Dhanush, with his ordinary looks, rail-thin physique, and scruffy appearance, seems to be a very unlikely candidate to make it big in Bollywood. What is this Tamil star’s secret?
India’s cinema industry was born in Bombay, in the waning years of the 19th century. It took root in the three most British cities of the time—Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. Today, its best known sector is Mumbai’s Bollywood, which is India’s primary source of mass entertainment. Like a goddess with multiple arms, the Indian movie industry has sprouted branches, most of them with media-invented monikers slavishly rhyming with Hollywood, like Kollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and Ollywood.
For several decades, Bollywood and Kollywood—the Tamil film industry (centred in Chennai) — evolved as discrete entities that barely acknowledged the existence of the other. They developed distinct characters. Bollywood was known for its extravagant fantasies, its masala films, while Tamil cinema developed a reputation for movies that explored serious themes like caste, discrimination, patriotism, nationalism and Dravidian identity. It was, even at its most crass mainstream level, political. The conection between Tamil cinema and Tamil politics is a matter of record, and still remains strong.
The Tamil masala movie was not as lavishly spiced as its Bollywood counterpart, and stuck to the simple appeal of the hero- heroine -villain triangle with some jaw dropping fight scenes and of course, song-and-dance sequences. Bollywood mastered the art of promotion; Kollywood, in recent times, has, in its big-budget films, tried to use as much of advanced VFX (computer-generated visual special effects) as possible to dazzle audiences.
But over the years, the two have woken up to the synergistic possibilities that could be exploited by dissolving boundaries. It was recognized that together, they could exceed the sum of their parts with a vastly larger influence and audience.
It began with actors. Most of the traffic has been one way—from Kollywood to Bollywood, and many of the more successful ones have been woman actors, like Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Sridevi and Asin. Tamil male stars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have tasted success in Bollywood, but nothing close to what they enjoyed in the South. Clearly, the hero was judged by a different standard from the heroine.
But now, the collaborations between the various regional cinema powerhouses are growing, and much beyond just actors crossing over. Two of the biggest Hindi film box office hits ever, Ghajini and Singham, are remakes of Tamil films (though the Tamil Ghajini itself is a pale copy of Christopher Nolan’s Memento). Similarly, 3 Idiots has been remade in Tamil as Nanban, and Jab We Met as Kanden Kadhalai.
So it would seem a natural progression that a Tamil star makes his way into Hindi films on his own terms. But Dhanush?
Of course, over the last decade, Bollywood’s idea of the movie hero has been changing dramatically. They do much more than run around trees and live their lives in a no-subtext black and-white world. Today, they have dark impulses, nuanced sensitivities, and demons in their heads. Yet, almost to a man, they have perfectly gymmed bodies, cliched good looks, perfect skin, and can still beat a dozen thugs senseless, if push comes to shove.
Dhanush’s looks can at best be termed ordinary, with a rail- thin physique, and scruffy appearance with a permanent five o’clock shadow. It is unlikely he has the pectorals that the most earnest Bollywood star playing the most troubled characters works at as part of his job. Don’t say you don’t remember Kolaveri Di.
In 2012, he starred in a movie, 3, directed by his wife Aishwarya, paired with Shruthi Haasan, daughter of Kamal Haasan. As part of its promotional efforts for this movie, Sony Music India uploaded a song, Why This Kolaveri Di, on YouTube.
It is supposedly a raw version of the song being performed in a recording studio. The rhythm is catchy, the lyrics are part Tamil, part English, part nonsense. It is a far cry from the typical Indian movie music video. There are no lavish costumes, no running around trees, no exotic landscapes. Just a group of friends jamming in a studio. It could be you, or me, in that studio; it is a glimpse of a reality that could be anybody’s. There’s Dhanush, there’s Aishwarya, there’s Shruthi, and they are supposed to be stars, famous, but they look so accessible, so ordinary. You feel you have been granted a peek into how movie actors really live, when they are away from the all- seeing eye of the camera. Therein, I think, lies its appeal, its brilliance.
The Kolaveri music video was an instant sensation. It went viral and was, for a while, the most searched for and played video on YouTube, garnering over 10 million hits. All over India, even abroad, it spawned numerous translated versions, parodies, tributes and flash mobs.
It exposed Dhanush to all of India.
Dhanush was born Venkata Prabhu Kasthuri Raja in 1983, in Chennai. His father, Kasthuri Raja, and his brother, Selvaraghavan, are both directors of Tamil movies. He says that if he had his way, he would have become a chef; but his father and brother had other plans for him and this self- proclaimed introvert and bookworm entered the movie world.
His first hit movie came in 2003, Kadhal Kondein, directed by his brother Selvaraghavan. Then followed a roller coaster ride of flops and successes and the young man got a taste of both the bitter and the sweet early in his career.
In 2004, he married Aishwarya, daughter of Tamil cinema’s biggest superstar, Rajinikanth. It is near-impossible to
adequately describe just how revered Rajinikanth is. Suffice it to say that he is referred to, simply, as Superstar. No further identification is required.
