'Nerukku Ner' to 'Jai Bhim': The Rise of Suriya and His Social Outlook, Politics
Tracking the rise of Tamil star Suriya and the influence of his latest film 'Jai Bhim'
It was a midsummer day in 2003. A shy actor with a firm gaze and sincere demeanour walked into the radio station on my invitation. Since his debut in 1997, this actor’s films had been playing hide and seek at the box office but 2001 and 2002 were important years for him as three of his films struck gold. The actor - Suriya and his films that made a mark, up until 2003 were Nandha, Unnai Ninaithu and Mounam Pesiyadhe. But that one big super-hit which would propel him to the top league as a bankable star, an action hero and a romantic lover would perhaps be his next movie, the one he had come to talk to us about?
Suriya Sivakumar walked in that day with a subdued confidence and spoke in measured words and subtle tone (he still speaks like that) but his answers were sharp, sincere and honest. Once the mike was off he became more chatty. His winning smile warmed all our hearts. His intention to make this particular film work big time at the box office and his belief in its director and his working equation with his co-actors came shining through. The way he carried himself as a regular, guy next door who was realistic about the hardships of the glamor world was strikingly different.
Despite being a renowned actor’s son, Suriya never took his father’s standing in the industry for granted and neither did Sivakumar call anyone to launch his son as an actor.
A chance decision taken by Mani Ratnam in the late 90s, launched Sarvanan as Suriya in a film with an established actor – Vijay (yes, the same Ilayathalapathy Vijay) in a film called Nerukku Ner (directed by Vasanth, with the story being an alternate take on Mani Ratnam’s film Agni Nakshatram where two heroes are at war with one another due to family misunderstandings).
Cut to 2003 - the film for which I was to interview Suriya that day was Gautham Menon’s Kaakha Kaakha. The conversation remains fresh in my memory as are the many other interviews and events we did for Suriya’s films as years went by. Suriya’s humility was not put on and he genuinely spoke (off the record more) on how he withstood the initial days of struggle as an un-trained actor, how he rose above ground with the direction of his filmmakers like Bala and how one has to always rely on one’s own inner confidence when it came to effective dialogue delivery (“Take as many rehearsals and never shy away from improvement”) and “behave” like a hero only in front of the camera and not have an attitude off-screen, as cinema is made with a lot of inter-personal interactions and one must be careful not to hurt anyone else’s space or feelings.
Over these 24 years, Suriya has remained just the same. His growth has been steady and from being this “dependable actor-star” who could give a decent hit, he has slowly entrenched himself as a top league superstar with box office clout thanks to carefully chosen films that showcased his inherent acting talent also.
The national eyeballs were captured with Ghajini and the synonymous connect between Suriya and Aamir Khan began with that film. However the Suriya of today has taken several leaps ahead of his fellow actors and stars in terms of what he represents in terms of his social welfare activities and the place he hold in the hearts of the Tamil speaking world.
From a man who made a rather quiet debut (unlike his brother Karthi who rocked his debut with an explosive film like Paruthiveeran) Suriya’s performances “bettered” in film after film. His rise as an actor took an upward rocket speed with Kaakha Kaakha, so much so Gautham Menon recently tweeted that there can be only one Anbuchelvan IPS and that is Suriya. The actor showed a different cop act in the Singam series and his range of acting skills found a peak with Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram, where he played an entire age graph of both the father and son’s lives. The hallmark of a good actor is to be able to play a dual role and yet make us believe that they are two different people. Suriya’s acting and Gautham’s filming touched a high emotional chord with that film.
As Suriya grew in stature and success he also expanded on key social welfare activities and began Agaram Foundation which looks into the education needs of under privileged students in Tamil Nadu. I recall when Agaram began, it was a small team and an earnest Suriya who would himself make all the calls and pull in favours to get seats in schools and colleges for the students. He came across more as the head of an NGO who won’t brook any nonsense or stop at any roadblock until his cause was addressed. He took this step at a time when he wasn’t as huge a star as he is today and devoid of any political expectations whatsoever. In Tamil Nadu it’s a running theme for successful heroes to turn into active politics and contest in elections, like it’s their bounded duty to keep up the legacy which MGR left behind that every actor worth his fan base had to take up. But Suriya always had his head firmly on his shoulders and feet on the ground, makes his own decisions for his career and his foundation, which is based on good counsel and genuine cause(s).
In mid millennium, Suriya emerged into the icon he is today. From an introverted actor, reluctant star and your “regular nice guy”, Suriya is now the “Anna” (elder brother) for the younger generation and the older generation see him as their son/grandson.
Suriya’s journey is not a mere rise of an ordinary actor who found super stardom. It is also his personal integrity which translates into his professional success. He is now seen as a bold “voice” against fascism and his statement against NEET was seen as a representative word of the entire state of Tamil Nadu.
Do check out the video of Suriya where he is moved to tears and takes up the mike, when an under privileged girl-student speaks on the Agaram stage. In that video and in his statement against NEET, is a man who knows what he was talking about (the cause of education for all for example), who knows his people and that with his standing as a star, he could use his star-power to enable and empower a good deed.
