The Inscrutable Sex Appeal of Dhanush

Poorva Rajaram
Grist Media

It is hard not to feel personally betrayed that Dhanush has joined that fair-and-lovely death match better known as Bollywood. Bollywood might be even more inhospitable to his looks than the Tamil film industry. If anything was evident post-Kolaveri, it was a lack of knowledge about Dhanush and his work. Apparently, we live in a world where the most talented actor of his generation, can be ‘discovered’ a decade into his career.

So his Hindi debut film Raanjhana is now three weeks old and we can look ahead to next Friday, when Dhanush’s next Tamizh film Maryan releases. Maryan is the story of a Tamil man who gets taken hostage in Darfur, Sudan. Raanjhana notwithstanding, Dhanush has a tendency to push himself towards revelatory roles and Maryan, armed with a biting trailer, seems well-poised to continue that streak.

The appropriation of Tamil and Telugu cinema by the rest of the country has always had an eerie relationship with skin color and looks. Some gatekeepers are excited by the injection of fresh material, some would rather it didn’t exist. In 2007, a critic in Outlook magazine called Dhanush “a pigeon-chested paavam who looks like a paanwala on probation.”

Ever since his second film in 2003, Kaadhal Kondein, viewers have found Dhanush to be irresistible. To them, the sun shines, the earth is round and the sight of Dhanush on screen stops their eyes from glazing over. And it is this natural sex appeal that the reigning media narrative has always questioned and framed as ‘improbable’ and ‘unlikely’.   

In a distinctly unmuggy air-conditioned Chennai hotel, I walk into his room for our interview and see no entourage. Nobody other than him, actually, for our conversation. He seems to have lost some of the gangliness and elasticity of his early films. Though perhaps not all of it -- he is lying on a sofa. Something about the optics of seeing a star in real life can never be quite satisfactory.

Dhanush is not ordinary looking. He has perfectly symmetrical features and a chiseled glaze – in short, he is a blemish-free movie star. If the Indian media and our film industries are body image disaster zones, then Dhanush has unwittingly done more than his bit of relief work.

When people call him ordinary, what they actually mean is that he looks like their conception of a movie fan, not a movie star. Which is why Dhanush in Raanjhana seemed like he was trapped in a look-at-me loop: he is ‘ordinary’ because he doesn’t look like other stars, and so his main cultural import can never be his sex appeal or his acting, but just the fact that he withstood improbability and became a leading man. But ‘not film star-pretty’ is only one definition of ordinary, and a rather tautological one. Luckily, his longstanding fans are not as literal minded as the media that writes about him. Filmgoers know that their cinema traffics in unique and dazzling permutations of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

He speaks informally and fast. To begin with, he tells me, “I’ve always known that I’m very, very ordinary looking. But I’m not alien looking. I am an artist here to play characters. One of my very first reviews in one of the Tamil weeklies said, ‘We don’t know with what guts this boy came in front of the camera with these looks.’ I remember crying for a week. I don’t understand why a protagonist should be good looking. In real life, how many model-looking people do you know? It’s sad, but I don’t think it’s stopping me. I’m very proud of my ordinary looks.”
Dhanush grew up in Chennai, with summer holidays in Sankarapuram, his mother’s village near Theni. Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja, later reincarnated as Dhanush, describes his childhood as “drama-less, very simple and flat.  Dhanush (who is heavily invested in writing and a future in direction) is obviously no stranger to the narrative conventions of cinema. This is good to keep in mind when he says entirely truthfully, “We come from a very poor family. One meal a day, sometimes two if we were lucky. All my childhood went in longing. Other kids had toys to play with, other kids had gas balloons, other kids had nice chocolates to eat, other kids had nice pencils and erasers, while I’d have this short a pencil.”

When he was in class V, his father started making it as a film director and the family finally had some money. Soon, there was a car (a Maruti 800). Dhanush had better clothes, better chocolates. He still hated school and homework.

He has always been close to his siblings (his two doctor sisters and his older brother Selvaraghavan, a director in his own right). Around class XI or XII, Dhanush tasted real friendship for the first time. “I had some ten solid friends. I had one of the prettiest girlfriends. I was so happy with that world. I didn’t want glory, I didn’t want money, I didn’t want fame. I just wanted to be with them. I also wanted a Rs 35,000 salary, an Indica car and a two bedroom flat.” After a moment, he adds, “At that time.”

Dhanush always talks about his entry into acting as accidental. He had to pitch in on one of his father’s movies in 2002 when one of the actors dropped out. Then, once he dropped out of college, he was effectively hustled into acting in his director brother Selvaraghavan’s first film. Kadhal Kondein was a stinging college romance hit in 2003, and overnight, both brothers had careers.

Dhanush’s trajectory since then has spanned all kinds of movies, doing the full star rota from rom-coms to action films. One kind stands out – films about people who live many degrees of separation away from a sing-song post-liberalization stupor. Films like Pudhupettai and Aadukalam (2011) – he won the National Award for the latter. He has a practiced humility as he credits everyone but himself for his success as an actor – his brother, serendipity or God. I’m tempted to conclude the opposite: Dhanush is all talent and canniness rather than passive providence.

