Conversations: Are Vijay And Ajith Tamil Cinema’s Last Set Of “Dual” Superstars?

OTTs platforming star films, new-age actors, film budgets...what do all of these mean to an audience used to energetic FDFS celebrations?
Conversations: Are Vijay And Ajith Tamil Cinema’s Last Set Of “Dual” Superstars?

VM: I'm not sure how many people realise this, but Suriya's decision to go straight to OTT with Soorarai Pottru is kind of a watershed moment in the history of Tamil cinema. It's like the OTTs have come of age with just one movie. The platforms were always looked at, until now, as 'Plan B' or the 'India A' team. With this, it's kind of obvious what the future looks like and the theatres are never going to be the same again, with a vaccine or without…

BR: And I think stardom won't be the same again, either. MGR/Sivaji, Rajini/Kamal, Vijay/Ajith… I've always wondered about the "iruvar" pairs of male heroes at the top, and which pair would take over next. Now, I'm wondering if THAT kind of mega-stardom is ever going to be possible anymore, for two reasons. (1) I think the film will come to matter more than the star. Once the dust settles after the FDFS whistling-hooting madness, we're already seeing that people won't come for just the star alone, the most recent case in point being Darbar. Earlier, sometimes, a sub-standard film could still get away because "there is nothing else to watch". Now, that's no longer the case. And (2), mega-stars are built on mega-loyalty from audiences over a sustained period of time, and I don't see that happening in the future.

VM: Does that mean that this generation of Vijay and Ajith will be our last? Don't you think that, maybe, Dhanush, Sivakarthikeyan or Vijay Sethupathi will go ahead and become superstars on their right?  Of course, the nature of superstardom will change. Instead of 300-crore releases, say a future Dhanush film will open on Amazon Prime with a record 3 crore people watching it on day one or some number like that… maybe scale will change too but stardom as a concept, I don't think will perish. It's just like how the yardstick for music changed from the number of cassettes sold to the total number of views on YouTube.

BR: Okay, maybe we should rephrase what we mean by "stardom". Of course, there are stars like Suriya, Karthi, Dhanush, Sivakarthikeyan, Jayam Ravi, Vijay Sethupathi, and so on. But I am talking about something that's been a constant in Tamil cinema since the 1960s: the dual superstars at the top, the "iruvar", the two stars above every other star. To expand on your example, the number of cassettes sold means that many number of people bought a cassette each, handing over hard-earned money. Views on YouTube are free. "Will you hand over money to watch a star's film in the theatre just because that particular star is in it?" is my question. "Will that particular star's film get a mega-opening irrespective of the film's quality?" is my question. For over a decade now, various stars have been threatening to topple the Vijay/Ajith duopoly, but these two show no signs of vacating their spots.

VM: Honestly, I feel the Vijay-Ajith duopoly will eventually last longer than even Kamal-Rajini. Their stardom is fuelled by their rivalry, especially among fans and this has already been going on for 15 years. Given that they're just hitting 50, this could go on for another decade or two. When it comes to the smaller stars, I think one of the reasons they don't have this aura is this lack of rivalry among fans. So to become a fan and defend him kind of becomes a part of a fan's identity, almost like a sports team fan. It becomes bigger than a movie. None of these other stars have been able to create that kind of competition. Their fans are made on the basis of how good their films are. The fans will come if the film looks promising. Not for anything else.  

BR: Absolutely. Another reason for the Vijay-Ajith longevity is that they became stars when theatres were still the biggest thing. Yes, there were pirated DVDS. Yes, in the smaller centres, the films would be aired illegally by local cable stations. But in the pre-OTT era, these were still problems that could be lived with. Because the "legal" satellite-TV screening would usually happen months later, and if you didn't want to wait, you had to go to the theatre. But now, due to the shortening of the window for OTT releases, satellite TV windows will collapse, too. Films will be in your homes before you know it. So the loyalty-building, based on a star, will take a big hit.

VM: Which also means that it's the end of the community viewing element of film-viewing or fan base building. Without the aforementioned abhishekams and FDFS experiences, staying a star's fan is honestly, half the fun. The debates and arguments too will completely move online, like it already has to a large extent. But before all that talk, do Amazon and Netflix even matter outside the cities? Won't the rules of 'Tambaram thaandadhu' also apply to these OTT platforms?

BR: Those are the old rules. They say there's no OTT penetration in the smaller towns and villages, etc., and this is probably true. But that doesn't matter much. Because ever since digital projection became the norm, the 3Cs (Chengalpet, followed by Coimbatore, and Chennai City) contribute almost 65 to 75 per cent of the total box-office gross in the State – sometimes higher in the case of a "multiplex" film. So, yes, OTT is going to play a part in all this.

 VM: But how much money do these OTT platforms really have? They cannot afford to buy all the big star films right? The star salaries will have to come down and, of course, the film's budget too for this particular model to become the norm. In that space, I think we will also see the start of a new kind of stardom. The OTT stars will also rival the theatre stars. For eg, a Vijay Sethupathi might, at one point, become a bigger star on OTT than even a Vijay, especially after enough people subscribe to the platforms.  

BR: So you're basically saying the "theatrical" duopoly will end with Vijay-Ajith, but a new kind of star system will rise in the OTT space. Perhaps, but I don't think the OTT space is capable of whipping up the hysteria that birthed MGR/Sivaji, Rajini/Kamal, and finally, Vijay/Ajith. As you said earlier, cut-outs and abhishekams are a big part of this kind of stardom. And about the money OTT platforms have, don't forget that these are multinationals that deal in billions of dollars. A few hundred crore rupees is nothing for them.

VM: Another reason Vijay-Ajith have dominated for so long is that they have fostered a cottage industry of star-building. They've seldom deviated from films that cater to anything else but the star, and they've also got their own "specialist" directors and music composers who know exactly what the fans need. As there is very little experimentation, there is very little surprise element. So the factor while signing becomes "Is it a good Vijay film?" (or "Is it a good Ajith film?"), as opposed to "Is it a good film overall?"

BR: And maybe, at the end of the day, it is a good thing that after Vijay/Ajith, this kind of hysterical mega-stardom will (probably) be a thing of the past. Audiences will hopefully hold out for quality filmmaking (even in larger-than-life spectacles, it is possible to have quality writing, craft, etc.). And with better writing, maybe we can hope for better-shaped heroine parts, and so forth.

VM: Yeah. Even Soorarai Pottru, in its own way, feels like a damn good A-centre/OTT film rather than one of those empty films that exist only to service the star. 

BR: But does this also mean that a star like Suriya can now have a dual career, like the Malayalam stars? Will they be able to do quality films on OTT and more "star service" films (like the Singham movies) for theatres?

VM: It's surely not going to be easy to manage two kinds of stardom. All the earlier duos — MGR/Sivaji, Rajini/Kamal, Vijay/Ajith — had a very clear-cut image with respect to what they were promising the audience. In an OTT space that kind of "promise" may not be possible. But let me end by saying that we will probably move from a star-based economy to a director-based system. A Lokesh Kanagaraj will no longer have to do the compromises he did in Kaithi. He can make the movie without considering the "star". It's time the directors became stars in their own right.

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