In Tamil cinema, the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith

When Bollywood superstars in their early 50s are finding it difficult to connect with today’s youth, tamil superstar Rajinikanth on the threshold of 70, continues to enthral audiences

Sreedhar Pillai December 31, 2019 14:40:13 IST
In Tamil cinema, the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith

It has been the year of solid changes in Kollywood, where filmmaking and marketing underwent a metamorphosis. The content may not have changed much but the business of cinema was restructured to go with the times.

Superstars will be superstars

Changes notwithstanding, dominance of big stars continues unabated with the troika of Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith ruling the worldwide box-office. The top five Tamil grosser’s of the year that were successful at the worldwide theatrical box-office were – Vijay’s Bigil, Rajinikanth’s Petta, Ajith’s Viswasam, Lawrence’s Kanchana 3 and Ajith’s Nerkonda Paarvai.  If you take Tamil Nadu alone, the only change will be Sivakarthikeyan’s Namma Veetu Pillai. All the top five scoring films at the box-office were toned down versions of the larger-than-life mass hero genre with some tweaking done to suit the flavour of current audiences. 

In Tamil cinema the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth Vijay and Ajith

Ajith in a still from Nerkonda Paarvai. YouTube

Tamil cinema is unique and different in many ways, with the most loyal fan base in the world. When Bollywood super stars in their early 50s are finding it difficult to connect with today’s youth, Rajinikanth on the threshold of 70, continues to enthral audiences. The superstar has back to back projects lined up till 2021. This comes at a time when Vijay and Ajith, in their mid 40s, have eclipsed the superstar’s openings.

Rakesh Gowthaman, managing director of the popular Vettri Theatre in Chrompet, a suburb of Chennai, explains how this situation is unique to Kollywood. “Tamil cinema from MGR days has always been superstar driven and even today the trend continues. This year too we depended on the superstars to bring in the audiences and once again they have delivered as shown in the Vettri Top Ten that we publish every year end on our social media pages.” Theatrical business in Tamil Nadu brings almost 65 to 75 percent of the worldwide theatrical share of a big hero film in Tamil. And the catch here is that Vijay and Ajith have bigger fan following than Rajinikanth in Tamil cinema. The fans can create the opening through social media hype.

The Petta-Viswasam success story

This year, for the first time ever in January during the Pongal holidays, Rajinikanth’s Petta and Ajith’s Viswasam clashed and released on the same day – 10 January. Normally a Rajinikanth film gets a solo wide release in Tamil Nadu with other stars preferring to keep away.  But the trade was in for a big surprise when the younger star’s film pitched against the superstar’s and took a better opening. Viswasam ended up collecting more in the key Tamil Nadu territory, though both films turned out to be hits. In the rest of India and overseas, Rajinikanth Petta was way ahead. A similar pattern was seen when the Diwali releases, Vijay’s Bigil and Karthi’s Kaithi, became top grossers.  

In Tamil cinema the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth Vijay and Ajith

Ajith in a still from Viswasam and Rajinikanth in a still from Petta. Twitter

Tamil film producer and historian G Dhananjayan says, “I have never seen this anywhere in the world, the kind of fan frenzy reserved for Tamil superstars. They have huge cut-outs, music and dance, bursting of crackers at first day first shows in the wee hours of the morning around 4 AM. The fans also make the film and their hero trend with hashtags on social media.  The opening weekend is made into a glitzy event as fans try to create hype and new collection records around their favourite hero’s new release.”  

Social media explosion and fan wars

The social media explosion in South India has made Vijay and Ajith not only trend nationally but also created an overseas market for their films. In the top 10 “most tweeted about hashtags in India”, the most retweeted tweet in entertainment was the #Bigil tweet from Vijay’s official twitter handle @actorvijay. Vijay’s #Bigil tweet also became the post that received the most tweets with comments. Similarly Ajith too trended on Twitter when #Viswasam became No.1 hashtag in the first half of 2019. The youth audiences passion for mass cinema creates super stars and trending provocative hashtags to prove one actor is above another is the root cause of fan wars. Today if you want to get a fan base, a social media handle is a must with even veteran actors joining the bandwagon. An actor like Kamal Haasan has used the social media to his advantage to build his political party and today Kamal (5.7 Million) has more followers than Rajinikanth (5.6 Million) on Twitter.  