He and his brother were largely self-schooled in cinema. “We didn’t have any exposure,” he says. “[It was] out and out his [Selvaraghavan’s] brain.” While Selvaraghan’s films carried some disdain for existing Tamil cinema and smuggled in various film festival elements, they didn’t always anxiously deflect to influence --- they weren’t baffling carbon copies of European arthouse. Similarly, Dhanush’s acting feels both studied and alchemical. One brother an aesthete, and the other a zealous convert to aestheticism. One of his favourite films is Cinema Paradiso, he tells me, and then adds: “I know it’s a clichéd answer.”

He says starkly of his life now, “I don’t have friends.” I’m still surprised, though I know better, by how composed he is compared to my favorite Dhanush character, the young gangster Kokkai Kumar in Pudhupettai. Watch Kokkai Kumar’s eyes enlarge in horror. You could Photoshop his face into Munch’s The Scream. The best part about Dhanush’s acting, especially in the early films with their unabashed Bildungsroman premises, is the violent clash between his keeping his screws tight and letting them go fruitfully loose. The two most important elements of Dhanush’s acting have always been his insane abandon and the sense of newness he brings to the Tamil screen. He remains glaringly different from the existing pantheon of Tamil heroes. He is not jaunty (Simbu), a benign screen-hog (Surya), a rudderless energy ball (Vijay) or a beefy sealed vessel (Vikram).

Dhanush, along with his brother, has shattered any unspoken rules that circumscribed the Tamil hero’s emotional range, and that is what I missed most in Raanjhanaa – the emotional bandwidth he is allowed is a fraction of that in any Selvaraghavan movie. So much of this actor can be understood only in his brother’s films. The two of them have heralded a new idiom of romance in our Tamil cinema.

In the Selvaraghavan universe, romance exists not as inescapability (the hero must romance the heroine, after all) but as interiority. Intimacy is suddenly available in zoom. Those small tilts within an interpersonal tug-of-war, so familiar from our real-life romances, find embodiment on screen.In Kadhal Kondein, Dhanush’s character Vinod spends most of the film woefully misreading the heroine’s feelings for him. His self-delusion has a high price. In Mayakkam Enna, Karthik also reads too little into the heroine’s feelings for him – he mostly chooses his nihilism over her.

Romance, as one conduit for investment in the world, also keeps setting off a clenched anger against life. Dhanush thrives on this spiky emotional topography (he will tell you as much). “What to play otherwise?” he asks. “I don’t want it to be shallow. Just come in front of the camera and say your lines and go. That doesn’t excite me. I want layers. I feed on those characters to survive.” Onscreen, he accelerates that kinetic loop by which cinema can sidestep artifice and lead you back to yourself.

Director Vetrimaaran’s 2007 film Polladhavan is about a man and his transcendental relationship with a motorbike. The credits list a ‘non-linear editor’, and the best friend of Dhanush’s Prabhu is an auto driver who distills the Harry Potter books he’s reading into workable love-advice. Through Dhanush you get to see Prabhu’s bloody mindedness, his flickering class ascension and his ambivalence towards the natural order of things. Once again, social commentary is offered not just through the director’s vision but also through a subterranean unease that Dhanush simulates.

During the early part of the botched Three (2012), most of which takes place in an aspirational over-decorated flat, Dhanush is coyly romancing Shruti Haasan. She puts her hand on him (not the other way round). At that moment, a fan next to me in the theatre screamed in sarcastic Tamil, “Ivan yevlo decenta irukaan.” (“He is so decent.”)

Dhanush says he can’t relate to this moment at all, that he’s has always mixed it up in terms of the wildness of his characters. Which may be so, but this moment of cinephile outrage encapsulates what has changed about Dhanush since his 2002 debut. The classic Dhanush character is socially windswept yet violently self-steered. He is forceful and rude, never asking for admission into politer circles. He has none of his Raanjhanaa character’s resignation to fate.  

Dhanush’s own language about his early films gives something away. He describes making Kadhal Kondein as a “tough journey, tedious, physically hurting, mentally hurting.” His descriptions of his newer films are more tempered. After meeting him, I couldn’t help being reminded that the fishbowl of stardom leaves him, of course, aloof from the rough-and-tumble world of his fans. One can’t blame them for enjoying his rise – aided by realistic acting and a nose for good filmmakers – more than his culturally distant Bollywood victory lap.

Dhanush is proof of what every teenage girl knows – biographical angularity and sex appeal are really hard to disentangle. He even talks cinematically about his life: “I don’t know why, but rain comes into my head the minute I think of my childhood.” And how explicable can sex appeal ever be anyway? As made as he is in person, Dhanush unmakes himself in the process of acting. Perhaps, over time, the intensity of his unmaking has reduced. Maybe this is how age works. What do I know for sure? He is still better at it than anybody else.

Maryaan releases on Friday, 19th July.

Poorva Rajaram is studying history at JNU and is a co-organiser of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF). She has written for Tehelka and Time Out Bengaluru.

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