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How to measure a film actor’s popularity? The parameters used for the purpose are how the following questions are answered: Does he dish out back-to-back hits? Does he act in diverse roles? Is he feted by fans, the media and colleagues alike? What image does he create for himself and how does he maintain it? If you sift through the list of the popular Tamil actors, you will realise that there are certain actors who have not worked their way into the list. Prabhu Deva is one such actor who has not made it big since his debut in Tamil cinema.
Imagine holding a mike before a bunch of cinema buffs, asking how many marks they will give Prabhu Deva. Most of them will probably reply, “I think he will pass muster. He is a dancer per se. Of course, he dances well.”
What about his acting then?
Originally, Tamil cinema got to know Prabhu Deva only as a choreographer. He debuted in Mouna Ragam and then went on to perform dance sequences in Agni Natchathiram, Idayam, Sooriyan, Pratap, Gentleman and Walter Vetrivel — all in the 1980s and 1990s — which earned him accolades. He later rode that popularity to bagging hero roles.
Originally, Tamil cinema got to know Prabhu Deva only as a choreographer. He debuted in Mouna Ragam and then went on to perform dance sequences in Agni Natchathiram, Idayam, Sooriyan, Pratap, Gentleman and Walter Vetrivel — all in the 1980s and 1990s — which earned him accolades
The agility and flexibility exhibited by choreographer Prabhu Deva rubbed off on the hero as well. He played a market labourer in Pavithran’s film Indhu and a middle-class college student in Shankar’s Kadhalan — two different characters — back in 1994. The pranks and mischief that marked these roles also became sought after in his subsequent films. Going by the warm reception from the audience to the brisk and bustling hero, Prabhu Deva carried the image forward in all his films, as it became his signature.
In contrast to the energetic extrovert on screen, Prabhu Deva came off as an introvert at public events. His public reticence was a foil for his garrulous screen presence.
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Then, as if trying to break free from his screen image, he started doing serious hero roles in the films Raasiah, Love Birds, Mr Romeo, Minsara Kanavu, VIP, Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar and Kadhala Kadhala. He tried to break new ground in his acting career but it got his fans disappointed at the absence of his typical hilarity. He seemed to have essayed roles he was not cut out for.
Till the 1990s, there were only a few films featuring the heroes speaking in Madras slang. Even Rajini now and then uttered a few Madras slang such as “romba paejaaruppa” (too troublesome) in his films. Kamal excelled in speaking like a native Madras guy, thanks to the influence of ‘Loose’ Mohan, a comedian of those decades. But heroes such as Vijayakanth, Satyaraj, Karthick, Prabhu and so on did not perform in the dialect.
Most of the heroes used to be shown as migrating to Chennai in search of greener pastures because they had such experiences in reality. At that time, Prabhu Deva was shown as a son of the soil in Chennai and it appealed even to film buffs whose previous generation had migrated to Chennai and settled down. Except Raasiah, all films portrayed Prabu Deva as a native Chennaiite. This image stuck.
However, none of these films depicted the contemporary problems of Chennai, whereas Parthiban-starrers such as Pondaati Devai, Sukamaana Sumaigal, Ullae Veliyae and Sarigamapadhani touched a chord with the audience on this count.
In 1999, director K Subash designed a character intended to rid Prabhu of his inherent defects as a hero and project him as a no-nonsense actor. The film Ninaivirukkum Varaiyil had a storyline that was sentimental, melodious songs and was tinged with a streak of humour. It was well received at the time. Had Prabhu Deva continued to feature in such good films, he would have scaled greater heights.
His roles were of the same wavelength in films such as Suyamvaram, Doubles, Pennin Manathai Thottu and so on. In between, he seemed to make it with films like Aezhaiyin Sirippil and Alli Thantha Vaanam. Yet, film buffs did not consider him as an actor of star value nor did they appreciate his histrionic skills.
After 2002, he turned his attention to Telugu films. During this time, Ajith, Vijay, Suriya and Vikram started dominating Tamil cinema, while Simbu/STR and Dhanush had just debuted. Simbu and Dhanush adopted Prabhu Deva’s style of performance and started delivering hits. They easily filled the void left behind in Tamil cinema by Prabhu Deva’s absence
The films he chose to act in — Love Birds. Mr Romeo, Minsara Kanavu and VIP — were meant only for the A class audience. Yet he acted in a style that even audiences at B and C centres liked him. On a personal level for him, the so-called successes of his films were only of mediocre range. Even if a film turned into a blockbuster, such as Minsara Kanavu did, its success was not attributed to him. Besides, he was not greatly interested in organising his fans into associations. Hence, his fans were scattered and with the passage of time, the fans’ associations dissolved.
The film Ullam Kollai Poguthae almost catapulted Prabhu Deva to star status. After an interval, he tried to construct that image in the film Allaudin, but it was a fiasco.
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Simbu/STR and Dhanush fill Prabhu Deva’s shoes
Prabhu Deva has the acumen to express emotions as diverse as sadness, innocence, apathy, anger, angst, haughtiness and crookedness. This could be perceived in films up to Engal Anna. After 2002, he turned his attention to Telugu films. During this time, Ajith, Vijay, Suriya and Vikram started dominating Tamil cinema, while Simbu/STR and Dhanush had just debuted. Simbu and Dhanush adopted Prabhu Deva’s style of performance and started delivering hits. They easily filled the void left behind in Tamil cinema by Prabhu Deva’s absence. For instance, Dhanush’s film Tiruvilaiyaadal Aarambam pretty much had Prabhu Deva’s stamp all over it.
Meanwhile, Prabhu Deva donned the directorial mantle and debuted in a Telugu film. He directed Vijay-starrer Pokkiri in Tamil and remade it in Hindi with the title of Wanted. This made him a star director of sorts. Now and then, he acted in films only if forced by any filmmaker.
Yet, he did not give up on choreography. He continued the profession that launched him into the field. He got the national award for his choreography in Lakshya. A series of failures as a hero and his focus on dance and direction diverted his attention from the goal of attaining a star hero status.
In 1999, director K Subash designed a character intended to rid Prabhu of his inherent defects as a hero and project him as a no-nonsense actor. The film Ninaivirukkum Varaiyil had a storyline that was sentimental, melodious songs and was tinged with a streak of humour. It was well received at the time. Had Prabhu Deva continued to feature in such good films, he would have scaled greater heights
He launched his second innings with the film Devi in 2016. But unfortunately his subsequent film attempts have not fructified. The film Pon Manickavel that featured him well was appealing to some. But he seems to be faltering in choosing themes and stories in keeping with the modern times. In the 1990s, Satyaraj, Vijayakanth, Prabhu and Karthick goofed up in selecting stories that would have suited them. Prabhu Deva seems to be having the same trouble.
Prabhu Deva can make his second innings successful if he is careful about choosing roles and scripts that dispense with the heroic features typical of the 1980s and 1990s. Or he can go for either serious stories or fully entertaining commercial films, sans the archetypal heroism. At best he can essay roles suited to his age.
There was hearsay that initially there were attempts to rope him in as the villain that Viajy Sethupathy played in the Kamal film Vikram. Had Prabhu Deva done it, he would have been seen in a different light from his image now.
All said and done, Prabhu Deva has the right to choose his own roles in films and do whatever pleases him. We must respect an artist’s freedom.
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