Vinayak Mahadevan is a corrupt assistant commissioner of police (ACP). “Money, money, money” he yells with the zeal of an addict. That’s still forgivable – rowdy cops can be a lot of fun on screen. But Vinayak is Mr. Despicable. He loves his booze and is something of a party animal. He can’t remember the name of the last woman he bedded. Not only does he lure a businessman’s daughter into a relationship, he cheats on her and then deliberately tosses that businessman from a moving car in front of her. That the daughter is played by Tamil Nadu’s sweetheart, Trisha, makes this episode doubly brutal. It also underscores the fundamental point of Mankatha: Vinayak has zero redeeming qualities, despite being played by Ajith, one of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars.
Yet ask Ajith fans and they’ll tell you that Venkat Prabhu’s Mankatha (2011) is among their all-time favourites. The title refers to a popular card game involving gambling. In this action crime film, revolving around betting in the Indian Premier League, Ajith broke several conventions. Mankatha’s tagline was “Strictly no rules”, and its team took this seriously. Here was a rare instance of the hero playing his age (and looking it). When Vinayak’s girlfriend Sanjana (Trisha) introduces him to her father Arumuga Chettiar (Jayaprakash), the latter asks Vinayak how old he is. Sanjana doesn’t want Vinayak to answer the question because she knows that he’s too old for her. But Vinayak is unapologetic about his age, and nonchalantly says he’s 40, which was how old Ajith was in 2011 when he made his 50th film.
Mankatha showed an Ajith who was secure enough in his stardom to redefine it. Months before the film’s release on August 31, 2011, Ajith his fan associations in a surprise move. In a letter to his fans, he said they were free to either praise or critique him objectively, which went against the grain of the conventional fan-actor relationship. It seemed like a counter-intuitive move for an actor who was still considered a superstar. Yet it also seemed as though Ajith was disinterested in the usual trappings of stardom. While Vijay, Ajith’s contemporary and biggest rival in the industry, looked lean, mean and fit, and the superstars of the earlier generation – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan — disguised their age on screen, Ajith unabashedly sported a beer belly in Mankatha and left his salt-and-pepper hair untouched by colour. Since then, Ajith has frequently appeared with his natural hair on screen, and in Thunivu, which will have a Pongal release this week, he’s also got a shaggy white beard.
Ever since the trailer for Thunivu dropped, it has inspired comparisons to Mankatha. Like the 2011 film, Ajith appears to be playing the bad guy in H Vinoth’s heist film, choosing avarice over ethics. While he is always lauded as a perfect gentleman on the sets by his co-stars, Ajith seems to relish letting out the devil when he’s on screen. Remember his creepy act as the deaf-mute brother who desires his sister-in-law in Vaali (1999) or the crime boss in Billa (2007)? In Mankatha, which is set mostly in Mumbai, he emerges from a flying car to shoot his corrupt colleagues in the police force at the scene of a staged encounter. Not because he’s so upright, but because he has vested interests.
This is followed by a peppy club song – ‘Vilaiyaadu Mankatha’ – that celebrates decadence with lines like “Manithanai maatrada/ magizhchiyai yetrada/ kuraigalai neekada/ thadaikalai thooki potu poda (Change the man/ increase the pleasure/ remove complaints/ throw away all obstacles)”. The next shot is that of Vinayak waking up in his apartment with a stranger, and trying to get rid of her just as his girlfriend arrives.
Prabhu makes no bones about the fact that his anti-hero is incapable of feeling guilt. He is focused on making as much money as possible using his khaki police uniform. The most iconic scene from Mankatha shows Ajith in a white suit, sniffing at a pile of cash and leaning back as if he has just taken a hint of cocaine. Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background score in this scene is just as legendary. It also found a place in CS Amudhan’s spoof film Tamizh Padam 2 (2018) which was chock-a-block with references to such famous scenes from Tamil cinema.
In Mankatha, Vinayak’s obsession with money and his abject lack of remorse was a fresh approach to the established cop film genre that’s riddled with hypermasculine heroes who seek social injustice. His psychopathic laugh, delivered directly to the camera, is a way of telling the audience that they should enjoy this ride with him and not worry about the ethics. The is rather obvious – Ajith had reportedly called Prabhu earlier that year and told him he wanted to do a role like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).
Prabhu also roped in Arjun Sarja to play Prithviraj, the anti-hero’s nemesis – a police officer who is seemingly Vinayak’s opposite. Tamil cinema has witnessed a spate of multi-starrers in recent times, but a decade ago, it was uncommon to have two well-known stars who usually play heroes pitted against each other. What’s more, Ajith frequently referred to Sarja by his title ‘Action King’ in Mankatha, acknowledging the latter’s stardom.
The cat and mouse game between Vinayak and Prithviraj never gets boring because it doesn’t fit a template, but there are also others in the gang who command the audience’s attention – geeky Prem (Premji) who is forever blurting out secrets and the surprising triangle made up of him, femme fatale Sona (Lakshmi Rai) and the somewhat ridiculous Mahat (Mahat). The women are largely ornamental in Mankatha. They are either Madonnas who are in distress and speak in weirdly squeaky voices (Trisha, Andrea and Anjali) or vamps who exist to titillate. Neither Anjali nor Andrea – both talented actors – have much to do in the film, and that remains a sore point. Still, Prabhu deserves credit for daring to be so cynical about romance when his anti-hero was once popular as the ‘chocolate boy’ of the Nineties. In fact, Ajith did so many films of this kind that that he was tired of his lover boy image. No wonder he sank his teeth into a film like Mankatha.
Though Mankatha appears to be cerebral, its gasoline is Ajith’s ability to pull off Vinayak’s ruthlessness and it revved up audiences as well. The craze for the film was such that it was one of the on Google in 2011 (the only Tamil film to make it to the list). Made on a budget of about Rs 25 crore, Mankatha is to have made Rs 130 crore according to its producer Sun Pictures.
In the years between Mankatha and Thunivu, his rival Vijay has steadily increased his fanbase and expanded his stardom beyond Tamil Nadu. Ajith, on the other hand, seems to be redrawing ideas about stardom yet again. It can’t be a coincidence that Thunivu translates to “gutsy”. While Thunivu is a heist film, Varisu is a family drama and the trailers of the films couldn’t be more different. Varisu, directed by Vamshi Paidipally, appears to be an old school drama, in which a gun-toting Vijay stresses the importance of family values. Thunivu, on the other hand, sees Ajith referring to himself as an “Ayogya payyan” (rascal) and robbing a bank gleefully. Varisu, with its traditional messaging, is clearly hoping to tap into the mood of familial bonding (Pongal is a time when families tend to throng to theatres). Even though Vijay’s film seems more suited to Pongal, no one can dismiss Ajith’s bad-boy avatar. After all, as history is witness, it’s a ‘mankatha’ that he can still win.
Mankatha is available for streaming on SUNNXT.