Take a bow, Dhanush


He has caught the nation’s fancy with his soup song. But Dhanush-frenzy has been simmering for a while, says Arul Mani

AS A reader of  The Hindu for the past 50 years, it really pains to read the front page today which has given too much, too much importance to Dhanush in Why This Kolaveri. I am unable to fathom the reason for cinema obsession. Already the standard of the newspaper has gone down below the average and you have added insult to injury by publishing this third rate cheap news item, which in your books is very important. There are so many events that are taking place at state, national and international level having much more importance than this. We senior citizens are deeply hurt. (E-mail received by The Hindu in response to a piece by Sudhish Kamath titled Why this ‘Why this Kolaveri’?)

Fan frenzy

To account for Dhanush-love, we must pick our way through three kinds of incomprehension. I begin by immersing myself in the above rant, a distillation of the opinions of my parents’ generation and the reason for the remove at which I grew up contemplating Tamizh films. I was brought up in Tamizhppatru, a love of the language meant committing Sangam poetry to memory but never an acquaintance with its cinema.

Pauline Kael once dismissed the chilly historicism of ornery filmwriting as no more than attempts “by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of their boyhood and their adolescence”. I have, alas, only that to offer, as I pit against the letter-writer’s voice my memories of growing up in the vicinity of Ulsoor, an outpost of defiant Tamizhness within Bengaluru, an olfactory suburb to Chennai, an uncorker, on special days, of the bouquet of the Cooum, and today a snarl of dying streets within a redrawn city.

The respectable, but nondescript school I went to, gave admission reluctantly to what they called Tumill Boys, drawn from the non-U Lakshmipuram and Murphy Town. They sat sullen and stupid through daily English medium séances and came to life only when they burst out of class, their faces alight with the films playing in their heads, trailed by snatches of song they flung into the air — like declarations of war.

Tamizh films were the contraband they smuggled into class. I inhaled and drew up my sleeves for it, as if these were the questionable substances my parents were afraid I would succumb to.

One day, in 2003, I was returned to that guilty pleasure. I stopped while flipping channels, arrested by the sight of the scrawniest body I had ever seen on screen, clad in what looked like a suit-of-lights filched from an underweight matador’s wardrobe. The body was weaving through some arroyo, wearing a face that expressed the same compressed fury as my long-lost friends. This is how I saw Dhanush for the first time, dancing to Manmatha Raasa in Thiruda Thirudi. I sought the film, watched him essay the role of a street-smart kid arriving at love with long-limbed flair. That is how I fell for an actor.

Mysteriously, the unwritten requirement in casting heroes for Tamizh films has always been a look of well-fed contentment. The dark, lean and hungry look was de rigueur for villainy, for the rapist, for comedian, or the sidekick. With Dhanush, possessor of skinniness that put even Prabhu Deva in the shade, the requirements of stardom begin to be rewritten — heroes finally begin looking like their avid but half-starved fans. Dhanush represents the long-overdue mingling of screen and street in Tamizh cinema, the end of a peculiar kind of amnesia.

With Dhanush, the requirements of stardom are being rewritten; heroes can now look like their avid but half-starved fans

This amnesia is older than cinema and obeys voices of upper-caste propriety such as the one quoted at the start. Despite Dravidian fury over Brahminical hegemony, one of their big heroes, Thiruvalluvar, (possibly a Dalit) is depicted all over Tamil Nadu in Vedic gravitas, in rishiwhite skin and garb reminiscent of figures from Raja Ravi Varma or Amar Chitra Katha.

Murthy, the ganglord in Pudhupettai, offers the withering comment “Yarra ivan, pencil-la kodu potta mathiri?” (“Who is this, like a line drawn with a pencil?”) when he sees Dhanush’s character for the first time and spends the rest of the film regretting this underestimation. In these films, that skinny body is transformed by a feral intensity and writes hieroglyphics of exclusion and desire across the screen with a clarity that no neatly psychologised character study could have achieved.

If you like Kolaveri Di, you guys must check out Manmatha Rasa. One of Dhanush’s early songs. MINDBLOWING!! How does he move like that?
(Abhishek Bachchan on Twitter)

TO UNDERSTAND what Dhanush might mean, we must look at the roles fashioned for him by his brother, the director Selvaraghavan. While Dhanush might now be his own man, his screen persona owes much to this collaboration by which Tamizh cinema’s notion of streetchic acquired new edge.

