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April 4, 1997


The Star Next Door


Ajith When the prestigious ABCL banner went scouting through the roster of southside stars looking for a lead actor for its debut venture in Tamil, industry watchers played their guessing games on which icon the banner would sign up. Kamal Hassan? Rajnikanth? Chiranjeevi? Nagarjuna? Arjun?

Would you believe, Ajith Kumar?(left)

"I happened to be in the right place at the right time," the hottest new star on the southern block says, with a shrug and a smile.

The tall, good-looking young man is remarkably blase about the fact that, in the words of the famous quote, "He awoke one morning and found himself famous". And even a series of three hits, and a spate of film offers following in the wake of the publicity his being signed by ABCL generated, hasn't impacted on his laidback, take-it-easy persona.

His attitude to his success, and new-found celebrity status, is reflected nowhere as vividly as in his own thoughts on a variety of questions. Thus:

Aasai On Aasai, the Mani Rathnam production which marked the directorial debut of award-winning cinematographer P C Sriram and went on to become a mammoth grosser at the box office: "That film worked for two reasons. Prakash Rai(right) was brilliant as the villain, and every song was an instant hit, all of them made it to the top of the charts one after another. Besides, the storyline was unusual, so the film became a huge hit. The fact that I was the hero had nothing to do with it!"

About the increasingly high profile he has attained, after following up that first hit with another and being signed by ABCL for its debut venture: "I guess this period is my honeymoon with the marquee. Honeymoons are great, but they don't last. And I think the same is true with success on the screen - today I am all over the place, tomorrow I may be gone, I may have to make room for someone else. So why make a big song and dance about it all?"

This attitude, the more one examines it, seems typical of a new breed of film artist making it big on a marquee earlier dominated by the 'superstars' of the order of Sivaji Ganesan and the late M G Ramachandran, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth. This emerging brand of 'hero' is typically young and fresh-faced, well educated, from cosmopolitan middle and upper middle class backgrounds, and inclined to bring to their celluloid careers a professionalism and clear-headedness that strips away the hype and makes of showbiz another career - albeit a high-paying, and glamorous, one.

Ajith's bio exemplifies this breed. Born to a Sindhi mother and Malayalee father as the middle son of three, he laughingly describes himself as the dunce in the family. "My two brothers excelled in academics and are now working abroad, I was the family dunce, dropped out in Class X from Asan Memorial High School (in central Madras). I guess I was more into extra-curricular activities - NCC, trekking, loved motorbikes.

Ajith"I guess it was my dad who hauled me back to reality, he said it was time I made something of myself. So since I liked motorbikes, I first became an apprentice at Enfield India, then I tried my hand at the textile business, basing myself in Erode, for a spell."

In this phase, however, his clean-cut features had already won him some modelling assignments, for both print and television. And his spare time was spent racing motorbikes - his one enduring passion. This daredevil streak, however, resulted in a broken vertebra, which he neglected at the time and which was to erupt in pain later, while doing a risky stunt for one of his films.

Around this time he wound up his textile business, and accepted a role in a Telugu film, Prema Pusthakam. The debut was, in his own words, a "disaster". And his first film inTamil, Amaravathi,"did only marginal business, though the songs were chartbusters and got me some measure of notice."

Ajith was becoming increasingly familiar to television viewers partly because of the hit songs from his Tamil debut, partly because of television ads shot by the likes of P C Sriram.

One of those ads was for the company headed by film-star Revathi's husband Suresh Menon and his appearance in it earned him a small role in Menon's own productions, Paasamalargal and Rajaavin Paarvayile.

Aasai'It was the rushes of these two films that persuaded the Mani Rathnam-Sriram combine to sign him on for the former's home production Aasai(left). And when Ajith followed it up with Vanmathi,another mega-grosser, and a standout performance in a secondary role in Kalluri Vaasal starring Pooja Bhatt and Prashant in the lead, it was perhaps inevitable that ABCL's choice would fall on him as the most promising of the emerging breed of young actors.

Today Ajith boasts an enviable fan following, especially among the teenybop, young collegian crowd - despite not being billed as either a fighting or a dancing star. "I love doing stunts, though I have to be careful with my back. As for dances, somehow I am uncomfortable doing them. I lack grace," he grins. And when you point out that in his brief career, he has already had over six songs that have topped all the charts, the grin broadens into a laugh and he goes, "Yeah, that's the funny thing about this industry, the strangest thing can, and sometimes do, happen."

