May 1, 2010

Quick Guns - South side superhunks are making a fresh raid on Bollywood

At the music launch splash of Mani Ratnam’s Raavan in Mumbai, a low-key, unassuming man in a white jacket tickled everyone’s curiosity. While Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan played to the gallery with their anecdotes and jokes, Vikram John Kennedy Vinod, aka Vikram, floored the crowd with his discreet sense of humour. “Jab main Tamil mein acting karta tha to Hindi ke baare mein nahin sochta tha, aur jab main Hindi mein acting karta tha to sochta hi nahin tha (When I acted in the Tamil version, I never gave the Hindi version a thought, and when I acted in the Hindi version, I didn’t think at all),” he said in a disarming accent, bringing the house down.

Few could have gauged from his genteel demeanour that the Tamil superstar has the most significant and versatile presence in the eagerly awaited Ratnam bilingual. Not only does he act in both versions, he also plays vastly differing characters. In the Tamil film, he essays the brutal outlaw Beera Munda (played by Abhishek in the Hindi version); and in the Hindi film, he is the good cop, Dev. It promises to be a grand entry into Bollywood for a southern star with a successful, two-decade-long career behind him.

Savvy Vikram is just one of a whole new brigade of stars from the south all set to give the Bollywood charge. Another colossal Tamil phenomenon, Suriya—who has arguably the most beautiful eyes in contemporary Indian cinema—is expected to wow the north in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rakta Charitra. And after making a successful debut in the Telugu political drama, Leader, Hyderabad’s newest hunk, Rana Daggubati, now stars in Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maro Dum, a thriller set in drug-infested Goa. “His looks are fresh. And he’s young...but has a mature presence,” raves Sippy. Meanwhile, superstar Chiranjeevi’s son, Ram Charan Teja, who created history with Magadheera, one of the biggest blockbusters ever in Telugu, is reported to have been signed by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment for their forthcoming Hindi film, Haafiz.

This south to north movement is not a new phenomenon. Several southern stars, among them Kamalahaasan, Rajnikant, Venkatesh, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Madhavan and Siddhartha, have made forays into Bollywood. More recently, Kannada star Sudeep registered his presence in RGV’s Phoonk, Rann and Phoonk 2. Traditionally, however, rather than the southern heroes, it is their female counterparts who have scored big in the north, be it Vyjantimala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi or Asin. While not lacking in talent, the men have, on the whole, not met with as much success. “Perhaps it’s a male territorial issue. They have not been allowed to usurp the ground of the Hindi film hero,” says filmmaker Srinivas Bhashyam.

On a more flippant note, however, some keen watchers of the north-south interface lay the blame squarely on the southern penchant for moustaches; not shared in north India, they point out, which has more often preferred its heroes without facial hair. These taste barriers seem to be breaking down now. Audiences on both sides of the Vindhyas are evolving, and contemporary south Indian heroes are becoming universal, rather than region-specific, in their appeal. In other words, abs, biceps and a raw physicality are speaking louder than moustaches. Suriya, for instance, is a hard-to-resist combination of a toughie with a moonily romantic face. Vikram in a T-shirt and linen pants, lighting his cigarette from a candle in the Khili Re song from Raavan, exudes cool with a capital C. And put Rana in a crumpled kurta pyjama, he could even pull off a Bhojpuri film!

But why would the kings of the south want to court Bollywood, especially when their own film industries are doing as much, if not more exciting work than Bollywood? Suriya is quick to point this out: “We have everything—creativity, concepts and technical expertise. We work better with montages, song sequences, even capture small moments beautifully.” What Bollywood offers him and other southern heroes, however, is reach and roles. It provides them access to a bigger market and a wider audience, and an opportunity to build on their fan base.

“I can’t do routine roles, and am always looking for well-defined characters,” says Vikram. As he sees it, Hindi cinema has grown by leaps and bounds. “There are fantastic, out-of-the-box roles in films like Chak De, Omkara, Dil Chahta Hai, Paa and Cheeni Kum. These characters can’t be done in the south. A Rang de Basanti or Chak De won’t gel well there,” he says. So he jumped at the challenge that Raavan offered. With both versions being shot simultaneously, he had to constantly switch between two completely different characters, verbal and body languages and get-ups. So he’s simple, slick and stylish in one role, and rustic, rugged and brutish in the other. “The contrast was stark. It was as though I was in an acting workshop,” he laughs.

Clearly, the move to Bollywood is fuelled by a need on the part of these stars to reinvent themselves. “It’s a creative thing. They are constantly raising the bar for themselves,” says Sippy. For Suriya, like Vikram, playing the “standout, flawlessly written character, who is not the normal hero” is important. His persona in Rakta Charitra is that of an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation and required a complex, psychological interpretation. “It’s a challenge to do something with a completely different a place and language I don’t belong to,” he says.

The last bit, mastering Hindi, has been a big challenge. Rana, who has had a relatively cosmopolitan upbringing, is comfortable with the language, but Suriya and Vikram have had to learn it afresh (and have practised hard in order dub their own lines). “I needed to put in extra effort to connect with the words and to get the emotions, modulation, expressions right,” says Suriya.

Rana went one further in shedding his roots, since he had to look Goan and learn Konkani for the character he plays in DMD. “In Hindi, you don’t have regional barriers, the plate of characters is more wholesome and wide-ranging. I couldn’t have played a Goan in a Telugu film,” he says. Suriya feels that conservative Tamil Nadu does not allow for liberal and modern themes in the movies. “Some 60 per cent of the audience is based in rural areas, multiplexes are fewer. Chennai itself hardly has five per cent of the night life of Bombay,” he says. So Bollywood offers him a cosmopolitanism he is eager to embrace.

“There is no barrier to anything in cinema. I could be doing a film in French next,” says Rana. “It’s an ocean out there and we are ready to leap,” says Vikram. That said, they’re not abandoning their regional ships entirely just yet. The idea is to accommodate both, by working on Bollywood projects that are wrapped up fast, while continuing to honour commitments in the south. “I am not moving to Bombay, I’ll come and go,” clarifies Vikram. Like the other southern heroes, he is unwilling to give up everything he has struggled so hard for. “It would be like starting way down the order to work your way up all over again. Why would I want to compete with an SRK or Salman?” asks Vikram.

So, after Raavan, he’s doing a Tamil psycho-thriller directed by Selvaraghavan where he plays three different characters. Suriya’s next is a film by A.R. Murugadoss (of Ghajini fame) and Rana is, again, working with Selvaraghavan. Bollywood offers are on the horizon but they are choosing with care, hoping to ensure they break that long-standing jinx. Of course, for viewers it’s another reason to celebrate.