Is Tamil cinema’s idea of ​​a quintessential hero evolving with time?

Casting directors in the Tamil film industry tell TNM how actors have broken the ‘ideal hero’ bubble over the years, if up-and-coming actors deal with the same level of scrutiny with regard to their looks, and more.

Popular Kollywood actor Ajith’s long-awaited actioner Valimai, which hit the big screens earlier this year, had opened to mixed responses from audiences and critics alike. Surprisingly, however, what seemed to trigger a bigger discussion surrounding the film was a review by a popular YouTuber, who had resorted to body shaming Ajith for his look in the movie. While the actor’s dedicated fanbase steadfastly condemned the tone and language used by the critic in question, the incident also caused movie buffs and fitness enthusiasts to turn to social media to ponder – what can we expect from a ‘quintessential hero’? Is it not important for heroes to try and alter their body image to get into the skin of the character? Is it not fair for audiences to expect heroes to look fit if they are playing the role of a police officer or a physically trained professional?

On the other end of the spectrum were fans who pointed out how these expectations were unrealistic. Are heroes required to look fit to fall in line with the stereotypical portrayal of larger-than-life characters on the big screen? Is it not time to embrace heroes who look similar to real people from daily life? In fact, revisiting how heroes have been portrayed in the past can show us how actors like Dhanush, Vikram (Deivathirumagal (2011), Pithamagan (2003)), and Kamal Haasan (Dasavatharam (2008), Vishwaroopam (2013)) have not strictly adhered to the norms surrounding body image, instead looking remarkably close to how the characters they play might have looked in real life. Parallelly, several mainstream actors continue to flaunt their toned abs in expertly choreographed dance and stunt sequences, even for commercial entertainers in which the characters don’t necessarily require actors to undergo physical training. A look at these trends begs the question – what is expected of today’s heroes?

Aravind, who has worked as a casting director along with his twin brother Arun for several Tamil movies, believes that heroes of the current lot are not thrust with the same kind of unrealistic expectations that those in the past were subjected to. “Tamil heroes are not always expected to have toned abs or fair skin, as is the case with some of the other film industries in the country,” says Aravind, who has worked in movies such as Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016), Dora (2017) and 96 (2018) among others. “The portfolios of many upcoming north Indian actors, however, fit this description,” he points out, further adding that the success of Tamil films like Mudhal Nee Mudivum Nee (2022) illustrates how the industry no longer runs on heroes following a set list of physical requirements to achieve success.

READ: ‘Mudhal Nee Mudivum Nee was a risky film in some ways’: Intv with director Darbuka Siva

Casting director Sharanya Subramaniam, who has been a part of films such as Dharala Prabhu (2020), Maara (2021) and the ‘Payasam’ segment in navarasa (2021), tells TNM that upcoming actors are now presented with the option to choose the path they want to carve for themselves. They can either choose to do content-driven films or commercial films, says Sharanya. “We cannot quickly dismiss commercial entertainers for portraying macho heroes. These films cater to a huge section of the audience. Nonetheless, we can certainly push for more diversity in content-driven films,” she says.

“While I am on the lookout for heroes, I don’t expect them to look a certain way. But I believe actors should be versatile and have all sorts of skill sets, so they can undergo training to look the part they are playing. Being able to learn different skills will also help them in the longer run,” adds the casting director.


‘Heroes’ vs ‘heroines’

Tamil cinema has often been praised for normalizing dark-skinned heroes. In fact, in the years following superstar Rajinikanth’s debut, filmmakers have even incorporated into their films songs dedicated to highlighting the hero’s skin tone as desirable. The same privilege, however, has not been extended to women in Tamil cinema. The number of Tamil women playing the role of lead Tamil characters on screen has been minimal. From Jyotika and Tamannaah to Nayanthara, it is often women from north India or neighboring Kerala who have been tasked with the responsibility of learning Tamil and playing a Tamil woman on screen.

If cinema is synonymous with talent and fandom for male stars, the medium is inextricably linked with fashion and couture for women. The paparazzi culture, film promotions, and entertainment journalism – which entails gossip columns and extensive fashion reviews of their ‘looks’ from the airport to the gym – is reflective of the extent of pressure faced by female stars. Last year, actor Mandira Bedi was ridiculed by trolls for wearing a simple pair of jeans and t-shirt to her husband Raj Kaushal’s funeral. Actors like Parineethi Chopra and Taapsee Pannu among others have even spoken out against the paparazzi culture, which violates their privacy and forces them to look picture-perfect at all times. However, it is surprising that male stars, with huge fan associations backing them, are seldom under the scanner for the same reasons.

