`I am a director's actor'

Print edition : September 24, 2004

Interview with Vikram, national award winner for acting.

The trend of actors who are also stars winning national awards marks the disappearance of the clear division between the so-called art cinema and commercial cinema. A decade ago, national awards mostly went to artists who acted in `art' or `parallel' cinema. In the changed situation, popular artists and stars are national award winners often. In Malayalam cinema, popular stars such as Mammotty, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi have bagged national awards.

In Tamil cinema the only two stars who received national awards were Kamal Hassan and MGR (M.G. Ramachandran). Surprisingly, the late Sivaji Ganesan never got it.

The winner of this year's national award is Vikram for his role as a gravedigger in the Tamil film Pithamagan. His winning the honour is unique in many ways. Prior to this, he won the Filmfare award for the same role. For more than a decade, he has been an actor in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films. His debut as a protagonist was way back in 1989 in the Tamil film, Meera directed by P.C. Sriram. He continued to do running characters in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films. Many of his co-actors became big actors and stars. He did not lose heart because he did not want to phase out. He was determined to stay and prove himself one day. During that tough decade he went for dancing classes every day, he tried acting out different scenes, different characters with his small group of friends.

Four years ago, director Bala offered him the role of "Chiyaan" in the film Sethu. It was also Bala's debut film. Vikram shaved his head, thinned down to half his size, grew nails for the role. He did not accept any other offers during this period in order to maintain the continuity of his looks. His hope was that the project would be over in three months. But the film took two full years for completion. That was the worst phase of his career. He was weak economically, and his fire was in danger of dying down. For a moment, he even thought of giving up everything. But a few days after Sethu was released, life changed for Vikram. The film caught on. People mobbed him wherever he went. He was Chiyaan, for them. Many, including Vikram, expected the national award for this role in Sethu. But Vikram lost it by a single vote.

It is again director Bala who offered him the "Chittan" role in Pithamagan. Chittan is an uncivilised gravedigger who does not utter a single word in the entire film. Vikram coloured his hair, discoloured his teeth and did a lot of homework for the character. This time he did not miss the award.

In between Sethu and Pithamagan he acted in nine Tamil films many of which became super hits. Dhill, Gemini, Dhool and Saamy made him a super star in the Tamil film industry. Now he is acting in Anniyan - a mega budget film by Shankar. Vikram's principle and practice is to do only one film at a time.

At the shoot location of Anniyan sitting in his caravan, Vikram spoke to M. Sivakumar, a filmmaker. He talks about his life, career, films, his method of acting, the national award and the general situation in the film industry. Excerpts from the interview:

Many expected you to get the National award for Sethu, as you were a powerful actor re-emerging at that time. But you have got it for Pithamagan. You are also a star with blockbusters like Dhill, Gemini, Saamy and Dhool. Are you happy in some way that you got it now not then?

Even now I would have felt very happy if I had got it for Sethu, because I hold that film very close to my heart. It gave me the break. It was the film where I gave my heart and soul. I fell in love with that character. It was so beautiful. Even if the film had not done what it did for me, I would have felt very close to it. It put me on the right path. Director Bala brought out the actor in me. Because of him, I started experimenting with different characters. I started doing roles I loved doing. This is why I attach Chiyaan to my name [Vikram's autograph is Chiyaan Vikram].

As Chittan in Pithamagan-


Could you say something about Chittan - the gravedigger character in Pithamagan? How exactly did Bala conceive of that character? What kind of homework did you do?

Chiyaan in Sethu.-


Basically, it was about two people. One of them is too serious; the other chap is jovial. Chittan is always moody; he is an outcast. That is how we started. Then we did that scene where he brushes his teeth, where he makes the face of the skull... , we realised that he has a comic side to him. We started working on that, and then we found that it added a lot of commercialism to the film as such. We worked on the scenes. We started off with the climax. We decided that it had to be a very shocking scene. We worked backwards. Then we started getting scenes. Bala always starts with a character. We had a strong character. He had woven the story around him. He added other characters. It was more like a theatre workshop.

