There’s a lot of buzz around Arun Vaidyanathan’s Nibunan, mainly on account of some statistical significance. It’s promoted as Arjun’s 150th film. And this got me wondering about an actor who has generally, inexplicably perhaps, always remained in the periphery of stardom, and seemed content with it. Have we had another actor who has starred in films directed by Shankar and Mani Ratnam, and yet, never really gone on to command mass adulation? Yes, yes, there’s Prashanth, but unlike his collaborations with these top filmmakers, Arjun’s were generally successful. And even in the disastrous Kadal, his performance was thought of in great esteem.
The actor has been a quiet servant of Tamil cinema, an ever-reliable hand who’d step up when called, and then without fuss, descend to a less glamorous, more comfortable zone. Take the example of Mudhalvan. Consider another actor, who’s generally only done mediocre films, being cast as a replacement for a star like Rajinikanth. And yet, the announcement that Arjun would star in it raised a grand total of zero eyebrows. It wasn’t trust that he could step up. It was a guarantee. He could do everything the Superstar could do, only without the accompanying mass hysteria and the flashiness. He could portray innocence, he could do blithe romance, he could do comedy (including that staple scene involving a snake in a Rajini film), and hell, he even spoke Tamil like the Superstar, on account of their shared nativity. Every time he had to say ‘Vanakkam’–like in that famous interview scene in Mudhalvan–he would instead say, ‘Wanakkam.’ Talk about a like-for-like replacement.
And soon as his job is done, he would take a step back and return to a zone he’s more comfortable in. He would do a Gentleman, and shortly, do a Jai Hind. He would do a Mudhalvan, and then, a Sudhandhiram. He would do a Kadal, and then fall back on a Jai Hind 2. His passion for the country is almost as well-known as Ajith’s love for racing. Growing up, I remember thinking of him as a poster boy of patriotism, the Tamil cinema equivalent of Captain America. If you failed to stand up for the anthem, if you didn’t pay your taxes, if you didn’t respect the tricolour, you seriously considered the possibility of an incensed Arjun coming at you. And eventually, the missing piece of the puzzle came to me when someone shared Arjun’s birthday: August 15. Talk about marriages made in heaven.
Arjun may never really inspire rabid fan following. He may not have dedicated fan groups on social media that consider it their life’s mission to save him from slander. In any case, I know not one person who dislikes him. Even his sobriquet, Action King, is more descriptive than eulogistic. He is a man for all seasons, and a generally underrated artiste. Sure, you may say it has been around four years since he had a big ticket release, but remember… That’s probably what they said before Mudhalvan.
This column was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.