Uthama Puthiran to Naane Varvean: A Hero With Two Faces

Uthama Puthiran to Naane Varvean: A Hero With Two Faces

No other industry seems to be as much in love with the trend of a star playing hero and villain in the same film as Kollywood

In Selvaraghavan’s supernatural thriller Naane Varuvean (2022), Dhanush locks horns with Dhanush to stop a ghost in its tracks. One Dhanush rolls his eyes, juts his chin out, flips his hair, and displays psychopathic tendencies while the other Dhanush, bespectacled and sober, tries to fling his mirror image off a cliff. They are twin brothers separated by real world circumstances and brought together by a ghost who forces them to confront the past.

Cinematic logic dictates that Good Dhanush prevails over Bad Dhanush, and the fans are happy. It’s double screen time for their beloved star.

In August, just a month before Naane Varuvean, psychological thriller film Cobra (2022) had a Vikram vs Vikram battle. The star plays genius brothers Kathirvelan and Madhiazhagan. Kathir is schizophrenic and a mathematics prodigy who moonlights as an assassin while Madhi is a computer hacker. Kathir’s usually perfect plans keep getting foiled by a mystery man – and just before the interval, the villain is revealed to be his twin, also played by Vikram.

Several films with dual roles have been made since Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film Lanka Dahan (1917). Based on the Ramayana, the film had actor Annasaheb Salunke playing the roles of Rama and Sita – because women were not allowed to act in films back then. Tamil cinema has a long tradition of twin trouble. Films of the MG Ramachandran-Sivaji Ganesan era often revolved around twins separated by circumstances or Shakespearean comedy of errors with lookalikes. Later films have explored darker themes surrounding mental health issues using twin heroes. The most famous of these is Kamal Haasan’s Aalavandhan (2001) which is about a schizophrenic man who goes on a murder spree, trying to ‘protect’ his twin, an Army major. The film’s legendary poster, with the two Kamals arm-wrestling, still has amazing recall value among audiences. Aalavandhan, directed by Suresh Krissna, failed at the box-office, but acquired the status of a cult classic in later years. In fact, American director Quentin Tarantino, known for filming scenes with graphic violence, is said to have taken inspiration from it for Kill Bill (2003).

However, no other industry seems to be as much in love with the trend of a star playing hero and villain in the same film as Kollywood. Tamil cinema’s first superstars MGR and Ganesan did several “double action” films (as they were known), and some of them had the actors playing the protagonist and antagonist. Back in the day, the same scene would be shot twice with the actor playing different roles each time. The “double action” effect would be created by layering the film strips. Such films piqued people’s curiosity and they would go to theatres to witness this celluloid magic.

It wasn’t always easy to please the audience. MGR’s Raja Desingu (1960) had the superstar playing a righteous Hindu king and a Muslim usurper who is his half-brother. The final sequence is a war scene where the two brothers fight each other, and the king kills the usurper. But realising that the latter was his brother, he takes his own life. Writing about Raja Desingu in The Hindu, film historian Randor Guy said it was in production for over two years. However, MGR fans were upset to see their star die on screen (not once but twice!), and it did not do well at the box-office. MGR had better luck with the spy film Kudiyirundha Koyil (1968), which ran for over 100 days in theatres and is considered a landmark in his career. The superstar plays twins separated in childhood, with one becoming a criminal and the other tasked with helping the police catch him.

Ninaithadhadhai Mudipavan (1975), a remake of the Hindi film Sachaa Jhutha (1970), is another film where MGR plays hero and villain – a naive musician and a heartless businessman who tries to frame the former for his crimes. There’s a Solomon’s judgement-esque scene at the end when both Good MGR and Bad MGR are in court, with the judge unable to decide who’s who. Ultimately, Good MGR is identified when he weeps over his mother’s ‘dead body’ while Bad MGR merely sneers. As you might have guessed, the mother wasn’t actually dead and it had been a charade to reveal the truth. The film went on to become a blockbuster.

