The Rise of Chiyaan Vikram: Two Decades and Counting
This is the refrain of entertainment. From anyone who’s anyone in the industry, to every nobody on the streets gives the same answer when asked what kind of movie he expects to see – ‘Ethavathu Different-a’.
And so, when a story named Dhruva Natchathiram (Pole Star) launches a 3-minute long 'teaser' and then a trailer from Gautham Vasudev Menon's debut with Vikram, the 'different-a' tag is checked.
But while the said movie lies in limbo, Saamy2 a feather on his cap. It’s the sequel to Saamy (2003).
I believe the buzz around this movie has more to do with Vikram, than with anything else in the trailer.
As an actor, Vikram is a chameleon, and I mean this in the best possible way. I don’t think anyone in the industry, barring Kamal Haasan, has essayed the range of characters or facades he has donned over twenty years in the industry. If there ever was a story of grit and temerity in South Indian film industry, it’s Vikram’s.
On Vikram’s birthday, here’s a quick lowdown of some lesser known facts about the 52 (!!) -year-old.
The Ten Year Curse and the Blockbuster Dud
Vikram’s career can be split into two; B.S and A.S. Before Sethu (1999) and After Sethu.
Vikram’s debut was En Kadhal Kanmani (1990). For the next nine years, Vikram trundled on in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu cinema, almost unnoticed.
His father too had spent all his life in the industry and barely managed to score a few supporting roles by the fag end of his career. Even supposedly ‘Big Break’ movies didn’t pan out. Most noticeably, PC Sreeram’s Meera and SP Muthuraman’s Kaval Geetham. We’ll let Muthuraman be for now. PC Sreeram, as cinematographer, was by then a legend. He was behind Nayagan’s largesse, Agni Natchathiram’s fire and light and Appu Raja’s dwarfism. So for Vikram to bag PC Sreeram’s directoral debut, Meera (1992), just two years into his career was a big deal. Until, of course, it flopped. BUT, listen/watch this song, and then we’ll talk.
I’d say Meera was a visual landmark in Tamil cinema for its time. Everything about the movie looked beautiful, and some of the performances from Vikram and Aishwarya exude sheer directorial brilliance. Yet, just like this song, you can’t really see the hero clearly. The story and the movie’s visual feel are more in focus. Is that why it failed to launch Vikram? Sigh.
Malayalam, Telugu and Dubbing
Interestingly, this was probably Vikram’s most prolific period. Despite being a poor grosser and showing just half of Vikram’s face throughout, Meera helped him bag some supporting roles in Malayalam and Telugu films. His most notable role in Malayalam was in the Mammootty-starrer Dhruvam. Here he is, supporting Mammootty (literally), as he thrashes the villain, who’s only dialogue throughout seems to be; ‘NO!’
Gandhi! Vikram was Gandhi!
Vikram dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Tamil dubbing of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. As Mohandas, his voice carried a kind of innocent eagerness. And as the older Gandhi, he’s almost indistinguishable from the Hindi or English version.
Vikram also dubbed for Prabhu Deva’s leading man debut, Kadhalan and for Abbas in Kadhal Desam. Both these movies were landmarks in Tamil cinema. Here’s a scene from Kadhalan.
Sethu and Happies Endings
If you do not know who director Bala is, don’t Google him. Watch this:
Unfailingly, in all of his movies, he will create something beautiful, and then destroy it by the end of the movie. There will be madness, blood, evil like you’ve never seen before and a kind of dark humour. This song is from Vikram’s first big break Sethu (1999), directed by Bala.
After Sethu, came a series of hits, though not really in quick succession. But before they came, Vikram acted in the Telugu movie 9 Nelalu (Nine Months), in the year 2000. He plays a husband who divorces his wife (Soundarya), because she opts for surrogacy (in vitro) to pay for his medical expenses after an acccident. Brilliant performance as a weak, conflicted yet loving husband. Again, a role that no one else would have played.
Dhil, Dhool, Saamy, Infinite Acceleration!
After Sethu came Dhil, in 2001. These two movies are like two ends of a filmy rainbow, with Dhil being bang on the ‘mass’ side of the bow. And from then on, Vikram has delivered hits every year. And then director Shankar found him and Anniyan (2005) happened, which clubbed blockbuster hero and brilliant actor to greater effect than Sethu. Here’s a scene from Anniyan where he plays both characters of his multiple personality simultaneously.
From I to Saamy2
There comes a time in an actor’s life when he outgrows the current crop of directors and story lines. It happened to Sivaji Ganesan, who faded into ignominy even as he was hailed as a living legend. It happened to Kamal Haasan, who is now doing movies with the only director who can fully use him – Kamal Haasan. And after the loud mashup of half-baked ideas and visuals, that is I, I fear it is happening to Vikram too.
In the meantime, Tamil audience will dig into the instant recall and loud nostalgia of Saamy with Saamy2, where Vikram plays Saamy, and his son! In the absence of something new, I’d rather take the rehashed old.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published in 2 September, 2016. It is being republished to mark the actor’s birthday.)