Actors like Khusbhoo Sundar, Meena and Ramya Krishnan, who have starred opposite stars such as Rajinikanth multiple times in the past, do not find lead roles written for them anymore. Meanwhile, the 71-year-old superstar continues to play the larger-than-life hero. Female actors not being able to share the same level of box office success as their male counterparts has for long been cited as the reason behind them not being able to find such roles. More often than not, however, filmmakers fail to dedicate resources towards researching and writing better characters for women on the big screen, which eventually results in the male stars enjoying more stardom and liberties. This hero-centric culture has also led to a lack of gender representation behind the scenes, which in turn forces women actors to undergo even more scrutiny with regard to their looks. Problematic standards of female desirability, thanks to the male gaze which remains the norm, has also widened the disparity.

“Female actors with great potential are unable to find good scripts if they don’t fit into the archetype of the ‘ideal heroine’. This is something that upsets us as well. There is always demand for new female actors, but unfortunately we rarely see them get better roles on screen. The trend is certainly changing. But sadly, it is taking longer to do away with the standards set for ‘heroines’,” says Aravind.

READ: How Tamil cinema shames women for their choice of clothes

ALSO READ: Why’s nobody writing roles for us?: Older women actors speak on industry’s ageism

Both Aravind and Sharanya point out that the casting directors are also ultimately expected to bring the filmmakers’ vision to life. “There is only so much a casting director can do. We go to the directors with all kinds of options, but in the end it boils down to the choices they make. However, there have been times when I have pushed creators to cast actors who don’t necessarily fall into the ‘conventional’ bubble,” Sharanya shares.

By providing a space for movies that focus on distinctive storytelling, new age platforms have helped several actors break this mould. This is not to say that all over-the-top (OTT) releases have thought-provoking roles for women stars. Women-centric films releasing on OTT platforms are still few and far between. But there is now hope that more directors would steer clear of misogynistic and stereotypical scripts in the future.

READ: The Great Indian Kitchen to Sherni: Indian OTT has led to more women-centric film

ALSO READ: OTT platforms need to understand India’s diversity, go beyond Hindi focus


A new wave in Tamil cinema

Among popular Bollywood actors who have shed the quintessential ‘hero’ image are Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, and the late Irrfan Khan. These actors have gained a foothold in mainstream cinema by choosing unconventional and content-driven scripts. Would Tamil cinema witness a similar wave of new age actors?

Aravind observes that Yogi Babu in Karnan (2021), Aishwarya Rajesh in Kaaka Muttai (2014), and Vijay Sethupathi’s entire filmography serve as examples for this ‘new age’ of Tamil cinema. “The change is obvious. Even stars have changed the way they approach films. Superstar Rajinikanth’s role in Kaala (2018), or Vijay’s work with directors from the younger lot such as Nelson Dilipkumar, Lokesh Kanagaraj, and Atlee, indicates how even headliners have woken up to the realization that no matter how big or star-studded a film is, it will not work unless the story is engaging,” says Aravind. He further adds, “We are also seeing actors like Vimal, who first made his mark with commercial flicks, now venturing into the OTT space.”

Despite content taking precedence, producers continue to prioritize commercial elements that have historically ensured success at the box office. “There is a certain amount of novelty that a casting director can bring to the table. But since it is a new department, producers may find hiring casting directors as an additional expense rather than looking at the value they add, since the management team has been handling casting for years,” she says.

Director Pa Ranjith, for instance, had told the media during the release of his 2014 film Madras that he was interested in casting a dark-skinned girl for the role, but decided to compromise after the producer insisted otherwise. Speaking to TNM in 2017 about casting fair-skinned heroines in his films, director Ranjith said, “This is among the compromises I’ve had to make because it’s a business. My wish is to cast dark-skinned people and make films. In Madras I couldn’t avoid it because of pressure from the producer. I wish to speak about certain issues through cinema as a tool and to achieve that, I make some compromises – whether that’s fair skin, heroism or unrealistic sequences. The situation is such that I can only make a film if I make these compromised.”

“Even in such cases, directors would still have other options such as making changes to the rest of the cast and the world the film is set in, so that the portrayal still looks authentic,” Sharanya explains. She opines that filmmakers would have more freedom to be experimental with their decisions once they have proven their ability to make profitable films. This way, they can assure the producers that their vision can be executed well, she says.

Male stars might not face the same level of scrutiny even if they don’t look the part, since fans have a hard time accepting criticism about their favorite stars. Nevertheless, Aravind notes that most actors, even if they are at varying levels of success, are beginning to understand that they can no longer rely on ‘formula films’ alone to emerge victorious at the box office. The focus needs to shift to writing better scripts, he says.

READ: Why casting matters in cinema

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