IT WAS THE BEST NIGHT of Kenny’s life. It was the worst night of Kenny’s life. And it began on the pitch-black stage of the open-air auditorium at IIT-Madras.
At first the audience at the annual inter-collegiate festival thought that there was a technical glitch: they could hear the actors but not see them. They began to fidget. They began to boo. Then, about 15 minutes in, some of the viewers began to shush the others. They got what was happening: the play—Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which Kenny had the lead role—began in darkness but, eventually, the lights would come on. The shushing gradually overwhelmed the booing and the fidgeting. There was silence, then laughs. When the curtains came down, there was a standing ovation. Among the audience that October night in 1986 was Shailaja Balakrishnan, who knew that she would marry Kenny even though he was barely aware of her existence. She watched him get the Best Actor award, beating candidates from all the other colleges. Later she would say drishti pattuduchu—someone had cast the evil eye.
Things were going according to plan. Kenny had always wanted to be an actor—at least from 1974, when he was in the third standard at Montfort Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in Yercaud. The boys’ school was staging a musical named Steam Boat and someone was needed to play a cotton-picking slave girl in Alabama. Kenny was chosen. He was dyed black with vegetable powder, squeezed into a white-and-blue dress, and positioned in a corner of the stage. He had no lines; he just had to stand on stage. But that was enough to hook him. He acted through school and at Chennai’s Loyola College, where he joined the literature programme in 1983. He acted in small, larkish events. Once, in an inter-departmental cultural festival, he parodied a famous Horlicks ad—in which a little boy says he doesn’t need to drink Horlicks, he’d eat it straight out of the bottle—by turning it into an ad for underwear. And he acted in big productions, like the college theatre society's adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which his performance had the city’s theatre critics declaring the birth of a star, an endorsement heartily echoed by crush-struck girls from Women’s Christian College and Stella Maris.
The Best Actor award at IIT-Madras seemed to be a sign. Kenny was going to finish this last year at college and then he’d become an actor in the movies, in Tamil cinema, like he’d always wanted.
It had been a long day. After the festival, Kenny hopped onto a bike, behind a friend. They zipped out of the IIT campus, took a left, and soared off into the night. They had turned right at the corner of the road by the governor’s house when Kenny noticed that his shoelaces had come undone. As he bent to attend to them, he heard a loud sound, and the next thing he knew, he was on the road. His friend had been fooling around as usual, resting his legs on the crash bars, and he couldn’t brake in time when he saw the truck speeding towards them near the traffic circle. He accelerated instead and hit the truck. The impact of the collision uprooted the railing around the traffic circle. It was Kenny’s first accident. And he didn’t even know how to ride a bike.
Today, he remembers those moments in flashes. He went into shock. There was no pain, only numbness. The pain started when some friends, who were following in a car, reached the spot and lifted him into the backseat. And then there was laughter. Kenny was always high-spirited, and when they reached the government hospital at Royapettah, he found that his sense of humour had returned. He jokingly protested when the medical staff began to snip away his clothes. (“This is imported underwear. Do you know how much it cost?”) And as his friends surrounded him, he covered his crotch in mock modesty.
Then things got serious again. A severed artery was emptying blood into his right leg. There was a possibility of gangrene. Strange terms were floating in the air. Haematoma. Thomas splint. Amputation. Consent forms needed to be signed for the amputation, but his mother refused to do so, preferring to take him to the privately run Vijaya Hospital. The ambulance driver took a scenic route to charge more money. And somewhere in the middle of this worst night of his life, there was the ward boy standing beside Kenny when he was hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled into a lift.
He still remembers the dirty khaki uniform on the ward boy. He still remembers asking him if he could hold his hand. But he doesn’t remember why. He doesn’t remember why he felt so scared in that lift, as the doors closed. He thinks maybe it had to do with lying down and not standing up, as one usually does in lifts. Maybe this change in perspective gave him an inkling that his life was going to to change.
THE FEW PEOPLE WHO REALLY know the Tamil star Vikram have probably been surprised by this admission of fear. Because even with those close to him, he’s always been about the jokes and high spirits and anecdotes that can really punch up a conversation. Like the one about how he ended up with that name. His parents—J Albert Victor and Rajeswari—named him Kennedy and called him Kenny. He hated the name, even if he had to admit that it was better than the one his ambitious grandfather had in mind: “Astronaut”. At some point, realising that if he wanted a name he liked, he’d have to come up with it himself, he took VI from his father’s name, K from Kennedy, RA from his mother’s, and RAM from his sun sign, Aries. A screen name was born.
That’s the kind of story you’re likely to hear from Vikram and the people who know him, like Dr PVA Mohandas, a famous surgeon at Vijaya Hospital, who operated on him after his accident. “He had a huge number of friends,” Mohandas said. “A big gang used to assemble in the evenings, during visiting hours.” Mohandas told Vikram’s mother, “I have seen so many actors and politicians here, but I’ve never seen such crowds.”
Shailaja told me another such story, about the day when Vikram had finished his bachelor’s degree and enrolled in a post-graduate diploma programme in business administration. He rang her up from a tea stall and said, “Can I call you every hour?” The second time he called, he said, “I know I’m basically a Christian, you’re a Hindu. Do you believe in the thaali?” Shailaja said no, she did not believe in wedding rituals. He said, “I don’t either. So we can get married.” A little later, he called and said, “I won’t be earning anything for a while. But I know that one day I will be able to take you holidaying to the best places in the world.”
None of these stories are about a ward boy in a dirty khaki uniform.
You don’t usually hear confessions of weakness from the really big stars—especially the ones in Tamil cinema, whose fans are devoted to their heroes, welcoming each film with firecrackers and giant cutouts of their idols, which they worship with ablutions of milk. The really big stars like to talk about upcoming films, or about their family, but are careful about saying anything that could disturb the macho façade that their fans buy into. Confessions such as Vikram’s sense of fear as he was wheeled into the hospital lift could be considered weakness, and it’s not something you expect to hear from him—not because he doesn’t have weaknesses, and not because he won’t tell us that he has them, but because he won’t tell himself that he has them. The relentless positivity and equanimity, the extraordinary manner with which he’s conducted himself through the low points in his life, make him seem less a flesh-and-blood person than an amped-up motivational poster.
