With Karnan, directed by Mari Selvaraj releasing tomorrow, we look at scenes where Dhanush, the star, the performer, and often both, gives a memorable performance. There's his early work in films like Pudhupettai, his more evolved work in Maryan, Mayakkam Enna, Aadukalam, and finally films like Vada Chennai and Asuran that have put Dhanush in a unique position in the Tamil film pantheon: an unlikely larger-than-life star who is also a consummate actor.
The visuals of the quiet conversation in a grove between Rudhra (Trisha) and Kodi (Dhanush) look intimate. This is Trisha's scene as much as it is Dhanush's. What seems like just another argument becomes an opportunity for Rudhra to kill Kodi. It's difficult to know what either of them are really thinking. Though it plays out as a melodramatic betrayal scene, their performances keep alive the simmering ambition and self-awareness that's a real part of their characters.
At first, Kodi gives Rudhra a look of disbelief before taking the melodrama a notch higher when he rubs off her fingerprints from the knife to save her. The scene is made more mythic (or literal, depending on your view) when Rudhra tells Kodi to "go and die", which he literally does.
Coming after films like Sullan, Dreams, and Devathaiyai Kanden, the opening shot in Pudhupettai was a revelation. 'Kokki' Kumar literally screams out a monologue that helps him drown the silence around him. He says that he's scared of the silence—not the loneliness or possible death in the cell. You don't really get who he is yet, but you know he's something. His story, as he recollects it, doesn't sound nostalgic. Even he seems to spite himself, especially when he mocks: kokki-na enna? Yarukku theriyum?
Dhanush's Karthik is called 'genius' by his friends, but he's an imploding, barely-functioning one, who takes out frustrations over his unrealised potential on his patient wife, Yamini (Richa Gangopadhyay). Things reach a breaking point when he hits the pregnant Yamini, which causes a miscarriage. You would expect him to rush her to a doctor; he freezes while neighbours take care of her. It's as if the realization of who he has become arrests him and makes him insensitive to what's happened to Yamini.
He cries only when she comes back from the hospital. It might seem like an OTT performance, but he's a person who is prone to emotional extremes. His tiny explosions of grief as he sobs tell you that he's more broken than upset, especially given his long, blank initial reaction.
A lot of people love what Dhanush does in the film's single-take climax where a torn man has to decide between staying alive long enough to harm him one true love, or commit the ultimate sacrifice so she can move on eventually. As he writes his suicide note, you witness the double layered conflict being experienced by a man who already struggles with bipolar disorder.
But how strongly you feel for him at this point is eventually the result of the tonnes of love he's able to generate for this character because of his teenage years. No star, I repeat, no star can play teenage like Dhanush can, but I'd argue that 3 is his best when it comes to rocking the school uniform years. You've not seen him smile so wholeheartedly when Janani (Shruti Haasan) gives her his phone number after months of 'following'.
His hyperactive nods, his shrugs and the tiny shivers between expressions captures the restlessness of this age. And when the wind blows (probably a table fan) when Janani finally looks at him in tuition class, segueing into 'Idhayam Oram' is among my favourite love moments. But the culmination of this phase (the film is divided into three) is the scene where he gets up and answers the tuition teacher's question to everyone's surprise. His face is barely even in focus, but you see how much in love he is because of how hard he's worked to learn the Gauss Law. He also gets a similar 'mass' scene in Kadhal Kondein, where he proves his genius before going back to sleep during class-time. In this, the reason is love. His earnestness is lovely and the comedy works as well as the emotion.
Dhanush as Maryan, keeps it very real while also totally faking it in a scene where he's stuck and starving with a friend (Jagan) in the African desert. What's unsettling is the extent to which Maryan buys into an imagined reality of his home just to escape the horrific condition he finds himself in.
He serves his friend a king's feast (also, imaginary). Revived by just their memories, they eat a meal, and Maryan even shows how to drop a fish straight into the throat. He gags briefly as he is doing this, as if the fish were real and it triggered a reflex. When Maryan gets up after the 'meal' he makes sure not to push the floor with his hands. His brain believes at the level of a reflex that he has eaten.
It's little things like these rather than any euphoria or excitement as they eat (which would have seemed fake given their situation) that makes us invest in Maryan's delusions instead of ridiculing him. He lives so completely in an imaginary world that we, too, have to take it seriously.