Which, I think, must be about the first time I ever heard a star view his own enormous popularity as an example of showbiz "quirks". And Ajith promptly shatters another of my illusions - that every star, asked why he is in cinema, will use the query as a cue to spout sanctimonious stuff about "artistic aspirations... a deep love for acting... the passion to create..." and suchlike - by saying, "I am in movies basically for the money and, frankly, I have a hard time believing those who say that act for the love of acting!"

Having said that, Ajith - like any other committed professional in any other field - has a desire to be, if not the best, at least to be good enough to be rated among the front-runners. "Acting is a learning process," he says serioulsy. "And what you are doing in your early films is essentially picking up the nuances, the tricks of your trade. And somewhere along the line, you become analytical, and learn to enjoy what you are doing. Essentially, though, I see myself as a director's medium - he needs something from me, I deliver it."

When talk veers to his fan following - love letters from girls, inscribed on their hankies in their own blood, are a common offering in his mailbox - Ajith sighs. "I wish people wouldn't equate screen heroes with demigods," he says, adding that such extreme adulation both frightens, and saddens, him. "I do respond, in all sincerity, to the letters I get - but there is some discomfort. And I try not to let the adulation go to my head, because for one thing it is not exactly encouraging - imagine the enormous pressure it puts on you to know how much people expect from you! And for another, it is so very ephemeral - today I am everyone's darling, tomorrow that same Everyone has moved on to a newer, fresher star....

Aasai"For my part, I think it would help to restore a sense of balance if the screen hero were to be true to life, to have flaws and plus points and stand tall on feet of clay. It's like my role in Aasai(left) - not at all the all-conquering 'hero' of the marquee. My character was romantic, but he was human, he was as insecure as only a man in love can be, an angry, mixed up youngster, idealistic to an extreme and yet helpless to realise his ideals. I loved that character."

Asked to describe himself, Ajith avoids the subject of his looks - 'clean cut' being the most obvious description I can come up with here - and prefers to concentrate on his personality. "I am a restless sort of chap, full of a frenetic, sort of directionless, energy," he smiles. "And yes, I am very religious." Proof of this latter being in the way he, soon after recovering from surgery for his broken vertebra, walked the many hundreds of miles from his home in Madras to the famed Balaji shrine in Tirupathi, in Andhra Pradesh, in fulfillment of a vow. "Losing every sensation in my legs was frightening," he says, when asked why he took so arduous a vow.

Ajith is busy shooting for Ullaasam, the ABCL debut venture to be directed by the upcoming pair of JD & Jerry, with music by Ilayaraja's son Karthik, which pairs him opposite no less than Sridevi's cousin, Maheshwari. "I was very surprised - pleasantly surprised - to get that offer," he adds with a smile. "And even more so by the money they offered me," he laughs, while refusing to divulge the exact number of zeroes on his paycheck.

"I can't talk about that movie right now, we aren't supposed to discuss it yet," smiles the young star. Ask him about his previous heroine, the Bollywood star Pooja Bhatt, and Ajith is back to his down to earth, candid self. "See, North Indian girls tend to be very fair... considerably fairer than the girls in the south. And that is one reason why our Tamil and Telugu producers are increasingly starring them in their films - Manisha Koirala, Urmila Matondkar, Pooja Bhatt, now Sushmita Sen... It's all part of this star fixation," Ajith muses. "The frontbenchers here, they go to the theatre and see these north girls and they go, 'Hey, look at her, so fair and nice...'

"Having said that, I must add that Pooja was great fun to work with. A shade aloof at first, but later on we became good friends. She doesn't have any starry airs, nor does she put on hauteur about being the daughter of the famous Mahesh Bhatt. Very down to earth and friendly and fun..."

Ask him about his own favourite stars, and Ajith reverts for a moment to your typical young man as he talks of his admiration for Aamir Khan, for Madhuri Dixit and Kajol. "At some stage," he adds, "I would like to do a Hindi film - after all, I'm half north Indian, my mother is a Sindhi and the Hindi language is not alien to me, so I'd like to give it a shot."

For the time being, though, he is busy shooting almost round the clock for Ullaasam, the schedules for which received a set back when the technicians of the Tamil film industry struck work for almost a month. And in whatever time remains to him, living the life of a typical young lad next door and successful professional.

"Hey, I love to go out," he grins. "Getting mobbed is a bit of a problem, but then I try and be very normal when I am out, no dark glasses and starry ways. Love riding my bike, and I guess the fact that I act so normally has resulted in the public giving me the space I want. Getting recognised is a nice feeling, but I am very particular about my space, I think I'm a pretty private sort of guy!"

Yeah, right - a private, down to earth guy who, just by a quirk of fate, happens to have his face, blown up several dozen times, plastered across the skyline of the film-crazy state of Tamil Nadu...