Everyone I talk to has a story (or three) that intensifies the legend. Sriman, an actor who was struggling to get into films at about the same time as Vikram, told me about trying to convince Vikram to come along with him to perform as a backup dancer at a dance programme organised in Canada in the mid-1990s. It was good money, and he needed it, but Vikram turned it down. He would not be one among many. One day, there would be dance show called Vikram Star Nite, he said, and if Sriman was available, he’d take him along. Ten years later, in Malaysia and Singapore, sell-out crowds watched the top heroines of Tamil and Telugu cinema participate in one such show. Vikram was the sole hero.
The legend-intensifying stories aren’t always about his career, or about the movies. Vikram’s classmate from Loyola College and good friend, RMR Ramesh, who is managing director of the Tamil daily Dinakaran, told me, “He used to pull me away from the fights I used to get into, around campus elections. The kind of advice we give our kids today, he had that maturity even then.”
Even Shailaja’s attempts to humanise her husband end up burnishing his aura. Recalling the days during which Vikram shot for his biggest blockbuster, Anniyan (which was released in Hindi as Aparichit: The Stranger), she said, “I felt we should live in two houses. It’s not easy to live with a man who can get that eccentric, an actor who wants to be that difficult on himself. I wouldn’t say he becomes the character, but there’s definitely some kind of internalisation.” Being a full-time psychologist, these are not terms she uses lightly.
The only flaw in this man, apparently, is a tendency to spout the occasional cornball cliché. When the Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi asked what kept him going through nearly ten years of struggle, he said, “Well, I take the cue from my blood group—B positive. I’m an optimist.” The other flaw is, perhaps, his taste in music—though it requires some kind of bravery to declare that one of your favourite songs is ‘Can I touch you there’, by Michael Bolton.
THE FIRST TIME I MET VIKRAM, at his home near Elliot’s Beach in Chennai, on a very hot evening in early May, he was wolfing down dinner—steamed vegetables in a shallow plastic container—using a pair of chopsticks.
He appeared surprisingly small—but then heroes who usually stare out of 70-mm screens can seem so when you see them in person. The shaved head and the alarming weight loss he’d recently undergone added to the impression. This is one of his looks for the hotly anticipated mega-production, Ai, from Tamil cinema’s biggest blockbuster director Shankar. Shailaja told me later, “These past ten months, Vikram has been eating like a hermit.”
This isn’t the first time. To appear emaciated in the latter portions of his first hit, Sethu, which were set in a mental asylum, Vikram lived only on fruit juice for six months, and once he lost the desired weight (16 kilograms), he maintained the look by subsisting on a scanty diet: an egg white, one glass of beetroot or carrot juice and a single dry chapatti through the day. The film is about a college student who falls for a girl who does not reciprocate his feelings at first—and by the time she does, he’s lost his mind. It was shot mostly in sequence—the first scene of the screenplay filmed first, the last scene last—so that a healthy-looking Vikram could be shown slowly deteriorating. Towards the end of the shoot, the first-time director, Bala, had just one instruction for his leading man: “Have just enough strength to stand up.”
While preparing to play a blind singer in Kasi, Vikram practised drawing his eyeballs up into their sockets so that only the whites could be seen. He started with one minute, then two, then five, and then he practised drawing his eyeballs up after dousing his eyes with glycerin, for the scenes where he had to cry. Once shooting started, he would roll his eyeballs up through the whole day on the set. He had to do eye exercises at the end of every day's shoot so that he wouldn’t end up with a squint. He said, “My eyesight changed because of Kasi.” He had perfect vision earlier, but now wears glasses to drive, watch movies and work on his laptop.
And now, there’s Ai. Vikram calls it the toughest film he’s ever done.
He showed me a cellphone photograph where his cheeks appeared to be powdered with rouge. But it’s actually folliculitis, a rash from his allergy to the prosthetic makeup, which covered his skin for 11 to 17 hours a day.
He’s trying to lose 20 kilograms for the film, eating ten tiny meals a day—half an egg in one, half an apple two hours later, and so on. “My normal weight,” he said, “is around 80. Now I’m 63. I want to become 60, but I’m trying to push it to 55. Fifty is insane because I will never be able to get my body mass back. The doctor says okay, but suddenly the BP may drop and you may not be able to get it up.” He smiled the smile of a teenager sneaking out for a cigarette. “When this movie is released, people will say: how did he do it?”
A more pertinent question might be: why does he do it? Why this need to suffer to the point of self-flagellation? Why this constant desire to be different? After all, the Tamil audience is among the most accepting in the world, with documented indifference to the beauty or the body of heroes. Many of the heroes we see in Tamil cinema today could never be heroes in Hindi cinema, in which the idea of a leading man is more cosmetic. When Salman Khan played the protagonist in Sethu’s remake, Tere Naam, he appeared in the asylum portions with ripped abs, evidently having improvised an exercise routine using the chains that bound him to the walls. Vikram told me about running into Khan while shooting Anniyan. “He asked me how many films I was doing. I said one. He asked for how long. I said one-and-a-half years. He said, ‘Are you crazy? You know how many films I am doing? 23.’ He asked me why I was doing just this one film. I said because I have to maintain a look. And he said, ‘Yo, on screen just make sure you look good. That’s it.’ ”
The popular belief about this phenomenon is that Tamil audiences— especially those from the lower-income groups who become members of an actor’s fan club—like to see heroes who look like them, whom they can identify with, while Hindi audiences like to see heroes who look nothing like them, and whom they can aspire to be. So a Tamil cinema hero who makes movies for the masses can be a number of things the Hindi film hero usually cannot: dark-skinned, unkempt, dressed in the most ordinary clothes, and hanging out with buddies who look like they could be autorickshaw drivers and bus conductors. (One of the latter went on to become south India’s most famous star, Rajinikanth.)
However, once you establish a “look” that fans buy into, you don’t deviate too much from it. You just slap on a moustache or change your hairstyle from movie to movie. Vikram, however, puts himself through monastically rigorous transformations even in his purely commercial outings. For all practical purposes, the hero could have looked the same in Dhil and Saamy and Dhool and Gemini. “But in Dhil,” he said, “my character wants to become a cop and those who want to become cops have a small waist. In Saamy, where I play a cop, my waist is thicker. Because after you become a cop, that’s how you look.”