Dhanush has had his share of great mass dialogues, but nothing beats the iconic 'Amul Baby' punch in the blockbuster Vellaiilla Pattathari. The situation is about how a rich builder insults Raghuvaran (Dhanush) for bagging a multi-crore construction project without having the 'thagudi' for it. But this thagudi could be a stand-in for anything, starting from nepo kids getting ahead or the general unfairness we deal with when power and money gets picked over merit.
It's also the most 'paavam' of punchlines. He's not talking about his strength or his greatness, for the most part. This rant includes things as mundane as him having to drink tea to stay awake, pledging his mom's jewels to buy an engineering seat and the years he sat without having to do anything. In short, it's him describing how big a loser he is but such a declaration has never sounded so cool.
All of us are losers the way he says it and the eventual hook line, which ends with calling the bad guy an 'Amul Baby', changed the face of the Tamil film villain for good. The effect this scene had on TikTok and Dubsmash is another indication of its massu appeal.
In Anand L Rai's Raanjhnaa, Kundan (Dhanush) is confused when he realises Zoya (Sonam Kapoor), his childhood sweetheart, does not recognise him anymore. She has just returned to Kashi after being shifted away because of their old love story, so when she doesn't remember him, it hurts. He goes there to help her mom fix their LPG connection but he doesn't see class divide like we do, or Zoya perhaps does. But he doesn't break down, walk away slowly and let the pathos music take charge. He tries once more. You see the magic of Kamal in Sadma in this scene, but Dhanush too kills it here.
His minute frustrations when she's taking time to remember, even as he goes about miming their entire love story (cycle rickshaw, wrist slitting and slap included) shows us the pain of a clown at the mercy of his lover. He thinks she's Juliet to his Romeo (she's on the balcony, he's on the ground). But there's a world of a difference. For Zoya, he's at best an old, forgotten friend from a silly teenage year. For him, though, it's the continuation of his eternal love story, as the notes of 'Tum Tak' powers through.
The rooster fight in Aadukalam is a curious situation for Dhanush's Karuppu. His rooster is participating in a crucial contest; great money and honor are at stake. Enmity between people is expended or amplified through rooster fights. During the contest, Karuppu switches between well-concealed anxiety and makes the barest of gestures like clenching his fists or letter the barest of sighs to escape. He can't reveal his emotions to his opponents. But how do you connect to a rooster fight when Karuppu isn't able to express himself freely?
He gets a moment during a break, when he gives his version of Shah Rukh Khan's climax speech from Chak De! India. He tells the rooster: the next fifteen minutes would be remembered for the next fifty years. You don't get the feeling that he is just talking to a bird. Karuppu calls it 'thambi (younger brother)'. His eyes are looking into the bird's. It's like he's channeling his human spirit into it. When the bird wins in the end, it seems to be channeling some of its own spirit into Karuppu who rolls his eyes and explodes into a smile that looks a lot like a cawing rooster.
In Vada Chennai, Dhanush's Anbu gets into a tussle with "Jawa" Pazhani because he harasses Anbu's girlfriend and her family. Anbu only wants to threaten him; yet, he takes a weapon to meet him. In Dhanush's ambiguous portrayal, you can't really say what Anbu's real intentions are. It switches between hesitation and rage. In a self-conscious performance, Dhanush both acts and reacts to his shocking actions.
When he stabs Pazhani, it doesn't look like he's forcing the knife; rather, it looks like it's pulling him into the victim as his eyes open wider in shock. Suddenly, you can see him lean into the knife with a glint in his eye. He's not regretting it; you know he's enjoying it a bit, at least. It's as if he was always this person, but he was too afraid.
The scene where Sivasaami transforms, in front of his son's eyes, into a beast in Asuran is Dhanush's Baashha. It organically recreates 'mass' euphoria when a person's hidden (and greater) side is visible for the first time. No one has built up Sivasaami for us in the film before, but his very situation pushes him to take on a larger-than-life-role. Heroes like Sivasaamy aren't born but forged in the unfairness of life.
But even with all the writing, the scene needed a star who could also perform—like Dhanush. It's truly 'mass' because the protagonist is truly one among the masses, who can relate to the primal emotion behind Sivasaami's transformation and the bloodbath after that. Dhanush really does look like a wild animal, his nose pushed up to reveal teeth that look like predator's. He does look like an asuran.
(With inputs from Vishal Menon)