How do you think a boy forced to join school after a long holiday at home would feel, asks Ramkumar, a Vijay fan who runs a mobile shop in Kanchipuram, with a twinge of sadness. “That’s exactly how this feels.” The fan is reacting to the latest announcement from Tamil actor Vijay — or Thalapathy as he’s better known. Putting an end to various speculations, the 49-year-old actor finally made an entry into politics last week with the launch of his party, Tamizhaga Vetri Kazhagam, a move that came with a caveat. “Politics isn’t my hobby, it is my quest…so I will finish one other film that I’ve committed to, before completely dedicating myself to politics,” his statement read, leading way to a swirl of sad tweets and fan edits, as a way to accept a new truth in Tamil cinema: that his 69th film will be the last time fans see him on screen.
Keeping regular talks about collections and numbers aside, most fans have grown up watching his films for the past 20 years, Ramkumar says. “We keep thinking, "Can this not be a lie," because we're still not able to digest this.” Continuing Tamil Nadu’s tradition of stars becoming politicians — since 1967, most of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers, including CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa, have had Kollywood roots — the actor has often flirted with the idea of joining politics through cryptic statements off and on screen. While his announcement didn’t come as a surprise, the decision to quit acting, sort of did.
As hard as accepting change can be, fans have to move forward, says George, a social media influencer and fan. “The movie fan in him thinks, “Thank god it is not his 69th film yet and that there are still two movies.” We will celebrate it like you’ve never seen before. There was never a year without his release ever since his debut, except in 2020, when Master was postponed due to lockdown. He has entertained us for 30 years. It’s a sad moment, but I respect his decision to focus on politics,” he says, calling this move a real-life Sarkar (his 2017 political film with AR Murugadoss) moment.
Anoop, a fan of the actor from Kerala, who handles the Kerala Online Vijay fans page on Twitter, says it’s time to accept the star’s decision. Like many other Malayalis, Anoop’s starter kit of the actor was the romantic drama Thullatha Manamum Thullum, a film he recalls watching with his brother in 1999. The actor’s stardom also has a unique characteristic — apart from Tamil Nadu, Vijay is the one Tamil actor who enjoys limitless superstardom in Kerala, on par with the likes of Mohanlal and Mammootty.
“When he entered the industry, there was not a young star in Kerala. Malayalam also hasn't had loud, over-the-top mass masala films. The action in our films is known for being quite subtle. So, Vijay was the first option for an over-the-top hero persona for us. The family audience here might not know any Tamil star apart from Vijay. And his face gradually became very familiar over the years,” he says. For Anoop, the actor didn’t just give him uninterrupted joy in the theatres, but also a close-knit friendship circle he’ll always cherish. “I have friends in all districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Bangalore and a few countries, too. All are connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise,” he smiles.
The industry, too, sees this as a big blow to the mechanics of the Tamil film box office. Apart from being one of the highest paid actors in the country, Vijay has continued to contribute a considerable amount to Tamil Nadu’s yearly box office. Rakesh Gowthaman, the proprietor of Vettri Theatres, is happy for a young man to join politics but disappointed as an exhibitor. “He is almost doing an average of 3 films in two years. This means a lot of revenue. The city theatres will manage with other content and Hollywood. But down south, the single screens are dependent on big star and festival movies. Thunivu, Varisu, Leo and Jailer have been 2023's saviours. Films like Good Night, Dada and Chithha will work only in the cities.”
Tamil cinema might be running out of stars and it’s probably time for theatres to panic. “The reality is that Rajini is at the end of his career. Although Kamal Haasan has announced many movies, we don't know when they are coming out yet. And Ajith is into bike trips and other things. We are almost out of stars. So when Vijay, too, has announced his retirement, everyone is disappointed thinking what will happen to the industry without these four stars.” Rakesh also attributes a chunk of Kollywood’s star problem to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“An actor like Harish Kalyan for instance could've taken things forward and worked on the continuity,” he says. “The two-year break stumbled many careers. Suriya sir's films went to OTT during the time, so his career isn't that huge theatrical market wise. If those two films had been released in theatres, he could've been the next dependable star.” It was in fact Master (2021), Vijay’s film with Lokesh Kanagaraj about an alcoholic professor cleaning up his act, that revived theatres after the lockdown.
Vettri and Vijay go a long way, Rakesh says, calling the actor a luck factor. “Back in those days, only one film would be released in a theatre. So, if there are two films releasing at the same time, say an Ajith and Vijay film, one theatre would release the Vijay film and another would screen the Ajith film. Irrespective of whatever movies would release, we'd love to release a Vijay film, especially during his Love Today (1997) and Kadhalukku Mariyadhai streak. His movies are still breaking records. Vijay has given a lot to theatres, especially for us. Hopefully he'll finish the elections and come back.”
Entertainment tracker and industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai notes that quitting cinema might be the only way to succeed in Tamil Nadu politics. “Actors before him like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have tried this with one step inside and outside, but it hasn't materialised. Under these circumstances, you need to assure people. MGR and Vijayakanth, the two of the most successful actors to transform into politicians, also tried to dabble in films. But once you're into hardcore politics, you cannot act. You cannot have the best of both worlds, but only the rough and tough of one.” He’s certain that people will appreciate this sacrifice. “Nambala thookivita makkaluku edhana seiyanumnu oru ennam,” says Ramkumar, whose wish is to one day see him in a progressive-thinking movie with the likes of political directors like Vetri Maaran, Mari Selvaraj and Pa Ranjith. “His salary is close to Rs 200 crores, and we all know the value of his call sheet. Despite that if he's leaving this behind, his intention is pure.”
But who will fill this void? Sreedhar thinks it might take years for a replacement to settle in. “We don't know whether cinema as an entertainment format will remain the same in Tamil Nadu too.” Rakesh agrees. “If it goes on like this, our market will become North India and the market will slowly vanish. Only if we have a film like Baahubali or Avengers, the market will grow bigger. If we keep doing small, lighthearted films, there will be no interest in theatres,” he says, adding that somebody new has to emerge. “It might take 5-6 years for someone to come up like Vijay did with Rasigan (1994) and went on to do films like Kadhalukku Mariyathai (1997). We need a new face.”