It's not uncommon for actors to start off their careers as villains before they go on to become megastars later. Rajinikanth and Mohanlal are examples of this. But is the other way around really possible? Once an actor becomes a major movie star, having played a series of loveable characters, is it always easy for them to take up grim roles with dark shades? The answer to this is clear when one skims through Ajith's filmography. Not many actors at his level of stardom continue to choose antihero roles in a way that it becomes a part of their identity. Even in films where the actor plays diametrically opposite characters, both villain and hero, the villain is the one that has really stuck with the fans. In a sense, Ajith's fans have a special appreciation for their star when he's seen in particularly amoral, selfish characters to the point that such films have pulled up the actor's career each time there seems to be a slip.
We look at the top five.
In Vaali, Ajith played the roles of identical twins Deva and Shiva. One can think of the character Shiva, the well-mannered handsome nice guy, as an extension of the roles he was already playing, having made Ajith a star and a much-coveted "chocolate boy". Even the two hit films he did just before Vaali, Thodarum and Unnai Thedi, saw him playing the role of a sacrificing husband and that of a young lover trying to repair family ties to get married to the girl he loves. Which is what makes his choice to play Deva in Vaali so interesting. He is hearing and speech impaired, but the role is unlike the differently-abled character he would go on to play in Villain. For one, his disabilities are not used to create sympathy. Instead, Deva is the kind of person who lusts over his twin brother's wife. His obsession for his sister in law gets to the point where he even tries multiple methods to kill his brother. And when the newly married couple shift out for their honeymoon, Deva follows them, slasher style, and even disguises as his brother to get in bed with his sister in law. If this isn't sick and twisted, then what is? Despite getting the ending he deserved, it was still a film that was made by the villain, not the hero.
After a gap of just one film (Anantha Poongatre where he went back to his basics) Ajith was back to playing another grey character in Amarkalam. He played Vasu, the local rowdy with a major drinking problem. Abused as a child, it is Vasu's nature to disregard authority figures with a particular distrust for women. He agrees to kidnap Mohana (Shalini) and when she finds out about his tortured childhood, Stockholm Syndrome takes over. But Tulasidas, an ex-gangster, who instructed Vasu to kidnap Mohana, forces him to use this to their advantage, asking him to behave like he too is love with Mohana. Despite a transformation in the end and the aforementioned flashback, a majority of the film shows Vasu to be a brute, incapable of expressing emotions or empathy. He may not be pure evil like Deva in Vaali but it's stills a pretty dark role to play within the parameters of a love story.
Though the film remains problematic on recent viewing, here's a film where Ajith played multiple roles with negative shades. From light to dark, all three characters in the film have at least one instance where they display unacceptable traits. The mellowest one being Vishnu who abandons his father's idea to help the poor in Thottapuram by choosing instead to use the village as a brothel. But we're soon introduced to his half brother Jeeva, who as a ploy to take revenge, sexually assaults the relative of the woman Vishnu is all set to get married to.
But even these two characters are no match for their father Shivshankar, a wheelchair bound millionaire, who was once a Bharatnatyam dancer. After a woman rejects him for being too effeminate Shivshankar rapes that woman to prove his "manliness" which eventually leads to the birth of Jeeva. Even though these characters get redeeming scenes later on, with Shivshankar also being treated to some poetic justice, all three remain inherently flawed. This is also another film that is remembered best for the evil father character rather than the two sons.
Though we only get to see traces of the real David Billa in the film, we get a chance to combine the character with what we learn later from Billa 2, to get a better idea of who he really is. He is clever and ruthless and in DSP Jayaprakash's words, "the bloody fellow is smart. Intelligent to the intelligence." So when he slashes a rival's throat, he gets away with lines like, "I killed him because I didn't like how he played chess. I also didn't like his shoes." The way he sleeps with his sidekick CJ (Namitha) even while rejecting the idea of getting into something serious with her, isn't something we see our lead heroes do. It's also interesting to see how he continues to root for Billa, even when he have a character like DSP Jayaprakash who we know is in the right. An extremely stylish film made even better with Ajith's own style quotient, this 2007 film is responsible for making Ajith, the "king of openings" as he is known today.
The number one choice in this list was also the most obvious. Most of the other films in this list had the crutch of his negative character being balanced with either a dark past justifying his present state of mind or another positive character who is the opposite of the antihero. Another reason Mankatha is unique is his decision to act as an apologetically badass in his 50th film. Vinayak uses his girlfriend for her connections, he helps a local smuggler get away when the cops are about to get him, and for a high ranking cop, he doesn't hesitate when he decides to get involved in a heist to steal millions. He even plans on killing his accomplices after stealing this money. But even when you sit through this film thinking we're getting to the scenes justifying his actions, as though the whole thing was a part of a master plan to destroy the bad guys, we realise that there is no moral balancing at all for this character. He is exactly as bad as we think he is, unlike in films like Temper/Simba where the corrupt police officer goes through a transformation to make him likeable. It's not a character many other stars can pull off and certainly a risk to attempt after the failure of Aegean and Aasal.
Honourable mentions include his roles in Citizen, Villain, Dheena and Attahasam. How would you rate his negative roles?