Mersal becomes highest grossing Tamil film in Kerala: The curious case of Malayali love for Vijay films
For Malayalis, Vijay films like Mersal are their parallel universe; where they leave aside their habitual traits of cynicism and just have fun. For everything else, there is Malayalam cinema.
DCP Vijay Kumar has been summoned to eliminate a bunch of rowdies who have disrupted the functioning of a school. He steps into the class, slaps a rowdy into a corner, takes out the cane, flicks a textbook, signals one of them and asks a general knowledge question. The rowdy fumbles and he gets suitably whacked. DCP repeats the procedure with rest of the bunch and leaves behind a heap of bruised bodies. He later finishes off this feat with a moral science query—which is difficult? To get caned or to study in 3rd grade?
This is a scene from Atlee’s 2016 blockbuster Theri (Spark), a film where Vijay plays an upright cop/baker/loving dad/ghost vigilante. With a collection of 16.7 crores, Theri is only the second highest grossing Vijay film in Kerala. Mersal being the first, surpassing the previous record of 20 crores set by Shankar’s I.
In fact, out of the all-time highest Tamil film grossers in Kerala, Vijay takes care of six (the other four Kaththi, Thuppakki, Thalaivaa and Jilla). During each instance, he had tough competition from the home turf (with Theri, he had to fight off Dulquer Salman’s Kali, Dileep’s Two Countries and Nivin Pauly’s Jacobinte Swargarajyam).
Others who share this honour with him include, Rajinikanth (Endhiran, Sivaji), Suriya (Singham 2, 24) and Vikram (I).
“Vijay easily commands a huge fan following in Kerala, probably the highest after Tamil Nadu. Though we claim to be a more movie-literate state than Tamil Nadu, Malayalis somehow love these larger-than life, high-voltage masala films. That explains the success of Baahubali and Pulimurugan. After Rajinikanth, Vijay is the actor who has entertained Malayalis the most,” says film critic Maneesh Narayanan.
A baffling topography of fandom
What makes Vijay — at best a mediocre actor who features in heavy mass-set pieces, makes a song and dance of everything, delivers political punchlines and continues to adorn the role of a messiah of the masses in film after film — command such a massive fan following in Kerala?
It’s the topography that is baffling about this fandom. Kerala undeniably occupies one of the most erudite movie-going population in India — filmaholics who take their cinema very seriously. Even in mass superstar ensembles, Malayalis expect some semblance of logic. Every film is dissected, analysed and smirked at by a nanometre.
When Mohanlal’s Pulimurugan, a typical superstar larger-than-life vehicle, rewrote box office history, Kerala was divided into two — one section went ballistic over a Malayali director finally replicating a typical Tamil/Telugu formulaic mass film, while the other group was more concerned and alarmed about Malayalam cinema falling into the same illogical trap as its neighbours.
“Pulimurugan looked like a dubbed Tamil film. Look at those stunts Mohanlal does. How can anyone be foolish enough to buy that he can flick a 400-kilo tiger just like that? I can’t believe Malayalees fell for this drivel,” lamented a cinematographer on the condition of anonymity. The same director’s debut film Pokkiriraja, featuring Mammootty, despite being panned by critics, was a box office winner. But then these are very few instances when Malayalis have embraced anything that looks so far removed from their aesthetics.
Interestingly Malayalis’ love for Vijay began with Thullatha Manamum Thullum (1999), a romantic drama, where he played the anonymous saviour-cum-admirer of a blind girl. His lover boy image was well-received.
“Thullatha Manamum Thullum was declared a hit during the time when Malayalam cinema was going through a low phase — quality and economy wise. Later when he switched to mass hero films, and donned the role of lone crusader against injustice and corruption, Malayalis lapped it up. Also, such big budget films were unheard of here. This is escapist cinema for them — enjoy it till it lasts and keep your logic aside,” opines Narayanan.
The Vijay loyalists
We asked a cross-section of fans between the age group of 18 and 30 in Kerala about this Vijay bhakti and they had some interesting points.
They usually watch the FDFS, think it’s ridiculous to compare his acting prowess with Mammootty, Mohanlal or even Fahadh Faasil and admit they feel an adrenalin rush in this “suspension of disbelief” that most Vijay films project.
Short filmmaker and blogger, Vishnu Udayan thinks “Vijay is a performer more than an actor. Also, I believe Malayalis love dance numbers and Vijay is an excellent dancer.” Then there are those who think Vijay films are the lesser of the two evils, if one compares it to the more regressive Telugu cinema.
Hiran Venugopalan, media commentator and designer, admits he was part of a Vijay fan club in Palakkad: "Malayalis love celebrating diversity. We are not foolish enough to measure all films with the same scale. If it is a Tamil mass film, we expect the hero to beat 100 men single-handedly, and tons of item songs along with a dappankuthu song. If it’s Telugu film, the numbers might wary. But when it comes to our cinema, we won’t tolerate more than 1 song or dance.”
Allu Arjun had a brief but super hit spell at the Kerala box office. His Arya 2, released in 65 screens, grossed over 67 lakhs in three days. He also had several fan clubs in the state. Rajnikanth’s Kabali grossed over Rs 13.39 crores in the first week while Baahubali 2 made over Rs 70 crores in the state.
The Vijay formula
“Malayalis love watching such Tamil films but would rather not see such stories in Malayalam cinema. In Malayalam, they expect only realism. Technically, Tamil films are well-mounted. Sivaji Ganesan and MGR had set such a trend earlier, but it waned in the mid 80s and 90s. One major reason was the absence of a young star they could identify with. They were only seeing Mammootty and Mohanlal. Vijay, Suriya and Ajith films managed to find a place in that gap. Vijay is a curious blend with his street smart looks, and he's not intimidating. There is something very relatable about him,” explains film academician CS Venkiteswaran.
Take his 6 top grossers in Kerala. Thalaivaa directed by AL Vijay was a loose remake of Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar, where he played the son of a kindly don, later taking over the reins from him. In AR Murugadoss’s Thuppakki, though not entirely a vigilante, he plays a secret agent of the Indian Army. In Jilla, he is a coming-of-age do-gooder cop. Kaththi, again by Murugadoss, had two Vijays — one a smiling messiah and the other a street-smart thief who aids the former in taking over the system. He was an upright no-nonsense crusader cop in Atlee’s Theri, while his last outing, Mersal, had him in triple roles — a benevolent doctor, magician and a good Samaritan.
Each film systematically exploited Vijay’s stardom in various degrees, and had these staples — lone crusader/vigilante, political punchlines, two or four heroines to romance, some comic relief, an irredeemable villain and high-octane action stunts.
For Malayalis, Vijay films are their parallel universe; one where they leave aside their habitual traits of cynicism and reasoning and just have fun. For everything else, there is Malayalam cinema.
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