It has been a while since we saw Madhavan as a lover boy. And he would soon get back on the romantic track in a new feature film called Maara, helmed by a novice, Dhilp Kumar – whose claim to fame is a short titled Kalki.
What is even more interesting is that Madhavan will have his Vikram Vedha heroine, the firebrand lawyer, Shraddha Srinath, playing along with him. Kumar told the media the other day that his new movie “is essentially between these two people who have a mature outlook and how their love story is strung together by the simple things in life.”.
To me, what matters most, and beyond all this, is Madhavan's ability to experiment with different kinds of characters. Over two decades ago in 1996, he sang Tum Chup Raho at a night club in Sudhir Mishra's fascinating film, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Madhavan was not even credited, and for a man who had been on a year-long scholarship in Canada's Alberta and who had been part of the National Cadet Corps with a distinguished record, such unsung existence might have been humiliating.
After a stint of guest appearances in television serials like Banegi Apni Baat and modelling assignments for a talcum powder among others, Madhavan landed the lead in what I consider to be one of Mani Ratnam's best films, Alaipayuthey (2000).
Alaipayuthey was a hauntingly beautiful love story with Shalini – a movie where Ratnam uses the train as a powerful leitmotif to tell a story of love, distress, disappointment, tragedy and comic relief. Tamil cinema felt that here was a true lover boy emerging out of a celluloid canvas of he-manship, violence and bloody mess that had become the norm of the day. He was, in a way, Tamil Nadu's answer to Bombay's Dev Anand, a kind of 'Kathal Mannan” which the once-upon-a-time Gemini Ganesh was known as.
Gautham Vasudev Menon soon picked Madhavan for his helming debut, Minnale, and this was followed by Dumm Dumm Dumm and Kannathil Muthamittal, another Ratnam venture of romance and separation with the war in Sri Lanka as the backdrop. As the father of a little Lankan girl he and his wife adopt, Madhavan portrayed the pain of a man who had to reveal to his daughter her true identity at one point. It must have been sheer anguish when the girl insisted on meeting her biological mother (Nandita Das as a Tamil rebel soldier).
Madhavan essayed a variety of roles after his tryst with romance: As one of the idiots in Three Idiots who becomes a renowned wildlife photographer, as a marriage wrecker in Jodi Breakers, as a defiant young man in Rang De Basanti and as a coward cop in Vettai, the actor – perhaps the only one in Tamil cinema without a title – revealed how gripping he was in conveying varying emotions. Anger, vile, comedy, you name it, and Madhavan was well up to all these.
And then came Tanu Weds Manu, where as a doctor from England, he falls hopelessly in love with a small town woman, played by Kangana Ranaut – who has her own demons to grapple with, including her fling with a crooked builder (Jimmy Shergill). Tanu Weds Manu brought back memories of Alaipayuthey, of a young man in love and of a path to the altar strewn with boulders.
But of course Madhavan was no Gemini to get stuck in a groove. Madhavan had to get out to explore possibilities beyond love. Sudha Kongara's Irudhi Suttru in Tamil and Saala Khadoos in Hindi must have come as a wonderful welcome, and as a fallen boxing champ, Madhavan ignited the character with fire – while Ritika Singh as a fisher woman from a Chennai slum breathed up fury. It was a remarkable jugalbandhi between a deeply frustrated boxer and a girl longing for respect and recognition, a girl thirsting to escape the net and the stench of dead fish.
Madhavan seemed to be saying that he could emerge out of the shackles of typecasting to offer something as radically different as being a burly boxer, drained of all emotions and scared of anything remotely resembling love.
Probably, Pushkar-Gayathri's 2017 Vikram Vedha – which falls back on the folk tale of Vikramadityan and Vedhalam to narrate a modern-day confrontation between an encounter specialist and a don – was an extension of the tough image that Madhavan adorned in Irudhi Suttru/ Saala Khadoos.
Well, Maara may see Madhavan back into an emotionally high strung drama of man-woman relationship, but let us not forget, that here is an actor who is capable of presenting tenderness as he is of roguishness. Remember the recent web serial, Breathe, where as a father deeply attached to his terminally ill son, becomes a monster at night, killing in cold blood organ donors – so that his boy may get a lung quickly. We saw two extremes of the man in Breathe – a doting dad and a coldblooded killer!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org )