In Tamil cinema the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth Vijay and Ajith

Vijay in a still from Bigil. Image from YouTube

This had led to ugly fan wars on Twitter. There was recently a Vijay death hoax with the hashtag  #RIPActorVijay  trending nationally. Vijay fans, in turn, responded with their own hashtag #LongLiveVijay.

The challenge of being a "small-budget" film

As per industry analysts Tamil cinema box-office in 2019 has grown by 10 % over the previous year , hitting the Rs 2000 Cr mark this year, compared to last year’s Rs 1800 Cr. There were 206 Tamil releases in 2019, out of which 19 can be classified as super hits, hits or average grossers that broke even or made marginal profits. The rest of the films bombed and some of these small budget films could hardly survive the weekend. Most theatres in Tamil Nadu from this year onwards have introduced weekend (Friday to Sunday) and subsequent weekday (Monday to Thursday) programming. It means films that do not perform during weekends are dumped and replaced from Monday with films that had better footfalls and canteen sales from Friday to Sunday. And multiplex operators prefer playing other language content which gets them more revenue in Chennai City and suburbs. 

G Dhananjayan explains this: “The biggest challenge faced by Tamil Cinema this year was for small budget films, which are finding it difficult to get any pre-sales (sale of rights of digital, satellite or Hindi dubbing) and during release, getting sufficient shows and screens. The much talked about Oththa Seruppu film by R. Parthiban was removed by most screens after its first week. Parthiban had to seek the help of the State Government, which intervened and advised theatres to continue the film. This is not the scenario in Bollywood or Tollywood where small films with good actors who may not be superstars get their due recognition at box office if the content gets good buzz.”

In Tamil cinema the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth Vijay and Ajith

Stills from Super Deluxe. Twitter

As it stands, for any Tamil film without prominent or known faces to perform, it has to get positive word of mouth from its first show. Tamil cinema had its share of classy films this year like Super Deluxe, Oththa Seruppu , Thadam,  Peranbu, Asuran, House Owner, Kaithi, Sarvam Thaala Mayam, Monster and a few others. Here again it is films with popular stars like Dhanush’s Asuran, Karthi’s Kaithi, Arun Vijay’s Thadam  that managed to get proper theatrical release with showcasing. They became hits and were able to run only due to the aggressive marketing and clout of their producers and distributors.

Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, a director who also produced the critically acclaimed House Owner says, “To be frank House Owner and Oththa Seruppu made Tamil cinema proud at the recent IFFI in Goa. I only want the industry bigwigs to give both these and other meaningful films their due. Let superstar driven films dominate the box-office , but the industry should not belittle or run down our efforts, give us also some playing time to built upon the good reviews. Only then small independent filmmakers can survive.” 

Welcome to star-driven Kollywood 2020

A spokesperson of a popular multiplexe chain says, “Despite economic slowdown, 2019 has been good for the Tamil movie industry as there have been many films which did well at the box-office. But today it is more or less a weekend business, so we have to recover our investments and huge maintenance cost from sale of ancillary products through theatrical advertisements and from concessions. It is not profitable to run a screen with single digit occupancy, that’s the only reason we play films which bring in enough footfalls to sustain our business model.”

This year the digital or OTT rights for big hero Tamil films have almost reached the price of their satellite television rights. It has opened a new revenue stream for producers making films with saleable stars.  And a film like Karthi’s Kaithi, which is a super hit in theatres, was shown on a digital platform 30 days after its release. Its producer SR Prabhu says it was to beat the pirates and also the theatrical revenue share between exhibitors and distributors drops drastically after two weeks. But the sad part is that the OTT platforms want to buy only star driven Tamil films and a select few depending on their box-office report.

In Tamil cinema the dominance of big superstars continues with the troika of Rajinikanth Vijay and Ajith

Darbar poster. Twitter

Tiruppur Subramaniam, a leading exhibitor and distributor, says, “How many films made profit on return on investment (ROI)? Most of these top grossers in some area or the other were sold at very high and unreasonable prices, and the buyer had even lost money. From next year we are planning to stop releasing Tamil films which have been sold to streaming platforms in window of  less than 100 days after its theatrical release.”

In many ways next year is going to be crucial, as it is going to be another year of superstar driven movies at the box-office. This has led to a situation where a “star date” is premium and actors are signing up back to back projects with known producers who can deliver them their “asking rate” without looking at the commercial feasibility of the project.

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