Cinema was always a popular topic at home, a point of reference, with dialogues bandied about to suit the occasion. One day, we were all sitting together when my youngest sister, then a little girl of 10, asked dad, “Why is she called Silk Smitha”? “That’s because if you were to even touch her shoulder, your hand would slip down to the elbow,” replied my father indulgently, mimicking the action, while we laughed outright at the look of marvel on her face.
Come to think of it, monikers and titles are as if an actor’s due, especially in the south. We don’t know who the awarding party is — fans, producers or an imaginative PR, but once the titles stick, there is no taking them back! God forbid, if you were to mix them up! Tamil cinema is replete with many such titles. If MGR was Makkal Thilagam (foremost amongst people), his contemporary Sivaji Ganesan was Nadigar Thilagam (epitome of acting). The prefix Sivaji itself was a title given to him for his superlative portrayal of the Maratha king in a stage play by E V Ramasamy, the great rationalist and reformer aka Periyar (a great man).
It is common practice for Rajnikanth (real name Shivaji) fans to hoot and dance the moment the word Superstar twinkles on the big screen, but the man who first coined the title for Rajnikanth was film producer Kalaipuli Thanu when villain Rajni turned over a new leaf in the 1979 Bhairavi. To keep the balance perhaps, Rajni’s fellow co-star and a colossus in his own right, Kamal Hassan, was awarded Ulaga Nayagan (universal hero). Why just Vijay, when the title Ilaya Thalapathy (young commander) adds a bit of gravitas and is politically correct too as Thalapathy is another title enjoyed by Rajnikanth? There are more stars shining brightly in the firmament — Supreme Star Sarath Kumar and Little Superstar Silambarasan or Simbu. Comedians are a big draw in Tamil cinema and sobriquets are showered on them too like Vaigai Puyal for Vadivelu, (his histrionics are compared to the verve with which the river Vaigai flows in his hometown) and Chinna Kalaivanar for Vivek, who couches his comedy with a subtle message, Kalaivanar of course being reserved for Nagercoil Sudalaimuthu Krishnan, considered the Charlie Chaplin of India. Even small-time actors like Manohar who mostly enacts comic roles is referred to as Crane Manohar, (he used to rent cranes for film shoots) upholding the democratic nature of this nomenclature.
Some titles are born thanks to the characters essayed in films. That explains the prefix Chiyaan for Vikram, Thala for Ajit, and why the words Captain and Vijaykanth rest side by side. Going off the tangent a bit, Ravi’s director brother is called Remake Raja (Raja is his real name). David to Tamil’s Goliath, the Kannada industry seems to share a similar ideology, only here the titles seem loftier. Rajkumar is Natasarvabhouma (emperor in acting), Vishnuvardhan Sahasasimha (lion in action), Srinath Pranayaraja (King of romance) and comedian Narsimharaju Hasyachakravarthi (emperor of comedy). Ambareesh was known as rebel star and Prabhakar Tiger. The next generation of actors too did not want to corrupt the tradition and thus, we have such titles, all self-explanatory — Crazy Star Ravichandran, Hat-trick star Shivrajkumar, Real Star Upendra and Rocking Star Yash.
Tollywood too is not without its naming shenanigans with Chiranjeevi being Mega Star, Pawan Kalyan Power Star, Ram Teja Mega Power Star, Allu Arjun Stylish Star and Mahesh Babu Prince. Last heard, Yuva Samrat Nagarjuna’s son was christened Prince Akhil, but with Mahesh already possessing the title, there is a mad scramble for another befitting one for him. Malayalam cinema has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. Here, the prefixes refer to the names of the actors’ native places. So, if you thought Nedumudy was Venu’s first name, you thought wrong. But there are only loving nicknames for the superstars, Mammookka for Mammootty and Lalletan for Mohanlal.