Does Tamil Cinema Really Need A Superhero?

Many Marvel/DC films have flown since Tamil cinema’s first, albeit disastrous, series of superhero movies. With Sivakarthikeyan’s Hero getting ready for release, will the concept of a masked saviour finally take flight here?
Does Tamil Cinema Really Need A Superhero?

On paper, the idea seemed too good to be true. A major Tamil star was going to be dubbing for Iron Man in the upcoming Avengers movie. It felt like the perfect indication of what Hollywood cinema had achieved in India this past decade. With Vijay Sethupathi getting signed on to voice Robert Downey Jr.'s iconic character, it not only hinted at the box office storm Endgame was going to be, but it also showed how the distance between a major Tamil star and a Superhero had shortened. Or so we thought. Despite the film's major opening, Vijay Sethupathi's voice acting was almost entirely dismissed. The audience preferred the voice of Ravi Shankar, the artiste who had dubbed for the character until then. This reaction is proof of how deep the connection runs when it comes to these superheroes (even their voices), and how widely they had travelled in the State. But does this also mean we're still not ready to accept our own homegrown superhero?

Vijay Sethupathi dubbed for Iron Man in Tamil, but it did not go down very well with the audience.
Vijay Sethupathi dubbed for Iron Man in Tamil, but it did not go down very well with the audience.

The Origins

Of the four major South Indian film industries, Tamil cinema came closest to, perhaps, truly embracing the superhero genre. As films such as Kanthasamy and Mugamoodi were getting ready, Hindi cinema had already established the lucrative Krrish franchise. The Telugu industry had made Azad, and in Kannada, Yash's Gajakesari was being attempted. But none promised the beginning of a trend like it did in Tamil. Add a film like Vijay's Velayudham (the jury is still out on whether this is a superhero film or not) to the mix, and it felt like we would see at least one superhero movie every year. Both Kanthasamy and Mugamoodi ended with the promise of a sequel, but their less-than spectacular box office performance meant that the costumes are still at the drycleaners. But this also led to a chicken-or-egg conundrum; was the audience not ready to accept a home-grown superhero or did just these particular films fail the genre?

A 'missed opportunity' is what G Dhananjayan calls Mysskin's Mugamoodi, which he produced when he was with UTV. "We had planned it like a franchise that would lead to 10 or 12 films," he says. "It really had the potential to become a major brand, and the market too had warmed up to the idea because such a film could bring in children and families to theatres. Distributors were excited to buy the film, and it opened to earn Rs. 8 crore on the first weekend, which is still actor Jiiva's biggest. But the film failed to live up to expectations. So it's not really the audience that was not ready. If we fix some of the mistakes we made then, there's a lot of scope for superhero films to thrive."

Trade analyst and columnist Sreedhar Pillai too feels content let the genre down. "We have to do more than just ape the West," he says. "A Hollywood concept will work here only when rewritten to become a rooted Tamil movie. Tamil cinema has its own unwritten rules; the hero, even in a superhero movie, must appeal to family sentiments and it must also have a social angle. Even though it might not be comparable to Hollywood standards, the film should also do a good job with the VFX, if it needs it."

Superhero vs Superstar

Aren't our major stars superheroes anyway, albeit without a costume? Don't we already give some of our stars the physics-defying ability to beat up dozens of people even if this "superpower" isn't backed by the metaphorical radioactive spider bite? Milind Rau, who made the hit horror thriller Aval, has an interesting observation about this. "The biggest stars like Rajini, Ajith and Vijay do not need a particular 'superpower' to fight injustice. Their stardom, in a way, is capable of making it believable even if they do superhuman things. But, for a smaller star, an explanation or a superpower can really elevate matters in a larger-than-life role."

As he sees it, the Superstars will always have their own superpowers, but our films are starting become more physics-compliant. "Our hero could once beat up 20 to 30 people at once; this has now reduced to a more plausible number. So, an adjustment is taking place to accommodate logic. With the chance that an unrealistic or poorly made fight sequence could be turned into a meme, everyone has become more careful." Creators are focussed about rooting it somewhere. "So the reason why we buy heightened fight sequences is somewhere being rooted in either myth or science."

Myth or science?

When we whistle for a character like Baahubali, it is because we somewhere make a connection between him and a myth. "Like how a Greek god would not need his powers to be explained by science, we somewhere feel that a character like Baahubali could be the son of Bheema," Milind adds, admitting that almost every director has dreams of making a superhero film.

"Why is Rama so powerful?" asks K. Hariharan, director and professor of film studies. "We don't need an explanation for that to believe his ability to win wars. So the use of science fiction or a costume to back superpower feels Western to us. Kamal Haasan has used many disguises in his films, but they've been used as a ploy and the audience are in on it because it is obvious."

Vikram in <em>Anniyan</em>
Vikram in Anniyan

But what about a film like Shankar's Anniyan or even the more recent 2.0? "Shankar's heroes are vigilantes but they too operate within a myth," says Hariharan. "His films, especially the ones that use an alternate personality as the fighter of injustice, are an iteration of the myth of Dr. Jekyl and Mr.Hyde, and that makes it very appealing to the audience."

It's another kind of myth building that works for stars such as Vishal and Arjun, he adds. "The audience get very excited when there's a lot of press about how actors such as Vishal and Arjun have done their own stunts in the film. This makes their powers "realistic" in a way and has its own appeal."

A Hero awakens

Sivakarthikeyan-starrer Hero, directed by PS Mithran and scheduled to release next month, will prove to be a great testing ground for all these theories. As Milind sees it, the times are very different now from the early 2010s. "Back then, the concept of a Tamil superhero may have appealed more to a very urban audience. Having grown up on comic books and video cassettes of Western superhero films, Chennai-bred film fans may have always wanted their own Superhero. But with the Internet and the popularity of the Marvel movies, the genre and its traits are now known to all. Which is why it will be really interesting to see what the makers have done with Hero."

Sivakarthikeyan in PS Mithran's <em>Hero</em>
Sivakarthikeyan in PS Mithran's Hero

Given that Sivakarthikeyan is already very popular with families and children, the film and its timing make it a great proposition, feels Sreedhar Pillai. "The perception has changed and Superhero films have a proven record in all three centres. If it works well, it could also prove to be the beginning of a successful franchise, a business model hardly tried in our industry."

Dhananjayan too is excited to see Hero succeed. "If the film does well, we will surely rethink the idea of Mugamoodi 2."

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