Bala told me that the reason he chose to make a first film that was so raw was that it would stand out from the mellow, family-friendly entertainers that most first-time filmmakers were making in the late 1990s. “It would make me noticed at once.” Then he said, “It’s also a kind of a mental illness, where someone says, ‘I will not be like anyone else. I will choose my own path.’ Only madmen have this disease. If you go to a mental asylum and if you don’t talk to an inmate there, he’ll throw something at you to catch your attention. I’m like that. I want people to look at me.”
Maybe Vikram, in his own way, wants people to look at him. “Attention, fame, recognition, money—all that will come automatically,” he told me. “ But I want to do something immortal.” This isn’t hubris. He seems to look at acting as some combination of penance and extreme sport. “I saw this interview with this guy who wanted to jump across a chasm on his bike,” he said. “Nobody’s ever done it. He was about 24, 25. He said he knew he may die, but he’s going to die one day anyway, and he wanted to push himself. He wanted that high, that rush. He did die. He hit a rock. But he had that rush. That is what happens to me as an actor. I don’t feel complete if I look normal.”
But there must be something about him that’s normal. I asked Vikram, only half-jokingly, if he had any skeletons in the closet—perhaps a tendency to strangulate kittens. He said, without missing a beat, “They’re buried in my backyard.”
It’s no surprise that he deflects your question with humour and offers his normal self. The Kenny self. The ordinary guy whose favourite food is day-old rice and dry fish, and who likes to hang out in a T-shirt, a faded pair of jeans and rubber flip-flops. We usually met in his immaculate office, which gives no clues about the life that lies beyond—not even a tossed-off, half-read book. A request to observe him on the sets of Ai was denied. “Shankar sir wasn’t comfortable,” he said.
What’s surprising, though, is that Vikram draws a boundary around him even with his family. “There’s a dichotomy within me,” he said. “I’m Vikram at work. I’m Kenny at home. When I’m home, I’m a normal father. Nobody outside can reach me. Likewise, at work, my wife cannot reach me. There’s no two ways about it. It’s very clearly demarcated.”
Shailaja saw this during Sethu, during Raavanan, and she’s seeing this with Ai. “He dialogues with himself,” she said. “He stands in front of a mirror, observing his moves. And during this process he does withdraw a bit. He likes being alone. He doesn’t talk. I have to ask him to tell me what he’s doing. I’m not saying it’s a schizoid kind of thing, but unless he withdraws, he cannot work this way.”
“SCHIZOID” WOULD PERHAPS be the appropriate term to describe Kenny’s transformation into Vikram, which happened in the days following the accident.
A week after meeting Vikram at his home, I met Dr Mohandas at the sprawling Ramapuram premises of MIOT International, the multi-specialty hospital complex where he is managing director. “After the accident, we couldn’t operate on Kenny for almost five months because of complications,” he told me. “ He had to be put on traction. We couldn’t give him anesthetics because he’d lost so much blood. If they’d come in three hours later, we’d have had to amputate.” Mohandas told Kenny’s parents that there was perhaps a two percent chance of saving the leg, but he would have to stay in the hospital for months and suffer pain throughout. It was expensive, and there was still the probability that a complication could occur and the leg would have to be amputated.
In medical terms, it was a compound comminuted fracture of the leg, with a degloving injury and loss of muscle. In plain English, Kenny’s bones were broken to bits, and there was heavy damage to skin and soft tissue from knee to ankle. The fracture needed to be fixed. Flesh and bone needed to be grafted to shape the bottom half of a leg where none existed. Kenny had 23 operations over three years, and even after being discharged, he had to return due to infections and complications. And this was a man who was afraid of injections.
But Vikram wasn’t. From the accounts of his life that I heard from various people, Kenny appears to be his father’s son, Vikram his mother’s. Kenny is a dreamer like his father, who, deciding he wanted to be a star, ran away to Chennai from his home in Paramakudi, the town in southern Tamil Nadu most famous today for being Kamal Haasan’s birthplace. But he never made it beyond a handful of villain roles, and he now acts in serials. Vikram is a doer like his mother, who was something of a real-life heroine herself. A teacher who joined the government service as a revenue inspector, she would eventually retire as deputy commissioner in the Revenue Department. She’d stop lorries containing stolen sand, despite her son’s admonitions that the miners were capable of mowing her down. “When I began acting in the movies, her name used to appear in the papers more than mine,” Vikram told me. “I used to say, ‘Amma, I don’t like this.’ In this aspect, I think I take after her. If she sets her mind on something, she’ll do it. If it had been only my father at Royapattah hospital, he would have tearfully signed the consent forms and authorised amputation. My mother refused. The first month-and-a-half I was in the hospital, I never saw her sit. At one point, she was getting ready to trundle out my bed because there was a fire below. I got through that phase only because of her.”
It was a slow, torturous phase. After a few months, Vikram was advised to begin walking with a crutch, so that the leg wouldn’t atrophy from lack of exercise. It took him two hours to walk from his bed to the door.
How does someone, however optimistic, come out of something like this with the belief that their dream will still become a reality? The first few times I met Vikram, he just smiled and shrugged, as if it were nothing. “I just wanted to be an actor,” he said. “That’s what kept me going.” He lapsed into clichés. It’s life. You have to go through it. And so forth.
But one day, he told me what really happened. It involves a big name from the film industry, whom Vikram did not want named. He knew the young man wanted to be an actor in the movies, a hero. He could have given Kenny a break, but the only time he called was when he needed junior artists for a movie he was making. Kenny begged off, but he was smarting from the insult, the implication that that was all he was good for. When this man heard about Kenny’s accident, he visited the hospital, looked at the college kid who’d been told he’d never walk again and told him, “Just get well and come out. I’ll make you a star.”
Kenny looked at him and thought, “You know I can act, but you never gave me a chance in any of your films. And now, you’re saying you want to make me a hero? Because the doctors said I won’t be able to walk again? You know what? I will walk. I’m not going to tell anyone that I know you, and I will become a hero.”
