The times are a changing, but facial hair is inevitable for South Indian heroes.
Typestaches are cute and trendy today. They make pendants and brooches out of them and print them on tees and goodness knows what other products. Not so in South India. The moustache is the ornament on a man’s face. It has always had a flourishing time in the land of superstars and celluloid demi gods, thank you very much. A swashbuckling moustache is what sets the men apart from boys, in the south. You need no better proof of this than in south Indian filmdom, where heroes steal hearts and twirl their ‘taches before launching an attack on a villain. While Britannia was toying with Mr Taylor’s moustache wax or Percy Nobleman’s Beard Conditioning Oil, the heroes of south Indian cinema had been honing the art of facial hair since the advent of cinema, with little or no help from fancy grooming products. The popular idiom in Tamil goes that a man’s distinguishing feature is facial hair, before his other attributes: Meesaikku Bharati, daadikku Thagoor (For meesai, look no further than Subramanya Bharati and for beard, Rabindranath Tagore).
Chennai-based G Venket Ram is South India’s leading fashion photographer, whose images of leading south Indian heroes are almost unrecognizable for the sheer glamour and experimental looks they exude. “Right now facial hair on heroes is trending across Hollywood and Bollywood. In South Indian cinema, especially Tamil it is no surprise, ” he says. Besides a clutch of stars, especially the multiplex movie stars, who mess around with fuzz on the face, the Tamil hero, who plays the regular son of the soil or the guy from the backstreets of Chennai, is very much a man with a moustache. Countless Tamil movies have had the villain toss a dare to the hero to face his adversary if he “was a real man with a moustache”. The mo almost defines the hyper masculinity of the larger than life hero. It is the virile keratin that marks the hero or the villain’s face.
Chennai-based film critic Aditya Shrikrishna says “The moustache or meesai still rules in the mainstream movies in Tamil as the beard does in Malayalam films”.
While a star like Ajith may experiment with his looks and make a statement with his silver beard while not turning baby faced for a role, many of the stars will not forgo their moustache, their unkempt beard or facial fuzz. Actor Jayam Ravi, who won awards for his Thani Oruvan (2015) and the first Tamil zombie film, Miruthan, in 2016 broke hearts with his debut Jayam (2003) which was a big hit and earned him a permanent prefix to his moniker. The makkal gave a warm reception to the clean faced hero, who played a villager in the film. He says the moustache or facial hair is almost a constant in Tamil cinema despite the odd experimentation for a role by actors since the time of thespians like Sivaji Ganesan in the ’50s and ’60s, to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan since the ‘70s to Vijayakanth, Sarath Kumar, Sathyaraj in the ‘90s and the newer millennium crop of actors.
Take Vijay Joseph, or what they call, “a mass hero”. If there’s one constant besides his feeble acting abilities, it’s his moustache. It’s a cross between the Chevron and the Painter’s brush style that remains a constant, whether he’s playing neighbourhood street guy, a smart cop or a prince in a mythological as in with Sridevi in Puli. He may show a little concession to the trending stubble beard but the mo is never missing or meddled with. “Traditional Tamil male culture rejects grooming and the cleaned up look is seen as a sign of vanity and acting metrosexual, and not masculine”, says Venket Ram.
Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth
The appeal of the moustache or the neo scratchy beard is still seen as identifiable by the audience and is seen to `define his look’. Ergo, among the current clutch of heroes, a Vijay Sethupati, Siva Karthikeyan, M Sasikumar or the national award winner P Samuthiraikani are holding on to their moustaches and waxing them to their bushy best.
Another producer turned hero in Tamil is Udhayanidhi Stalin, grandson of former chief minister M Karunanidhi, who in his best Photoshopped avatar will not be seen minus his moustache and unshaven look. From his debut in Oru Kal Oru Kannadi in 2012, his moustache and a stubble have remained a constant. In Gethu in 2016, Stalin gets to act tough and sports a sleek facial fuzz in keeping with the trendy title of the film.
Times are a changing. “Compared to the ’80s or ’90s, the moustache is not the only facial attribute that defines masculinity in heroes”, says Jayam Ravi. Stubble beards, the clean shaven look are also options for heroes who want to push the envelope. Take the recent exports from Tamil and Malayalam cinema to Bollywood. Simbu made a startling profile in a hit like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya with his clean shaven look. It drew cheeky comparisons on social media with his father, the bearded Tamil actor, producer, singer and director, T Rajendar, whose vibrissae has produced countless memes.
Osman Abdul Razak, creative director and stylist says “Facial hair is very much a part of the south Indian hero’s looks, but many seem ready to experiment”. He sees a pattern emerging with the current crop in recent years to mess around with their facial hair. “Look how Ajith handles his silver beard with confidence.” He points out to Vedhalam, a 2015 hit, where Ajith went from clean shaven to a busy silver beard. The new crop that prefers to experiment, like a Surya, Arya, Vikram and Jayam Ravi try mutton chops, English moustaches, stubbles and goatees or go clean shaven all the way. “The storyline is the deciding factor for the look of the character”, says Jayam Ravi. “Even those actors who have taken to styling often prefer “looking real” and keeping their moustaches or scruffy beards on,”says Razak.
Siddharth of Rang De Basanti (2006) fame has had a lucky run with top filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, Shankar and others in Tamil cinema and has gone from chocolate faced to scruffy bearded guy on screen. So has Madhavan, who recently beefed up and sported a messy beard in Irudhi Suttru (2016), a far cry from his clean shaven debut in Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000).
Mohanlal and Mammooty
Model-like clean shaven looks have never been the Tamil hero’s staple, points out Jayam Ravi. “The line between actors and stars who looked like models is thin in Tamil cinema”. From a Ramboesque unshaven look in Peranmai (2009) to a scruffy faced boxer in the mean backstreets of North Chennai in Boologam (2014) Ravi has toyed with his facial fuzz.
Similarly Vikram, apart from the clean shaven Iyengar clerk in Anniyan (2005) or a stubbled Kasi (2001) has always rocked the bristles look. Surya has been on screen only fleetingly as clean shaven and has sported moustaches of various styles, and a mild five o’clock shadow in others.
If the veterans of the black and white era had moustaches mimicking a street theatre look, from Sivaji to Kamal Hassan the moustache has never been trifled with. Tamil Nadu came to a halt when Rajinikanth went clean shaven in 1981 with Thillu Mullu, a remake of the Hindi Gol Mal. Today his latest movie Kabali has him sporting a silver bird’s bush on that famous mocking face.
In the neighbouring state of Kerala the beard has always ruled. Today’s stars are never too far from letting their beards grow but are open to experimentation. Kerala’s heartthrob, Prithviraj Sukumaran is a bearded alcoholic in Paavada (2016), sported a designer stubble in Darvinte Parinamam (2016) and in Anarkali (2015) went from a clean shaven naval officer to a bearded hero in search of his lover. Fahadh Faasil shape shifted through Bangalore Days (2014) from a grungy tattooed biker and rocker into a clean shaven nerd. And Nivin Pauly probably will feel naked without his bushy beard. Dulquer Salmaan sported a bird’s nest in Charlie (2015) and a shadow in OK Kanmani (2015) a romantic caper by Mani Ratnam. He’s the guy who showed many a south Indian actor that the good old 5 o’clock was better than a bushy moustache or a thick beard – but any which way you look at it, the moustache, and its hirsute cousin, the beard, are here to stay in south Indian films, trends notwithstanding.