When I was watching Vivegam, my thoughts were moving in different directions, and I was thinking how the current movie reviewers would have reviewed a film like Aayirathil Oruvan or Ulagam Suttrum Valiban or a Moondru Mugam or Sagalakala Vallavan. On the other hand, I am quite confident that it’s futile to review big actor vehicles like Vivegam or Bairavaa because these movies are made for an ecosystem.
You can call it the “Superstar” Ecosystem (if you have a problem with me using that name, you can call it as “Big Star” Ecosystem). This Ecosystem consists of producers who are willing to spend the amount of money for a big star film. In Ajith’s ecosystem, it would be most probably a struggling producer. A director who can mashup a movie under budget and time. Theatre owners and distributors who are willing to pay the amount of money quoted by the producers so that they can charge high prices for the first four days. TV Channels and Audio companies who pay a hefty sum for rights and play the movie on every major festival days.
Online review sites, movie sites and social media trolls who scramble to get interviews, first-day reviews (this time there were half-time selfie reviews)and create memes to gather eyeballs. Above all, fans and fan associations who genuinely (or for financial reasons) want to see their favourite star on-screen. The fans of rival actors who watch the movies before others just to troll the other star and his fans. Hyperelitist reviewers like me who talk about how screenplay, cinematography and editing without knowing anything. Commentators on social media who post random posts to get likes and people who ignore these movies and avoiding an important part of pop-culture. And some social activists consider that every movie is a distraction from real issues.
These ecosystems are not built overnight, and not every actor can create one for them. Each of these ecosystems has different branding and various purposes to solve. This ecosystem started with Thiagaraja Bagavathar. MGR’s ecosystem was based on his off-screen image, and he carefully crafted it to enter politics. Sivaji’s ecosystem was based on his acting prowess. Rajini’s branding was similar to Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man, but he is finding it difficult to move the image into politics (in 1996 it would have worked). Kamal’s ecosystem moved from masala matinee lover boy to an actor who can act different roles in every movie. He was under pressure to deliver a ‘different’ movie every single time and even his comedy movies ought to be different. Vijayakanth moved from an anti-establishment hero to pro-establishment poster boy. The transformation happened in the early 90s, and his political entry was inevitable. Vijay is taking the same path, and his movies are made anticipating his political entry. Many heroes have tried to create this ecosystem but couldn’t create one like what Vijay and Ajith did. Ajith’s ecosystem is drastically different from any celebrity that we have seen in Indian or International Cinema.
I would call Ajith’s ecosystem is based on a phenomenon called “anti-celebrity”. He is a celebrity who has created an ecosystem around himself by not being a celebrity. He doesn’t promote his movies (even the reclusive Aamir Khan opens his doors for movie promotions), no audio release functions; no success meets, he doesn’t attend any award functions, no media interviews and even his one-off press meetings have dried up. His ecosystem starves for his presence, and the only way his fans can celebrate him is through his movies. On the other hand, every other hero has to do some or many of the above just to keep them afloat.
For instance, even a Rajini movie needs a grand Audio release celebration, livery on Air Asia and we will see marketing machinery over working for his 2.0. On the other hand, Vivegam had a list of common programs on TV Channels and interviews of supporting cast with major online channels. Inside a city like Chennai, the promotion was taken care by Ajith’s fans in several theatres and nothing else. The tickets were sold out for the weekend within few minutes of ticket booking window.
Actors have to feed their ecosystem at regular intervals. It could be through TV Shows or media interviews or even meeting their fans. Ajith doesn’t feed his ecosystem through any of these mediums. Media clamours for some news, and that’s why you get to see celebrity spotting pictures of Ajith more than any other actor. His PR is carefully maintained by a professional, and he makes sure the right dosage of news are released at regular intervals about the actor. This celebrity starving has created warp where any celebrity interview doesn’t end without questions about Ajith. Even if the person is remotely related to Ajith or acted in a small role, he is bound to give bytes on Ajith. It becomes the click bait title for all the online interviews. For instance, Sivabalan aka Appukutty’s interview on his photo shoot with Ajith has garnered 123,000 views on Indiglitz.
Why this ecosystem crap?
These ecosystems are the ones that drive the blockbusters in Tamil Cinema. The financial guarantee of a Rajini, Vijay or Ajith movie is because of this ecosystem. The problem here is that most reviewers and social media commentators are missing the ground reality concerning these films (until Vedhalam, Bairavaa and Vivegam, I also came under the same bracket). These movies are made for the fans, and these movies are financial blockbusters. Having said that, they have a low shelf-life and lacks art value. In simple words, there will be no discussion about these movies ten years later, but they are profitable than 99% of the movies in Tamil cinema. For instance, Vivegam has made pre-release business of more 120 crores. According the trade pundits, the first day collection (a working day as Vivegam released on Thursday due to Sai Baba sentiments of Ajith and Siva), was next only to Kabali and it beat the first day collection of Kabali in Chennai.
There were such movies during Kamal and Rajini era that were hits but never had any recall value except for the songs (for instance, Per Sollum Pillai, Thanga Magan). You get reminded of these because they are played on KTV and Raj TV. They will not even feature on the hit list of these actors, but they were financial hits of those times.
The reason why other players in the ecosystem comment, troll and review these movies is that they want eyeballs and nothing else. For instance, there were half-time reviews for Vivegam, and every online outlet scrambled to release the review before others. The financial implications, the trending video craze and eyeballs are far more important than improving the Tamil cinema. The Blue Sattai review of Vivegam is past 1 million views, and he would have made enough money out of Google Ads by trolling a movie for 4 minutes. Compare it with his review for Taramani, and it didn’t even cross 250,000 views (Bhairava had more 730,000 views). The ecosystem feeds everyone from the producer to the average guy who makes comments on social media. These movies will be watched once — either in the theatres or TV (Tamil Rockers — yes, but they still would want to look at the hero on a good screen).
There will be more ecosystems created in the future when current ecosystems dwindle, but they are essential for Tamil cinema to flourish. The food chain has to be fed so that they can make and release smaller movies. The central element of these ecosystems are fans, and these fans ensure that the ecosystem doesn’t fail. In fact, they are protective of the stars and the rival stars. It was evident when Kamaal R Khan tried to troll Ajith, and the first refute came from Vijay fans. They troll each other, but they wouldn’t allow another to troll either of the stars.
Although Ajith has disowned his fan clubs and social media trolls, it’s consistent with his ‘anti-celebrity’ brand identity. The same brand identity is the reason why he gains more fans every year. The discussions about Ajith’s and Vijay’s movies fuel these ecosystems and without these deliberations, trolls and social media comments, the ecosystems will fall.
What’s the bottom line?
1. These movies can’t be stopped. Ajith and Vijay will make more such movies to feed their ecosystem as it’s important for them to feed the food chain. They might experiment in-between but if those movies are not feeding the ecosystem as expected (Yennai Arindhaal for instance), they will stop experimenting.
2. There is no point in reviewing the finer details of these movies because it doesn’t matter to the stakeholders. It does matter to the ecosystem as it feeds on bad reviews, more eyeballs and large sums of money. The reviewers are publicising the movie, and the returns are mutual.
3. If you are commenting on these movies on social media, you are part of the ecosystem and playing the game in the way they want you to play. You do get eyeballs for your posts and make elitist statements to show that you are not part of the ecosystem. But the harsh truth is, you are.
4. Step down from your pedestal and see the reality. Given a chance, you would have commented about many movies of the 1980s and 90s the same way like you are commenting for Vivegam and Bairavaa. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.
I wrote the post because I can get more views on my blog. I am nothing but another blip in this ecosystem vying for more eyeballs.