The Kolaveri Kid

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By Can Tamil movie star Dhanush capitalise on his music video and make it big in Bollywood? By Arundhati Basu
  • Published 29.04.12
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He must be about as unlikely a hero as they come. So, when he walks into a room, a dusky, bearded young man all of 5’6’’, skinny and shorn of stardust, he looks anything but a star.

But a few moments at his Poes Garden office in Chennai and it’s impossible to miss Dhanush’s remarkable calm air.

This is a man who’s a huge star in the Tamil film industry and who had his first hit when he was barely out of his teens. And, he’s also the man who became nationally famous overnight after his freak YouTube hit single Why This Kolaveri Di (read: Why This Murderous Rage, Girl?).

Yet, he’s utterly unassuming and puts you at ease immediately. “Kolaveri Di is one of the biggest things to happen to me,” he admits calmly. “But it’s just another song for people in this part of the world.”

The quirky single that released a few months ago from his wife Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush’s debut directorial film, 3, starring Dhanush and Shruti Hassan, has become a youth anthem of sorts. So far it has notched up a phenomenal 50 million views on YouTube. Soon after the video came out he was invited for music shows across the country. Incidentally, in the movie the Kolaveri scene is shot differently.

Life in the film industry is full of ups and downs. And after the roller-coaster high of Kolaveri, Dhanush has had a bit of a come down. His latest movie 3 has released to mixed and indeed, some bad, reviews. There have even been reports that Tamil film superstar Rajnikanth — Dhanush’s father-in-law — will compensate some distributors for losses.

But Dhanush seems unruffled by these early negative reports. His own performance has earned him accolades. And he denies that the movie is a flop. He says: “It’s my highest grossing film till now. In the first week of 3’s release, we have made back the money spent on it, and we’re looking at a May-end release in Hindi.”

Aishwarya, however, puts it differently. She reckons that 3 actually suffered because of Kolaveri’s popularity. “Kolaveri Di notched up expectations to a degree that we didn’t anticipate. It was slightly unfair because when 3 started out it was just a small film.” Nevertheless, Aishwarya admits that 3 is going for a big Hindi release to capitalise on Dhanush’s post-Kolaveri fame.

In other ways too, Dhanush is still on a roll this year. He has some three films in his kitty over the next few months. Next month he starts shooting for Mariyaan, a film from the stables of acclaimed Tamil director Bharatbala, of Vande Mataram fame. “It is a love story shot in Namibia,” says the actor, who doesn’t want to give away more details about the film which is still in its nascent stages. Its music is being scored by A.R. Rahman.

(From top) stills from Aadukalam and 3

Then, there’s Dhanush’s debut Hindi film Raanjhnaa, in which the actor will be making his way along the congested alleys of Varanasi shooting alongside Sonam Kapoor. “This film offer came even before Kolaveri Di. So, it was not a direct consequence of the song, but it did help to cement my case,” says Dhanush with a smile. He is currently in talks with National Award winning filmmaker Vetrimaran about a new project.

The year 2011 was a good one for Dhanush in other ways too. He won a National Award for his consummate performance as a rooster jockey in Tamil hit, Aadukalam, directed by Vetrimaran.

On the walls of Dhanush’s sparsely done up office there’s a sketch of him with a rooster tucked under his arm, presented by a fan when he won the National Award.

Aadukalam was a tough movie for the actor in more ways than one. For a start he needed a more muscular look for the movie so he had to exercise for it. Says Vetrimaran: “For years, the gossip columnists called Dhanush a ‘drumstick’ because of his slender frame. Before the shooting started, he was a mere 47kg. Post production, he weighed 67kg. It was a significant achievement within a span of 10 months for someone who is a hardcore vegetarian.” The actor, however, insists that he isn’t gunning for a beefed-up look.

The film also forced him to overcome a phobia of birds. Adds Vetrimaran: “As an actor you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Dhanush started by slowly hand-feeding the rooster. Thus the fowl and the man built up a relationship and after some time it would only respond to him.”

