In south, Deepavali is a time for celebrations of big budget song-action-drama films of superstars. There is a certain set of expectations that audience place on the festival releases. This time, Bigil and Kaithi made it to the top of the charts. Bigil raking in the moolah for Vijay was a foregone conclusion, but the Karthi-starrer Kaithi had a comparatively slow start but started making waves soon enough based on strong positive reviews. Here is a look at some of Karthi’s memorable performances and some thoughts on what makes him the natural choice for certain types of roles.
Kaithi is the latest addition to the list of films that Karthi has been carefully picking based on content. It is also a superstar vehicle for the actor that is crafted to suit the actor’s strengths. If you have watched Paruthiveeran, you may never forget its brutally violent climax. I remember leaving the film with a heavy heart, thanks to Karthi’s close-to-real performance as a Tamil Nadu village ruffian to the T and his chemistry with Priyamani. Whenever I watch a Karthi film, it is this intensity in performance that strikes me the most. The ease with which he breaks into the thick of the plot as an unassuming outsider is another amusing thing to watch—you see it in Aayirathil Oruvan as well as his latest Kaithi with a look that asks the question “enge, ennanga nadakkuthu inge (hey, what’s happening here)?”
If you trace the actor’s history, Karthi’s on screen debut is as unassuming as the man himself. Hardly anyone noticed him on screen as an “extra” in Mani Ratnam’s Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004), for which he was also working as an assistant director behind the camera (Mani Ratnam made Katru Veliyidai with Karthi in the lead many years later). Though he took the plunge into acting the very next year, following the footsteps of his father Sivakumar and elder brother Suriya, it took two more years for Paruthiveeran to hit the screens. In Paruthiveeran, Karthi got the best of both worlds—huge box office success and critical acclaim. With Kaithi, the actor completes 20 films in 12 years. His filmography is a mix of hits and misses, but one can see that almost all of these roles were carefully chosen for their merit rather than for exploiting or boosting his star image.
Karthi is not a superstar or a mass hero as his brother Suriya and is not known for delivering repeat hits. His Deepavali release Kaithi gives us a sense of what makes him stand on his own among the biggies. Kaithi defies all the established formats and conventions of a festival film—it has no heroine, song or an ensemble cast. What this means is that the film solely rests on the twin pillars of a taut screenplay and the lead actor. It’s in no way a mean feat to draw crowds competing with Vijay’s big festival release Bigil, which successfully mixes all the elements of a big commercial hit with a tint of feminism thrown in to appeal to the women at large. Bending the tested star film formula, director Lokesh Kanagaraj relied on the material, his execution skills and an earnest Karthi to give the audience a different treat. Watching these two films back to back cemented the faith that a content-focused film cannot go unnoticed in box office. Paruthiveeran proved it then, Theeran Adhigaram Ondru reinforced it and Kaithi repeated it this Deepavali.
The other recent Karthi film that demonstrated Karthi’s care for content was Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, a story based on the director H Vinoth’s dense research into the serial crimes that the Tamil Nadu police tackled through Operation Bawaria. As a big budget cop story with solid writing to support, first-line stars would have signed up for the film without a second thought. However, nobody else would have fitted the bill as perfectly as Karthi because an actor with a superhero image would not have worked for DCP Theeran’s character. Karthi’s towering screen presence and the humble, rooted profile gave the police investigation saga, which spans across the length and breadth of the country, the kind of authenticity that the story demanded. Karthi does not get a typical grand entry of a hero in the film—there is no intro song, special BGM or a fight—but he is shown as one of the many police officers who undergo training in the academy instead. Theeran undergoes a challenging series of struggles to unravel the mystery with regular failures and setbacks, but only an actor with a strong physique could make it convincing. Compare Theeran’s exploits to Suriya’s heroic cops in the Singham series or even Kakha Kakha and the difference is hard to miss.
The big difference between Theeran.. and Kaithi is perhaps the suspense; Theeran has plenty of twists whereas Kaithi puts all the cards on the table upfront, and relies solely on the action-filled night journey towards the fireworks-filled climax. Kaithi’s adventurous night drive through the hellish terrains is all about action set pieces combined with a lingering tension created through performances and less about the suspense of what’s going to happen next. In that sense, it puts more pressure on Karthi’s shoulders as a tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside hero who can only be conquered with love, not with brute force or blackmail. Narain’s cop pleads and makes emotional appeal at several stages of the journey to make Dilli agree to daring saviour acts. In Kaithi, Lokesh leaves no space for flashbacks either. All the flashbacks and subplots are succinctly blended into dialogues to leave the airtight night atmosphere undisturbed. And we don’t complain even as Karthi convincingly sums up his back story with his eyes and a handful of lines of dialogue.
Karthi’s work in Selvaraghavan’s trippy period piece Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) was perhaps his most underrated and ambitious. The vision and the believably reconstructed fictional Chola-Pandya history packed into the film were unique for a Tamil film. Karthi plays an ill-treated porter who turns the saviour for the descendants of the defeated and chased away Chola dynasty. Karthi makes us feel like he is the most obvious choice to play the underdog who is kept in the dark about the objective, destination or the path of the journey almost till the final sequences and is made to go through many falls and disappointments. Many of its scenes convey humour, amusement and thrills through expressions and actions than through dialogues.
For directors who have already made a mark with their debut feature, their second film is an acid test to prove whether he is a one-film wonder or he is going to be here for the long haul. In that sense, it cannot be a mere coincidence that directors Pa.Ranjith (Madras), Suseenthiran (Naan Mahaan Alla), H.Vinoth (Theeran Adhigaram Ondru) and Lokesh Kanagaraj (Kaithi) had trusted Karthi for their sophomore features that in turn went on to be box office hits. It’s obvious that they saw Karthi as a performance powerhouse who can carry a film on his shoulders without an image baggage. Karthi continuing with occasional, carefully picked author-backed roles is good news for Tamil industry. As someone who can carry meaty action roles as well as village hero characters with ease as opposed to the other cross-genre actors such as Vijay Sethupathi, he is in good company.
(This is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)
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