That was the moment when Kenny really began the transition to Vikram. He began working out: dumbbells for the arms and shoulders, and for the chest, an improvised bench press—a serving tray loaded with books by favourite writers, like Leon Uris and Wilbur Smith. Doctors began to bring around other patients, who were losing hope, and point at Vikram. “Look at his attitude,” they’d say.
One day, after watching the movie Mayuri on a video player in his room, he had an idea. That film, released in 1984, was based on the real-life story of its heroine Sudha Chandran, a classical dancer who, at 16, lost a leg after an accident, got fitted with a “Jaipur foot”, and began dancing again. There were so many parallels to Vikram’s story: another youngster with dreams of a performing career; another collision with a truck; another series of bad calls at a government hospital; another transfer to Vijaya Hospital; another frighteningly self-motivated individual. Vikram told his mother, “I can’t work in the movies like this. Let’s cut my leg off. Then I can do a film like Mayuri. I can be a karate champ who loses his leg and gets a Jaipur foot and returns to doing stunts.” His mother was not amused.
Had that film been made, an emotional scene would have centred on the protagonist saying no to painkillers. Vikram’s leg was healing on the outside but not on the inside, so for a while they had to keep the wound open—you could touch the bone. The pain was terrible. They had to reach into his leg and coat the insides with antibiotic powder. “It was so bad that they gave me morphine. I floated for three days. And afterwards, I began to look out for the sound of the trolley with the painkillers.” Having wanted to be in the movies for as long as he could remember, Vikram was always something of a health freak, who avoided carbonated drinks, chocolates and ice cream.“I didn’t want to get addicted to these things,” he told me. And when he began to realise that he could get addicted to painkillers, he turned them down.
Mani Ratnam, who directed Vikram in Raavanan, caught a glimpse of this grit. “He has a problem with heights,” Ratnam told me. “We needed a crane shot for a song, and when I asked him to climb on top of a prop, I saw there was some hesitation.” Ratnam asked Vikram if there was a problem, but the actor was not yet ready to confide in his director. He did the song. Later, when the action scenes on the bridge were being filmed over a sheer drop, Ratnam noticed that Vikram would do the shot without looking down. And when the shot was over, he would close his eyes. In the final shot, the character had to be shown falling into a ravine. Vikram had become comfortable with Ratnam by then and admitted to the director that he had a problem with heights. He, added, however, that it wasn’t going to be a problem this time. He would be looking at the sky.
SHAILAJA HAD ALWAYS KNOWN that Vikram was her soulmate. She told me that she was a “devotee” of Brian Weiss, the American psychiatrist and past-life regression therapist. “I’m keyed to these things. And it was predicted that my soulmate would be someone drastically different from me. That’s how it’s turned out. I’m a pessimist. He’s an optimist. He can laugh at anything. I can’t. I’m very judgmental. He’s not. I can do sympathy but not empathy. But he’s very good at empathising with people.”
She had gone to the hospital with a group of friends to express her sympathy. She was shocked to see him lying in bed and cracking jokes. Ever the entertainer, he would play the guitar, sing songs, paint and flirt with girls who came to see him even though he was now restricted to bed. It was after he came out of the hospital, on crutches, that Shailaja finally got to talk to him, at a get-together organised by a common friend. She knew that it would be a very important day in her life. She walked up to him and asked him what he planned to do. He told her, “I am going to be a star”. She thought he was delusional.
Vikram realised that this was the girl for him, and he began to woo her like he’d woo women in the movies one day. He bought her a sari from the ration shop. He took her to the beach and sang for her—‘Nilave vaa’ from Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Raagam, the big hit of 1986. And he charmed her parents. Her father asked him what he was going to do. He said he had applied for a job in Lintas—the advertising agency that’s now Lowe Lintas & Partners—but eventually he wanted to act. “My dad didn’t know what to say,” Shailaja said. “Then he told me that if this man has this dream even after such an accident, then he couldn’t say anything.”
Years later, when in Berlin for a workshop, Shailaja showed the nuclear scan of Vikram’s leg to a German orthopaedic surgeon. He asked her what Vikram did. She said he was an actor who often worked in action films. The doctor told her it couldn’t be the doing of medical science. “It’s all His doing,” he said.
I asked Vikram if he was a believer, as tragedies have a way of turning people spiritual. “I know there’s a universal something,” he said, “and my perception of it changes over the years. In school, I was punished if I didn’t go to church, and that can really drive you away from Christianity and god.” His early influences were far less clerical—the book that he says changed him was The Fountainhead. “Like a lot of people, I saw myself as Howard Roark. For me, it’s never been about being No. 1, but about doing something you believe in. But later in life, you want to believe in something. Today, I say the rosary. ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven.’ But it’s more about the universe. Live well, let live.”
After leaving the hospital, Vikram still had a year of college to complete. His English lecturer, Professor GM James, obtained the necessary permissions so he could do his dissertation from home. It was titled ‘Strong-willed Women in Shaw’s Plays’. For his exams, though, he had to go to the college. His father would bring him in an Maruti Omni, where he could stretch his leg in the back. His friend RMR Ramesh said, “He walked with a crutch. He had a slight limp. Otherwise you couldn’t make out anything was wrong.”
Vikram isn’t the first man who worked hard at overcoming a setback, but what makes his story slightly different is the magnitude of his dream. He wanted to become a hero; it was that or nothing. He said no to Mani Ratnam when offered the role of the heroine’s sister’s fiancé in Alaipaayuthey. He said no to Mani Ratnam again when offered the role of Nandita Das’s husband in Kannathil Muthamittal. He told himself, instead, “I want people in Kerala to recognise me. I want my films to do well in Andhra Pradesh. I want to be known in the north.” This was either the world’s most foolish man, or the bravest.
VIKRAM’S DREAM WAS INCUBATED in boarding school, to which he was packed off when he was nine. He learnt to play basketball. He was the swimming champion—breaststroke and butterfly. He learnt horseback riding. He was the boxing champion. He took up the guitar and saxophone. He was a part of several teams—dramatics, music, art—and played a number of games (even if he was just a substitute). “If I am an actor today,” Vikram told me, “it is because of the facilities there. Actors who haven’t done these things end up looking fake when playing a guitar or throwing a basketball. But I can do all these things to an extent, so I can fake it convincingly.”
