Rumour has it that the "Sh" in R Balki's much-talked-about Amitabh Bachchan starrer Shamitabh was originally meant for Shah Rukh Khan. However things didn't go per plan, and that's when the "Sh" was shifted from SRK to Dhanu(Sh).
For the longest time, he was known to many in several parts of the country as superstar Rajinikanth's son-in-law. But when Dhanush made a pan-India splash, he did so in the most unexpected way. His 2011 video "Why This Kolaveri Di" was perhaps Indian cinema's first brush with the power of internet fame and gave the country its first celebrity viral sensation.
Set in a recording studio, this candidly-shot video featuring a South Indian actor crooning a catchy khichdi of broken English and Tamil lines was an instant hit. For once it was the mainstream media that was playing catch up to an online trend, and the studios of Seven Bungalows (Mumbai's dream factory) were abuzz with curiosity about a certain Kolaveri-Dhanush. So much so that when the movie version of the song released, it paled in comparison to the crazy vibe of the "making video". Since then the behind-the-scenes music video has become a must-have in the publicity material of any soundtrack release.
A Bollywood debut looked like the next obvious move. With the successes of Wanted, Ready and Bodyguard every studio was already looking at Chennai and Hyderabad for ideas. But Dhanush did the unthinkable.
Instead of opting for a straightforward gravity-defying action fest, he decided to open his Hindi innings by romancing Sonam Kapoor along the ghats of Benares in Raanjhanaa. From the leaked images being tweeted on fan-clubs, one could sense that this was no run-off-the-mill romance. Dhanush's confident body language in the trailers, coupled with Rahman's melodious title track, increased the buzz around the film. But the trade was still sceptical about the paying public's response to a non-Bollywood-looking leading man. Raanjhanaa finally released in June 2013; a fortnight after Ranbir Kapoor stormed the box-office with Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani. The small-town romance of Raanjhanaa was in every sense the antithesis of YJHD's city-slick, instant-noodle nature of love.
As expected the film opened slow, but by Saturday evening, Dhanush had won hearts across the nation, and the film was declared a hit. With his character declaring in the very first scene that he was no Shah Rukh Khan and that his looks were in no way going to help him woo a girl who he knew was clearly out his league, Dhanush's so-called weakness became his biggest strength in the eyes of the viewer. In a world where the media bombards us with love stories of oh-so-good-looking lovers flaunting their perfect bods, Dhanush somewhere represented every normal-looking aam-aadmi's challenge.
While the film attracted a fair share of criticism from those disturbed by the hero's stalker-like ways, the vulnerability in Dhanush's performance came out so strongly that regardless of his questionable approach, one could not help but fall in love with Kundan. Revisit the monologue in the climax where he explains his reasons for losing interest in life and you'll know what I mean. Exactly two decades after Darr, audiences once again ended up cheering for the obsessive lover.
Already a National Award winner and a huge star in Tamil cinema, Dhanush blended into Bollywood and embraced the adulation and debut awards, with the wide-eyed excitement of a newcomer.
Dhanush was of course flooded with offers, but the actor cleverly stayed away from the several Raanjhanaa-esque roles that came his way. At the same time his celeb quotient kept growing with red carpet appearances, photo-shoots, ads and an active presence on social media.
Now two years after Raanjhanaa, Dhanush is back in Shamitabh with another brave and unconventional part that is far removed from his stardom down South.
Dhanush today enjoys a pan-India connect that surpasses that of Kamal (whose daughter incidentally makes her debut in Shamitabh) and dare I say even his superstar father-in-law. In the 80s when Kamal and Rajni actively pursued Hindi films (mostly multi-starrers) they were always seen as the outsiders. Their dubbed films have been getting a wide release in Hindi markets, but save for a Robot, Vishwaroop or Hindustani, the rest failed to make any impact (Lingaa being the most recent example). The likes of Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh chose to rule in their home turf despite hits such as Pratibandh, Shiva and Anari.
Dhanush on the flip side has managed to connect with the junta across the country. The looks and accent don't matter, and he has been embraced by the Mumbai film industry, in the way America made Jackie Chan their own. Perhaps it's the earthy "tapori" vibe that has gone missing from Bollywood's over-styled heroes, or his endearing humility that is so hard to retain for most actors once they achieve stardom.
While the Paa filmmaker has clearly given Bachchan the author-backed part - packed with lines that do justice to that legendary baritone (the voice is almost like a parallel character in the film) - Dhanush confidently holds his own in the frame.
Here too Dhanush uses the "out-of-my-league" premise to his advantage. In fact in one scene, Bachchan comments in his signature angry tone, "Yeh awaaz toh ek kutte ke muh se bhi achchi lagegi (This voice will sound good even from a dog's mouth)." But despite the obvious mismatch between Dhanush's body and Bachchan's voice box, the former's measured transition from vulnerability to swag is what makes this odd combo very believable.
Whatever the eventual box office result of Shamitabh, today Dhanush is at a stage where the fate of his Hindi releases does not affect his stardom. But going by what we have seen so far, Dhanush, whose name means "bow" in Sanskrit, is definitely bang on target in Bollywood.