What the success of Kavalan really means for media, fans, Vijay, politics and future of Tamil film industry.
All Vijay fans and even non-Vijay fans with a sense of fair play must be relishing Vijay’s stupendous success at the box office recently with Kavalan. Despite what all the media – print, electronic or net -- might say, the real big winner at the box office during this Pongal is undoubtedly Kavalan. The movie is a welcome respite for Vijay after a series of very disappointing outings that started with the release of Azhagiya Tamil Magan in 2007 to Sura in 2010. By the time Sura was released, Vijay was being written off and there was a series of Vijay bashing articles in the media. The only ones who kept faith with Vijay were his die-hard fans who wrote in to express their support to sites like Behindwoods. Their faith in their Ilaya Thalapathi has paid off with the success of Kavalan.
As an arm chair observer from Malaysia, I would like to point out what the success of Kavalan means for the Tamil film industry and for Vijay in particular. First of all, I wonder if anyone has realized that what happened to Vijay – the subtle and not so subtle anti-Vijay campaign against him in the media, the problems he had with releasing Kavalan (it was first supposed to be released in December, coming up against Manmadhan Ambu [which was produced by the CM’s grandson] when that plan was scuttled) and the limited release the film had in Tamil Nadu – 300 theatres and that too not in the best theaters in Tamil Nadu. And no simultaneous release in Malaysia or Singapore, very important markets for Tamil films and where Vijay is the next biggest box office draw after Rajini – all this was something unprecedented in Tamil film history.
The nearest incident similar to what happened to Vijay that I can think of happened in the early 1970s to the legendary MGR when obstacles were thrown in his path prior to the release of his box office record breaking Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban (USV) in 1974. Ironically, the CM of TN then too was Karunanidhi. MGR had run afoul of the ruling party when he broke away and started showing political inclinations of his own. It was rumored that the ruling party tried many tricks to delay the release of the film. Of course the media scene then was not as sophisticated as it is now and could only do limited damage against MGR. Furthermore MGR was already a legend and a box office icon. Whatever opposition that the concerned parties threw against MGR was akin to swimming in a tsunami (to borrow a phrase from Aadukalam). It was a lost cause for the swimmers. And since MGR’s fanatical fan base was the largest and the most well organized in TN, there might have been riots if the release of the movie was stopped. Wisely, cooler heads prevailed and the movie was eventually released. It went on to become a mega blockbuster whose BO record would only be broken by Sivaji The Boss (factoring in the inflation rate) more than 30 years later.
Fast forward to 2011 and the trials and tribulations faced by Vijay and his subsequent triumph at the BO eerily remind one of the drama that preceded the release of MGR’s USV. That a star of the stature and following of Vijay should face such problems releasing his movie due to the supposedly lack of theaters is unbelievable, especially so when Ilaignan, a movie scripted by Kalaigner and starring lyrist turned actor Pa Vijay whose box office ranking must be lower than Karan, was able to command better theatres than Vijay!
Then there were the theatre owners who were demanding that Vijay compensate them for the losses they suffered from releasing his previous movies which were flops. Movies like any other businesses involve risks. Sometimes you have profits; sometimes you face losses. Except it seems in Tamil Nadu where theatre owners expect to be compensated when a movie of a huge star flops. One wonders if the same theatre owners also share the profits with these stars and the producers when the movie becomes a super hit.
Coming back to Kavalan, here is how I see how Kavalan has reset the rules of the release of a Tamil movie in TN with regards to:
The media especially TV channels (two channels in particular) have learnt that you cannot keep a good man down especially if it is someone like Vijay who is the most recognizable face in Tamil Nadu (after Rajini) and has the largest fan base among the youths (not counting Rajini). These facts are according to the polls taken by independent groups in TN. Here in Malaysia we noticed that Sun Music had started reducing or completely stopped showing Vijay songs during some of its programmes like the prime time Hello Hello beginning from December 2010. Plus there were no promos of Vijay’s movie on Sun TV. I am sure it’s not because the producers of the movie did not want to pay for the promo spots.
As powerful as the internet is, in places like Tamil Nadu, the TV has a much larger reach. And Sun TV has the largest reach of them all. So when something is not promoted on that TV channel, it is akin to not reaching the largest segment of the public. Yet with this huge disadvantage set against the movie, Kavalan did open at number 3 at the box office despite being released a day after Pongal.