When I walked into to watch Jai Bhim, I went in expecting to see Suriya in a saviour-cameo, coming to “save” the victims just, in the last 30 minutes or so. I resigned myself to watch a film which would be made on a medium budget as the rest of the cast were talented, but weren't “stars”. I kept my phone on silent and expected to watch a “sermon film”. But the opening of the film made me sit up. Writer-director TJ Gnanvel took me into the world of Rajakannu and Sengani from the word go. Within 30 minutes of the film, Suriya has made his appearance replete with all hero moments (I clapped when he jumped across the barricade) and his body language and intelligent gaze as lawyer Chandru made me forget I was watching this familiar star. Instead, I got involved in Chandru’s journey with Sengani and her life. The film had good cinematography (SR Kathir), music (Sean Rolden) and art direction (KKathir) along with effective post production (editing by Philomin Raj) and Suriya in a role which matched his personal values, a role so genuine without any frills for a hero. The subject of the film needed a star who could guarantee a big buzz and a better budget. There were other actors being considered for this role earlier but the moment Suriya decided to do it, Jai Bhim got the “expansion” it needed. The court room sets, prosthetic make up and CG work with the animals needed a star at the helm and the added bonus was Suriya producing this film under his 2D Entertainment banner.
What struck me as “wow” in particular was how the shooting of this film was done with zero publicity. All the spotlight fell on Soorarai Potru (rightfully so) and no one spoke of this silent killer of a movie which has now taken the entire nation by storm. With its IMDB rating, Jai Bhim is ahead of the world’s best, Suriya rides a wave which is commensurate with his journey of measured milestones. The recent political threats against Suriya saw many a voice coming in support of the actor - from the film industry, media, bureaucracy and public administration alike.
His #anbaanafans (a hashtag created by director Vignesh Shivan when he made Thaana Serndha Koottam with Suriya) and his family audience began talking about Jai Bhim both on social media and in drawing room halls as to how unjust it is that someone “as good natured” as Suriya had to be put through this harassment. The icing on the Jai Bhim cake came with the Chief Minister MK Stalin’s feedback after watching the film. MK Stalin took immediate action to improve the lives of tribal communities in and around TN and announced several welfare measures and even visited a tribal family in person. Major newsworthy moments flashed by in the last fifteen days and Suriya’s own donation of Rs 1 crore for the tribal welfare schemes and his Rs 15 lakh deposit in Rajkannu’s widow Parvathi’s name came in for much appreciation. His statement to the head of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK-the Vanniyar caste based party which threatened him) spoke of cultured liberalism, an educated stoic stance and a firm standing by with the film’s core content and his crew. There was no indulgence in ego or self-aggrandised claims in that letter. Instead the words spoke of an actor-producer doing his job and using cinema as a means to the end of communicating a story which can alter the way society sees certain aspects (like caste based discrimination for example).
With the entire left wing liberals, communists and neutral audience supporting him, the juncture Suriya finds himself in right now, would be a tempting lure (for any actor or icon) to enter into active politics. Ilayathalapathi Vijay (whose dad SA Chandrashekar began a political party in Vijay’s name and members contested in the by-election and even won a good number of seats) is slowly showing signs of turning into the political lane. However, it remains to be seen how Suriya will channel his stardom into politics. As always Suriya is self-evasive and unassuming about his impact inside the political ring as is evident from his recent interviews, but what if the present political scenario were to push him to a corner? Will he turn around and take to active politics then? This is the one thing that those pushing him (or any icon) to any corner should ponder about. Remember it was after being pushed to one such corner with the problems mounted on Vishwaroopam that Kamal Haasan decided to enter electoral politics.
Suriya is someone who believes in retaining his artistic freedom and has the nerve of steel to not bow down to any fringe group. The makers of Jai Bhim altered the image on the “controversial” calendar and appeased the political outfit (which has not been acknowledged by the PMK till now) as the spirit of Jai Bhim is about inclusiveness and celebration of equality and the film’s intention is not to hurt anyone. Instead a response letter which was issued to director Bharathiraja (who had said, “If politicians should be consulted before we make our movies then there will be a long queue of filmmakers outside their doors!”) speaks of how the PMK still thinks that their caste has been portrayed in bad light (when I watched the film, I saw no “caste” motive ascribed to the villain at all.)
Jai Bhim’s sole issue of a single off-camera calendar (which is not even in the foreground) which is taken to be denotive of the Vanniyar community (by only them) and the name of the police officer changed to what’s there in the film, has made this “political verbal warfare” against Suriya so distasteful for all neutral viewers. I learnt that the real police officer who was involved in Rajakannu’s case is still serving his time in prison and his real name (or religion) could not have been used for practical reasons. There is such a term called “cinematic license” for which there are disclaimers in the beginning of a film which allows for altering or re-imagining a real life incident or episode for the sake of effective story-telling or ease of storytelling. To identify oneself based on one’s caste reeks of still wanting to divide humanity and not unite it.
We are increasingly forgetting that we live in a free world and a democratic country where a work of art or communication or point of view can be put out and there will be voices which are for or against it. But life threats and disrespectful warnings is not how that dissent can be addressed. The beauty of democracy lies in this respectable manner of communicating dissent and the debates/discussions that follow should help everyone reach a good place. Jai Bhim as a film, as a story, has enabled that kind of discussion to happen in our society, where much good is being done for the welfare of the tribal communities now. In that sense, Suriya’s film is not just a movie but a movement.
The Suriya of today is no longer the shy, reluctant to speak actor I met in 2003. He is an icon whose “voice” creates an impact in Tamil Nadu, a voice which has been speaking out for common welfare and unity, particularly in such polarised times. This stage of his journey is a unique one indeed. I await Suriya’s next steps in his public life, where I’m sure the political red carpet is ready to be rolled out for him.
(Sujatha Narayanan is a content producer, storyteller, writer and art curator)
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