The students used to do small plays in class, for an audience of 20 kids. Then they did plays in front of the school, watched by 500 kids. And then in the girls’ school across the hill, before 1,000 kids. Vikram, who was then in the eighth standard, loved it. He also realised that cinema would give him the biggest audience. By this time, his mother’s brother, Thyagarajan, had become a popular actor in Tamil cinema. Vikram used to buy film magazines, and if there was something about his uncle, even if it was just one line, he’d read it over and over.
As he did in the film world many years later, Vikram lurked in the fringes of the school’s theatre for a long time. He played a guard, or did backstage work—anything to ultimately be in front of the audience. When he was in the ninth standard, the lead actor in the Molière comedy The Doctor in Spite of Himself contracted chicken pox. The director looked around and realised that there was only one possible replacement, the junior artist who always knew everyone’s lines. The play was a hit, and his performance was praised. This was his Sethu moment long before Sethu. “After that,” he said, “I got bigger roles, and I’d always get the Best Actor award.”
One day, in a pile of books on a pavement outside the school, Vikram spotted a volume of photographs. “It was by some lecturer. 150 pages, 150 pictures. He’d photographed himself as a postman in one picture, then a fisherman, then he was a sweeper. He looked different on every page. I was shocked.” Vikram said “shocked” as if replaying the emotion to me, voice rising, eyes widening like a silent-film actor. “You can see Sivaji Ganesan do something like this. But this was some ordinary guy. And at that age, I said, when I do films, this is what I’ll do. I should not just look different, I should be different.” And he began looking out for “weird” roles. In one play, he was a guy talking to his dead father, who's in a chair. In another, he was a hypochondriac who never left his bed, until, finally, he’s told the house is on fire. “When we did Julius Caesar, I was offered Caesar. I said no, I’ll do Brutus or I’ll do Cassius.”
Molière and Shakespeare can hardly be thought of as steps to a flourishing career in Tamil cinema, but there was more. “My sister and I used to speak only in English,” said Vikram, relishing the irony of a “Peter”—South Indian slang for an English-speaker—making it big in one of the most rooted regional film industries. In school, they used to think he was Anglo-Indian because he didn’t speak much Tamil and what little he spoke was with an Anglicised accent. “My grandfather was a headmaster in Paramakudi. My father used to tell this story about how amazed the other kids would be when he recited ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’, that the headmaster’s son spoke such good English. So that fascination for English was always there in the family.”
James, the English teacher, told me that the last thing he thought Vikram would become was an actor in Tamil cinema. “I have seen him talk only in high-flown English. One of my courses was copywriting, and I always felt he would go and set up an excellent ad agency and do very well. I don’t know how and where he picked up such good Tamil.”
Vikram knew that he couldn’t be in Tamil cinema without speaking Tamil, so he began to read Tamil newspapers out loud. Later, when he started making movies, he chose to follow up Sethu with films where he played villagers—films like Kaasi, Vinnukkum Mannukkum and Dhool. “It was my insecurity,” he told me. “I didn’t want people to think I was this English-speaking guy.” When people saw him as Remo—the smart and stylish “dude” character he played in Anniyan, one of the protagonist’s multiple personalities —they thought he was playing out of his comfort zone. “Actually, a Remo is what I am.”
WHEN VIKRAM COULD FINALLY WALK AGAIN, he did everything he could to keep himself busy. He did a copywriting stint with the advertising agency Lintas. He did a course in computers, learning BASIC and COBOL. And to keep his acting dream alive, he packed in a few ad films and an anti-drugs short film and a six-episode television serial called Galatta Kudumbam, which aired on Doordarshan between November and December 1988.
I asked him why he did ad films and a television serial when he wanted to become a movie star. “I needed a start somewhere,” he said. “I knew people would notice and someone would call me for another film and then another film till the big break happened.”
One of those who noticed was an employee of Indian Bank, who, with several of his colleagues, was turning producer for a small-budget experimental film named En Kadhal Kanmani. It was about a smoker who has to kick the habit if he wants to marry his girlfriend. Midway through the shooting, Vikram learnt from his father that the well-known director CV Sridhar was looking for a new hero. Sridhar asked Vikram if he’d done any films. Vikram said no. It wasn’t a lie, exactly—En Kadhal Kanmani hadn’t yet been released. Sridhar was a legend. One of his most popular and fondly remembered films is the 1960s romantic comedy Kadhalikka Neramillai, which was remade in Hindi as Pyar Kiye Jaa, but by the 1990s, he was seen as something of a spent force. Thanthu Vitten Ennai, which was released in 1991, with Vikram as hero, would be the director’s final film. Still, as shot-in-the-dark strategies go, the decision to work with Sridhar wasn’t completely misconceived. “In my mind,” Vikram said, “he was a big director at one point. He could make a comeback.”
Vikram’s next film was Kaaval Geetham, with another big director at one point who could make a comeback—SP Muthuraman, the director who gave Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth some of their biggest hits. Then Vikram was signed on for Meera, whose director PC Sreeram was Mani Ratnam’s usual cinematographer. “That was my first glimpse of stardom,” Vikram said. “I’d go to the set and look at the way he’d lit it up and go, ‘Whoa, am I a part of this?’”
RMR Ramesh wasn’t as impressed. He felt that these roles were trivial when compared to the parts Vikram played on stage. Shailaja told me something similar. “I began to wonder if this was the field for him because these roles were nothing compared to what he did on stage. But he never brought the flops home and felt bad—except when Mani sir’s film didn’t happen. I remember him getting very emotional.”
The call from Mani Ratnam’s office came when Vikram was shooting for Pudhiya Mannargal. It was another film with a big-name director, Vikraman, who had burst onto the scene a few years ago with a smash-hit first film called Pudhu Vasantham. It would turn out to be another flop.
The Mani Ratnam film was Bombay, and Vikram was called for a screen test with Manisha Koirala. He thought it would be a video shoot, which is the usual practice, but it turned out to be a photo shoot. “Now I can do photo shoots blindly,” he told me, “but then, I was terrified of the still camera. Mani sir was giving me a non-stop stream of instructions. She’s coming. You’re looking there. You’re turning. She’s turning. I froze. I was trying to hold one expression for the camera, and he said, ‘No, no, no, just be free, be natural.’” Vikram had grown his hair long and had a beard for the Pudhiya Mannargal part, but Ratnam wanted someone with close-cut hair and just a moustache. “I was on a break between schedules,” Vikram said. “I could have even shaved my head. But I was an actor, you see. It was all about continuity.”