 Rajinikanth with daughter Aishwarya, son-in-law Dhanush and M Karunanidhi
Starry constellation Rajinikanth with daughter Aishwarya, son-in-law Dhanush and M Karunanidhi
Photo: Hindu Images

Selvaraghavan’s heroes are inevitably desdichadoes — disinherited by social circumstance and forced to battle, even to class war. In Thulluvadho Ilamai, Dhanush is a fisherman’s son whose aspirations are postponed by the arrival of adolescence. In Kadhal Konden, he plays Vinod, an orphan who studies engineering in Chennai unprepared for the social protocol that dictates getting either an education or the girl. Kokki Kumar of Pudhupettai documents the city’s unspoken segregations when he sings the words Enga area ulla varadhey (‘Don’t enter our area’) and clarifies a moment later with two maps of Chennai: Pudhupettai, Kasimedu, Ennore and Vyasarpadi are ‘our’ areas while Anna Nagar, KK Nagar, T Nagar and Boat Club are ‘yours’.

In representing their journeys, Selvaraghavan chooses to steer clear of the verities that might comfort a middle-class audience. Dhanush’s characters do not fail beautifully, nor are they diminished into satisfyingly picaresque types. They radiate excess and danger — we expect at least a bolt or two of cleansing lightning, but we wait in vain.

His character may get some pre-marital action in Thulluvadho Ilamai, but nobody gets pregnant. Kadhal Konden is Selva’s way of drawing attention to his disgust with the generic requirements of college romance, with the idea that romance was possible only between two well-soaped individuals, with the requirement that the two must find each other and exchange fragrances. His hero, Vinod, goes haywire twice over: as an unstoppable, thwarted psycho who dies when he chooses, and as the bearer of unexpected narrative burdens.

Pudhupettai follows the rise, dip, and continuing rise of Kokki Kumar, a slum boy-turned-gangster who breaks into politics, without ever giving in to the temptation to build mystique around the hero. Nor are we subject to the convolutions other exemplars of the under-city genre may offer — that crime must seduce before culminating in the reassurances of the cautionary tale. Kumar crumbles regularly into freak shows of fear, trembling and general ridiculousness, but succeeds. Not because he is some samurai warrior in mufti but because the fear that cripples him is also his apotheosis.

We could declare Dhanush a subaltern hero but that is not quite how his films work. Simpler, perhaps, is to acknowledge a range of roles in which he enacts epic transformations. We are offered such a spectacle in Vetri Maaran’s film Aadukalam,where he plays a lungidancing ‘cock-fighting’ enthusiast struggling to keep a moral focus in a world darker than he might have expected. Then there are films like Vengai, a caste epic that requires him to slap the heroine several times, merely one of its 30 winces per hour.

THE BACKWARD CLASS hero’s mythic tussles with the modern may win him an audience, but it is nevertheless his fate to also be met with incomprehension beyond that audience. That incomprehension may be pleasant and sunny if he arrives without inconvenient history. A passage made easier by fora grounded in an eternal present — Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. That, perhaps, is all there is to Kolaveri Di.

If such a hero arrives wrapped in a history that does not unravel in an easy bolero, then that incomprehension will take the form of hostile caricature. Which is why Rajini must inspire jokes, and Raj Kumar’s superbly parodic Eef You Come Today must become every clueless fool’s opportunity to be Englishmedium hipster for five minutes on the Internet. In such a regime of understanding, some cultures are always fated to be folkloric, to be living museums.

Is Kolaveri Di the first sign of a series of crossovers from the local into the national and the international? There is the mythology of easy creation and ready acceptance everywhere that is beginning to form around the song. The lyrics are no more than a riff on the various declarations of class- anxiety that keep turning up in Selvaraghavan’s films. The music, for all its supposed folksiness, isn’t particularly distinctive. What it does is never quite a crossover because it has nothing in particular to transport.

There is something tragicomic about the fact that an actor like Dhanush must win unprecedented attention for a mere bagatelle, while his far more substantial work goes ignored, but what can we do about that except laugh and shrug our shoulders?

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