Do you mean to say that the script evolved as you were making the film?

Bala always has his script in his mind. The basic script is there. He does not have the written script. Bala does everything extempore. When we go there, he writes his dialogue. It is real dialogues; that is how people talk in real life. He uses the dialogue that the scene demands. It is more of performance. If you notice there are few wide shots. Most of them are tight, because he is getting the artists' reaction. And the other thing you find is that everybody in the frame is acting - acting well. Most of the people we picked up were from villages. We suddenly come across an interesting old woman and we use her. She would not even look at her husband; she was so shy. We make her sit in front of the camera ! That is his art.

Despite the appreciation for your powerful portrayal of Chittan in Pithamagan, there was criticism that the character was a little abnormal, not convincing enough...

People say a gravedigger won't be like that. We are not talking about the gravedigger who was like that. He could have been anyone. He could have been a farmer; he could have been a beggar. He is just isolated, he is like that. I trusted Bala on that; because he is someone who shuns anything artificial. We knew this was going overboard a bit, because there has never been a character like that. But we felt that we could really stick to it and really underplay the character, which will appeal to the jury, which will appeal to the critic and also the film will be spoken about and commercially viable. It is a very thin line. You have to expect criticism for that. We did not have someone to inspire us. Normally, I have a reference, I will always have, say, a friend as reference. I will mimic his walk, the way he talks. Here I did not have anybody. This is how he lives. To an extent, after some time Bala stopped telling me what to do. He would direct others, and would tell me, "you are in the scene and you know what to do." He did not have to tell me, I got into the character. It took a long time, almost ten days, to get into the character.

Chiyaan in Sethu, Kaasi in Kaasi and Chittan in Pithamagan - when you look back now how do you compare these three characters?

You won't believe it. When I shoot in remote villages, some old woman would come up and say, "you are the one who acted in Kaasi. You are Kaasi. You were amazing." I would ask her about Dhool or Saamy. She would say, "I don't know all that, you are Kaasi, you do Kaasi-like roles." Old timers, Sivaji fans, liked Kaasi. You see, it is that school of acting. Pithamagan and Sethu were very nice, both are Bala's films, they were different characters.

Your dedication and hard work were clearly visible in Sethu. Today if a new director comes to you with a powerful script, which may not be for a big budget film but may bring out another dimension of you as an actor, will you accept that project? Or will you go only for mega budget films and established directors?

Yes. If he [the new director] can prove that he is technically qualified. If another Bala comes up, I will be able to spot him.

Can you?

Bala, when he first came and told me Sethu, it was very funny. I had done films in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. I thought it was another film. The moment he told me the script, I sat up. I said, "God! this guy is different". The moment he kept the first shot I knew that he is going to be one of the most spoken-about directors. Bala is always a very confident person. I was a parrot in Sethu, whatever he said I did. I am sure when another Bala comes I will be able to spot him.

Despite the huge success of films like Sethu and Autograph, directors like Cheran, and Bala do not become trendsetters; the general trend in Tamil cinema still is hero-based, same chasings, same irrational fight sequences and noise, plastic duet songs in foreign locations...

No. They are trendsetters. Sethu is a trendsetter. Not many people can follow it. The problem with Autograph is, it is a once in a lifetime film, and even Cheran cannot repeat it. Sethu was a trendsetter; in the sense that it was realistic in terms of dialogue. When Sethu came out, one producer told me 13 films flopped because of it. All those 13 films were typically commercial. People suddenly sat up and said this is what really a movie should be. The real trendsetters were Sridhar, Mahendran, Maniratnam and Balu Mahendra; now it is Bala, Cheran... It is really difficult. Other directors have to be that good.

In such a situation, where do you place yourself?

Sethu has changed me. It has brought out the actor in me. I always loved acting. So, I started doing films that are commercial but realistic; or commercial films where I will be realistic. In Gemini also, my performance would be realistic. Saamy was a commercial film, but I made myself look like a real cop. For Dhill, I built my body. I was very lean and I had a small waist. All these guys who want to be cops will be small waisted, their shirts neatly tucked in. But you will never see a real cop like that. For Saamy, though I built my body, my waist is thick. Whatever character I play, I look that. I try to see that I am not seen in that character, I try to see none of my other characters is seen in that character.

