Tamil media is abuzz with news that Ajith Kumar has chosen to work with Siruthai fame Siva for his next. If this does materialise, the outing marks the fourth project for the duo, after Veeram, Vedhalam and Vivegam. The news has not set off any fireworks, especially in light of the mixed reviews that their latest releases got from critics and fans alike.
Fresh from the success of Mersal, where he worked with director Atlee after their hit combination in Theri, Vijay next teams up with AR Murugadoss, who directed him in the superhit Thuppakki that cemented his position in the box office, and the lukewarm Kaththi. This has left many wondering why he’s decided to work with ARM again.
Superstars working with tried-and-tested filmmakers is not a new phenomenon. Among the more famous of those collaborations is the one between SP Muthuraman and Rajinikanth — they worked together for nearly 25 films! Kamal Haasan’s filmography is more diverse — but, among the directors he’s repeated are his mentor K Balachander, SP Muthuraman and Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. At a time when Kollywood is dominated by big budgets and bigger salaries, it is often easier and more sensible to pair up with stars and directors who can guarantee a successful film. The general perception is that it makes more sense to work with a seasoned filmmaker who has delivered hits, as opposed to a newbie. And, that is what most managers of film stars advise them to do too.
PT Selvakumar, a former associate of actor Vijay, says that “it is not unheard of for a star to collaborate with big directors, as most often, they’re the only people experienced enough to deliver a product that satisfies the fans as well as the general audience.” While that makes sense, it is also true that many of these ‘star vehicles’ fall off the mark in both aspects.
What works with the audience these days is good content, packaged well. Nayanthara’s Aramm is proof of that; a sequel has already been confirmed by the producer. Over the years, she’s worked with both new and experienced directors and rarely repeated them; Mohan Raja (Thani Oruvan and Velaikkaran) is among the exceptions.
While Nayanthara has encouraged new filmmakers, also going to the extent of putting a film together, like she did with Gopi Nainar’s Aramm and some others, there is a palpable reluctance among the male stars to bet on newcomers. Vijay did so with director Atlee for Theri (2016), following the director’s smash hit Raja Rani. In the initial days, Ajith formed certain collaborations — most famously with Saran (Kaadhal Mannan, Amarkalam, Attagasam and the disastrous Aasal), Ezhil (Poovellam Un Vasan and Raja) and KS Ravikumar (Villian and Varalaaru). He experimented with a lot of newcomers, including SJ Suryah with whom he gave the superhit Vaalee. However, of late, his out-of-the-box projects have all been with people firmly established in the industry such as Gautham Vasudev Menon (Yennai Arindhaal) and Raju Sundaram (Aegan). This is in stark contrast to some films early on in his career such as Kandukonden Kandukonden and Mugavari, which celebrated the actor in him and did not fit into the commercial film genre. Of late, he’s stuck to making movies with Siva, serving up creations high on action.
Suriya has worked with a bunch of filmmakers, but his most notable collaboration in the artistic space has been with Bala (Nandha and Pithamagan) and Gautham Vasudev Menon (Kaakha Kaakha and Vaaranam Aayiram) and with Hari (the three films in the Singham franchise).
With actors sticking to making one film every year, the pressure is on the team to make that film matter. And, making that one film with a newcomer seems like a huge risk to take. Probably why, senior actors prefer to work with people they already know and are comfortable with.
Director Saran says that comfort level makes a difference. “I have worked with Ajith for over two decades. We have a shared past. Things like this also matter when a star takes a call. Would you want to make a movie with someone you know and trust, and sleep in peace, or opt for a total stranger?” he asks.
Director Radha Mohan, known for his collaborations with Prakash Raj, who’s his friend, and often his producer, says that he goes to the actor with a role only if it suits him. Radha Mohan has given Prakash Raj some of his more memorable moments on screen, at a time when he was the go-to villain. “Comfort level, and my admiration for his acting ability, apart, I would want us to team up only when we have something substantial to offer. “For instance, in Mozhi, he kept asking who was going to play the role of Viji; he imagined I would go for someone in Prithviraj’s age, but I always felt Prakash would suit the character better.”
Another reason directors choose to work with known faces, says Radha Mohan, who has certain constants such as MS Bhaskar and Kumaravel in his movies, is that “you don’t want to miss out on a good actor, just because you’ve already teamed up”.
Director Balaji Mohan has begun work on Maari 2, a sequel to the film that he’s openly said is his favourite. The original evoked mixed response, with people expecting a Balaji Mohan kind of movie, but getting something they could not slot. “An actor has to be happy with what he created with a director to work with him again. That said, personally, I believe that a sequel has to have something more than the first film and take it to the next level, in every possible way. If one is going to make a film that merely continues the story, I don’t see the point. I would like to team up with an actor more than one or twice only if I know we can come up with something very fresh and innovative.”
A top actor who has worked with hit filmmakers only to see the collaboration sink at the box office, says that stars sometimes use directors as a crutch. “You hope that you have made the right choice, because the director comes with a body of work that you’ve admired. But, somewhere that gets lost in translation. It’s a risk you take, because after a point, you also have to satisfy the masses, and that is not possible with niche projects. There’s a disadvantage too, in that when you’re working with someone who’s given many hits, getting your point across becomes difficult. So, even as you know the film is unraveling, you grin and bear it.”
That’s a situation caused by market forces. The minute a star gets on board, the budget shoots up, and ‘adjustments’ are made in the script to make it moneymaking enough to recover the costs. It works at times, and misfires at others.
Be that as it may, the man of the moment, Kamal Haasan, known for his stellar performances over the decades, continues to experiment with his directors. He worked with newcomer Rajesh Selvaa for Thoonganagaram, with fellow actor Ramesh Aravind for Uthama Villain, and with Chakri Toleti for Unnaipol Oruvan. Rajinikanth, too, has stepped out of his comfort zone for a couple of films with Pa Ranjith.
It’s high-time then that other stars take the plunge and move away from the commercial zone to try something a little different. Considering some of their last few films have left fans with a heavy sense of deja vu, it might do their careers a whole lot of good. And, in the process, help elevate the ability of fans to appreciate a well-made movie that not just entertains.