The actor (in black) won the National Award for his performance in Aadukalam last year

What is it about Dhanush that appeals to Tamil audiences? One theory is that it’s his unassuming boy-next-door looks. But is that an image that he has cultivated consciously? He insists that he steers clear of all kinds of type-casting. He doesn’t want to be seen as an angry young man, or a romantic figure or even a comic actor. He’d rather be your hero with many faces.

And there’s no arguing that he has taken up all kinds of roles. He played the role of a street-smart slum boy-turned-gangster kid in Pudhupettai (2006). Then, he pranced around in a lungi in his rooster jockey avatar in Aadukalam and played a fisherman’s son in Thulluvadho Ilamai (2002). And in 3 he plays a young lad who suffers from bipolar disorder.

Dhanush has also sung occasionally — his Kolaveri efforts were not his first. And a lot of fans love his brand of dancing and action. “But I have had no formal training in either,” he says.

During the course of his career, Dhanush has also had his share of problems that could happen only to a movie star. He’s very careful about doing stunts because he broke his arm a few years ago. “I wasn’t doing a stunt. I was just getting out off a car. But the people around got excited, hauled me on their shoulders, and I fell,” he says.

The 28-year-old movie star already has a formidable list of 23 films that he has appeared in during a 12-year career. He has a list of both critically acclaimed films like Kadhal Kondein, Pudhupettai and Mayakkam Enna (2011). Then, there are the commercial winners like Thiruda Thirudi (2003), Thiruvilayadal Arambam (2006), Polladhavan (2007), Yaaradi Nee Mohini (2008) and Padikathavan (2009).

The Kolaveri Di video has notched up a phenomenal 50 million views on YouTube

His reputation in the Tamil film industry is that he is a director’s actor. “I go in empty when I go for a shoot. An empty vessel is much better than a half-filled glass,” he says.

Vetrimaran insists that Dhanush is the one young Tamil actor who can get to the soul of a character. And the actor’s habit of doing extensive homework helps considerably.

As Aishwarya observes: “For 3, he spent time with psychiatrists since he plays a guy suffering from bipolar disorder. In Mayakkam Enna he plays a freelance photographer who aspires to become a wildlife photographer. So, he travelled with a photographer friend to pick up the nuances of the profession.”

Interestingly, Dhanush is just a stage name. The actor’s real name is more of a mouthful — Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja. His initiation into the world of cinema took place rather early at the age of 16. His father Kasthuri Raja, a famous director in the Tamil film industry, persuaded his son to make his debut in a movie, Thulluvadho Ilamai , which became a blockbuster.

“We were not in a good place financially and he needed it. But it was not something I wanted,” says Dhanush. His movie industry genes kicked in soon after however when he acted in his second film, which was directed by his brother Selvaraghavan. The film Kadhal Kondein also happened to be Selvaraghavan’s first directorial venture and it was about a mentally-disturbed youth played by Dhanush. It won both critical and commercial acclaim, pushing its lead actor into the top ranks of the Tamil film world.

The flip side of the early career start is that he flunked his XIIth standard board exams. And he never had the chance of formally training as an actor.

“But there’s no going back for me now. It is a question of survival,” says Dhanush with a wry smile. “The growth for me since I started has been in terms of choosing scripts. I do not take anyone’s inputs when it comes to choosing them.”

“I do only two to three films a year because there is time for no more. In 2010 I shot five films and it was so hectic that at one point I was shooting two films,” he adds.

When he does have time off, he likes to potter about in the kitchen where he cooks everything from Thai to Chinese cuisine. He innovates in the kitchen, inventing new dishes. Alternatively, you might find him holed up in his room with a book. Says Dhanush: “Even though I am busy, I read a lot. I have just finished The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffery Archer. My other favoured authors are Stephen King and Con Iggulden.”

The ultimate aspiration Dhanush nurses, however, is to go behind the camera. He says with a grin: “I want to be a Clint Eastwood.”

An unkind film critic once described Dhanush as a “pigeon-chested poor guy who looks like a paanwala on probation.” Dhanush himself points out that he didn’t get through his school exams and says he ‘had the makings of a nobody’. But destiny clearly deemed otherwise.