Never mind Fahadh Faasil and the giant Malayalam wave that has lately become the talk of the town. The actor we should be talking about – or at least be equally excited by – is Dhanush. Apart from being the face of the so-called Malayalam and Tamil new wave that’s transcending their home states to nearly pan-India acceptability thanks to streaming’s power reach, Fahadh Faasil and Dhanush have a few things in common. Both hail from film families, made their debut in the same year and their very first films were home productions. Not to forget, both dream big. Opting for badass roles that few actors would risk, they have revealed a hunger for screen adventures and have found themselves being blessed with audience love as well as critical hosannas. Also, they are 1983 born. So, not just worthy contemporaries but age-mates too. And today is Dhanush’s birthday. He turns 38 – close to half of that life spent in the service of pushing boundaries as one of Kollywood’s most unlikely heroes.
To watch the Chennai-born son of Kasthuri Raja in recent hits like Asuran, Pattas, Vada Chennai and most of all, Karnan is to recognise how an actor can be so indefatigable in his commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless, regardless of moral ramifications. Dhanush’s real-life personality is that of Mr Nice Guy. Seen as self-effacing and down-to-earth, he is always on a charm offensive with that winning smile, a penchant for self-doubt, wearing his success lightly and the habit of calling everyone ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, even if they are younger to him and junior in status. But turn the camera on and he shape-shifts into a superforce. This “innocent and sweet” fellow – to borrow a description from his Raanjhanaa co-star Sonam Kapoor – is perhaps the angriest young man in Indian cinema right now. Back in the 1970s, Amitabh Bachchan was Bollywood’s angry young man who famously raged against the system. In Mari Selvaraj’s latest Karnan, the screenplay is so anarchic that it pushes Dhanush to tear apart the system. Action, they say, speaks louder than words.
Based on a real-life incident of Dalit violence, Karnan is laden with rich and complex symbolisms. Dhanush plays the titular Karnan, a lower-caste villager who has an opportunity ahead of him to join the army and change his fortunes. But he chooses another fight – to win back the rights and dignity for his suppressed people and a bus stop that stands as a metaphor for progress and emancipation, to begin with. In one of the film’s most subversive scenes, Karnan, with thousands of watts of anger coursing through his veins, charges into the local police station and lays a siege there until the detained village elders are safely carried back home on tractors. Police brutality is just one aspect of why this scene works.
Based on a real-life incident of Dalit violence, Karnan is laden with rich and complex symbolisms. Dhanush plays the titular Karnan, a lower-caste villager who has an opportunity ahead of him to join the army and change his fortunes
To consider how Hollywood is bringing in such sly social commentary, see Jordan Peele’s Us where one battered character tells an Alexa-like voice assistant to call the police. Instead, the device auto-corrects it to N.W.A’s ‘F*ck tha Police.’ The protest anthem is played for laughs here. But Karnan has no time for such levity. Its rage is real. Just two films old, Selvaraj uses animals to underscore the philosophy that suffering and injustice is universal. After the totemic blue dog in Pariyerum Perumal, he brings to the table a fish, elephant and horse in Karnan. Something of a Trojan horse, Dhanush’s Karnan arrives on the battlefield riding a steed in the film’s thrilling finale. But the most powerful of these symbols is the doddering donkey with his legs tied, who recurs throughout Karnan. And sure enough, the day arrives when Dhanush frees him. It’s Tamil cinema’s very own Balthazar moment. After all the bloodshed and mayhem, justice prevails. Karnan’s reformist ending holds out hope, as the children of lesser Gods are ultimately on their way to mainstream.
Vetrimaaran’s Asuran makes it a double whammy for the Rowdy Baby star. It is similarly loaded with fiery ideas of social justice and how the rich and powerful continue to subjugate the marginalised with the help of a corrupt system that favours them for various reasons. On the face of it, the film is a classic revenge saga that makes you root for the hero as his family is persecuted and murdered on their own fields. Sivasaami is a farmer, with a past – once a tough guy, he is now content tending to his fields and looking after his family, which includes wife Pachaiyamal and three children. After his elder son is brutally killed by his neighbour, the upper-caste strongman Vaddakuran, he is forced to channelise his former self in order to protect his family, especially his mercurial younger one. Asuran’s climax is bleaker than Karnan’s. The rich landlord is spared while Sivasaami is sent to jail. Sivasaami willingly accepts his fate, but before leaving, the father gives his son some pep talk. Education, he tells him, is the only way out. This is Dhanush, the pacifist, as opposed to Dhanush, the revolutionary in Karnan. Age, it seems, has mellowed him and Dhanush, as the world-weary Sivasaami who has understood the futility of violence, is a revelation here.
