There couldn't have been a more fitting stage to display the North-South "non-divide" that's being debated in the context of Indian movies. It was the IPL clash between two huge teams—the Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders. In attendance was Indian cinema's biggest star— Shah Rukh Khan—cheering for his team along with a packed Chepauk stadium in Chennai. Seated right next to him was one of South Indian cinema's most successful directors and a name long rumoured to make SRK's comeback film after years of big-screen exile. For a section, this is perhaps the first time they'd seen Atlee, although chances are, they've watched at least a dubbed version of one of his films (Theri's Hindi dub has over 67 million YT views). This photo-op was a legit confirmation of this project, and in terms of optics, a proportionally massy way to announce the arrival of one of our massiest directors.
In terms of a number, this was the first time a Tamil director was making a film led by Shah Rukh since the mighty Mani Ratnam did it back in 1998 with Dil Se. Even taking into account the two other Khans, this was also the first time an original film was being made by a director from the South since Santosh Sivan's Asoka in 2000.
It's the kind of news you expect everyone to cheer, no matter where you stand on Atlee's films. For an unconnected boy from a regular, lower middle-class Tamil family to even dream of making a Shah Rukh film was (and is) deemed too ambitious. And to get there at 34, that too after earning it with four super-hits in succession should ideally have generated at least a passable amount of pride in seeing one of our boys making it big.
Yet the online reaction to this moment was anything but ideal. Instead, it simply revealed India's ugly side as Atlee was showered with a mix of classist and racist remarks.
Apparently "how could he?" was more important a question than "how did he?".
His skin colour, again, outweighed the glory of his achievements, exposing the sort of bias he's had to fight ever since he became a public figure. From memes poking fun at his marriage with actress Priya to his friendship with superstars Nayanthara and Samantha, his looks have always been a favourite subject to attack him with, even as he went from strength to strength.
But you can't say the same biases apply to people who could actually see his talent as an entertainer. Among director Shankar's much-loved and most successful assistants, he's the only one who comes close to replicating his mentor's gargantuan scale and vision. It was his stint as an AD on the sets of Nanban (a remake of Three Idiots) that got superstar Vijay to notice his talent as a master coordinator—the star would later go on to do as many as three films with Atlee.
Even if you keep aside names as big as Shankar and Vijay, there was hype about Atlee even before the release of his first film. Leave aside the doors that opened as a Shankar assistant but you'd have to remember that Raja Rani, his debut, was produced by AR Murugadoss, another solid name to have on a CV. The love story about "finding love after loss" was made at a budget beyond the realm of romances of the time. It starred Nayanthara, Arya, Nazriya, and Jai and it went on to become one of the year's biggest hits and a rare blockbuster romance after years. A brand was thus born.
Back when it was rarer for a filmmaker to graduate straight to a top-tier star after just one hit film, Atlee managed to get there with reasonable ease and made Theri, starring Vijay. Another superhit. He doubled down on its success with Mersal, a massive grosser. Now handling budgets of over 150 crores and with a music director like AR Rahman working on the film, he pulled it off, proving that there was no question of a fluke anymore. And by the time he managed to do it again with Bigil, a sports drama with Vijay coaching a women's football team, the once lopsided equation between a huge star and a newcomer now seemed very symbiotic.
Yet why isn't he spoken in the same breath as some of the other new directors who've come to redefine Tamil cinema? The aforementioned prejudices are certainly a part of the way he's perceived. The fact that he's seldom ascribed to virtues like humility and simplicity has also made him less pleasing to others. In what's regarded as an infamous episode from the audio launch of his film Bigil, he backed himself by announcing that he's gone all out for this film because it's his duty as Vijay's "younger brother". Tamil audiences have been known to be brutal when directors hype their own films before release. Given that he backed himself with such a lofty statement and then went on to prove it with a third superhit shouldn't have been read as cocky overconfidence. Yet it was and it remains so.
There's a third reason too that seems to have clouded his standing as a marquee name. Beyond his complexion and his persona as being overconfident, it's his originality as a creator that has come to be questioned time and again. There is a reasonable amount of merit to this argument and a barrage of comparisons flood the Internet after the release of every Atlee film. In these lists, Theri is seen as an update of Vijaykanth's Sathriyan; Mersal becomes a blown-up version of Kamal Haasan's Aboorva Sagodargal and Raja Rani, as a hyper-colourful iteration of Mani Ratnam's Mouna Ragam.
