It is very hard to overshadow Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. First, standing 188cm tall, he is a towering presence. Then there’s his intense brooding charisma that is catnip to his millions of fans not just in India but across the world – from Japan to Russia, the UK to Canada.

But one wiry, unassuming, 167cm actor in nondescript clothes manages to hold his own – if not steal the limelight – while standing next to Big B: the humble, 31-year-old Dhanush, a superstar in his own right in his home state of Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

But then sharing space with famous personalities is nothing new to Dhanush – after all his father-in-law Rajinikanth is one of the biggest Indian superstars, possibly next only to Amitabh in terms of fame and fan following.

“It’s a huge burden to be known as Mr Rajinikanth’s son-in-law,” Dhanush has admitted. “I lost my identity when I married his daughter Aishwarya in 2004. That moment, whatever name I had earned on my own was wiped away. Wherever I went, I was known as Rajinikanth’s son-in-law. I had to work doubly hard to get back my identity.”

And Dhanush has – and how. The diminutive national-award-winning actor managed to land a role opposite none other than Amitabh in Shamitabh (a play on their names) that was recently released to critical acclaim.

“I went blank for a second when I was told that I had to act with Amitabh ji,” says Dhanush, who was in Dubai recently to promote the film. “Then I thought, ‘Oh! Here’s a great opportunity to learn something from the best.’ From the first day of shooting, it has been really exciting. Amit ji is a legend, and like all actors I am in awe of him, and this has been a great learning experience.”

The reason Dhanush is so wanted in Bollywood today – in fact it is said that Amitabh himself suggested to Shamitabh’s director that the actor star opposite him – goes back to 2011 when 3, a film produced by Dhanush and directed by his wife, Aishwarya, was being released and needed some advance publicity.

Jamming with the film’s 24-year-old music composer Anirudh Ravichander, Dhanush came up with a catchy number – Why this kolaveri di? (Why this murderous rage, girl?). The song became an internet sensation almost overnight. It notched up more than 20 million views within a month of its release on November 11, 2011, thanks largely to the actor’s hypnotising, angst-ridden voice. Although the movie was an average grosser, Dhanush was noticed for his excellent performance and Bollywood film-maker Aanand Rai cast him in Raanjhanaa (lover), which was a mega success.

Overnight, Dhanush was flooded with offers from Bollywood. “But I wasn’t interested in doing films just for the sake of doing them,” he says. “I was looking for good scripts. I firmly believe the script is king. The right actor in the right role will always succeed.”

The father of two says the “powerful and challenging” script of Shamitabh was what made him sign up immediately. “It was a wonderful script… a challenging plot… I did the film because it stretched me as an actor.” The story saw him playing a deaf-mute struggling actor who needs a voice to make it big in Bollywood, then chances upon Bachchan, a failed actor, who helps him. Dhanush turned in a sterling performance that had critics raving.

“I’m still greedily enjoying the fact that I’ve worked with Amitabh Bachchan,” he says. “Actually I don’t think my name deserves to be in the same panel with his. He is truly an icon.”

Today, Dhanush – real name Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja – may have the film world at his feet, but there was a time when the award-winning actor refused to even consider a Bollywood career. “While growing up, I wasn’t interested in films,” he says. “I wanted to be a chef. I am not a particularly good cook, not really. 
But that’s what interested me after I finished schooling in Chennai – the art of cooking.”

He used to cook regular dishes, like vegetable curries, and prepare breads at home to impress his father so he would enrol him in a catering college. “Chapatties, omelettes, nothing exotic – that was the extent of my cooking experiments. But I was interested in taking it up seriously,” he says.

But instead of enrolling him in a catering college, his film-maker father Kasthuri Raja asked his son to take over a film role when the actor in it dropped out. He rang Dhanush, who was 16 at the time, pleading with him to step in so he could complete the film on schedule.

But Dhanush was vehemently against being shoehorned into a career he didn’t want to follow. “Although I grew up in a house where famous South Indian film-makers and actors would be regular visitors, I was not at all influenced by the film industry,” he says. “I used to lock myself in my room, read a book or play video games while my father would be discussing films with the guests. Even when my older sisters Vimala Geetha and Karthika and brother Selvaraghavan (who’s a popular film-maker in his own right) would grab the first chance to visit my father’s film sets, I was never fascinated by it. In fact, I was never interested in acting in plays in school either.”

But clearly his father had noticed the latent talent lying within his son, so he didn’t give up encouraging him to give acting a try. It took a week for the entire family to convince Dhanush to take the role. “But once I am committed, I go all out,” he says. In fact, industry insiders say that’s the reason for Dhanush’s success – an unwavering faith in himself and the single-minded doggedness to succeed.

“That’s my nature,” he agrees. “That’s the only way to survive. It’s all about survival. I just fought very hard to survive here.”

