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Thursday, January 26, 2012

They called you pigeon-chested, but Dhanush, you are the man

Cinemimi [Thursday, January 26, 2012]

Chennai: Seven years ago, a leading Mumbai-based film critic called him a “pigeon chested paavam who looks like a paanwala on probation.”

If she was still in the business of critiquing films, she would have been subjected to the ignominy of writing on his National Award for best actor last year. Or, perhaps about the trans-border sensation that he created with a Tanglish composition which has gathered 38 million views on YouTube so far.

The boy who aroused derision and condescending sympathy in the Mumbai critic is now a national rage with A-listers from Kareena Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan singing his delightful nonsense and him getting prime slots in Bollywood award shows and national TV.

As of yesterday, he is also a genuine crossover star when he agreed to play the lead in a full-length Bollywood feature to be produced and directed by Bollywood regulars.


The “pigeon-chested paanwala on probation”, aka Dhanush is just 28.

And he is an exceptional character in Indian cinema.

If he sang a seemingly vulgar “O cupid princess, I have tasted you…I flooded you…I have reserved my steam for you…” (reproduced from Meenakshi Shedde’s column in Outlook in 2004) in Thiruda Thirudi in 2003, in his national award winning Aadukalam, he

sings: “the wind that carries your fragrance walks with me.”

The delirious dance on the streets that follows the song is a stealer.

Barely a year later, he scribbles in smatterings of Tamil and English and sings “Why this Kolaveri Di” in a lovelorn, funny style triggering a mini industry of cover-versions that either kick-started or revived the career of hundreds of youtube-dependents prompting the producers to think about trademarking the catchphrase.

It was not without reason that the national award jurors and critics waxed eloquent on Dhanush, the country’s youngest national award winning actor. Starting at the age of 18 in a highly competitive Tamil commercial cinema, he is now one of the most bankable stars in the South. He dabbles in both art-house and commercial movies and passionately pushes the boundaries of excellence in both.

He does a commercial blockbuster Thiruvilayaadal Arambham mouthing clever “punchlines” and immediately follows it up with a Bicycle Thieves inspired Pollathavan, which also hits the box office bull’s eye. He then goes on to do a Padikkaathavan and then follows it up with an offbeat Kutty. This has been the pattern of his filmography since mid-2000. As the cliche goes, he straddles both worlds.

While he has more hits to his credit than failures, despite a brief box office drought in between, what is outstanding about him is his incredible desire and effort to get under the skin of the character he plays. All the directors who have handled him swear by his commitment and want to team up with him again, including his brother, ace director Selvaraghavan, Tamil’s Fernado Meirelless.In fact, it was Selvaraghavan’s first film Kadhal Kondein that showcased the promise in Dhanush in 2003. The film won both critical and commercial success. Later, Selvaraghavan directed him again in a City of God inspired Puduppettai (2006) in which Dhanush had a smashing performance as a slum boy who transforms into a crafty criminal. An enormously tough portrayal of various shades of human character, that too at just 23, he was brilliant. As an actor, the
film marked him out. Despite its gonzo and rough look, Puduppettai took a long time to shoot and has been his most expensive film till now. Selva again teamed up with him recently for another passionate portrayal of a struggling wildlife photographer in Mayakkam Ena. This was one of the most anticipated Tamil films in recent times for the Selva-Dhanush factor. It was a sleeper hit.

It’s not just his brother Selva, who breathes cinema at home. His father was a director and launched him when he was just 18 in a coming-of-age romantic role. His father-in-law is the legendary superstar of South Indian cinema, Rajnikanth and his wife, now a director who wields the megaphone for “3”, the film that features the Kolaveri song.

Compared to the other mainstream stars in the Tamil film industry, Dhanush survives largely by his immense talent and smart instincts. In almost all his films, he cleverly played the underdog, making a virtue of his “bad” and “puny” looks and the poor or modest background that the protagonist came from. But the same underdog, despite the initial destitution or aimlessness, would go on to succeed and win a smashing girl through sheer persistence and hard work. For millions of average youth of his age on the streets, this clever and conscious stereotyping worked big time.

Dhanush represented their aspirations and succeeded in pursuing them. Interestingly, he scrupulously ensured that he never played the conventional big hero and messed up a winning formula. This stereotype, in fact, had carefully distilled shades of the characters played by Rajinikanth and former superstar and Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR).

The same formula, perhaps also ensured that his films were rooted in realism. In a uniquely Tamil look-and-feel, that is distinctively different from the Anurag Kashyap realism, his directors conjured up a new-world style that was more consistent with contemporary art-house films from the rest of the world than from India. Dhanush and his directors chose exceptional ideas and themes rooted in Tamil nativity, created extensive sets and properties, auditioned the best cast, shot in unusual terrains and used a variety of filming styles that ranged from a hand-held dogma to soothing steadycam song and dance.

He loves to experiment and is willing to give a hand or leg for its success. For instance, his role as a cock-fighter in Aadukalam required extensive habituation and training. This trait propelled him ahead of his peers, who are at least a decade older than him in the industry.

People close to him say that Dhanush is also a keen learner of filmmaking and is now ready to direct, but he always plays himself down. Perhaps a trait that he shares with his superstar father-in-law. One is not sure if he is inspired by Rajini or if it is his instinctive style, but in real life he plays the self-effacing character to perfection, disarming even the fiercest opponents.

Among his upcoming films, “3” is eagerly awaited because it launches as a director his wife and Rajnikanth’s daughter Aiswharya. It also pairs him with Kamal Haasan’s daughter Shruti Haasan. He also has announced his intention to direct a Hindi film and recently spent some time in Mumbai doing the groundwork. He is an exciting talent to watch.

By the way, “paavam” in Tamil means “poor fellow”.

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