Any time is a good time to talk about Sivaji Ganesan, but in case you want to peg this piece on an anniversary, Thillana Mohanambal turned 50 last year. Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959), the film that launched a thousand audition monologues, turns 60 this year. Deiva Magan (1969), in which the actor played three roles, turns 50 this year. Note that each of these landmark films is in a different decade. What about the 1970s? We have another triple role in the blockbuster Thirisoolam, towards the end of that decade. And we come to the theme of this piece, that an actorly actor — someone who was sought out for his performances rather than his "mass appeal", someone who made dramas rather than "mass" movies — was a huge star across four decades. Yes, I'm cheating a little and including the 1980s, too, which yielded hits like Mudhal Mariyathai.
This kind of stardom is not possible anymore. The only kind of long-lasting stardom possible today is that of the "mass" star, doing "mass" movies. This is not to mourn those lost times when a great actor could also be a big box-office draw. But the recent release of Petta and Viswasam made me think about how every big star, these days, is defined by a certain hysteria around their stardom. Yes, their films may be good. But with the exception of a Rajinikanth — who, in the past year, has stretched to accommodate the very different films of a Pa. Ranjith, a Shankar and a Karthik Subbaraj — many of our biggest stars end up making a particular strain of film that revolves around their "mass" appeal rather than their performing capabilities. (Of course, you could argue that the Sivaji Ganesan kind of actor doesn't exist in the current generation, but that's another discussion.)
It seemed to be a tradition in Tamil cinema that the top two stars would be of two kinds: one known for varied roles and feats of acting, and the other known for stardom-enhancing "mass" vehicles. So we had Sivaji Ganesan and MGR. In the next generation, in terms of their personalities, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth remained fluid for a long while. As much as Kamal (who always had "actor" credentials) is seen as a spiritual successor to Sivaji Ganesan, it's important to remember that his stardom was cemented by "mass" movies like Sakalakalavallavan. Even as late as the mid-1980s, you could find Kamal Haasan doing a Kaaki Chattai or a Vikram, while Rajinikanth was doing "softer", more actorly films like Sri Raghavendra, Un Kannil Neer Vazhindaal and Kai Kodukkum Kai. But soon after, their paths diverged completely, and their personas did get solidified along the lines of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. We'd go to Kamal's films to see actorly things. We'd go to Rajini's films to see starry things.
But after Kamal, the possibility of the Sivaji Ganesan brand of stardom seems to have disappeared, despite occasional claimants to the throne like Vikram and Suriya. Some people I've spoken to say it's the result of the theatre-going audiences becoming increasingly younger. The logic is this: films, these days, rarely play for a long time, and most people who flock to see them in the all-important first week are twentysomethings who don't want serious, actorly cinema. So the big stars prefer films that play on the "mass" persona liked by their young fans. Older audiences, it is assumed, prefer to watch movies at home, without the FOMO pressure (and the need to opine about the film on social media) that afflicts younger viewers. So they don't count towards box-office performance. Hence, the top two stars (excluding Rajinikanth) are Vijay and Ajith, both of whom have stuck to the "mass" star route rather than the "actor" route.
Yes, we still have individual films that succeed on the basis of actors (as opposed to stars). The recent Pariyerum Perumal is an example. But I am talking about longevity here, the ability of a Sivaji Ganesan to stay at the top for decades, simply because he had made a name for himself as an actor and people went to see him for his acting. I was speaking to a producer about the possibility of the streaming model changing things. In a decade or so, maybe a brand-name actor will emerge on the basis of a series of buzzy, non-"massy" Netflix films. But the producer was sceptical. He said the shelf life of a pure "actor", these days, is very limited. That's why everyone wants to make cop movies and become "stars". As for actors who are also big market-value stars, he said, forget it.
Is he right? Is there no one who can be called the Next Great Actor-Star yet, in this generation? Yes, we do get stunning performances, like that of Kathir in Pariyerum Perumal. But he's still in the wait-and-watch category. Dhanush is probably the closest we have to a complete star-actor today (i.e. market value-wise, plus performance-wise), and I often wonder what kinds of films he'd have the liberty to choose if the box office hadn't become so brutal. That's the thing, really. The circumstances that allowed a Sivaji Ganesan or even a Kamal Haasan to flourish don't exist anymore. The success of a clutch of smaller films last year gives hope that the anti-blockbuster has a place in the market, too. But will they give us long-lasting actors whose "acting" becomes the pillar of their stardom? One can only hope.