Initially, of course, Dhanush did not believe he had it in him. “I felt I was not up to it, it was my father who made the decision for me,” he says. “He thought there was an actor in me and he wanted to bring out the talent. I wasn’t sure at all – but that man, I don’t know what got into him and why he did it, but I am glad he did. Because otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

His first film Thulluvadho Ilamai (Spirited Youth) was released in 2002 and was a success, with Dhanush receiving good reviews. But he did not get any other offers as he was too young to play the regular hero in films. He had to wait for two more years before his brother Selvaraghavan made his debut as director with Kaadhal Kondein (I fell in love) in 2003. Dhanush played a mentally disturbed orphan who becomes psychopathic. A tour de force performance saw him as the new star on the horizon.

His third film, Thiruda Thirudi (Robbers), a regular commercial entertainer by debutant director Subramaniam Siva that followed later that year cemented his position in the Tamil film industry. The same producers who had rejected him because of his slight frame and ordinary looks proclaimed him the next superstar. Dhanush looks faintly amused when asked about how he deals with such criticism.

“I am really not bothered about what anybody says about me,” he says. “I am here to do good work, and if I do my job well people will appreciate me. All the other stuff, the reviews and comments or praise will not make a difference if we don’t deliver.”

Dhanush is brutally honest about himself. “I know I have very ordinary looks, am slightly built and don’t appear heroic at all,” he admits candidly. “So I know I have to work twice as hard to make it. But because I look like one of them, the boys on the streets accepted me easily. However, the effort that goes into my work never slows down.”

A measure of his success is how right Amitabh Bachchan’s famous baritone seemed coming out of Dhanush’s mouth in Shamitabh. That is Dhanush’s success – making the unbelievable seem believable, and the audience loves it.

He, of course, credits his parents for his success and for instilling in him a work-hard mentality. “I am a very ordinary person, from an even more ordinary background,” he says. “We were basically a poor family, so poor that we had only a single meal every day until I was around seven or eight years old. Then my father found work as an assistant director, where he remained for 15 years. Those days, the Tamil film industry was smaller, and assistants were paid a pittance. It was only after he became a director that we saw some ease.

“When you see such hardship, it makes a deep impression on you. No amount of success will set me thinking I am too good. I will always be only as good as my last movie.”

That’s why he says his father is his hero. “He used to walk 8km a day to work to save a rupee on a bus ticket,” he says. “Even then he could feed us only one meal a day. I’ve seen my father slog, and thanks to him I know what hard work means.”

It has made him appreciative of hard work in any field, which is evident in the praise he lavishes on fellow actors. He takes to Twitter to promote his good friend Tamil filmstar Vikram whose recent movie I is out in theatres; thanks a journalist for an interview; and even has a good word for his ‘rival’ Simbu’s films. Very few actors would be so generous.

He even produces films with other heroes in the lead – nine so far and counting. “Obviously I can’t act in every film, so I make movies that I would have liked to act in,” he says. He gave Tamil television anchor Sivakarthikeyan his debut role in Ethir Neechal (Against the tide) followed by this year’s Kaaki Sattai (Police uniform). So why would he bet on a newcomer?

“Why not?” he says. “I appreciate hard work done by anybody. That’s the work ethic I learnt from my father. That’s why I promote them.” The star believes that such actions are necessary to keep the film industry healthy. “Only then will it benefit all of us.”

He refuses to dwell on the awards he has won so far, including the National Award in 2011 – the youngest Best Actor winner in India at just 28 – for an amazing performance in Aadukalam (Arena) co-starring Taapsee Pannu. “I am happy they thought me fit,” he smiles modestly. “Of course I worked hard, and that paid off.”

It is this simplicity that apparently appealed to his wife Aishwarya, who is two years older, when she first met him after the screening of his second film. “She complimented me and sent me a bouquet the next day saying ‘Good work. Keep in touch’,” he smiles. “I took that seriously! And we were married two years after we met.” They have two sons – Yatra, eight and Linga, four.

Now, after the release of his Tamil blockbuster Anegan (split personality), Dhanush is gearing up for his next big step – directing. He had been on the cusp of getting behind the camera when Raanjhanaa came about. “So, that went on the back-burner,” he says. “I want to direct movies but now I don’t know when I’ll get down to it.”

Though he doesn’t talk about it, Dhanush has a philanthropic side. He’s Peta’s brand ambassador and was even given the title of ‘India’s hottest vegetarian celebrity of 2011’. He’s also worked with WWF India to support Earth Hour 2012.

Off screen, he’s known as a star who doesn’t ever lose his temper or throw a tantrum. Is he really like that?

“Of course I do lose my temper,” he replies. “But that’s not for public consumption.”

And then he very politely says that our time is up, and he has to leave. He waits for me to get up first. Then he stands up to shake hands, and after 
a gracious wave, leaves the room.

Now I know why so many people love him.