A week before the 22nd of June, actor Vijay's 45th birthday, the hashtag #ThalapathyFortKerala started trending across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A little digging and it became clear that the hashtag was part of a mega event to organise dozens of simultaneous screenings of the actor's films across the State. So if Kaththi found a re-release in Palakkad, the town of Muvattupuzha, east of Kochi, got a special screening of Vijay's 2012 blockbuster Thuppakki. The hashtag itself suggests that Kerala is Vijay's (or Thalapathy/Commander as he is called) fortress, a market very few non-Malayali stars have been able to penetrate.
But his popularity isn't limited to social media alone. Back in February, PC George, the MLA from Poonjar in Kottayam district, raised many eyebrows when he claimed during a television debate that Vijay had more fans in Kerala than Malayali megastars Mammootty and Mohanlal. And its not just the politicians, Wayanad Sub-Collector Umesh Keshavan made news last year when his Facebook post spoke about the actor's popularity among his district's tribal children. He wrote, "Many Malayali kids and students in Wayanad do not understand Tamil. But that is not a prob at all. Vijay on screen is enough for them. Every time I talk to kids here I use my pic with Vijay as a trump card to make them listen to me and address their issues. Vijay in Kerala is far bigger than Vijay in TN." (SIC)
And if that's not proof enough, the star's tallest cut-out (tallest in the world at the time), towering at a massive 175-feet, was not constructed for a theatre in Tamil Nadu. It was the handywork of the 'Kollam Nanbans', a fan group based out of southern Kerala's Kollam district. But where did all this madness begin? How did a mass entertainer like Vijay manage to create such a hardcore following in a State famous for the arty films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Padmarajan and Bharathan?
CS Venkiteswaran, National-Award winning film critic and historian, says Malayalis have traditionally shared a special admiration for the Tamil films of MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. "There has always been a Malayali viewership for Tamil films. For instance, there are certain films and genres, like Subramaniyapuram for instance, which Malayalis accept only in Tamil. Explicit caste-based narratives, violent gangster films and certain films with a rural rustic setting always worked better in Tamil. Interestingly, this was also the case with mass entertainment films, like the ones Vijay was part of."
But Vijay's popularity in Kerala began even before the star assumed the role of a mass hero in the 2000s. His 1999 romantic drama Thulladha Manamum Thullum ran for 100 days in Kochi's Padma Theatre, at a time when only Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth films could manage such a feat. Ezhil, who directed the film, said in an earlier interview, "I remember being surprised by the attention the film was getting from Kerala. The songs and the emotions really connected with the audience there, also because it was unlike the Malayalam films of the time. But it was not just the film, Vijay too went on to make a solid impression. It was a sign of things to come."
Another factor that contributed to his popularity was the lack of a 'young' relatable hero, argues Venkiteswaran. "By the early 2000s, Mammootty and Mohanlal had already been the reigning superstars for two decades. So we'd reached a point where there were no young heroes. Vijay managed to easily fill this vacuum with films that were equally high on action as they were on dance, songs and a love angle. For the generation that was growing up then, they finally had a hero that was a lot like them."
Even Kunchacko Boban, the lone young hero of the late 90's, didn't really manage to transition from chocolate boy roles to those of an older massier hero; something Vijay managed with ease. This, despite one of Vijay's first superhits, Fazil's Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, being the direct remake of one of Kunchacko Boban's biggest hits.
Producer, distributor G.Dhananjayan feels that it's the limitations of the much smaller Malayalam film industry that further contributed to Vijay's stardom in Kerala. "The budgets of even bigger Malayalam films are just a portion of the scale of a Vijay film. The Malayali audience has always been huge fans of big, massively-mounted films. Until a few years ago, Malayalam films couldn't even imagine making films at such a large scale and naturally, whenever a Rajinikanth or a Vijay film hit the screens, they would gravitate towards them in large numbers for the sheer entertainment value they provided. Even the huge success of the two Bahubali films in Kerala is a result of this. Its these films that paved the way for the Malayalam film industry to experiment with mega budget films like Puli Murugan and Lucifer and its clearly working out well."
His popularity has also been catalytic to bring about many other changes in Kerala. The television market being one of them. Malayalam television channels are unique in the way they regularly telecast both dubbed and straight Tamil films, even in prime slots; the only regional industry to do so.
