Is Star Culture Dead? Not In Kollywood

The Tamil film industry is powered by fandom to a large extent
Is Star Culture Dead? Not In Kollywood

Star culture is dead. People no longer go to theatres to watch stars. Make these statements in Tamil Nadu and fans will laugh in your face. The series of mega-budget flops from Bollywood headlined by big stars has led to the perception that stars don’t draw people to cinema halls anymore. Hindi filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap have also shared similar opinions in their interviews. However, look past the commercial Hindi film industry and Tamil Nadu presents a diametrically opposite scenario. 

Casting manager Lily Shree is the president of one of the innumerable fan associations for Tamil star Vijay. The actor’s last release, Beast (2022), received mostly negative reviews from critics and had mixed word-of-mouth publicity. Shree watched the film eight times in theatres. “All of us fans did so. I went for the 4 am show and then the 8 am show, and then the next one and the next! For us, it doesn’t matter if the film is good or bad. Vijay sir has only one release a year these days. So, when the film comes, we don’t miss the opportunity to watch him on the big screen,” she said. 

From erecting giant cutouts to houseful fan shows at the crack of dawn and organised celebrations outside theatres on the day of release, fans don’t pull any punches in displaying their devotion to the star. The loyalty of this wide fan base means that even when a film is not particularly good, it is guaranteed a huge opening and will make most of its money back. 

Veteran journalist and film industry tracker Sreedhar Pillai pointed out that Tamil Nadu has the second highest number of single screens in India (the two Telugu states combined are at number one) – a whopping 1,546. Tickets and food at single screens are cheaper than multiplexes, and therefore more affordable across social classes. For a film to become a blockbuster, its popularity in single screens is crucial, and it is this audience that is the lifeblood of star culture. Karthi’s latest rural masala film Viruman (2022), for instance, is a big hit across the state and especially so in single screens. The film, made on a budget of about Rs 30 crore, has reportedly earned over Rs 60 crore so far.

“Star culture is now bigger than ever before. But for a film to sustain beyond the first week of its release, the content needs to click with the audience as well. A noted director’s name also helps. Without a doubt though, it is the star who still brings the crowd to the theatre and expands the film’s reach with OTT platforms,” said Pillai.    

In the neighbouring state of Kerala, Tamil films that run on star power continue to be popular. However, star culture when it comes to Mollywood seems to be on the wane. While superstars Mohanlal and Mammootty are still big draws in the theatre, the next generation of male stars – like Prithviraj, Kunchacko Boban, Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil, and Tovino Thomas – cannot sit back and assume that a film will run in theatres only because they’re in the cast. In fact, Mohanlal and Mammootty have also seen their fair share of flops in recent years when the content has failed to impress the audience.

“The Malayalam film industry is now more interested in catering to OTT platforms because they get a better financial deal from them than the business that the film could do in theatres. They release a film in theatres because that’s a condition imposed by OTTs to buy the film. Also, an actor is still considered to be a star only if he has theatrical releases,” said Pillai. 

The Telugu film industry is closest to Tamil in terms of budget and scale. The star culture, too, is mostly intact. But, though Tollywood has seen huge hits like Rajamouli’s epic action film RRR (2022), the recent string of flops at the domestic box-office headlined by big names — like Chiranjeevi-Ram Charan’s Acharya, Rana Daggubati-Sai Pallavis Virata Parvam, Nani-Nazriya’s Ante Sundaraniki and Naga Chaitanya’s Thank You among others — has got producers worried that the audience’s preferences may have changed drastically. There have also been surprise blockbusters like Karthikeya 2 (2022), which does not have an A-list star in the cast, and Sita Ramam (2022), which is Malayalam star Dulquer Salmaan’s second Telugu film. 

In the Tamil film industry, however, there is no fear that star culture is in any danger of waning. Neither Vijay’s Beast nor Ajith’s Valimai (2022) — both released post-pandemic — received positive reviews from critics or the general audience, but the films were not flops either. Kollywood does not have an official platform for sharing box-office numbers, and film industry trackers have often been accused of putting out paid tweets that exaggerate box-office collections. However, a Chennai film exhibitor who did not wish to be named confirmed that Beast and Valimai – both action films with an estimated budget of Rs 150 crore each – did good business. 

“Going by absolute numbers, these movies made much more money than any other films released this year, barring a couple of mega-blockbusters like Vikram (2022) and KGF 2 (2022). On a return-on-investment angle, only the producer will have the real numbers. However, from trade talk, I can say that they’ve definitely recovered the investment even if they haven’t made any great profits,” said the exhibitor. If the films had received positive reviews and unanimous good word-of-mouth, they would have earned at least 20% more, he estimated. 

The fact that good content along with star power can propel a film to blockbuster status cannot be illustrated better than the astounding success of Kamal Haasan’s Vikram. Haasan’s last release before Vikram was Vishwaroopam II in 2018. He made an amazing comeback with the multistarrer action film Vikram, which became the highest-grossing Tamil film of the year, earning over Rs 400 crore. The Lokesh Kanagaraj film had just the right mix of star power and story, said many industry experts and critics.

Dhanush’s Thiruchitrambalam, a simple rom-com with strong performances, is another example. The film has made over Rs 90 crore, and is Dhanush’s highest-earning film worldwide. Other stars like Suriya, Sivakarthikeyan, and Vikram also command huge opening numbers for their films that make back a good percentage of their budget. 

Entertainment journalist Ashameera Aiyappan said that in Tamil Nadu, people still identify films by their headliners. So it’s a Vijay film, Ajith film, or Rajinikanth film – and going for one is considered to be a family tradition. “Watching a film with their favourite star in theatres for Pongal or Deepavali is still a routine in many families,” she pointed out. However, Aiyappan added that the growth of OTT platforms has meant that the general audience will prefer to wait for the OTT release if a film isn’t so great. “Beast may have made money, but if it had been like Vijay’s Theri (2016) or Mersal (2017), it would have made way more. The fans will always go to theatres, but the general audience won’t go in huge numbers unless the word-of-mouth is good,” she said. 

So, is star culture in Tamil Nadu set to undergo a change in the near future? “There’s no chance of that happening,” said Sreedhar Pillai. “People here see cinema as stars and stars as cinema. It’s a big advantage that the stars have. If they work with good scripts, they will continue to expand their fan base and draw the audience to theatres.”

This story was originally published on September 6, 2022

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