When Ajith Kumar and director Siva came together for the third time for Vivegam (2017), following their previous two successful films Veeram (2014) and Vedalam (2015), little did they foresee that it would become a fodder for memes on social media. The film was collectively panned by critics and audiences, quickly becoming one of the more easily forgettable films. Yet, Ajith called on Siva again for Viswasam (2019), raising questionable doubts over the star’s choice.
This time, though, the duo was smart enough to quickly change their pattern. The Pongal of 2019 is a great example to understand the C (commerce) of cinema: Ajith Kumar’s rural drama Viswasam was pitted against superstar Rajinikanth’s action-thriller Petta. Though both films were a profitable venture, Viswasam reportedly outperformed Petta especially in the B and C centres — traditionally seen as tier 2 and tier 3 cities. So much so that the Ajith Kumar-starrer emerged as the biggest money-spinner, and even Rajinikanth wanted Siva to make a similar film for him.
This ‘rural’, rather the big, fat family drama-formula that stars co-adapt cannot be seen as a harmless coincidence but a well-planned calculation.
Let’s take the example of Suriya. The actor made enemies with the industry gatekeepers by opting for the digital release of Soorarai Pottru (2020) and Jai Bhim (2021), both produced by his production house 2D Entertainment. Supposing these films had a theatrical release, they would have still been categorised as a ‘multiplex’ product, primarily catering to the urban pockets of the city known as the ‘A’ centre.
But when Suriya decided to come to theatres, he cleverly chose a rural drama in Etharkkum Thunindhavan directed by Pandiraj. Though its intention and messaging about sexual harassment faced by women was well-appreciated, it was still criticised for its heady melodrama. As was last year’s excruciating Annatthe (starring Rajinikanth), which not only reinforced archaic stereotypes but also had the tone and texture of a teary-jerking television serial.
Surely, there is a common denominator we seem to be missing…what else explains the commercial success of these films in the B and C centres, that constitute the majority of the theatre-going population in Tamil Nadu? What is it about family drama that is cutting across audiences, that is prompting even Rajinikanth, one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema, to take up a film with a village backdrop in Annatthe?
Stars, of course, are not here to impress the critics; cinema is as much commerce as it is art. They have the additional responsibility of covering the entire spectrum of audience and hence, they have to cater to their tastes.
In a recent interview to The Hindu, filmmaker Venkat Prabhu spoke about how distributors felt that his Maanaadu (2021) would underperform at the B and C centres, given its high-concept on time-loop. The fact that it surprisingly did well in those centres is beside the point.
This ‘calculation’ isn’t a recent phenomenon and the two main beneficiaries were Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan.
The norm through the 1980s was: if an urban film failed to mint money, they would promptly switch to doing a Murattu Kaalai (1980) or Sakalakala Vallavan (1982).
Senior journalist Shiva Kumar, however, does not think Rajini and Kamal exactly capitalised on this formula. “Both of them acted in a few rural films, but that didn’t guarantee success. Murattu Kaalai and Sakalakala Vallavan were huge hits, despite how old-fashioned the story was. It is Prabhu, Vijayakanth and Ramarajan who banked on rural themes and were moderately successful,” he observes.
Sakalakala Vallavan is a classic example of the meeting of the two worlds to satisfy the larger audience base. The film had Kamal playing a harmless villager who transforms into an English-speaking metrosexual in the second half. In the post Rajini-Kamal era, filmmakers have been trying to emulate the Sakalakala Vallavan template.
It is believed that stars themselves expect this confluence at a scripting level. During the promotions of Enai Noki Paayum Thota (2019), Gautham Menon told this writer how stars ask for a vivasayi (farmer issue) angle these days.
Ever since the pandemic and the explosion of digital streaming services, there is a strong perception that OTT has diminished the lines of the A, B and C subset of audiences.
Given that viewers are now warming up to inventive films with quirky ideas and fresh voices, one would expect a wind of change breezing through the way films are conceived for theatre. But the success of this ‘rural’ formula indicates that it is important not to take the audience for these films lightly — no matter what the critics say.