Tamil films songs, especially those from Vijay's films, have also been extremely popular in the youth school and college festival dance circuits, until a recent rule disallowed film songs in such competitions. "Even the early morning show culture in Kerala was pioneered by Vijay films," says senior film journalist and trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. "Malayalam films never had shows before 9 am. But with certain distributors insisting on early morning shows for Vijay's films and proving how lucrative they are, Malayalam films too have begun to emulate this model to reap rich dividends."
Though a Rajinikanth or a Shankar film too managed to overhaul the distribution and exhibition system in the state, their lack of frequency (a film every three years of so) never really managed to bring about permanent changes. Vijay also started to actively promote his films in the state and these fan visits also contributed to creating a culture that ensured a massive opening. "But with a Vijay film releasing every year, his films changed the way things functioned. For instance, a Vijay film would release in as many as 14 centres in Thiruvananthapuram, even when the regular Mohanlal or Mammotty film would be running in four or five. And when Pokiri released in 2005, it was sold in Kerala for a record Rs. 1.5 crore. This went up to Rs. 7 crore for last year's Sarkar. And the asking price for his upcoming Bigil is a whopping Rs.10 crore."
External factors that also contributed to this popularity is how the average Malayali can very easily understand Tamil. It also helps that the politics of Kerala never really alienated the people and the culture of another state. "But its also interesting to note how off-beat films from Tamil don't always get the same reception as masala films do in Kerala. Malayalis have their own films when it comes to realistic and serious topics. With Tamil, they want films they can celebrate in the theatres," adds Pillai.
Venkiteswaran also points to how the new generation of Malayalam films presented the audience with the 'castrated Malayali hero'. "Some of the roles of actors like Fahadh Faasil and Nivin Pauly are an example of this. They come with a certain impotence in their ability to play the manly saviour. Some of the recent hits even follow the pattern of the protagonist being unable to take charge of his destiny, characters that are always filled with insecurities. The films of Vijay, Suriya or Vikram is the opposite of this. But they're not superheroes. Vijay, especially, take up roles of social justice warriors dealing with very relatable issues like water shortage, the farmer crisis and corruption. That's what appeals to them."
His is also the mould other Tamil stars like Suriya, Vikram and Ajith have used to steadily create a significant fan base in the State. "But I doubt the newer Tamil stars would be able to replicate this model today. The younger Malayalam stars such as Dulquer Salman, Nivin Pauly and Tovino Thomas are balancing their off-beat choices with big mass entertainment films like Kayamkulam Kochunni. So apart from the established stars like Vijay, Suriya, Vikram and Ajith, I don't see newer stars making a major presence there," adds Dhananjayan.
As for the thoroughbred Malayali Vijay fan, the actor is someone they look up to as their older brother, their annan. For Anandhu Padikkal, the President of the Kollam District Committee of Vijay's Fan Club in Kerala, being a Vijay fan is a part of his identity. "I became his fan seeing his dance moves back when I was around seven or eight. And by the time I was allowed to watch movies in theatres, annan had films like Gilli, Thirupachi and Sivakasi releasing one after another. This created a state-wide fan base which resulted in even our dressing style and mannerisms being influenced by him, especially during the release of Pokiri."
This is also the period when fan clubs began to mushroom across the state with flex boards of stars such as Vijay, Suriya, Allu Arjun, Ajith and Vikram becoming a regular sight, even in smaller towns. And that's why Anandhu, a member of the Kollam Nanbans, decided to build Vijay's massive cutout as a move to create their own identity among the various fan clubs. "We collected funds from within the 30 core members to build the cutout. We brought workers from Tamil Nadu to construct it because we couldn't find anyone from Kerala who could do it. It also took more than two months of work for us to procure the required government approvals to construct the structure in a public place. We do all this because being a Vijay fan is a part of who we are."
But how do the families of such fans react to their time-consuming and often expensive devotion? "At first, my family was not very supportive of all the time and money we were spending on such activities. But they've slowly understood what it's really about for us. For instance, when one of our member's lost his home father being unable to pay a loan, the rest of us chipped in to get them a rented house. Out of 365 days, we're engaged in some kind of positive activity in at least 300 of them. Unlike what people think about us fans, there's a lot of good work that we do and my family has come to understand that. There's always the positives to takeaway from annan's film."