Mama-Maaplai: How Rajini and Dhanush Ride the Pop Culture Wave

Here’s how the Mama and Maaplai (son-in-law) duo of Tamil cinema ride the Tamil pop culture wave.

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Mama and Maaplai combo rocks the boat of Tamil Cinema.
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Rajinikanth's first hit song was Raman Aandalum, from Mullum Malarum (1978). The song was reprised yet again in 2019's Petta, and it's still in vogue. In comparison, Anna University, which was established a few months after the song came out, is now part of Tamil Nadu's history, and even the building is considered old.

Dhanush was down with high fever in 2003. Nevertheless he landed at the shooting spot in the middle of a desert, and danced to Manmatha Raasa, an item number that is still the gold standard, as far as hardcore dance parties are concerned.

While actors are typically satisfied with one huge pop culture moment in their careers, this father-in-law, son-in-law (mama - maaplai in Tamil) duo have redefined or at least been at the forefront of a Tamil pop wave multiple times. Here are a few examples. Buckle up!

With Rajinikanth's Darbar (9 January) and Dhanush's Pattas (16 January) set to release, here's a look back with a twist.

Why This Kolaveri Di?

The 200 million views for this song are only for the original video. The innumerable covers have millions more. Everyone, from random old Paattis (old women) from Mylapore to Sonu Nigam's first born have covered the song, and it went viral eons ago.

Partly because of the theme, but mostly because it played with an idea that's so obvious no one thought to use it before; mixing English with mother tongue.

Come to think of it, that's what we Indian do every single day, in the name of speaking angrezi. Dhanush milked the idea with his soup song, about love failure. The picturisation of the actual song in the film 3, when it finally released, was a disappointment, thanks to the unbelievable build-up. The film itself was a decent directorial debut by Aishwarya, his wife.

But the song, written and performed by Dhanush, was a phenomenon.

The Punch Dialogue King

1977. A film producer kicked Rajinikanth out of AVM studios, and made him walk the 25 kilometre stretch back home. Rajinikanth had not a single penny in his pocket. As he walked back, angry and desperate, someone shouted, ‘Idhu eppudi irukku?’ (how’s that!). It was a dialogue from his film 16 Vayathinile. He thought he was being heckled. But every few steps, everyone who crossed him, looked at him and said, ‘Ei Parattai (name of his character from the film)! Idhu eppudi irukku?!’ That’s when he realised he was a star.

Rajinikanth is to Punch dialogue, what Prabhu Deva is to dance. Every movie has a signature move, and more importantly, that one single line, phrase, or even word, that goes viral, and then continues to circulate in popular parlance.

While Idhu Eppudi Irukku was viral, Rajinikanth actually plays a villain in the film, just like in Shankar's Robot / Endhiran, in which the black sheep...maaa..aaa dialogue by the bad robot was a hit.

The first mass hero punch dialogue that really took Tamil cinema by storm was in Murattu Kaalai (1980), in which he says seeviduven! (I'll cut you up). One simple word that conveys everything about the character. This one dialogue has been used over a hundred times (see what I did there?) by other heroes in Tamil cinema.

Rajinikanth isn’t the first superstar. There was Thyagaraja Bhagavatar from the early 30s up until 1952. There were MGR and Sivaji Ganesan who ruled for a solid three decades from the late 50s until the late 70s. But it was Rajinikanth who will be remembered for his punch dialogues.

This That and The Other - Mass, Masala and International

The Dhanush you see in this clip from the Hindi film Raanjhanaa, has absolutely nothing in common with the Dhanush who swags in to literally every scene in Maari (2015). And the guy who played the Fakir in the French / English bi-lingual (The Extraordinary Journey...) is further removed from the Tamil boy next door.

No other actor in Tamil cinema has taken the kind of leaps across cinematic universes and languages as Dhanush. Even within Tamil cinema, his repertoire includes out and out mass films, full on comedy, action A-rated violence and grunge, and even devotional.

In a sense, there's a part of him in every genre, for those who wish to follow.

Forever Young, Even When Old

Rajinikanth is 69 years old, and going on 70.

By the time MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were in their late 40s and 50s, age had begun to show. The ridiculous midriff could not be hidden. And all attempts at 'acting' young had disastrous effects. The Eastman colour films of the 70s, with jarring outfits and blaring colours were rife with such films where the hero and heroine looked like father and daughter.

But not Rajinikanth (except maybe in Sivaji and Lingaa. After Kabali, the man started to act his age, and suddenly grew younger for it, thanks to the brilliant make-up in Kabali, Kaala and Petta. And of course, like Padayappa's Neelambari says;

'Age hasn't robbed you of your style and charm'.

Due credits to actor Ajith though, who was the first to embrace his salt and pepper hair. Like Ajith, Rajinikanth too, has figured out the winning formula to stay young in cinema; look your age.

Rowdy Baby

Dhanush is on a dream run as far as his film songs are concerned. Kolaveri in itself was an international phenomenon, with its very own Hitler Gets Angry About video, and numerous versions across the world.

And then Rowdy Baby happened. As of today, it's got over 741 million views and was one of the most watched videos on YT globally! Lyrics wise, it has some of the Tinglish that got so famous in Kolaveri. This song too was written by Poet-u Dhanush. And as with Kolaveri, no one can explain why it went so viral. I'd peg it to Sai Pallavi's cherubic presence, that seems to overshadow even Dhanush's charisma. But hey, no one knows the secret behind how a video goes viral.

Nevertheless, considering Dhanush's dream run, it's quite likely that he'll do something equally outlandish, fun and relatable again, and soon.

And that's how the beat drops, the Punch dialogue booms, the pop culture wave is conquered time and again by the dynamic duo, the Mama and Maaplai of Tamil cinema, Superstar Rajinikanth and Dhanush (he doesn't like captions).

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