1-2Ennaaachu?” (Whatever happened) asks actor Vijay Sethupathi after being hit on the head in the 2012 film NaduvulaKon­chamPakkathaKaanom. Well, quite a bit has happened to the Tamil film hero. In the Tamil film industry, the lead actor was always apotheosised. His purpose was not really to act but to be portrayed as a god that cinema-goers could wor­ship. Matinée stars of the south went on to become chief ministers and cultural icons. Fans went to seemingly illogical extents to demonstrate loyalty to their heroes, torching themselves when worried about their favourite actor’s health or walking miles for a darshan of their idol. This passion still exists among pockets of fans. You will still see fanatical behaviour when a Rajnikanth movie releases; there are still some fans who will pour gallons of milk over a standup poster of Vijay (Chandrashekhar) at cinemas. But, much is changing in Kollywood.

The recent crop of sleeper hits and box-office bonanzas in Tamil cinema have not been centred around the typical macho, unctuous Tamil hero, who sports excessive facial hair and bright pants and dances on the Swiss Alps with a north Indian heroine. What was once considered machismo is now thought of as strange. What was once cool now appears fake.

Scripts of new Tamil movies are zany, real and gritty rather than formulaic. The characters are layered rather than being tailored to the lead actor’s image. Average looks and scruffy, unwashed faces find their way to the big screen. The desperate dream sequences, in which the hero would dress up in a crazy costume and dance like an epileptic PT master on grassy banks, with gaudy female dancers in the backdrop, are no longer a fixture in films. That ‘dirty picture’ is long gone.

“A new breed of actors have emerged from short films and television films in Tamil Nadu,” says Janaki Venkataraman, a cultural commentator from Chennai. “These new actors don’t attract the same kind of hero-worship than the previous generation of actors did.” Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan says the new Tamil hero is not chasing stardom. “He is a character who can play any part he wants. He’s protean and by eschewing the star profile, he’s throwing up endless possibilities for acting.”

A good example of the new-age Tamil actor is Vijay Sethupathi. He gave up his job as an accountant in Dubai to become a professional actor and, after eight years of acting on stage and in small roles on screen, he has had three hits in the past 12 months. He played a groom who loses his memory on his wedding day in Naduvula Koncham Pakkatha Kanom, a pizza delivery boy in the spookfest Pizza and a crazed kidnapper in Soodhu Kavvum, which grossed more than Rs 50 crore at the box office.

“I don’t have a specific image to chase”, says Sethupathi. Rather than building himself into a brand, he is keen on finding interesting scripts. It surprised nobody when he deactivated his Facebook page, citing it as “distracting”.

Dhanush plays a fisherman in Maryan
Dhanush plays a fisherman in Maryan

While you may cite Sethupathi’s non-film background as a reason for his unconventional approach, the fact that even actors from famous Kollywood families are looking at cinema similarly is proof of a definite trend. Tamil Nadu’s most famous son-in-law, Dhanush, of Kolaveri Di fame, has built his career on playing non-stereotypical roles. Before he became Rajnikanth’s son-in-law, Dhanush had to labour hard to make a name for himself in Tamil cinema. “I was clueless about acting, but it seems to have consumed me now,” he says, referring to his first few years in the industry. Dhanush has played marginalised, mentally unhinged, rustic and even savage characters in many hit films. Aadukalam, the 2011 film about a small-time hoodlum and the politics of gang wars, won Dhanush his first National Film Award. Critics are full of praise for the variety of characters he has played. According to filmmaker Bharat Bala, who worked with Dhanush on the thriller Maryan this year, Dhanush “lives the character” rather than showcasing his “mass hero appeal” in every scene. Dhanush’s foray into Hindi films saw him play a regular back-alley kid in a smalltown in the critically acclaimed Raanjhanaa.

Another example of a person not using his family’s status to build hype is Udayanidhi Stalin, former Tamil Nadu chief-minister M Karunanidhi’s grandson. Despite the political clout his family has, he chose to make his debut as an actor in OruKalOruKannadi, a non-glamorous comic film that became a huge hit. Stalin junior, all of 35, did not push a party line or agenda, but seemed to enjoy his time in front of the camera and ended up winning a Filmfare award for his performance.

Tamil cinema has always had a culture of accepting lead actors with ordinary looks. “Even the biggest star, Rajnikanth, was criticised for his unkempt looks early on, but with the right amount of machismo and style, he became a superhero,” says Janaki Venkataraman. “Stars such as Vijay (Chandrashekhar) and Suriya (Saravanan Sivakumar), too, were initially written off as unappealing. They had to reinvent themselves physically and stylistically.” Packaging was important to turn an ordinary looking man into one worthy of adulation.

Vijay Sethupathi plays a goat shepherd in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru
Vijay Sethupathi plays a goat shepherd in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru

However, many of the new actors earning success do not bother with image building. Take the case of Shivakarthikeyan (Das), who has acted in more than five films since his debut in 2012. The popular Tamil stand-up comedian, with no looks or personality to speak of, has earned popularity for his performances in offbeat films such as Marina and Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga. “It’s the small-budget movies I choose and the characters I play that strike a chord with audiences,” he says.

It’s a similar story for aspiring cricketer turned actor Vishnu. After an injury ended his sporting ambitions, he decided to try his hand at acting and made his debut in Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu, a film about a kabbadi player, in 2009. His performance in last year’s Neerparavai, in which he played a fisherman, was lauded by critics. Vishnu says that he chooses to play “real characters” and “performance-based roles” rather than larger-than-life roles.

Theatre actor Vimal won critical acclaim for his role in the award-winning film Pasanga, in 2009. In 2010, he played a village wastrel in Kalavani, a film that was made on a tight budget, but which went on to become such a big hit that it is now being remade in other languages. Vimal is now working on more than five films. He says that his everyman look makes it easier for him to avoid “heroism” and allows him to play roles that are realistic. Being the sole star of a film is something that does not matter to actors these days. “A script that demands me to play a secondary role that is meaty and has scope for good acting appeals to me”, says Vimal.

The success that young actors have achieved from choosing artistry over stardom has propelled even established stars such as Suriya, Vikram (Kennedy), Arya and Jiiva to play deglamourised, realistic characters in some of their films.

“This new trend augurs well not just for breaking the cult of hero-worship in Tamil Nadu, but also for breaking barriers in cinema,” says Shiv Visvanathan. “The new Tamil heroes are showing flexibility, creativity and going global. Experimentation is their new politics. Redefining their roles and breaking the formula is forming the origins of a brilliant acting community.”

While the habit of hero-worship is unlikely to alter overnight, the beginning of the end of it is already here. The current crop of Tamil actors are ready to experiment and play real characters. The man in a sky-high standup poster, bathed in milk, adored with flowers and offered blood by fans is on his way out.