He was dejected for a few hours. Then he resumed his routine: the dance classes, the exercises—loading his right leg with iron rings and raising and lowering them. He resumed his fight training, learning how to twirl a stick in the martial art known as silambam, which is popular in the action sequences in Tamil films. But, of course, he had to be different—while others trained with sticks, Vikram opted for an iron rod used to dig up roads. And he resumed his acting classes. Sriman and some other strugglers would troop to Vikram’s house after their dance class, and as Vikram was the only one with acting experience, he’d create situations for the others to perform, requiring them to effect variations in the delivery of a word or a line—like “enna?” (what?)
“That kept me going. If I hadn’t done that…” he trailed off, recalling the decade between his first film and his first hit. “Those ten years, I cannot dismiss them as just ten years. At that age, in your twenties, it’s a lot of time to stay focused on a goal, especially when a friend comes by and talks about a job opening. There are so many people who wanted to be in the movies and now they’re working in some cubicle somewhere. Once you get that money, once you move into your home, you can’t stop and say you’re going to follow your dream.”
IN 1994, eight years after the accident, four years after En Kadhal Kanmani sank without a trace, two years after Meera failed to make him a star, Vikram and Shailaja got married, twice—first in the church at Loyola College, and then, because Shailaja is a Malayali, in a Guruvayoor temple. James told me, “The church ceremony was over quickly. We didn’t even have dinner afterwards. They got into a car and drove off. And then we left.”
The career front was equally low-key. Stardom seemed so near, yet so far. The big banners, big directors kept calling. Vikram was cast as one of the heroes in Ullasam, the first Tamil venture of Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd. The film flopped. An opportunity to feature as one of the two leads in Raman Abdullah, a film by the well-regarded director Balu Mahendra, slipped away because of date clashes with the Ullasam schedule.
But his financial situation wasn’t dire. Somewhere in the haze of his impossible dreams, there had been a reality check. He needed a livelihood. After Meera, Vikram was chosen to play the lead in the Telugu film Chirunavvula Varamistava, and a supporting role in the Malayalam film Dhruvam, which had Mammooty in the lead. If any of these films clicked, Vikram was ready to move to that industry and make his career there. But he hoped the big break would come from a Tamil film. “Because that’s your mother tongue, you want to do the right stuff,” he said. “That’s why I never did anything but hero roles in Tamil.” But he admitted that doing commercial cinema in Telugu, where he wore “glittery outfits” and “belted out lines loudly and melodramatically”, and in Malayalam, where “the actors are so good, you always pick up a trick or two”, gave him a sense of balance. “Today, I can do a very de-glam role. I can also do something outrageous. It all helps you.”
Vikram also began to dub for other actors. Here, too, he had standards. He wouldn’t dub for religious films that involved, say, wish-fulfilling snakes—but he became the voice of Abbas and Prabhu Deva, and he lent his voice to the protagonist of Satya and for a portion of Gandhi when these films were dubbed in Tamil. “For me, dubbing is where actors excel,” said Vikram, who doesn’t like live sound. “I like to change my voice while dubbing, and I put in a lot of effort in the modulation.” He was, in his own way, having fun.
And then Bala put the brakes on it.
“EVERYONE IS SOME KIND OF ACTOR, no?” Bala asked me in his office, where the air-conditioned air was infused with freshly exhaled cigarette smoke. “I’m talking to you now. Maybe 90 percent is the truth, but the rest is acting.”
After working under Balu Mahendra for seven years—until Marupadiyum, the Tamil remake of Arth—Bala decided it was time for his first film, and he based it on the trials of a friend who fell in love and lost his mind and ended up in chains at a mental asylum. While looking for his protagonist, “an actor who could sacrifice everything”, his eyes fell on Vikram. He hadn’t been impressed by any of Vikram’s films, but there were some expressions—“just two or three shots”—that had grabbed his attention in the ‘O butterfly’ song sequence in Meera , where Vikram studies the colourfully garbed heroine with the rapt awe of a lepidopterist gazing at a Painted Lady.
Bala and Vikram had been friends, hanging out with the same group of strugglers. So Bala approached him and said he had a script ready, and instead of telling the actor what the story was, and what his character was like, he rattled off a list of conditions. Vikram would have to reduce his body weight by 20 kilograms, shave his head, stop doing small roles in other films and give up dubbing work. “There could be no distractions,” Bala said.
Vikram finally found himself in the hands of a filmmaker whose intensity matched his own. He threw himself into the project with such dedication, transforming his appearance so drastically that when the first scene at the asylum was shot, with some 300 extras—all with shaven heads, all in uniform, a dirt-coloured vest and shorts—Bala couldn’t tell where his leading man was. During these stages of the shoot, the actor was so weak from starvation that Bala had to keep tapping him and asking if he’d heard and understood what he was supposed to do. “If I called out, he couldn’t hear me,” Bala said. “His ears were blocked, and his eyes were often out of focus.”
Bala began to wonder if it was right to “torture” a man like this. “Had it been another actor, I wouldn’t have bothered, but he was someone who’d had a major accident—and I’ve seen the condition his leg was in. What I was doing was worse than the accident. An accident is an accident. But this was deliberate. I was using him for my self-interest, for my film to become a hit.”
The film, whose shooting was inaugurated with a puja in April 1997, took two years to make and it was plagued with problems, beginning with a FEFSI (Film Employees’ Federation of South India) strike that stopped shooting for six months, from June to December that year. “I still don’t want to recall that period,” Shailaja told me. “He was on a diet that went on and on. To have this person who’s at home all the time and not eating normally, just saying the strike will get over, shooting will happen, the strike will get over, shooting will happen … It’s not easy. He used to have that look, that Sethu look. I used to tell him, ‘Don’t look at me like that.’ I knew that there was so much hard work on his side, but I didn’t verbalise it and give him the warm-fuzzies. I was not an encouraging wife, honestly. He encouraged himself. It was his sole journey.”
