Political ambitions aside, the actor does not seem to have convinced many about his social message of women empowerment
A few years ago, actor Vijay told me (ahead of his film Kaththi's release) candidly that he was confident of attaining a certain spot in politics in time, the same ‘time’ that had catapulted him to the dizzying heights in cinema.
“I am interested. But this not a game. One has to strengthen the base and I am already on that path.” How far has his recent film Bigil strengthened the foundation is a question that has risen, given that the movie is, as the end credit claims, all about ‘women’s empowerment?’ Is the actor’s ‘social message’ in the movie strong enough to further his political building block?
Why would cinema strengthen an aspiring politician, one might ask. It is common knowledge that cinema has played a major role in shaping or strengthening many politicians in Tamil Nadu.
A template perfected by MG Ramachandran (MGR), who walked out of the DMK and floated the then ADMK (Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), now AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), purely relying on the strength of his fan base, which he had carefully nurtured over years.
The same care went into selecting his roles, his dialogues, while the lyrics were penned in a manner reflecting his commitment to the poor and the downtrodden. Many other actors have tried to replicate that template, with little success.
Most cinema observers would agree that Vijay enjoys a spot just below Superstar Rajinikanth and Ulaganayagan (Global Artiste) Kamal Haasan. While the latter has forayed into politics and established his party Makkal Needhi Maiam quickly, Rajini, who announced that he would be entering politics on 31 December, 2017, is yet to name his party.
Vijay’s plans for a post-film career in politics has just become that much harder, since he will be measured by the success of these two stalwarts, not only by way of punch dialogues or heroism/ socialism on celluloid, but also their headway in the political arena.
Vijay is quick to capitalise on film events to shoot off snide remarks on political parties or governments (state/centre), which is one way of making sure people remember that he will throw his political hat to the ring, but political observers say such comments are often merely a flavour of the season.
“He has done nothing nor said anything substantial (as (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam leader and actor) Vijaykanth did ahead of entering politics) to take him seriously yet,” says a senior political commentator. “MGR’s films reflected his firm belief in social justice—that is how convincing he was,” he adds.
Looking at Bigil itself, which has reportedly collected crores, has Vijay done enough? The film showcases Vijay in three avatars, as the doyen Rayappan, always clad in a brown veshti evocative of Sabarimala devotees, son Michael as the cutesy ‘hero’ we can expect of a Vijay film and Bigil the football coach.
There is an attempt in the first half to convey his solidarity with the urban poor – and this comes full circle in the end when the villain brings his son to Vijay, asking him to coach the boy in football. There is a constant refrain that the urban poor need to be uplifted through sport.
The second half, which deals with the women football players, is all about empowering them to overcome personal and professional hurdles. Professionally, they lack a good coach to train them and lack the killer instinct so necessary to come out on top in a match.
“Everything that is shown of the struggle of the women players is very true, I can relate to that,” says Bhuvana, a fitness trainer who has played kabaddi for the state. When asked about the scene where Bigil fat-shames a player, Bhuvana says that coaches typically behave like that in order to motivate the players.
“My coach fat-shamed before a tournament and it only spurred me to perform well,” she recalls. “Our coach even used to tell us that instead of coaching us he would do well to commit suicide, but all that is part of the bonding process. Coaches in Tamil Nadu are often rude, appear like bullies, but you should hear from the north-eastern girls. Many say their coaches used to physically hit them,” she adds.
A cricketer says the angry scene where Bigil throws a table laden with water and snacks for the team, after their poor performance, is inspirational. “There is a story of how West Indies captain Viv Richards tossed the table in the dressing room after the team’s dismal performance. It was a powerful meltdown. Post the break, the Windies sent the opposition team packing,” he says, recounting locker room tales.
Does Bigil strengthen Vijay’s base that he is consciously working upon? “Vijay has not left anyone in doubt about his political ambitions,” says D Suresh Kumar, a senior editor with a leading newspaper. “For over a decade his father SA Chandrasekhar has been grooming him for a political role. However, Vijay, like Rajinikanth, appears indecisive on taking the plunge early on, at the cost of his film career. He also appears confused on which side of the political ideology he is in.
He has, at different points of time, identified himself with parties across the political spectrum - DMK, Congress, AIADMK and the BJP, besides popular but mass movement such as India Against Corruption and Jallikattu protests,” he points out.
Is Bigil a statement on empowerment? “As for Bigil, I see it as a run of the mill masala movie, made for his fans, who just want ‘mass’ over ‘class’. Many of his fans active on social media have hurled cheap abuses at women, including journalists, who expressed critical/personal views on his films,” he says.
Elaborating further, Suresh Kumar says, “There is no target audience here for Vijay to send across any effective social messages. Delivering punch dialogues would only invite whistles and claps from adulating fans, not make them socially responsible.”
According to him, sports with women as protagonists is just a theme for the movie, drawn heavily from the Bollywood hit Chak De India, to portray Vijay as the hero. Disagreeing strongly with the premise that body-shaming a player is an attempt to inspire her, he feels it is not acceptable, under any circumstance.
“You need to have the patience and time to sit through the first half to watch this message of women’s empowerment,” feels Suresh Kumar. Pointing out that in his films MGR not only promoted himself but also the DMK, a cadre based party that he was with, Suresh Kumar says MGR highlighted Annadurai, the DMK’s ideology and the party symbol Rising Sun, till he left the DMK to start his own party. “Vijay’s movies promote only Vijay and him alone as a mass hero,” he feels.
Bhuvana too feels there is a long road ahead for the actor. “If you ask me will people vote for Vijay believing his message of social empowerment, I have to honestly say there are other people ahead of him who have been in politics for a long time. But thanks to him for showing a slice of life in women’s sports,” she says with a smile.