Fifty shades of khaki

Moondru Mugam, Kaaki Sattai, Vettaiyadu Vilayadu, Pokkiri, Mankatha, Saamy, Kaakha Kaakha, Singham, Siruthai, Thani Oruvan… You can see where I’m going with this. They are all cop films, yes. They are all blockbusters, yes. Most interestingly, they are all films that boosted star appeal. It’s probably why several of our stars don the khaki with as much eagerness. Vijay did it again with Theri, Ajith with Yennai Arindhal, and this week, Vikram is now putting it to test with Saamy Square. What is it about the force that so fascinates our heroes? Is it the legitimacy the force provides to their actions? Is it perhaps the saviour, do-gooder image? Or is it just plain old commercial success?

Seasoned actor and film historian Mohan Raman points out that police films lend very well to the constructs of Tamil commercial cinema. “The films usually come with a good vs bad storyline. In addition, we get the hero’s family angle that can be squeezed for sentiment, and there are all the moral dilemmas too. Action and sentiment are the basic tenets on which commercial Tamil cinema has always worked.” In essence, he’s convinced that cop films provide plenty of room for commercial sensibilities.

With well-made action having a constant market, police films ensure that the viewer gets his dose of adrenaline without too much digression from the story. “They also serve as exercises in wish fulfilment as they show cops as the public want them to be,” says producer Gnanavel Raja whose Studio Green is behind Singam, Si 3, and Siruthai. Box office success is also a motivating factor, adds Gnanavel as he points out that the success ratio when it comes to cop films is on the higher side in Tamil and Telugu cinema. “As a production banner, I have been very lucky when it comes to police stories. Commercially, these films gave me a jump. They also increase the worth of artists, and heighten their mass appeal.”

Not only can action and whistle-worthy dialogues get more organically used in these films, but they also gain more legitimacy, coming from a self-righteous police officer. Suddenly, violence doesn’t seem all that problematic. “There are three kind of hero films: a film in which a common man becomes a hero, a superhero film, and a cop film,” says Mohan Raja, whose Thani Oruvan was one of the biggest hits of 2015. “A film’s major challenge is to convince the viewer over who the hero is, and to get the audience emotionally invested in that character. When it is a cop film, that gets done in Scene 1. These films also feel more real.”

Acknowledging that there’s a formula in place for these films, Mohan Raja, however, says we haven’t completely exhausted the potential of the genre. “For more than 50 years, one in four Hollywood films has been a cop film. We understood the formula quite late and so, there is still much to explore.” He also adds that Thani Oruvan was born out of his anger at the commercial brick-walling that our filmmakers face. “You want a hero and villain to fight against each other? I thought I will give a new reason for that.That way, I satisfy the creator in me while giving them what they want.” Thani Oruvan’s success, Mohan Raja admits, was a huge boost to innovative films at large. “It is sad that mere critical success cannot work without commercial success. However, pure commercial success often leads to a status upgrade.”

Writer-producer Dhananjayan doesn’t think cop films make for foolproof investments. “The challenge is to make the film different from the vast number of police films that are getting made these days. If the film is different, it becomes a blockbuster. But if it’s cliched, it will get ripped apart.” Dhananjayan adds that Mankatha, which featured a cop with grey shades, worked because it showed a different perspective. Mohan Raja shares the same opinion, when he says that Thani Oruvan isn’t just another cop film. “Thani Oruvan’s Mithran is the first pro-active cop in our cinema. Unlike most onscreen policemen, he works for a larger vision. That made him different.”

Merely wearing the cop uniform doesn’t make a star out of an actor, according to Dhananjayan. “Saamy and Kaakha Kaakha turned Vikram and Suriya, respectively, into commercial heroes. But it wasn’t the plan. They were both conceived as entertaining cop stories, and when coupled with a great performance from the lead actor, they worked wonders. It is crucial that the hero delivers in these films.” The Saamy sequel has been a while coming, and it’ll be interesting to see if the cop film can do the trick for Vikram, as it has done for many other actors, including himself.

This was originally written for The New Indian Express. You can find it here.

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