Sriman, who played the role of the protagonist’s friend in Sethu, had left the unit after finishing one schedule with the normal-looking Vikram. When he returned, he found an emaciated wreck who was surviving on four scoops of papaya every two hours. “I asked him if this was necessary. But Kenny said this is it. This is life or death.”
Shailaja gave him an ultimatum. If Sethu didn’t work, then he’d live his dream through television or theatre. He was not the kind of person who went to producers and handed out photos or introduced himself. He was just someone who had talent. And in television and theatre, you could get by if you just had talent. To convince him, she sought the help of James, whom Vikram regarded highly. But Vikram begged them to back off. “He was in so much pain,” James said. “But when I saw the look in his eyes, I told Shaila not to talk to him about this anymore.”
When the strike was called off, the producer ran out of funds and decided to abandon the project. Vikram and Ameer, an assistant director on Sethu who would go on to make Paruthiveeran, met the producer and begged him to return. Shooting resumed in January 1998, in fits and starts, whenever the producer could scrounge up some money, and the film was finally ready in June 1999.
But there were no buyers. Bala and Vikram kept organising preview shows with Shailaja’s money to impress distributors. “For months and months I kept doling out money,” Shailaja said, and laughed. There was such a demand for preview shows that, at some point, it appeared to Vikram that all of Chennai had seen Sethu—and while everyone doled out generous words of praise, no one actually bought the film. Vikram remembers thinking, “Even if this gets into theatres, who’s left to buy tickets now?” He hadn’t been on another set in two years. He hadn’t done any dubbing. He was out of circulation. There was Rs 25,000 in the bank. He went into a shell.
A friend who was working at the the National Institute of Information Technology offered him a job, but Vikram chose to occupy himself in ways connected to cinema. He directed a serial, with Ameer as his assistant—its title, Mounam Pesiyathey, became the title of Ameer’s first film. He did a telefilm called Siragugal, which was about a Tamil family settled in London. It was well received and he got offers to do more telefilms. “But,” he said, “I realised that if I took up these offers, I’d be called a ‘TV actor.’ They’re not going to touch me in the movies.”
On 10 December 1999, nine years after the release of En Kadhal Kanmani, Sethu was released, with no publicity, in a musty theatre called Krishnaveni in Chennai where the ushers couldn’t be bothered to close the doors after the screening began. Sriman went along with Vikram and Bala on the opening day, but they didn’t watch the film. They watched the audience. The response was so ecstatic that Sriman feels it to this day. He pulled back his shirt sleeve and extended his arm to me. There was gooseflesh. Vikram told me that they heard someone swear as they walked out of the theatre. It was a viewer wiping his eyes, remarking, “Those motherfuckers. They made me cry.” Bala was ecstatic. There could be no bigger compliment.
Sun TV came out with a rave review, as did the Tamil press. The reviews brought more people in. These people told other people, and so on. The film became a word-of-mouth sensation. Vikram finally had his first hit. He was 33 years old.
“My life is always before and after Sethu,” Vikram says today. He had to learn the rules of stardom. His mother wanted to see Sethu, so he asked her to come to Abirami theatre, where he’d wait in the foyer with the tickets. Suddenly, there was a shout. The crowd that was coming out of the earlier show had recognised Vikram, and began to mob him. The security personnel had to come and rescue him. “Saar,” they said, “when you have a hit film, you shouldn’t come to the theatre.”
When the next screening began, his mother wasn’t watching the film. She was watching the crowd’s reactions and giving her son a running commentary: they’re laughing, da, they’re clapping, da, they’re whistling when you make an entry, da.
His father was silent. Every time Vikram asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he’d say “give me a good film, a hit film, and become a big hero”. He’d finally gotten his gift. He’d never made it to the big league, and there was probably no one who understood better what his son had achieved. Vikram spoke about the time his father, who is a heart patient, took a small role in Vasanthabalan’s 2012 period epic Aravaan, which was being shot on a hill near Madurai. At some point during the shooting, he collapsed and had to be flown back to Chennai for treatment. At the hospital, he told Vikram “Imagine, how wonderful it would have been if I’d died on the set.” Vikram told me that he scoffed at the sentiment then (“dying on the battlefield” his father called it). Then Vikram said, “I may think that too at some point.”
THE SUCCESS OF SETHU left Vikram with two acquisitions—a black Lancer with the license-plate number 2000 (“because that was the year I made it. I was the millennium kid.”), and the prefix of “Chiyaan”, which is how the character, a good-hearted but rowdy youth, was affectionately addressed in the film. But it also left him wondering what to do next.
Vikram did not take on another film for two months. No script was worthy enough, he felt. He had made it. Now he had to maintain it. He chose films carefully, some because they appealed to the actor in him, and some because he knew that no leading man ever became a star by only doing films that appealed to the actor in him. The hits began to happen. Kasi. Dhil. Dhool. Saamy. And then came the two high points of his career.
He reunited with Bala in Pithamagan, playing an animalistic graveyard attendant, a character the director wrote for him. A few months after the film’s release, Vikram was in the gym, lifting weights, when his assistant called and told him that he had won the National Award for Best Actor.
Following Pithamagan, Vikram scored the biggest hit of his career—Shankar’s Anniyan, in which he played a meek lawyer who transforms into the titular vigilante after stumbling upon writings in an ancient text that prescribe horrific punishments to evildoers. It was released in the summer of 2005. The film’s success changed his life. Vikram said, “I’ve got used to people recognising me. But when someone in Mumbai comes to you and says they’ve seen your film, you feel good, because that’s not your usual audience.”
Vikram has not been able to recapture this high. The films that followed were either flops or modest successes, but there’s been nothing definitive, as James put it. “Sethu became the proverbial portrait of the doomed lover, just like the character in Saamy was the proverbial police officer,” he told me. “With Sethu, Saamy or Anniyan, people could parody the performance, emulate it, incorporate it into jokes and in casual conversation. ‘Don’t be a Sethu, da.’ It was so distinctive that it became the last word. The films that weren’t proverbial didn’t click.” After Anniyan, Vikram has played everything from a costumed superhero (Kandasamy) to an emotional gangster (Bheema) to a visually impaired avenger who’s skilled in echolocation (Thaandavam). What he hasn’t played is something “proverbial”.
