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Actor Ajith Kumar: 50 at 40


SCENE BY SCENE: The actor in scenes from his latest film (below & below right)

Kollywood actor Ajith Kumar is only getting younger. And his 50th film Mankatha's blockbuster status proves he's also getting better

Among the many 'punch' dialogues that Tamil film, Mankatha is loaded with, there's one - Naanum yevalo naala daan nallavanave nadikarathu (How long can I also act like a good man?) - that particularly seems like it comes, pun completely intended. From a star point of view, Mankatha is a celebration of sorts. It is Kollywood actor Ajith Kumar's film number 50. From an actor's perspective, these words are a reinforcement of his dogged journey in cinema and the desperate need to experiment.

Mankatha released across India on August 31 this year, amid much fanfare and a full house. On its opening day, the collections were Rs10 crore across Tamil Nadu, says a source at the Tamil Nadu Entertainment Trade Magazine, in Chennai. The man at the film's helm, and really its centrifugal force, simply says, "This too shall pass. " It's the preamble to our conversation at his lavish, self-contained and self-styled bungalow in Valmiki Nagar, a quiet residential quarter in Chennai. "It is a landmark, no doubt, and I'd really like to see it as an achievement, especially despite the odds I have had to deal with. But life is a great teacher, " Ajith says, "Also, as you grow older, you see the world in a different light;you start to think rationally, become less impulsive. "

You can take him seriously because in the context of cinema, Ajith has really 'been there, done that'. His salt and pepper hair is not merely a reflection of his age - he turned 40 in May this year - and his long innings in cinema but also a statement on screen. He has visibly chosen to look and play his age. In Mankatha, Ajith's Vinayak Mahadevan is a cop with shades of grey. "If you look at it closely, Mankatha is a politically incorrect film, " he says, "It explores the darker side of the human mind and I think while watching it people are, in a sense, redeeming themselves of their own guilt. " The film's narrative follows five men including Ajith on a Rs 500-crore heist. While the movie's treatment is thoroughly commercial, it also attempts to capture the gory side of human greed. Ajith delivers lines like, "Money, money, money, muah. . . 500 kodi da! Panam Iruntha Un Pondati Maadri Onnu Ille da Aayiram Pondatti Kidaippa Da (500 crores. . . If you've got the money, you'll get thousand wives like yours!. . . It's a F*&%$# g game!"

"The other thing that has perhaps worked in Mankatha's favour is the fact that Venkat (Prabhu), the director of the film, didn't succumb to norms like justifying why Vinayak is as bad as he is, " Ajith says. "In fact, we were conscious we wanted to stay away from doing that. You see, I'm not here to educate the masses. I am where I am because a group of people, and a fairly large one at that, has recognised me as an actor. " Therein lies Ajith's honesty. All through his career - which began in 1992 with a Telugu film, Prema Pustagam;he the forayed into Tamil cinema with Amaravathi in 1992 - the actor has strived to keep a clean image. He also has a set of principles he lives by. For instance, he refrains from any pre or post release publicity for his films. "I've always believed that the guy who is watching my film in the cinema hall is the one who is paying my bills, " Ajith says, "I respect that. I don't want to do anything to cloud his or her judgement of the film. If he doesn't like it, he needs to have the right not to. "
That statement also stems from his own experience in cinema: "All of us involved in the filming process, may think we have a cracker on hand but when it is released, it may crumble. Filmmaking, I often like to say, is like Russian roulette. You never know what you'll get. The only thing you can do is find solace in the fact that, irrespective of the film's response, you work hard to make the money you do. " It may be a matter of coincidence that Mankatha in Tamil literally means a gamble. Needless to say, this one has hit a jackpot. "It's interesting also because my decision to work on Mankatha for my 50th happened over an informal conversation with Prabhu, " Ajith recalls. "I called to congratulate him for something and very casually mentioned that I was keen to do a film that would be remembered like Vaali, Villain or Billa, where the character had shades of grey and that offered scope for performance. I still remember the moment I said that, there were thirty seconds of silence from the other end. I almost thought the line had got disconnected when Prabhu very quietly said, 'Anna, the script I'm working on is exactly the kind you'd like to work on. ' He gave me a one-line narration and I decided to go for it. "

The pay-offs have been huge. Professionally, Ajith has already completed 40 days of work on the sequel of Billa (a Tamil gangster-thriller, remake of Farhan Akhtar's Don), directed by Vishnuvardhan. The rumour mill is also abuzz that he will team up with blockbuster film producer A M Rathnam for a project that will go on the floors in December.

On the personal front, Ajith considers his performance in Mankatha "among my best so far". Fortunately, fame and adulation haven't gone to his head. He still likes to play badminton and his house has an indoor shuttle court that wife Shalini, a former actor who also plays the game on a competitive level, uses as her practise pad. Aero-modelling and candid photography are his hobbies. And, of course, his career in motor racing on a Formula 2 platform was really an effort towards raising awareness about the sport at large. "As a child, I always wanted to be a race car pilot, " he says with a smile, "I don't want the child in me to die. Fortunately I'm lucky enough that my profession allows me to pursue my boyhood fantasies even as an adult. "

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