It is 2005, 13 years since Vijay made his debut as lead in Naalaiya Theerpu (1992). The star has had big hits with Ghilli (2004) and Thirupaachi (2005). The last 'light' role he did was in Vaseegara (2003), which tanked. Ajith has given up on romantic subjects with Poovellam Un Vasam (2001). He's been making action films such as Red (2002), Villain (2002), Attahasam (2004), and Ji (2005). Comparisons between the two stars are inevitable because the Vijay-Ajith star war is in the process of being built up by fans, film by film. Starring in the wrong kind of film meant letting the fans down, a dangerous thing when the mass following of today was just gathering force.
Directed by John Mahendran, Sachein, which released 15 years ago in April 2005, was a film that lovingly catered to the Vijay fan who had clearly moved on post-Ghilli. The stigma of not being Ghilli would be made worse later, with comparisons to two films that followed — Pokkiri (2007) and Sivakasi (2005).
Sachein might not be Ghilli. It might be all but forgotten among Vijay's classic romantic films such as Kadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997) and Shahjahan (2001). Yet, Sachein was unique in Vijay's filmography for the quiet worship of his urbane, yet accessible, persona. Sachein is the neglected middle child stuck between Vijay the romantic hero and Vijay the action hero.
Sachein was a romcom with masala elements. Because it failed, Vijay's subsequent films have a perfunctory romcom track tacked on to a masala film. It was clear which aspect of the star's persona was disposable in his ascent to superstardom. Twelve years later, Vijay starred in Mersal (2017), which made over a 100 crores in Tamil Nadu alone.
Sachein, which came with the tagline 'the miracle of love', is a love story between Sachin (Vijay) and Shalini (Genelia D' Souza). After a series of cute encounters, Sachin falls in love with Shalini. Though she loves him too (and it's apparent to both), she feigns indifference so that she can get back at him for annoying her in the past. Sachin makes a bet with her that she will fall in love with him within 30 days. In a refreshing departure from manipulative Tamil film boyfriends, he does absolutely nothing to make her fall in love with him. He lets her be, and has an air about him that is a cross between Romeo and Lao Tzu.
A Tamil film hero who doesn't browbeat a girl into liking him sounded as quaint then as it does now. At an age when you naively relied on films to teach you how to be an adult, and critical analysis was just something your dad subjected you to, I learnt how to be a classy boyfriend from Sachin.
Through the lyrics of his recent songs, Vijay asks us to be better sons and daughters, better citizens, and better Thamizhans. In 'Va Va Va En Thalaiva', he tells his fans 'Buththan vaazhkaiyum vendaam, Hitler vaazhkaiyum vendaam, Unnai ennai pol vaazhnthaal podhum ulagam romba azhagu'. He's asking us to be ourselves as a way of making the world beautiful! Never, perhaps, until Master's 'Kutti Story', did the star's 'message' help us to 'Konjam chill pannu maapi' — relax instead of striving to be better.
When Shalini tells Sachin that he's a nice guy, he tells her that he's just pretending to be a nice guy as long as he can. In a regular film, telling a guy that he's nice would have been the cue to confess love, and to subsequently cut to a song that describes the kind of kids the couple plan to have. After 30 days, Shalini doesn't confess to her love for Sachin. He distances himself, and walks away with dignity. This is perhaps how Mohan's Chandrakumar from Mouna Ragam would have reacted when in college.
Sachin blames himself for his overconfidence. He doesn't pine at the local TASMAC. Without self-pity, he accepts that Shalini doesn't like him, and moves on. Classy boyfriend.
That is not to say that Sachein doesn't try hard (sometimes, very hard) to be a star vehicle for Vijay. The film doesn't even try to remould his image. In the larger scheme of Vijay's filmography, it is only a minor tweak on the unassuming roles he played in Youth, Shahjahan, and Vaseegara. There is the mandatory fight, which is started off by the ancient trope of a rowdy misbehaving with Shalini. Thankfully, it is not followed by her confession of love. There is a single punch dialogue in the entire film, and it gets interrupted by the aforementioned rowdies. Sachin sweetly requests that he be allowed to complete it, and then beats them to a pulp. There are the usual borderline-misogynistic jokes in poor taste from Vadivelu and Santhanam. There is a justified but pointless raunchy sequence with Bipasha Basu too.
Given that the film is not really a very sanitised version of a typical mass hero film, it's intriguing why it didn't work. Devi Sri Prasad delivered his best Vijay album. The ethereal 'Kanmoodi Thirakumbothu' helped several singles pretend that they weren't single after all. 'Vaadi Vaadi' was a massive radio hit. It was the ultimate Vijay dance number, and a serious competitor to 'Appadi Podu' from Ghilli. He rocks the floor with a lady whose sole responsibility in the film's plot seems to have been to prompt him to break into this song.
While we're at it, let me get my biggest gripe with the film out of the way. The opening titles are displayed over a visual of clouds. Throughout the film, we see what could only be fog entering from outside the field of vision. I get that the film is set in Coonoor. I also get that it could symbolize the fog of love, which is what the film is about too. I have no idea whether such fog is inevitable (even indoors) when shooting in hill stations. Yet, I know that this turned off a lot of folks. It was as if one wasn't really in Coonoor anymore, but had stepped into Lord Shiva's Kailasam from Thiruvilayadal.
What if the film had done well at the box office? Would it have encouraged Vijay to do similar films? I don't think so. Heroes, especially incipient mass heroes, are products of their times. They are at the vanguard of a wave that they don't control. When it released, Sachein was seen through the lens of other action films Vijay was doing around that time. And there are reasons for that.
By the early 2000s, romantic films were becoming passé, even those starring Vijay and Ajith. Take the year 2000, for instance. A few notable romantic/drama films with prominent heroes were Mugavaree, Kushi, Alaipayuthey, Pennin Manathai Thottu, Parthaen Rasithaen, Good Luck and Priyamaanavale. Notice that there are Ajith and Vijay films in this list. Contrast this with the year 2005, when Devathayai Kanden, Maayavi, Ullam Ketkume, Daas, Anbe Aruyire and Kanda Naal Mudhal came out. Clearly, the waning bastion of romantic films had passed on to the next rung of heroes. The upper echelons of action films belonged squarely to Ajith and Vijay (and a less-active Rajinikanth). Other heroes vied for a slice of this pie.
Sachein released on the same day as Chandramukhi. Here was Vijay, making his own equivalent of, say, an Ejamaan, in terms of it not being a purely hero-dominated film. And the ageing superstar was making a spirited comeback after Baba. It has since become the preoccupation of every Tamil hero, including Rajinikanth himself, to cultivate a saviour persona. Those who save the masses have no time for petty ego issues in their love lives, or to concede to niceness.
In an image-conscious industry, the lukewarm response to Sachein, and the runaway success of Sivakasi and Pokkiri aren't isolated events. The writing was on the wall. It wasn't the time to be oneself, even as a way of making the world beautiful. It was time to become larger-than-life, and change the world, one social issue at a time.
You don't just book a ticket to a Vijay film and watch it as if it were some Martin Scorsese movie. You go to the theatre with your friends and celebrate along with other Vijay veriyans (hardcore fans). Sachein was always a poor candidate for that. When in isolation, though, the film shines as a beautiful meditation on the many ways Vijay can make his face adorable. As you watch the film alone, you might pause, rewind, and revel in his body language that's incredibly — there's no other word for it — cute. You, too, might find yourself hovering high up in the clouds with Sachin amidst the fog of love. If you're a Vijay fan, you'll be in your own Kailasam.