Ganesan, who played nine roles in Navarathiri (1964), has also done films where he’s played the hero and the villain. In Uthama Puthiran (1958), he plays royal twins separated at birth – one growing up as a virtuous man and the other his polar opposite. The historical action film was actually the remake of a 1940 Tamil film by the same title, and the Ganesan version became a massive hit. Calling it a “major triumph” for the cast and crew, Randor Guy said Ganesan’s negative role drew more appreciation than his positive one. “Somewhat surprisingly, the playboy twin’s role became very popular because of Sivaji Ganesan’s performance and his striking body language,” he wrote.

In Bale Pandiya (1962), Sivaji plays three roles – two good and one bad. The film revolves around a bid to pull an insurance scam and ran for close to 50 days in theatres. Writing about his performance, the magazine Ananda Vikatan wrote, “Sivaji Ganesan appears in three distinct roles. If it’s a rowdy, he plays it just like one. If it’s an innocent man, he plays it as a really innocent one. As a scientist, he looks exactly like one.”

Playing the hero and villain in the same film helped stars showcase their range as actors. It allowed them to explore characters beyond the image trap of a righteous hero. Thus, when Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth took over the mantle from the earlier generation, they kept the trend going. By then, the changes in film technology had also made it easier for filmmakers to make dual role films.

Haasan’s Aalavandhan (2001) and Rajinikanth’s Enthiran (2010) are among the most well-known of these films. For Aalavandhan, Kamal filmed the portion with the Army major sporting a moustache and later shaved his hair and put on weight to look like the bulked-up serial killer twin. This created two physically distinct characters on screen. Other Kamal vs Kamal films include Indian (1996) and Dasavathaaram (2008), in which he played 10 roles.

Rajinikanth played hero and villain in films like Netrikann (1981) and Moondru Mugam (1982), but his biggest blockbuster in this category was Shankar’s Enthiran in 2010. In the science fiction film, Rajinikanth plays scientist Vaseegaran and his artificial intelligence-powered robot Chitti. The robot falls in love with the scientist’s girlfriend (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and goes rogue. The “Who is that black sheep?” scene with Chitti bleating and finding Vaseegaran in a sea of Rajinikanth robots was a hit with fans who’d missed seeing Rajinikanth play the bad boy on screen. It became the highest grossing film of 2010, beating the year’s two other star vehicles, Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan and Salman Khan’s Dabangg.

Among the younger stars, Ajith’s psychological thriller Vaalee (1999), in which he plays twins who fall for the same woman (Simran), is ranked as one of the actor’s best films. While characters with disabilities are generally shown as pitiable on screen, the deaf-mute twin Deva who plots his brother’s downfalls, made for an unusual villain. The SJ Suryah directorial proved to be a milestone in Ajith’s career, running for 270 days in Tamil Nadu and 100 days in Kerala. KS Ravikumar’s Varalaru (2006) is another Ajith film where the star plays the hero and villain.

Ajith’s contemporary Vijay tried his hand at playing the hero-villain roles in Azhagiya Tamizh Magan (2007). It was Vijay’s first dual role film and he plays an MBA student with extra sensory perception, and a lecherous opportunist. The film, however, had an average run at the box-office, with fans finding it difficult to see Vijay in such a negative role. He has since played dual roles in other films but never as the villain.

Suriya, who has done several dual roles in his career, plays the hero and villain in science fiction film 24 (2016). He appears as twin brothers – a scientist who invents a time machine and his brother who wants to steal it from him for his own agenda; he also plays the son of the scientist in the film. The time travel movie did average business, but Suriya’s portrayal of the obsessive, wheelchair-bound Athreya won him accolades.

From Uthama Puthiran to Naane Varuvean, a lot has changed in the Tamil film industry, but the love for playing predator and prey in the same film has persisted. In fact, in recent years, many Tamil films have sorely missed the presence of a solid villain. It’s almost as if the stars have become so big that an actor playing the antagonist can’t hope to meet them on an equal footing in the same frame. This makes the idea of a star hunting himself on screen all the more enticing – and with the leaps in VFX technology, it’s only become easier to make such films. Safe to say, we’ll be witnessing many more psychotic twins in the future.

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