To the fans of Tamil film stars, a film of their favourite ‘hero’ is a hit — before the box office reports pour in. Viswasam is no different for fans of Ajith
It is 15 minutes to 1 am. It is cold by the standards of Chennai. Gunasekar, a wiry youngster who has a day-time job of running a vegetable agency, is clad in a simple T-shirt and jeans. He does not seem to feel the chill in the air. He is animated. He is on the phone asking someone for more “sara vedi” (fire crackers.)
We are on a small lane near a cinema complex in Chennai's Koyambedu area. The walls nearby are all plastered with posters of Ajith's Viswasam. The posters feature Gunasekar's name. Just that, on them, he is 'Ajith' Gunasekar.
The prefix is a signature style in Tamil Nadu where fans of actors add the name of their favourite star to their own. Gunasekar is one of the lakhs and lakhs of fans of Tamil star Ajith in Tamil Nadu. Ajith is perhaps one of the most enigmatic stars in the country: He does not give interviews (he last spoke to the press more than a decade ago); he does not promote his films. For an actor whose primary appeal is restricted to the youth, Ajith does not hide his middle age (he is two years shy of turning 50.) He does not sport a six pack. He instead appears on screen with a pronounced paunch. Yet, the kind of loyalty that Ajith commands from his fans is phenomenal.
Meanwhile, Gunasekar finishes his call and is happy that more fireworks will be on the way. "There was some confusion over the arrangements for the show. Hence, we couldn’t arrange everything at the last moment. But we pulled it off. This time, our show will be the grandest. We have a point to prove. 'Ngotha', we will."
'Ngotha' is a Tamil cuss word that is not quite an expletive. Its meaning and heft always emerge from the tone and the situation. Here, Gunasekar is using it more for emphasis and effect.
With the call over, Gunasekar exits the small lane and emerges on the main road leading to the theatre where hundreds have gathered in a massive rugby scrum of sorts waiting to enter the theatre for the first day first show of Ajith's Pongal release Viswasam.
In Tamil Nadu, the first day first show of big stars always happens at the dead of the night. There are rules precluding screenings at such unscheduled timings. But the theatres and fans connive (such shows are a huge grosser, as in contravention to another rule, the ticket prices are jacked up too) to make the show a mini-festival.
The clichéd images of fans climbing several-feet high cut-outs of their stars and pouring milk or beer over usually emanate from these special shows. Fireworks are burst and slogans shouted in praise of the star whose film is releasing. Till late last evening, there was no formal announcement for the midnight special show. But by around 10 pm, the mobile phones of fans' network were buzzing with the special show timings and the theatres that were screening them. The fans always work in close quarters.
Usually, these shows are rambunctious fun. But this time, there is tension in the air as Rajini's film Petta is up for release the same day. In this state, there used to be an unwritten rule that the main stars do not clash at the box-office with a same-day release. After nearly a decade, the clash of Viswasam and Petta is breaking the code.
There were a lot of fights between the fans of both the stars on social media platforms ahead of the films' release. As social media wars go, the ones involving Tamil film stars are always nasty and gross. Death and rape threats are part of the equation. That is how low and dangerous it gets. Fans of Ajith and Vijay (another TN star) are constantly at the throats of one another even when there are no releases of their respective stars. This time, Ajith and Rajini fans sparred. On the ground too, there the tension was palpable as the two production houses took on each other in trying to get the best and more theatres for their respective films. And then there was a spat over the trailers of the two films. It was all typically silly. But here, it is taken seriously and even debated on news television!
That is why Gunasekar said they had a point to prove. Looking at the massive surge of crowd and the palpable frenzy with fireworks going off, he says, "Ngotha, Thala fans getha kaamichitom" (Again, a typical usage meaning that Ajith fans have shown their pride). Oh yeah, by the way, Ajith’s fans call him Thala (head).
Before Gunasekar's words of contentment, there is a mild skirmish between Ajith and Rajini fans as Petta's special show (in another theatre in the same complex) seemed to start a bit early. A few provocative words were said by a set of fans and another responded by tearing a few posters. But the fire is doused before it gets out of hand.
Soon enough, the fans troop into the auditorium in a state of delirium and the moment the film starts rolling, they all shout at the top of their voice. It is impossible to hear the dialogue. It is impossible to follow the scenes. But nobody is complaining as everyone is almost on his or her feet, whistling and roaring. Fifteen odd minutes into the film, they kind of settle down and seem to be happy with the kind of mass elements in the movie.
The film's plot has no real surprises but the fans are okay with it. They do not want their star to experiment. They come for the kind of stuff that their star usually gives. Reviewing an Ajith film (or, for that matter, any mass hero movie) is a problem. The film is made for the consumption of over-the-top fan and not for the contentment of a discerning cineaste. The movie touches all the known cords and ends with Thala adroitly saving his daughter and family from the machinations of the arch villain. At the end of it all, the fans are pleased. But they always are!
Viswasam is important to Ajith as his previous movie Vivegam (with the same director Shiva) had tanked at the box-office. But Gunasekar had told me, "I liked Vivegam a lot. Thala was stylish like a James Bond." With fans like Gunasekar, Ajith can have any number of flops. Alright, with such fans, there cannot be any flops for the star.
It is too early to diagnose Viswasam's performance at the box office. However, on the face of it, it has the makings of a blockbuster. There is no point asking what Gunasekar feels about the movie. It was, for him, a sensational hit even before its release. All Ajith movies are that for him.
As we exit, Gunasekar is on the phone saying to someone aloud, "Vechu senjutomala (We have done it)”, and he gets down to scroll the reactions on social media platforms. The fireworks will begin there.
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Last Updated 10, Jan 2019, 8:23 PM