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Titles bestow special status on Tamil film actors. Having a title is a sign that the star has arrived: Makkal Thilagam MGR, Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan, Super Star Rajinikanth, Ulaga Nayagan Kamal Haasan.

In 2001, when he was 30 years old, Ultimate Star Ajith Kumar became Thala when his movie Dheena was released. The character he portrayed in the film was called Thala by his fans and the title stuck so much so that Thala became another name for Ajith. Fans started calling him just Thala. In Ajith’s case the title became his name, just like Amma for Jayalalithaa and Kalaignar for Karunanidhi.

Ajith fans took delight in using Thala. It was the street pronunciation of the word, Thalai meaning head or boss. Although Ajith didn’t have the persona of a bossy person, he was given the onerous task of being the boss by his fans. It was a role that Ajith has never seemed comfortable with.

Thala also became the name used in the fauve social media conflict between Ajith and actor Vijay. It was Thala vs Thalapathy there.

On December 1, when Ajith asked that he be no more referred or called as Thala, his fans were surprised and saddened. He asked that he be called Ajith, Ajith Kumar or AK, in short.

But, Ajith has always baulked at playing the star. He has made family life and his privacy a priority. Cool and level-headed, he seems to not take stardom as real. He doesn’t appear in other media, keeps away from public functions, and asks his fans to meet him only in theatres.

Ajith has always baulked at playing the star. He has made family life and his privacy a priority

In one of his rare appearances on a public platform, which was with then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, he complained that actors were being forced to appear in public events, implying he had been pressured. This set off a big controversy but given Ajith’s standing there was no blowback to what appeared as an intemperate outburst to many.

Speaking his mind

Ajith has spoken his mind unafraid of consequences. When he has done that, it has been to tamp down hype and build-up.

When he turned 40, Ajith dissolved his fans associations. That year Mangatha was released, marking an evolution in the characters he played. He had apparently been miffed by the misuse of his name by some associated with his fans association.

At that time, many felt it was not a wise move since fans associations were considered important to keep alive the saleability of a star. But Ajith was proved right. Dissolving fans associations did not dent his popularity, only served to boost his image in a state where fans associations have become springboards for political careers for movie stars.

Ajith even developed a fond friendship with AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa. It was said that he would jump into politics and lead the AIADMK after her death. But Ajith didn’t move at all in that direction. He instead took up his earlier passion for car and bike racing in more earnest. It seemed Ajith wanted to stick to his moorings and develop the non-filmy side to his personality. Success in films did not satiate him, apparently.

Ajith’s career path has been unusual, atypical even. He doesn’t come from a film family so had no connections that could give a leg up to an aspirant. He didn’t do well in studies and was a drop-out. He worked as a mechanic for some time and dabbled in textile business before he entered through modeling. He was practically anonymous in his first forays. For Amaravathi, his first film as hero, Ajith couldn’t dub since he was in hospital after an accident. Actor Vikram dubbed for him.

Ajith came into his own in Vasanth’s Aasai following which he was called Aasai Nayagan. Agathiyan’s Kadhal Kottai was a super duper hit in which his co-star was Devayani. Yet, Heera who plays the role of a woman infatuated with Ajith in the movie, was linked to Ajith by Kollywood grapevine. But Ajith married Shalini, his co-star in Amarkalam.  

Ajith made a splash with Vali, directed by SJ Suryah who had been an assistant director to Vasanth. Ajith didn’t think twice about working with a debutant. At the same time, he had refused an offer from better known director Bala to star in Nanda. The role eventually went to Surya and helped to establish him.

Over the years, Ajith has made his film appearances rare, banking on the possible benefit of better pre-release buzz that comes from rare appearances. 1999 was an exception though when six of his movies were released. Otherwise, his movies have been well spaced out. Kadhal Mannan, Mugavari and Kandukondein Kandukondein gave him a certain standing in the industry. Ner Konda Parvai brought new light to his career in 2019.

Need not be trendsetter

For Ajith, acting is a profession – one that has earned him much money and fame. But he doesn’t seem to have planned to leverage his acting career for anything else, certainly not politics. Ajith lives his life by his own standards and rules. Movies are his profession, nothing more.

For Ajith, acting is a profession – one that has earned him much money and fame. But he doesn’t seem to have planned to leverage his acting career for anything else, certainly not politics

Ajith doesn’t seem to want to achieve anything else and create greater impact by his surprise movies. His dissolving his fans association did not trigger any similar moves by others. His dropping the title Thala may again be a one-off affair in Tamil cinema. Others may want to leverage their fan following for non-movie aspects. And it’s not that Ajith’s moves need to be emulated either.

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