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Who is now the superstar — Vijay or Ajith?  This question has been generating much heat in Tamil tinsel town for the past few weeks, ahead of the top two heroes’ new films — Varisu and Thunivu — set for release for Pongal. It all feels like a showbiz game no less intense and interesting than the customary game of cutthroat contests in politics.

Rajini-Kamal
Tamil cinema revolved around the top two matinee idols, MGR and Sivaji, for a quarter of a century from 1950 to 1975. They also influenced the Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films directly or indirectly. The only film they acted together in was Koondukili (Caged Parrot – 1954) directed by reputable filmmaker T R Ramanna. The top stars since stopped working together as their hordes of fans fought ugly battles in theatres showing the other’s films across the state.

The present Vijay vs Ajith question triggers memories of the same kind with fans on several occasions brawling in the streets. Heck, the physical streets of yesteryear have moved on to cyberspace!

After MGR gave up on his celluloid one-upmanship to ascend the political throne in 1977, Sivaji was left alone in the game, bereft of rivalry and competition. As the 1980s set in,  well before the Sivaji era ended formally, the duo of the next generation — Rajini and Kamal — emerged on the horizon, carrying on the tradition of competition between two stars.

In the millennium, with both Rajini’s and Kamal’s glory days being in the past, the next generation duo — Vijay and Ajith — began ruling the roost. Just as Sivaji films were celebrated now and then during the Rajini-Kamal era, now in this age of Ajith-Vijay both Rajini and Kamal have their occasional hits.

Tamil cinema revolved around the top two matinee idols, MGR and Sivaji, for a quarter of a century from 1950 to 1975. They also influenced the Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films directly or indirectly

Rajini’s winning spree that began in the 1980s reached a crescendo in the 1990s with films such as Annamalai, Baasha, Padayappa and so on.  So was the case with Kamal whose films such as Indian, Avvai Shanmughi and so on took him to great heights.

After the year 2000, the top two heroes of the 90s’ faced a lull in their careers with a dip in their output except films such as Chandramukhi, Sivaji, Enthiran and later Kabali for Rajini and Vettaiyadu Vilaiyaadu, Papanasam etc for Kamal. Aging had begun to visibly catch up with the two stars by then. In fact, the roaring success of last year’s Vikram is to Kamal what Mudhal Mariyathai was to thespian Sivaji Ganesan in 1985.

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Race for superstar status
Vijay, who is now in the limelight like never before, debuted in Nalaiya Theerpu way back in December 1992. Six months later, Ajith made his maiden appearance in Amaravathi in Tamil and Prema Pushthakam in Telugu in June and July of 1993 respectively. They acted together in only one film, Rajavin Parvaiyile, like MGR and Sivaji in Koondukili.

Under the tutelage of his father, director S A Chandrasekhar, Vijay started attaining some popularity in the B and C centres with films such as Senthoorapandi, Rasigan and Deva. He then became universally popular with his later films such as Poove Unakkaaga, Love Today, Kaathalukku Mariyathai, Thullatha Manamum Thullum, Kushi, Friends. Making a change and attempting to fit into the Rajini archetypal template, Vijay did a succession of films such as Thamizhan, Bhagavathy, Puthiya Geethai and Thirumalai and it cemented him as an action hero. It started Vijay’s winning spree with films like Gilli up to Master in the millennium and thereon. As he began climbing the ladder of success, the budget and success rate of his films spiked, as did his remuneration.

Similarly, starting in the late 1990s, Ajith’s career graph began rising with films such as Aasai, Kadhalkottai, Kadhal Mannan, Vaali and Amarkkalam. Indeed he stole Vijay’s thunder, donning the mantle of an action hero earlier in the film Dheena itself and following it up with hits such as Citizen, Villain, and Varalaru. Then, Mangathaa, Veeram and Viswasam catapulted Ajith to the zenith. So, he too has been front-and-centre for the past three decades, crafting his own success story and cultivating millions of fans.

Although Ajith did not have hits consistently like Vijay, in terms of box office collections, his flops are also seen as lucrative.

As the 1980s set in,  well before the Sivaji era ended formally, the duo of the next generation — Rajini and Kamal — emerged on the horizon, carrying on the tradition of competition between two stars

In the days before now when the air was thick with speculation on who among the two is the numero uno of the Tamil film industry, Ajith once in an interview openly said he was struggling to reach the top slot. As Vijay too had been silently sweating it out for the enviable position, a sense of rivalry gripped their fans. This spilled over into punch dialogues in the films of the two actors, tinged with innuendos and insinuations against each other. The trend was then seen as a marketing technique to boost their box-office collections.

Now that ‘rivalry’ has been revived after a period of lull, ahead of the release of their films Vaarisu and Thunivu. The revival of the superstar dispute was ignited by producer Dhil Raju, while actor Sarathkumar on his part chipped in with his comment, “Vijay is today’s superstar”.

Also Read: Tamil cinema in 2022 a bit stale, but hopes up for 2023

Superstar title
The origin of Rajini’s superstar epithet is quite interesting. In fact, the title was thrust upon him, when he donned the mantle of a hero for the first time in the film Bhairavi after a string of several not-so-popular films in which was he was just an also ran. Rajini was very much embarrassed when saw his cutouts with ‘Superstar’ emblazoned on them, erected by producer Kalaipuli S Thanu all over Chennai back in the day when MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were very much around. Rajini felt his shoulders too tender to carry such a mighty title for at that time he had been in the field for hardly five years.

Yet he was determined to measure up to the title. Though nobody took the superstar status quite seriously in the beginning, everybody later agreed that Rajini had earned and deserved the title with his sparkling hits such as Murattu Kaalai followed by a long string of successes.

As the younger generation’s films started getting noticed, Ajith was affixed with the title of ‘Ultimate Star’ and Vijay with ‘Ilayathalapathy.’ Amidst this, Rajini grew in stature and calibre to the point of becoming India’s iconic Superstar.

Just as Rajini could not become yet another ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ like MGR was, so too neither Vijay nor Ajith can aspire to be ever named Superstar

Meanwhile, Ajith at one point of time dissolved his fans’ associations and drove home to his fans the message that he was no longer the Ultimate Star. At the same time, Vijay graduated from Ilayathalapathy to Thalapathy. Both were set on the road to repeat the successes of Kamal and Rajini before the advent of the millennium. But the senior duo was yet to retire from the race.

So, just as Rajini could not become yet another ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ like MGR, so too neither Vijay nor Ajith can aspire to be ever named Superstar.

Although Kamal and Rajini cannot replicate their sterling performances, neither Vijay nor Ajith can fill the void left by the seniors completely. The playing ground has shifted: the competition now for Vaarisu and Thunivu is to smash records set by blockbusters of other languages such as KGF-2 and Bahubali. Or, at best they may have to push back against Ponniyin Selvan and Vikram.

Actors’ identities
Back in the 1990s, the larger-than-life image of Rajini was deliberately cultivated and projected to cash in on his popularity and to tap into the political potential he was believed to have. Similarly, efforts are underway to blow up the image of Vijay too for both commercial and political reasons. A similar attempt could be undertaken by the Ajith camp as well. But as usual, both Vijay and Ajith remain stoically silent.

As to who wins supremacy for now will be determined by the success of their Pongal releases, Varisu and Thunivu. All said and done, the supposed fight to own the word superstar is no more than a gimmick to promote the two actors’ films releasing at the same time this festival season.


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