The Vetrimaaran-Dhanush collaboration has been one of the most interesting director-actor pairings in Tamil cinema, alongside Mari Selvaraj, R Velraj and Selvaraghavan who happens to be Dhanush’s brother. The unbeatable Vetrimaaran-Dhanush combo has given us such hits as Vada Chennai, Kodi, Aadukalam and Polladhavan. Vada Chennai sees Dhanush play a promising carrom player who gets mixed up in the crosshairs of a gang war while in Aadukalam he’s a rooster fighter. Talk about fighting and how could one not include Pattas? It’s another Dhanush showpiece which blends entertainment with a social message about the need to save the fast-dying ancient form of martial arts called Adimurai. Maari 1 and 2 and Pudhupettai have further cemented Dhanush’s reputation as a Tamil screen gangster with a swag, straight out of his father-in-law Rajinikanth’s playbook.
Dhanush, who’s always attracted the roles of college students, juveniles and lads due to his physical attributes has finally appeared to have evolved into a man in the last decade. If you look at his career it’s exceptional because his cinema and his protagonists have sided with the poor and the subaltern. Even his Hollywood debut, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, features him as a slumdog magician of sorts. You could say that the mass touch has helped Dhanush become a star. But when it comes to celebrating the outcast he’s a bit like his mythical father-in-law. Like Rajinikanth, his work has been largely defined by the more adventurous charms of the underdog. In his films, Dhanush is never a Goliath. He’s David. Always the outsider, outlier, lowlife, loner, jobless, poor, orphan, rebel, misfit, college dropout and the ne’er-do-well.
Even when he’s shown as being born into a well-to-do family he faces some kind of discrimination. For example, in Velaiilla Pattadhari, one of his most popular hits, he’s not only unemployed but also the black sheep of the family until he finds a dream job of an engineer and then the film turns into a rant against corruption in government housing programmes. His films – especially those overtly sociopolitical – valiantly address issues such as land, prestige, caste politics, Tamil values, ethnic identity, community, progress, education, exploitation, inequality, social divide, police violence, injustice and basic human dignity. Offered such weighty material, he lights up the screen with his seething, smouldering presence. How can he stand and watch mutely when high-caste men force a lower-caste woman to shamefully parade down the village with slippers on her head? Even Karan Johar, whose ‘designer films’ are in vocal opposition to Dhanush’s whizbang intensity, was moved by Asuran and tweeted laurels on it.
In Kollywood, Dhanush’s most vital strengths are his raw appeal, relatability and his ability to seek new territory each time. In the Tamil culture of fanatical fandom, he has his share of admirers. But outside his native turf, Dhanush is still known as “that guy who sang Kolaveri Di.” In 2013, Bollywood came calling with Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa which tried to capitalize on his Kollywood-style street smarts. “If self-defence comes across as rowdyism then let’s engage in it,” he says in Vada Chennai. And he has engaged in it often.
South Indian heroes have been a part of the Bollywood experiment before – Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Arvind Swamy, you name it. But their Hindi career has never managed to catch fire, in the same way that it did for the heroines. Unlike the men, actresses like Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala, Rekha, Jaya Prada, Sridevi and Hema Malini found enormous success in Bollywood. Raanjhanaa was followed by Shamitabh. Come August and he will return to Hindi screens with Atrangi Re co-starring Akshay Kumar and Sara Ali Khan. Tamil stars are often burdened by messianic expectations. Bollywood, in that sense, has been less demanding of Dhanush. And the fact that he isn’t taking either Bollywood or Hollywood seriously makes the job more fun for him than a beast of burden. As for Dhanush’s most unflinching and sharply observed performances, it is safe to say that it still lies in Kollywood where, in a little less than two decades, he has notched up a dynamic body of work that should rightly be the envy of the most esteemed of actors anywhere in India today – including the man of the hour, a certain Fahadh Faasil.