It was the night before the release of Vijay's Sarkar and I still had not got my tickets. Booking sites had all turned crimson red and my resourceful friends too said there was nothing they could do. With little hope, I called up an old contact. He's the kind of man who knows how to get things and as always he had a ticket he could spare, albeit for a shockingly high price. Relieved and a little offended, I met him outside the theatre and the transaction was complete. As he left, he repeated what had become his tagline, "You know who to call for tickets. Rajini, Kamal, Vijay, Ajith…" he listed, like the items in his menu. "I do tickets for all stars. Have also started for Nayanthara films now," he said, as he walked away.
The actress' box office push had been the talking point since the success of her film Kolamavu Kokila, but this was some ground-level legitimacy for her stardom. Imaaika Nodigal, which released just after, became another superhit, further strengthening the "Lady Superstar" brand. And with the bigger-budget Airaa set to release next week, I'm sure my sketchy contact is busy making phone calls, getting ready for a first-day killing. Does this make her South Indian cinema's only female superstar? "She's certainly a superstar," says producer and distributor G. Dhananjayan. "She's the only female actor who can guarantee house-full shows, even for the Friday morning slots. Not many male stars can do that and even the revenue she generates is comparable to most of them."
As Kotapadi J Rajesh, her longtime associate and producer of films like Aramm and the upcoming Airaa sees it, "her films have a market value of around Rs.15 crore." She's also the only female actor to get a wide release. "Airaa, for instance, is releasing in around 700 screens. 300 in Tamil Nadu and 350 in the Telugu-speaking states," he adds.
The difference between her and most male stars is how she's popular in all five states. Having acted in all four south languages, with hits in each of them, she is as identifiable in Dharwad as she is Dindigul. "There are two reasons for her present stardom," says journalist and industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai. "She balances her choice of films very cleverly. Each time she stars in a film like Kolamavu Kokila or Imaaika Nodigal, she also signs a major star film like Viswasam. Even now, she's the top heroine with films lined with up Nivin Pauly, Vijay, Chiranjeevi and Rajinikanth. Instead of alienating such films after becoming a star on her own right, she has chosen to embrace them. This gives her the freedom to take a chance with her own choice of films because her existence is not under any threat."
Women-centric versus heroic films
The other reason is her relevance among the youth. "Unlike other female stars, her films are not hits because they are women-centric," adds Dhananjayan. "Even her audience is not what you'd call families. Her fans are young, both male and female, and they whistle for her just as much as they do for her male counterparts."
He explains this by pointing to her film choices. "Women-centric roles are those only women can do, but she has not chosen to work in films like that. Her recent hits, for instance, could also have been done by men. Like the IAS officer in Aramm, or the drug smuggler in Kolamavu Kokila. What people are connecting to is the heroism in such roles, just like male star vehicles. That's what makes her a star."
And even when she acts in male-centric star films, she's now offered, well-layered meaty characters. "She stopped doing banal characters like the "loosu ponnu" long ago. Even in the recent Viswasam, she played a role where she was equal to Ajith, that too without many romantic scenes or duets. She was the mother of a 9-year-old girl in it and that has contributed to her growing stature."
Scripting the success
Kotapadi J Rajesh too feels her choice of films has contributed generously. "Arram, for instance, was chosen from over 100 scripts, so it really was special. It's the same with Airaa. I had listened to 50 scripts before we chose Sarjun. Another factor that works for her is how there's an added novelty when she's doing it. Male actors have completed the gamut of roles from IAS officers to farmers, from policemen to smugglers. But when a female star does it, with the required changes to suit her image, it adds a whole new dimension to the film. Kolamavu Kokila is doubly special because a woman is stuck in a particularly male-dominated situation."
Despite this, Rajesh says she does not want her to go the "Vijayashanti way." She too was a star to reckon with in the early 1990s in which she played police officers in action-oriented films. "If you keep doing such films, the success becomes short-lived. But if you choose to do content-oriented films with freshness, it works in the longer run," he adds.
Director Sarjun, who made the upcoming Airaa, too feels her stardom is at a point where certain additions become necessary. "The hero intro scene," for instance. "One cannot simply introduce her anymore. It needs to be in slow motion and you need to have whistle-worthy moments where "heroism" is explored in her own unique way. I think with her films getting bigger, her characters need to become larger than life."
Even the anti-hero shades in her last two characters are a result of this, feels Dhananjayan. "These roles are not something earlier female stars like TR Rajakumari or Lakshmi could have played."
The 50 crore star?
With her market expanding with each film, Rajesh feels it's not far for one of her films to touch the 50 crore mark. "I have a Wonder Woman-like script I will start working on very soon. I also have the second part of Aramm coming up where her iconic character Madhivadhani makes a return."
Tirupur Subramanian, a leading distributor from the south Tamil Nadu market, says that she is the only female star who commands a market, even in the B and C centers. "But her films need to be good for them to work. People expect more than just action and songs when they come for her movies. Her films need to provide that quality."
And as Dhananjayan adds, being a star in Tamil Nadu is not about the strategies or planning. "It is all about the connection. Remember the three years when she had not made a single Tamil film? But she overcame all that and returned, only to become a bigger star. The audience connects to that Phoenix-like quality. She's like Rajinikanth in that sense. Wasn't he written off after Baba? Only Superstars can make a comeback and still remain number one."