So, it can be well imagined that Dhanush marrying Superstar’s daughter must have been, and must continue to be—to make a gross understatement— a mixed blessing. Being the son of a superstar is bad enough; to be the son-in-law must be infinitely worse. People are ready, claws bared, to pounce on the smallest misstep. Dhanush appears have navigated this minefield quite successfully. He admits that it is a huge burden, that for a while, his identity was lost in the blinding light of his father-in-law’s superstardom. But he was determined to not allow that to become his fate, to remain forever a pale shadow relying on connections and name dropping, and set to work, hard, to establish a reputation and identity that was all his own.
His performance in the 2011 movie Aadukalam as a cockfighter won him the National Film Award for Best Actor. Yet, Dhanush remained a local star. Then Kolaveri Di happened.
Even those who prided themselves on living high above the seamy, gossip-ridden world of movies couldn’t, in this hyper connected social media era, avoid hearing about Kolaveri and Dhanush. The long arm of the Internet reached out and touched disparate networks—auntyjis, maamis, grandparents, parents, college students, schoolchildren, villagers, the urban elite; it took the power of word of mouth to a pinnacle never reached before. This, combined with the six-degrees-of-separation rule, ensured that millions upon millions of people were aware of who Dhanush was.
Soon, Bollywood came calling.
His first HIndi movie, Raanjhanaa, was released in 2013 and was a huge hit. He played a Hindi-speaking Tamil Brahmin in Benares and his performance was widely lauded. It could not have been easy, emoting while speaking in a completely alien language, but Dhanush, with a combination of hard work and a supportive team, did an excellent job, bringing his character to life and touching every viewer’s heart.
There followed a spell when Dhanush rejected script after script that came his way from Bollywood. He was busy with several Tamil movies. He was not a conventional-looking actor by Bollywood’s standards, and he did not see himself in a typical hero’s role. He wanted a role that would push him and enable him to grow as an actor. He was picky, he was in no hurry to rush to do his next Hindi film. It turned out that he was also smart about the next Bollywood movie he acted in: Shamitabh, released earlier this year, alongside Amitabh Bachchan. The posters read DhanuShamitabhBachchan. There were other crossovers in the film: the music was by the south Indian musical titan, Ilayaraja; the heroine was Akshara Haasan, Kamal’s younger daughter. Dhanush played the role of a mute actor who, thanks to some technological machinations that only Indian cinema can dream up, speaks in the deeply resonant voice of Amitabh.
Shamitabh received critical acclaim, but can at best be called a middling success at the box office. Now Dhanush has signed up for his third Bollywood movie, which involves an “intense love affair”, in his words, and will, yet again, take him into new acting territory. He is busy with a Tamil movie, and shooting for the yet-unnamed Hindi movie will commence late this year. And now for the key question: why has Dhanush been a success—so far, at least—in Bollywood? I conducted an informal and highly unscientific survey of people across the socio- economic spectrum—the young, middle-aged and old, male and female. Unsurprisingly, I got a whole range of responses. “He is mediocre, no, useless,” spat one. “He is a powerhouse of talent,” gushed another.
I heard about his work ethic, his humility, his eagerness to learn, his respect for and acknowledgement of his team that makes his success possible. I also heard about his exploiting his powerful connections and his savvy marketing that have enabled him to transcend the guy-at-the-bus-stop looks. I realized I would have to approach the question from a different angle. Merely soliciting opinions about him would not reveal much about why he has been welcomed with open arms in Bollywood. The answer lay elsewhere.
India has always been a country with multiple realities; new realities emerge every so often, and most often they don’t supplant the existing ones, but just join the often paradoxical mix of sensibilities, one more layer atop the teeming, tottering the mess of elements that is India. And so you have a pan-Indian identity that is emerging at the same time that, distressingly, people seem to be pigeonholing themselves into narrow, rigid definitions of who and what they are, stressing differences over common values. The newspapers are too full of tales about the latter: communal clashes, the lack of any mutual understanding between the rural and urban populations, the silly stereotypes about the boring, nerdy people of the south and the money hungry folk of the north.
Today’s youth are largely unencumbered by the notions and prejudices that their parents held. Any red-blooded Tamilian who came of age in the 1950s, 60s and 70s had a deep disdain for Hindi, thanks to the anti-Hindi agitation that rocked the state, and the strong sentiments from which lingered for many years. Modern youngsters care little for this. They have little problem learning and speaking Hindi.
The different parts of the country are far less alien to one another than they were earlier, thanks to the migration of people far from their home bases, the Internet, programmes and trends that often sweep the entire nation (think Kolaveri). There is a greater sense that people who, despite the fact that they speak a different language, eat different food, and even look different, are part of a collective us, an identity that transcends linguistic and other boundaries.
It is into this environment, this brave new world, of both modern India and Bollywood, that Dhanush has emerged, at the right time and place and confluence of circumstances. Dhanush is every-young-guy. He is the skinny boy next door, blending innocence with impishness. He hasn’t worked hard on his looks or his body. He is what he is. The timing is right, for sure, but he has also been smart and leveraged matters to his advantage.
There is a scene in Shamitabh in which Bachchan, dishevelled, holloweyed, staggeringly drunk, tells Dhanush in a raspy slur, “I am Scotch…you are water…Water needs whisky.”
It is an apt analogy. Dhanush is water, ever flowing, ever seeking fresh pastures. And blended with whisky—Bollywood, something magical happens.