This success shows that Vijay’s popularity is bigger than whatever influence the media might have on the people’s perception of the movie. Vijay’s cause was helped further by the fact that the Kavalan is an enjoyable movie and that there were other channels out there willing to help him promote the movie.
There was a you tube video that showed angry fans of Vijay tearing down a movie poster in a theatre and shouting slogans against a TV channel and its owner. The movie in question was produced by that TV channel. Scenes like this in other smaller towns must have made the TV station realize that it would do no good for its image or its business if it attempted to boycott Vijay’s songs on its music channel. Now Vijay is back with a vengeance in both its music and main channel.
Lesson for media: Play fair! It does no good for its reputation if it purposely side lines someone just because he or she has a different political view or is not a flavor of the month. And if the actor in question is tremendously popular and has a huge following among the masses, thread with caution. That does not mean an iconic figure cannot be criticized; be fair in your criticism and allow that person a chance to air his view. And do not indulge in shenanigans to prevent the star’s movie from being released because you want your movie to succeed. The audience will decide. A bad movie, no matter if it is being headlined by a superstar, will fail. Give the TN movie audience that much credit.
The heroes behind the success of Kavalan (besides Vijay, the director etc) are the fans of Vijay. They vociferously cheered their thalaiva on and campaigned for the movie’s wider release. They queued up to watch the movie, started spreading the merit of the movie via word-of-mouth, via internet and anyway they could think of, persuaded or dragged friends to come and watch it. Most of all by their sheer presence and actions, they showed to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. No wonder after the release of the movie, Vijay released an emotional message to his fans thanking them for their support and believe in him (and thanks to the movie websites for carrying this video on their site). Apparently lots of Thala Ajith’s fans also came out to show their solidarity to Vijay by supporting the movie. The pictures of Ajith and Vijay together which were widely released a few weeks before the release of Kavalan must have influenced them to come out and support Thala’s friend. And I am sure Vijay fans will reciprocate when the next Ajith’s movie is released.
Lessons to be learnt from the fans: There are no fans more loyal and fanatical than Tamil movie fans. But that does not mean they are blind. If a movie is bad they will acknowledge it to be so and will not enthusiastically support it. Of course, a movie cannot be a hit if it only appeals to fans, it has to appeal to a broad section of the audience, which thankfully Kavalan did. Kavalan has proved that fans of a mass hero like Vijay’s can mobilize and make things happen. And this is just for a movie. Imagine what else can be down with this huge network of fans.
Kavalan is a turning point in Vijay’s career because it shows that people can still accept the romantic Vijay who was quite prevalent on screen before Thirumalai and Ghilli changed the course of his career. Perhaps Vijay will be more adventurous in choosing scripts and will learn to balance a pukka masala movie filled with punch dialogues with movies that allow him to explore other facets of his talents like romantic comedies for instance. Hopefully the next time a director like Gautham Vasudev Menon comes to him with a story, Vijay will not send him back with suggestions of adding a kuthu song here, some punch dialogues there etc.
Lessons for Vijay: The days when fans used to support a star’s movie no matter how bad it was are long gone as the extinct dodo bird! Pay more attention in choosing scripts and try different roles or genre. Get out of the image trap. If the movie is good, your fans and other movie goers will support you.
Vijay and his fans have turned out winners in this round. The huge popular support and good will towards Vijay for Kavalan is a good indication of the popularity of this man with the masses. Can this be turned into political mileage? Certain parties certainly think so and that’s why they threw in obstacles along his path. The announcement that Vijay would only enter politics when he is 40 must be a relief to them since that means for this election at least they will not have to face the possibility of Vijay contesting the election.
Lessons for other actors
The fact that a mega star like Vijay was faced with problem releasing his film should ring alarm bells across the movie industry. If it could happen to him, it could happen to other stars. What would be their fate especially if they had not reached the mega star status of Vijay? Where can they go to address their problem? Monopoly in any industry is bad. Right now in Tamil film industry it seems as though the television, movie production and distribution is slowly controlled by one powerful family. What happens when a star runs afoul of them by not supporting them politically or just by speaking out his or her mind on certain issues that goes against them?
Will they be boycotted by TV stations and other media loyal to that family? Where will these stars go for help? Will Nadigar Sangam be willing to stand by them and offer support or turn the other way? These are questions that need to be given deep thought not only for the star’s future but the future of Tamil film industry.