In Sathriyan, for instance, the plot remains almost identical to that of Theri—an ex-policeman in hiding after the death of his wife, returns to the force to take on a corrupt politician. In the other two films, broad plot points bring with them a feeling of déjà vu, although there's a lot more going on in Atlee's films. But when the same comparisons are made to pit Bigil against SRK's Chak De, simply because it's about a male coach and his women's team, it feels reductive and silly.
"Among Tamil movie fans there's still a lot of respect for a director if he ends up making a flop, as long as it's an original attempt," says a producer who did not wish to be named. "With Atlee, the similarities are often too strong. It doesn't feel like he's reworking pre-set formulae, which is what most mainstream directors do anyway. In his case, the plots are too specific to certain celebrated films. But if you haven't seen the older films, which I guess is the case with a huge section of his young fans, his films feel like revelations."
Even for those who are kinder to comparisons on a plot level, it's when smaller scenes and ideas eclipse those from popular Hollywood movies that it becomes a little too suspect. In other words, the sophistication of his craft is at odds with the lack of sophistication in the way he appropriates.
But ECR P.Saravanan, a leader of Thalapathy Vijay's Makkal Iyakkam, feels these criticisms are unjust. "There are many other directors who copy exact scenes and stories from Korean and other foreign movies, but they are still revered and respected as greats."
"This is hypocritical. Either way, Atlee is so successful because his fans watch his movies twice…and his trolls, thrice," says ECR P.Saravanan
The fact that he gets singled out in this regard is also mostly true, although there are other reasons for this. As a man who has made three films with Vijay and as a self-declared "thalapathy veriyan" he's placed precariously on one side of one of Indian cinema's biggest (and most toxic) rivalries—that between Vijay and Ajith fans. Compare his position to other directors of his ilk and you sense multiple fan bases coming together to support them. So if we're discussing the career of Lokesh Kanagaraj, who went on to make Master with Vijay, he now gets the love of Vijay's fans, plus that of Vijay Sethupathi's, Kamal Haasan's, and Suriya's fans after Vikram.
While this places him as a one-star specialist, it's not that these collabs don't benefit from a level of sync between the styles of star and director. When several superstar films feel like a game of tug of war between two sensibilities, in the case of the Vijay-Atlee trilogy, there's harmonious co-existence between both. In fact, one can argue that Vijay is most Vijay-like in their films, with an ease that almost mirrors the body language of Atlee himself. Come SRK's Jawan, and this ability to tailor-make a film based on an ultra-specific superstar persona stands to benefit SRK's mighty fandom, starved of his films for years.
It also helps that he's "born for that grand vision". "One of the most telling signs of a blockbuster director is how they handle huge crowds in scenes," says producer and distributor G Dhananjayan. "In Atlee's films, even the most distant junior artiste placed far away knows exactly what is required. And we're talking about 1000s of people in some scenes. Very few people can handle the logistics of a big production, that too with big stars. To handle that along with the pressures of a huge budget and unforgiving fans requires exceptional skills."
Archana Kalpathi, the producer of Bigil, urges us to look beyond his image as just a big-budget filmmaker. The most hard-working director she's worked with, she also describes him as someone with utmost clarity about what he wants. "There are no doubts about his ability to handle big films and big stars, but you must remember the scenes people love most from his films didn't even require lots of money. Take the celebrated interval block in Theri or the comedy bits between Vijay sir and Samantha in Mersal—these scenes work because of the quality of the writing. Even in Bigil, a major highlight is the scene where Vijay sir urges his student to confront her attacker. It got the biggest applause and the reason it works so well is his ability to handle the hugeness of that emotion."
That one ability is perhaps what will matter most as he completes his work on Jawan, all set to release in June next year. With Anirudh's music, Nayanthara as heroine, Vijay Sethupathi's reported cameo, and Atlee directing, it's likely to be a legit mix of SRK's star power and a set of talents who are Ph.D. holders in the powers of stardom. "Shah Rukh's is not the kind of stardom that's driven by a PR machinery," says film exhibitor Akshay Rathi. "It was cultivated brick by brick over decades and he's been a superstar in people's hearts since Baazigar. There are few people who know how to present a star on screen like Atlee does. He has the gift of creating mass moments and that's what you need to make a film that works in every city, town, and village, across social strata. If there's anything the success of Vikram has taught us, it's that a star can come back with the biggest ever hit of his career after decades of lukewarm success. Honestly, I'm very excited about Jawan."
With less than a year left for the release of Jawan, we have to wait to see where the world stands on the extremely polarising talents of Atlee. Going by Saravanan's expectations for the Atlee-SRK film, the hype is already quite real. He doesn't need many words to describe the result when these talents go up north for Jawan. He says, "Aalaporaan Thamizhan."