Multi-starrer Market Math: What Vikram’s Success Means for Tamil Cinema

The Vikram experiment has shown Tamil directors and producers that one can make a film rooted very much in the popular culture fabric of Tamil Nadu, and still make big bucks. Not every film has to be in a "pan-Indian" template.

Multi-starrers with established male stars are rare in the Tamil film industry. Superstars MGR and Sivaji Ganesan acted in only one film together – Koondukkili (1954). Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan acted in several films together, but though they remained friends, their last film together was K Balachander’s Thillu Mullu (1981) in which Kamal Haasan played a cameo. In an interview ahead of Vikram’s release, Kamal Haasan spoke about why the two superstars decided not to work together back in the day: “Rajini and I talk about it. We’ve been talking about it for 40 years. But it’s a business decision, we have done 13-14 films together. But then we decided not to do it together because they were dividing one remuneration between us and saying this is what a film contains and this is what we can give you.”

Vikram’s performance at the box office, however, may mean that multi-starrers become the next big trend in Tamil cinema. The craze for the film is such that nine days after it hit theatres, Rohini Silver Screens in Chennai’s Koyambedu had 1.30 am and 2.45 am shows. The film, starring Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, and Suriya (in a cameo) has become a juggernaut at the box office and is Kamal Haasan’s biggest hit in his six-decade career. According to industry reports, the film has grossed ₹300 crores worldwide so far.

The prime reason for the pre-release hype around Vikram was its cast and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s brief but impressive filmography.

Speaking to Film Companion, Nikilesh Surya, who manages the theatre Rohini Silverscreens, says, “Vikram is a testament to the box office potential of a good film with a great cast that people are eager to see. Hopefully, stars will let creators do their part like in Vikram and they can see the results follow.”

The multi-starrer phenomenon

Mani Ratnam has done several multi-starrers in Tamil, with many stars making allowances just to be directed by him. This includes films like Agni Natchathiram (1988, Prabhu and Karthik), Thalapathi (1991, Rajinikanth, Mammootty, Arvind Swami), Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004, Suriya, Madhavan, Siddharth), Raavanan (2010, Prithviraj and Vikram) and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018, Vijay Sethupathi, Silambarasan, Aravind Swamy, Arun Vijay). His upcoming film Ponniyin Selvan also has several stars on board, including Vikram, Karthi, and Jayam Ravi.

Vijay and Ajith starred together in Rajavin Parvaiyile (1995) but have not worked together since. According to industry insiders, they charge ₹100-120 crore per film and no producer can currently afford to cast them both. Suriya has done multi-starrers with Vijay – Nerukku Ner (1997) and Friends (2001) – and Pithamagan with Vikram (2003) in the early days of his stardom. Rajinikanth’s Petta (2019) in which he shared screen space with Vijay Sethupathi (and Nawazuddin Siddiqui from Hindi) is among his most commercially successful films in the last decade.

The success of films like Thani Oruvan (2015, Jayam Ravi and Arvind Swami), Vikram Vedha (2017, Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi), and Maanaadu (2021, Silambarasan and SJ Suryah), which were not hero-centric, proved that the audience wanted to experience more than just star power when watching a film. But in an industry where a film’s temporary title is the male star’s name and its place in his filmography (Thalapathy65, Thala60, and so on), it’s easy to see why multi-starrers remain few and far between.

However, trade pundits say that this is set to change with Vikram’s success, seeing as the film has done well not only in Tamil Nadu but also in other southern states and in the worldwide markets. According to Forum Keralam, a film industry tracker for the Kerala box office, Vikram is now the biggest grossing Tamil movie in the history of the Kerala box office.

Maneesh Narayanan, film critic and Editor of The Cue, points out that Vikram clicked with the audience because the film went beyond pandering to star images and gave primacy to the storyline.

“Instead of placing the stars in a formulaic storyline and creating cliched moments, Lokesh placed each star in a compelling and performance-oriented storyline. The storyline is created in such a way that Kamal Haasan, Fahadh, Vijay Sethupathi, Vasanthi, and Kalidas could do their best. Even the character arcs of small actors offered them the space to perform well. Emotionally, musically and through performance, Lokesh made a great theatrical impact,” he says.

Roping in stars from Malayalam

Vikram has two actors from the Malayalam film industry – Fahadh and Chemban Vinod. If Mani Ratnam got Mammootty to star with Rajinikanth in Thalapathi way back in the ‘90s, the trend of roping in stars from the Malayalam industry has only seen an uptick in the last decade. Jilla (2014, Tamil, Vijay, and Mohanlal), Janatha Garage (2016, Telugu, Jr NTR and Mohanlal), Velaikkaran (2017, Tamil, Sivakarthikeyan, and Fahadh) Super Deluxe (2019, Tamil, Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh), Maari 2 (2018, Tamil, Dhanush, and Tovino Thomas) are some examples. Allu Arjun’s Pushpa (2021, Telugu), which ended up becoming more popular in Hindi than any other language, had Fahadh playing the antagonist. He’s also part of the sequel.

A major reason for this is the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) market which has a sizable population of Malayalis. The arrangement works well for stars from the Malayalam industry too where the budgets tend to be small and the salaries modest when compared to the Tamil and Telugu industries.

“Mammootty will next be seen in Akhil Akkineni’s Agent, Fahadh has Maari Selvaraj’s Maamannan and Pushpa 2, Prithviraj Sukumaran has Salaar with Prabhas, Dulquer Salmaan is in talks for a Tamil movie with another star from the Tamil industry,” points out Forum Keralam.

The Vikram experiment has shown Tamil directors and producers that one can make a film rooted very much in the popular culture fabric of Tamil Nadu, and still make big bucks. Not every film has to be in a “pan-Indian” template.

“Yes, Vikram’s success is certain to create a new trend of multi-starrers. But then, if the casting seems forced and movies are made to just financially milk the novelty of having a different star combination, the trend may not sustain long,” says Nikilesh Surya.

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"Sowmya Rajendran: Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has also written over 25 children's books, and is a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi's Bal Sahitya Puraskar.."
  
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