How Vikram transforms into the characters that he plays

By BARADWAJ RANGAN | 14 January 2015

After a settlement was reached on the stay of its release, the Tamil film I, directed by Shankar and starring Vikram, releases today. Vikram plays two characters in the film, a body-builder named Lingesan, who idolizes Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a disfigured hunchback named Koonan. In our December 2013 issue, Baradwaj Rangan profiled the Tamil superstar in ‘Man of Steel,’ and in this extract from that article, Vikram tells Rangan about the work he puts into the characters he plays.

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 [now I], 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.”

An extract from ‘Man of Steel,’ published in The Caravan’s December 2013 issue. Read the story in full here.

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.

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