In the West, the practice of using deceptive working titles for major productions is both a requirement as well as a hilarious exercise in creativity. It becomes a requirement given the secrecy with which big-budget films are developed, with a title potentially leading to fan theories, competition from rival studios and the odd legal dispute. But it is also a lot of fun when you think of how a film that was called ‘Group Hug’, for the longest time, became The Avengers. This is the same tradition that made ‘The Burly Man’ get rechristened to Matrix Reloaded, ‘Cheese’ to Cloverfield and ‘Wimpy’ into the much more ominous sounding Psycho.
But in India, especially the Tamil and Telugu industries, this practice is not more than just another marketing move to show the film’s superstar power. There’s even a formula to how the working title is arrived at: hashtag + biggest star of the film + the number at which the new film comes in the star’s filmography.
For instance, if the two lead actors of a Tamil film are Vijay (in his 50th film) and Vijay Sethupathi (in his 30th), chances are that this hypothetical film will be named #Vijay50. Similarly, if Rajinikanth acts in a film and it is his 250th, it will arguably be called #Rajini250 or #Thalaivar250, even if the film’s heroine is Nayanthara, a superstar in her own right.
The examples cited above might give the impression that these names stuck only because they are milestones in the star’s career. To be fair, that may very well have been the genesis of this practice even though it is impossible to verify.
For the longest time, Ajith’s 50th film, which was being directed by Venkat Prabhu, was called ‘Thala 50’ back in 2011. This was later renamed Mankatha, but the terminology clicked with his fans and this pattern has since continued with all his films, except when it is a sequel (Billa 2). Which means that #Thala53 became Arrambam, #Thala54 became Veeram and his 57th film was called #AK57 (Ajith Kumar 57), because that sounded cooler.
This pattern grew simultaneously with Vijay’s films as well with his films being termed either ‘#Vijay60’ (Bhairavaa) until recently to ‘#’ + ‘Thalapathy’ + ‘65’ for his latest film Beast. It no longer matters if the number is a milestone as long as it catches fire on social media. What started out as a placeholder title created by fans to discuss their star’s latest work quickly got legitimacy when makers themselves started using it. So when Vijay’s new film was announced as a Sun Pictures production to be directed by Nelson, the production house released a video with a poster titled “#Thalapathy65”.
A combination of hashtags, fan-made posters and super-late title announcements have only helped the trend. In terms of marketing, this adds one more element to a film’s curiosity. Apart from a new film’s ‘first look’, teaser and trailer, it also gets to go to town with a ‘title announcement’ campaign as well. This gives the makers enough time to arrive at an appropriate title without losing out on the hype. Given that the Tamil industry had many rules in place until recently even when it comes to naming a film, including a tax rebate for films with a Tamil title, any extra time could help the makers.
All this may have helped these films and their marketing teams but has the practice been taken a little too far? Most recently, director Shankar’s latest starring Ram Charan got a grand launch along with the release of a promotional poster. The poster got a combined title which read ‘#RC15 #SVC50’. It is Ram Charan’s 15th film, apart from being the production house’s 50th, but the title became even more confusing because it is also the director’s 15th film.
Until it was renamed Oor Kuruvi, actor Kavin’s new film was called #Kavin03, even though it is only the Big Boss graduate’s third film. On the other end, certain accounts went overboard when director Rajamouli’s new film starring Ram Charan and Junior NTR was called ‘#RC13 #NTR29 #SSR12 #RRR’ because the star power of all three personalities needed to be balanced, even though the actual name of the film is short for ‘Raama Roudra Rushitam’*.
— OdishaCharanFans (@OdishaCharanFC) November 17, 2018
What may have originally began as a hack to avoid confusion has grown to make things even more complicated. And in what’s become a fixture, it may not be long before we see the trend move to Bollywood apart from the West. Director Atlee’s unconfirmed Hindi film with Shahrukh Khan has already found a set of fans on Twitter calling it #Atlee5. If this continues, we’re surely looking at a fan war if two or more rival superstars ever choose to work together. If that happens, it’s perhaps easier to go back to films remaining untitled or moving towards more peaceful titles like ‘Group Hug’.