Dhanush: An Actor Poised to Become Indian Cinema's Next Polymath
Dhanush celebrates his 38th birthday today.
A film critic, after the India premiere of Visaaranai, experienced the kind of disbelief that can be summoned by a truly original film and tweeted, “who is this director Vetrimaaran”. Everybody clamoured to point out that he is a National Award-winning filmmaker. Dhanush, Visaaranai’s co-producer, who won his first of two Best Actor National Award for the director’s Aadukalam in 2011, had lived through much worse – “pigeon-chested paavam who looks like a paanwala on probation” went one gem from an anglophone critic outside the Tamil circles. Big Bollywood co-option was still nascent and Dhanush was only known as “that kolaveri di guy”.
Dhanush never attempted to hide his displeasure at this. It was clear he felt like a two-film wonder child actor whose shadow had grown large enough to swallow his entire adult life. For his first Hindi film Raanjhanaa, Filmfare bestowed upon him the Best Debut award. A self-effacing Dhanush walked up to the stage, “I have acted in 25 films, and this is my first Best Debut award.” At the end of the speech, host Ranbir Kapoor begged, “Dhanush you have come from so far please sing two lines of Kolaveri Di”. So. Far. Watching it, the great Dilip Kumar might have fondly remembered his many years of filming in Madras and scoffed at the younger generation.
In this pandemic boosted OTT era, no critic or Hindi film industrywallah can get away with such nonsense.
In 2021, Dhanush has indeed come a long way. But after all these years, how does Dhanush’s appeal translate?
The rest of the nation (not really, we tend to misrepresent these boundaries) or at least the film crazy public, not without reason, is more besotted by a certain Fahadh Faasil.
What is palatable in a Fahadh film and performance that is not readily apparent in Dhanush’s? Such near unanimous verbal accolades did not stem after Vada Chennai or Asuran, or even Karnan. Is it simply about one actor finding himself at the right place at the right time? Maybe it is about how we tend to evaluate performances.
The disquieting solitude of a Fahadh performance finds ready takers. We empathize with the aloneness his characters wallow in and rush to offer a hug. These are performances that are peppered with words like “understated” or “subtle”. This is not a dig on Fahadh but an attempt at demystifying an aura. If the “acting” is loud or intense, something that transforms from a disinterested presence to full blown grandeur, gobbling up every pixel of the image that the actor is far from the zip code of “alone”, it garners applause in front of the big screen, given an award or two but shrugged away as mundane because such actors are dime a dozen. Only they are not.
Actors like Dhanush are not trapped in their star persona as the popular notion suggests.
Yes, like the rest of them, he has an enviable fan base in his home state that wants him to play certain kind of characters. A Tamil film actor’s challenge has always been about surviving and reinventing within these confines.
Not considering it as impediment but as a trial to dig deeper, the best of them creates wonders within that spectrum. Dhanush, for more than a decade, has been adept at this balancing act.
Till his collaboration with Vetrimaaran (started in 2007 but really began in 2011), Dhanush modelled himself by playing the exposed everyman – part of the underclass magnified in socially awkward environs, the diminutive adolescent forced to enter a world of crime or just your garden variety middle-class youth with a motorbike, a job and a woman in his dreams.
This Dhanush was fully cognizant of what he does and does not bring to the table in terms of movie star persona. With Vetrimaaran and beyond, he remade himself, everyman but with the agility of a self-taught actor who harbours inside him both anger and a Panglossian scramble for self-actualization. Aadukalam’s Karuppu is pushed to a corner by his own mentor and father-figure, Mariyan is literally deserted and Velaiilla Pattadhari’s Raghuvaran, after much humiliation and personal loss at home, must stand up to “Amul babies” of privilege to get to a respectable position.
It is one thing for a limited performer to maximize his or her abilities but with Dhanush it has always been the opposite – how to convince a conventional audience used to conventional definitions of beauty and hotness of his extraordinary skills as an actor? For one, Dhanush developed a keen eye for singular filmmakers. Beginning with his brother Selvaraghavan, he gravitated towards Vetrimaaran, Anand L. Rai and even someone with limited range who could pay great dividends, like RS. Durai Senthilkumar.
With the past decade giving rise to a Bahujan wave in Tamil cinema, Dhanush became the tool wielded by Vetrimaaran and Mari Selvaraj to tell stories of assertion.
Once again, his lanky physicality and bottomless energy was used as a form of deception, his characters contained simmering anger that could break open dams. He was Achilles and Vada Chennai, Asuran and Karnan his songs, with each film Dhanush walking on water, the audience basking in the screen presence he commanded at will in Mari Selvaraj’s film.
It seems imprudent to make this analogy but Dhanush, as his career stands at 37, comes closest to the star born with on and off-screen magnetism every actor craves – Kamal Haasan. Kamal at 37, in 1991, had completed a decade of cinema trapeze – Moondram Pirai and Sattam, Sagara Sangamam and Kaakki Sattai, Nayakan and Per Sollum Pillai. Dhanush turns 38 today after a decade of circus between Aadukalam, Raanjhanaa, Velaiilla Pattadhari, Kodi, Vada Chennai, Asuran, Karanan and Mappillai, Anegan, Maari, Pattas, Jagame Thandhiram. There have always been whispers that he is a man with a video camera with a competent little film as a director - Pa Paandi. He recently revealed that he’s found great filmmakers to work with (Russo brothers included) and has pushed direction dreams for later. The late 80s to mid-00s were some of the best years of Kamal Haasan the creator. Dhanush, at 38, is poised to become Indian cinema’s next polymath. If history is anything to go by, we are in for a smashing ride.
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