Shiva Rajkumar has been one of the most popular stars in the Kannada film industry for decades now. The son of Kannada cinema’s doyen, Dr Rajkumar, Shiva Rajkumar (fondly called Shivanna by his fans) has starred in more than 125 films, in a career spanning nearly four decades. Despite boasting such an accomplished filmography and career, it’s his 5-minute role in Nelson Dilipkumar’s Jailer that has fetched him an instant following among a demography that has remained oblivious to his fandom. In the Rajinikanth-starrer, Shiva Rajkumar is Narasimha, an ex-convict reformed by the film’s protagonist, Muthuvel Pandian. He appears in exactly two scenes and both scenes are a scream, with one particular moment in the film’s climax letting Shivanna soar on screen. Shiva Rajkumar is no stranger to ‘mass’, hero glorification, or slow-mo walks in any way, but it’s interesting to see how the Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam audiences have discovered his stylish screen presence for the first time with his cameo in Jailer.
And Shiva Rajkumar wasn’t the only star to appear in a cameo in Jailer. There was the equally popular Mohanlal as Mathew, a crime lord and friend of Muthuvel Pandian, who, just like Narasimha, helps our hero. In the climax, when Rajinikanth, Shiva Rajkumar, and Mohanlal get a mass moment, superbly accentuated by R Nirmal’s parallel cuts, it’s an explosive sequence that makes it impossible for the fans to stay seated. The theatre reaction videos and appreciation posts flooding the social media feed speak volumes about the impact of these moments. And this impact is clearly translating into footfalls and box office numbers. Sun Pictures, the film’s production house, announced that the film made more than ₹375 crore in the first week, making it “the highest first-week total gross collection in the history of Tamil cinema.”
Theatre Owner Suresh Shenoy, who runs the Shenoy Theatre Chain in Ernakulam, feels Mohanlal’s cameo is a major factor in the success of Jailer in Kerala. In an interview with Cue Studio, the exhibitor says, “Mohanlal may have had just two scenes in Jailer, but they are both very powerful. They are outstanding and Mohanlal hasn’t got such a great intro scene even in his recent Malayalam films.” Another factor that is helping Jailer in Kerala is the fact that Mohanlal himself is coming out of a low point. “Be it Monster, Alone or 12th Man, they were all films that were made for the OTT. They didn’t work and they also dented his image. But the intro in Jailer was so good that they overlooked the disappointment of these flops and were happy to see their star back in form.”
While Jailer didn’t invent or re-introduce the idea of cameos, it has certainly made a point that when used effectively, a cameo can make a huge difference. There have been films in the past that have featured cameos; Sudeep’s appearance in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) immediately comes to mind, but its impact was far from the one we are seeing today. Although its effect might be barely palpable, it made sense in the context of the time the film was released in. Once the ‘pan-Indian film’ became the norm, cross-industry casting became much more rampant, with Saaho being one of the early films to feature an ensemble cast that had actors representing different industries; for instance, Arun Vijay from Tamil and Lal from Malayalam. Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy too, featured Sudeep, Vijay Sethupathi and Amitabh Bachchan to strengthen its pan-India appeal. And then there was Priyadarshan’s Marakkar, starring Mohanlal, Arjun, Suneil Shetty and Ashok Selvan, among others, which went on to fail at the box office. Very few films have managed to get a cameo right.
Industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai notes that it is “an old theory or faith” that the presence of a popular star from a specific region will help the film’s box office prospects in the respective territory. Speaking of Jailer, he says, “The Hindi audience may know Rajinikanth but not the rest of the actors. So it helps to have Jackie Shroff in the cast. He will appear only in the posters of the Hindi version, while you’ll have Mohanlal along with Rajinikanth in the Malayalam posters. So, the viewers get a kick that Mohanlal and Rajinikanth are working together.” He further adds that the numbers speak for themselves. “Jailer did extraordinary business in Kerala. The film sold for about 6 crores in Kerala, which is a new feat for a Rajinikanth movie. It will end up doing more collections. So, cameos make sense business-wise.”
He adds that the concept of cameos has also evolved significantly over the years. “The special appearances in the 80s and 90s were meant as a favour to the producer. The actor doing the cameo may not even appear along with the lead actor in the film. It was done as a help to sell the film. They also didn’t want to be associated with the other hero. For instance, Dharmendra and Hema Malini appeared in a song sequence in Amol Palekar’s Chhoti Si Baat (1976), and Rajesh Khanna has done innumerable guest roles.” It’s not quite the same today, Sreedhar asserts. “Mohanlal received a salary that he wouldn’t even get in a Malayalam film for doing a cameo in Jailer. He must have spent hardly a week and he was paid ₹8 crores. That is huge. So cameos have always been part of the business. If it works, then everybody gets the credit for it.”
Film producer and historian G Dhananjayan attributes the “record-breaking collection” of the Jailer in the territories of Karnataka and Kerala to the cameos. “These two people have made a significant contribution. I’m not discounting other actors, but when stars like Mohanlal sir and Shiva Rajkumar come on screen and contribute to the story in a dramatic way, it’s simply magic. What would happen to those scenes if they featured other actors? Their presence elevated the film to greater heights. If Jailer is setting new records for Tamil films in those territories, the credit goes to them. Of course, Rajini sir is there, but these two made a tremendous difference.”
Dhananjayan adds that when a star like Shiva Rajkumar is perfectly utilised, like in Jailer, the results can be highly gratifying for not just the audience, but for the actor too. “Today, people are talking about Shiva Rajkumar’s walking style and screen presence. Imagine how gratifying it must be for him.”
While cameos are a safe idea to gain a certain level of traction, Sreedhar adds that a cameo has to be conceived well and shouldn’t be created simply for business purposes. “Cameos have to be part of the content. The characters should be written into the format and structure of the story, and the actors should fit in. In Jailer, Shiva Rajkumar and Mohanlal are a part of the deal and naturally, they make it big on the screen.”
The film industry runs on trends. If something works, it’ll be done to death. So, is it likely that the filmmakers might try to mimic the success of Jailer by casting popular actors in their films? Dhananjayan says it might be “impossible” for stars to accept thankless roles. “Jailer is a Rajini sir film. Everyone agreed to do cameos for him. Unless there is another star involved, I don’t think other stars would be interested in doing cameos. Sure, Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt acted in RRR. But whom did they do it for? SS Rajamouli. Now, Sanjay Dutt and Arjun are acting in Leo. They are doing it for Vijay sir. We cannot see it as a trend. If a lower-level star goes and asks a big star to do a cameo, they would merely question their purpose. Unless you are going to tell someone that they will be paid ₹10 crores for 2 days, it won’t happen. And a film, obviously, cannot afford it,” Dhanajayan quips.
The producer adds that he himself has faced such situations before. “I have faced it several times in the past. When I go and ask an artist for a special role, the first thing that they ask is, ‘Why should I act in this film?’ And I’d have to give them reasons. Just because a film will benefit from their presence, doesn’t mean they are obliged to act in it, right? It’s not easy.” Cameos won’t become a trend, he asserts.