pasangala ellan pathona pidikadhu, paaka paaka dhan pidikkum” (Roughly speaking, this might get lost in translation – “Guys like me aren’t liked instantly, it takes time to get used to us and fall for us“). There is a high probability that Dhanush will face a similar challenge all over again in Hindi cinema, but if he’s proved his own aphorism once, there is no reason why he won’t do it again. You may not get a swashbuckling sensation doing a little bit of everything with Dhanush, but you can rest assured he’ll make his presence felt. To borrow and paraphrase his dialogue from Raanjhanaa again – superstar na sahi, feel hi de de.