On the surface, the trailer of Nerkonda Paarvai, the Pink remake directed by H Vinoth and starring Ajith Kumar, points to yet another movie a big star/hero would make. An early scene sets us up for a "hero introduction" shot. It's night. The Ajith character is sitting on a park bench, and he's not facing the camera, which is at a distance. There's a wind about, blowing up dead leaves, like how we might expect in an action scene. But instead of giving us a series of "teaser shots" like this and slowly revealing Ajith's face, the next time we see him, he's facing us, in court, fully lit. He's looking at Shraddha Srinath and asking: Are you a virgin? He repeats the line in Tamil: Neenga kanni-thanmai oda irukkeengala.
The line in Tamil made me wince because "kanni" (virgin) is such a loaded word in Tamil cinema, where the heroine's "purity" is a really big deal, especially in a movie with a really big-name hero. An O Kadhal Kanmani can get away with premarital sex, because it's Dulquer Salmaan and it's also a very "urban"-skewing film. But the big-name hero films cost a lot and cater to a very diverse range of viewers, and the non–urban viewers, apparently, are conventional, conservative. (Whether they really are that way is a different question. That's how Kollywood sees them.) Long ago, I was interviewing a big star, and he said he loved Salaam Namaste, the Saif Ali Khan-Preity Zinta drama from 2005 which involves a live-in relationship and pregnancy out of marriage. "But we can't do that kind of thing here," he said wistfully, when I asked him why he didn't just buy the rights and remake it.
Chicken-and-egg question: Is the "heroine should be a virgin" condition something that the so-called "family audiences" truly demand? Or does this say more about the mindset of our filmmakers, who believe this themselves? Or is this one of those archaic Kollywood-isms that has prevailed because it was the norm once upon a time and nobody bothered to question it, especially in a big-hero movie? Whatever the answer, it makes Nerkonda Paarvai the most interesting, most important film of the year. Forget whether the actual film is good or middling or bad. Forget whether they stay true to the spirit of Pink, or "dilute" it for Tamil audiences. The big deal is that Ajith is appearing in a role played by Amitabh Bachchan, who is no longer a leading man (in the "hero" sense of the term) but a "character actor". The big deal is that he is bringing up the virginity question for a "mass" audience.
The bigger deal is that the trailer makes no bones about the fact that the film's nominal "heroine", the Shraddha Srinath character, is not a virgin. The bigger deal is that she looks Ajith in the eye when she admits this. This is not someone who feels she has transgressed a Kollywood moral code. She's just someone who says: This is what it is. (I keep thinking about how GV Prakash's character from Trisha Illena Nayanthara, a man desperately trying to get laid, would react to a woman who has managed it.) One of the lawyers, whom we see a little later in the trailer, is a stand-in for the Kollywood audience. He says, "Ithanai paerukku munnadi eppidi saar andha 'matter' solla mudiyum?" You could look at 'matter' in the meaning of 'subject matter' as well as the wink-wink Kollywood euphemism for sex. The trailer promises a film that could change the way Kollywood looks at this 'matter'.
Because change is most meaningful when it comes from the top. An up-and-coming Vijay Sethupathi playing a conman (and someone in a live-in relationship) in Pizza hints at the fact that he is a good actor who likes good roles. But it's only when, post–stardom, he plays the transwoman in Super Deluxe, letting it all hang out figuratively and literally, that the confirmation arrives: Yes, this really is a good actor, and he really will do anything for a good role. Many young actors start out different and then get sucked into the "hero" trap, and those films just don't seem to be working anymore. Some, like Karthi, are actively trying to extricate themselves. Yes, you get a Kadaikutti Singam, which is as conventional as they come. But even here, there is the message that the old-time tradition of giving birth to children until a boy is born makes no sense, because a girl can do everything a boy does. And the actor's forthcoming movie is by Lokesh Kanakaraj, who made Maanagaram and is in no way a "mass" filmmaker (as yet). If reports are to be believed, there's no heroine.
But when this change goes all the way up to Ajith, who is one of the top two heroes of Tamil cinema (other than Rajinikanth, of course), it really says something. Earlier, "one of the top two heroes" meant a different kind of paradigm. MGR did the "mass" films, Sivaji Ganesan chose to experiment. Later, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan took up these respective trajectories. But now, the Sivaji Ganesan/Kamal Haasan kind of stardom seems to have become unviable. Both Ajith and Vijay are largely in the "mass" mode, which is why it's so fascinating to think about Ajith doing a Nerkonda Paarvai, a Sivaji Ganesan/Kamal Haasan kind of star vehicle where (at least going by Pink), it's more about playing a character than catering to the demands of a big star.
Which is not to say that the big-star elements don't exist in the Nerkonda Paarvai trailer. It plays up the stardom of this big star in a handsome profile shot. It leaves us with the title of an Ajith film (Viswasam), which is, no doubt, intended to elicit hoots and whistles from the fan base. It shows glimpses of a "mass" action scene. And yes, some may still see the film (as they saw Pink) as a male-saviour saga, which has been the traditional domain of big stars. But at its heart, this is a legal drama, where all the "action" takes place inside a courtroom and consists of verbal punches rather than physical ones. Plus, when a big star like Ajith endorses the line that virginity is not a big deal, it has the potential to shake things up. It could change the way women are written in the big-star movies. This is not just about women having sex. It's about women being more than just arm candy in a big-star movie. It's about them having a very distinct personality.
To be fair to Ajith, even amidst the "mass" movies he's made, there's been the odd non-massy element. In Yennai Arindhaal, he brings up the subject of condoms with the woman he loves (she's not a virgin), and spends a good chunk of the movie being a father to her daughter. In Viswasam, he doesn't judge his estranged wife (Nayanthara), and he doesn't want to make her fall at his feet and admit she was wrong. He admits he's made a mistake, and he attempts to make up for his mistake by being there for his daughter. But Nerkonda Paarvai is a different thing, altogether. Will the "mass" audiences (quite a few of them, I assume, are virgin pasanga) show up for their thala defending a woman's right to not be a virgin? If they do, Nerkonda Paarvai may well change the face of Kollywood.