After Anniyan, Vikram was on par with Vijay, the biggest name in the generation of stars after Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Unlike Vikram, Vijay has been happy to play to the gallery, making the same film over and over. This acceptance of formula is something that could have helped Vikram, feels Sreedhar Pillai, a writer, trade analyst and long-time industry watcher. “Vikram had established himself as an action hero, and in order to become a mass star, he should have continued playing action heroes. Because that’s where the money is, and that’s what a majority of the fans like to see. They want an actor do the things they like him to do. They don’t like him to experiment too much.”
Pillai told me that becoming—and remaining—a star in Tamil cinema isn’t just about acting prowess or delivering hits. “You have to move along with the political current. Many top stars have had political ambitions. They choose their roles with an eye on that position. They cultivate a fan base with that in mind. These fan bases are important because the more fans you have, loyal fans, the more tickets you sell during the all-important opening weekend. But Vikram has never been the political sort. He has refrained from cultivating a huge fan base.”
Vikram has to, therefore, ensure hits in other ways, and one of these ways is to pick what he called “commercially viable projects”. (It’s a different matter that many of these projects sank at the box office.) In the recent—and much-reviled—Rajapattai, he played a gym instructor who dreams of becoming a villain in the movies. He explained that he wanted to do something commercial after a “soft drama” like Deiva Thirumagal, and he thought that if a “realistic” director like Suseenthiran, the maker of critically acclaimed dramas like Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu, made a hardcore masala movie, the film would benefit from a mix of both sensibilities. About David, Bejoy Nambiar’s portmanteau drama about three eponymously named men across decades, he said it was supposed to be only in Hindi, a chance for him to cut loose in front of an audience that did not have any expectations of him. “David is a drunkard. He’s irreverent. He’s nothing. And the only way the performance would succeed is if I just let go. I loved that. But I knew it wouldn’t work in Tamil. They cheated me and did it in Tamil. I didn’t even know it was happening.”
But the market doesn’t care about explanations. “The market only looks at the current scenario, not what his last hit earned if it was many years ago,” Pillai told me. Still, he placed Vikram among the top ten Tamil stars today. “Because only a star gets an opening. He will be able to fill theatres up for three days, even if his opening power has eroded over the years. Also, he is not from a film family. He has come up the ranks. He is a self-made star. The Tamil audiences respect that. Ai is a solo-hero film, a Shankar film. If it works, then Vikram will be back in his old position.”
In a sense, then, it’s the Sethu days all over again. Vikram needs a hit, a big hit, the kind that can make him shoot past the competition, and he is banking on Ai, which shares many similarities with Sethu. This is another film with a long gestation period. This, too, has occasioned starvation and extreme weight loss and obsessive focus. Vikram doesn’t even take his mobile phone to the sets, as he wants no distractions. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.
Shailaja has learnt to accept it. She said, “I just want him to do good roles. That’s what makes him happy. And as long as he’s happy, I’m fine. I’ve become less nagging and more understanding over the years because his passion has rubbed off on me.”
But that’s just Vikram. Kenny is still the father he’s always been, the friend he’s always been. Mala Burman, who worked as a secretary and public relations officer at Vijaya during Vikram’s stay in the hospital, still sees him as the same Kenny. She told me about the time he was upset because she designated him chief guest for her daughter’s arangetram in 2003 when instead he wanted to be like family, helping with the girl’s makeup and hair. She also told me about the time, just recently, when he decided to drop in quickly and surprise her at the supermarket where she was shopping. Her husband had to tell him he couldn’t do that anymore—he would be mobbed.
I asked Shailaja if Vikram was in touch with the friend who drove his bike into the truck on the best and worstnight of his life. She hesitated, and then said no. I asked her what his name was. She didn’t want to answer.
I asked Vikram the same question when I met him for the last time, but he said he didn’t want to talk about him, or even mention his name. He was willing to talk about the accident, though, and about what he could do with his right leg today. He said he could do 10 kilometres per hour on a treadmill, and then he stood up to demonstrate how flexible (or inflexible) the leg was. As he bent to roll up his track pants, I noticed streaks of silver beginning to grow in his hair. He can bend his leg up to a right angle, but he cannot squat, and he cannot sit cross-legged. “This always creates a problem in my wedding scenes,” he joked. “The director has to do some cheating, with me sitting on a small stool or something.”
When he said this, it sounded to me like a minor inconvenience, a small price to pay when all your dreams have been fulfilled. Vikram seemed to sense I was thinking this. He lowered his leg and focused his gaze squarely on me, and began to speak with uncommon seriousness for the man I’d come to know off the screen. “That’s why I don’t want to talk about him,” he said. “Because every day of my life, every day of my life, there is a problem. I’ll fall on a step. Or when I run, one leg will do what my mind wants it to do and the other won’t. Or I’ll be sitting somewhere and it’ll start hurting. Which means I think of him almost every day. I was very upset at first. It’s not because he escaped unhurt. But he never came to see me. He lived just one street away from where I lived. I could see him go past on his bike, and he would look the other way. Recently, I met him at an Old Boy’s meet. He acted as if nothing had happened. He came up and said, ‘Hey big shot. Have you forgotten me?’ I took him aside and said, ‘I can’t forget you, you bastard. Every day, I think of you. Every hour I think of you. You fucked my life. You may think I’ve become a hotshot hero and all that, but nobody knows what I’m going through. I’m fucked. My life is not the same. So don’t come up and ask me if I have forgotten you.’ His wife said he was feeling guilty, and wants to be friends again. But I can’t. I don’t want to fight, but I don’t want him coming to me and saying ‘Remember me?’ He caused the accident. He put his legs on top. I always told him not to ride like that. And he never came to the hospital. He could have come once. And now, he’s approaching me as if it’s something on his bucket list. I don’t want to be on his bucket list.”
After this outburst, which unfolded with increasing intensity, Vikram went silent for a minute.
Then he said, “You see, I’m very normal after all.”
Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic, currently Deputy Editor at The Hindu. His writings on cinema, music, art, books, travel and humour have been published in various national magazines. His book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, was published by Penguin in 2012.