In Sethu, I made sure Kamal [Kamal Hassan] sir did not come in. In Sethu, when I do something, Bala would say, "No, he is seen there." In the climax we were so particular, it should not resemble Moondram Pirai Kamal Hassan at all. Bala said, "You should become the prototype." I was very particular, then I pushed him [Kamal] out, after that he was not in my mind anymore. After Sethu my problem was, I should not get Sethu inside. He was too stubborn in my mind. Now I am very confident, I can really change. That is what I really try to do in my little way.

Generally actors become stars in their first innings or phase out. But you are unique among Tamil film stars, because you have become a star in your second innings. What do you call it? Luck? Or hard work, confidence and perseverance?

I think it is more determination. You see in the last stage why I was giving up was because of Sethu. I was working, I was comfortable in my lifestyle. When I met my wife for the first time I could not walk, I was on crutches. I asked her what she was doing. She said, "I am a psychologist." She asked me what I was doing. I said, "At the moment nothing, but I am going to become a famous actor." She told me much later, "I thought that was the most foolish thing you could have said." I was determined to do it. When Sethu happened, Bala said, "don't do any other film, because we have to concentrate." I myself was feeling I shouldn't do any other film. I thought it should get over in three months. But it became two years. He said, "don't do any other language also". Then it became a little tough. At that time, I put everything into the film and it didn't work, as there were no takers. I thought, I better leave. If Sethu had not happened, I would have been still slogging. It is not luck. Luck is there in the sense you have to be there at the right place at the right time. Maybe Bala should have come two years after I began my film career. He came after ten years. Maybe another Bala would have come, if this Bala had not come.

Could you say something about your background?

I was studying in a boarding school. It helped me in a way, because we had everything there. That made me a kind of all-rounder. That time I was already into acting, around standard VIII, I decided to become an actor. Before it happened, I was doing fairly well in my studies, though I was a dreamer. I used to be in the first five ranks. After that decision, I would get only the last five ranks, because I was thinking only about acting, and about movies. I have been very focussed. I was really like a mad guy. To the extent, when we passed out we had autographs signed on our shirts: "See you Sylvester Stallone', `see you on the silver screen some time', `When are you going to become an actor?' `When are you going to get the national award?' I was like a monomaniac; And then I came into college; I was into plays. I did ads; I planned my career. After Sethu, there were lots of serials, though I was economically weak at that time, I didn't take up anything. Because I knew once I take up serials I will be kicked out of movies. Let me concentrate and do it. Even now that is what I do. I take time over production, I do only one film at a time.

Great actors were always born out of their associations with great directors - Robert De Niro with Martin Scorsese, Marcello Mastroianni with Federico Fellini, Soumitro Chatterjee with Satyajit Ray, Jack Nicholson with Milos Foreman, Marlon Brando with Elia Kazan and many others. Do you think Indian cinema particularly Tamil cinema, does not have master directors for great actors to emerge?

Yes. Nobody has gone on the actor's route; they all have gone on the star route. When you go on that you do not concentrate on performance, you concentrate on image. Rajnikant sir has always gone with K.S. Ravikumar. I am very comfortable with directors like Bala and Dharani. Though they are two different genres, I am equally comfortable with them. We have a good vibe. Dharani was my classmate. Bala and I are more into films, we speak a lot about characters. We can sit for hours and discuss some movie or other. That bond will come only when you have a performance-oriented role and have the director-actor combo.

Who are the actors you admire in Indian and international cinema?

I am a big fan of Rajni sir. He is a class by himself. If there are hundred people in a frame and if he is there, you don't watch anyone but him, that takes a lot of doing, I don't think anybody else can do it. May be Amitabh is, he is in his own way. Of course, I am always a fan of Kamal sir. Of late, I have become a big fan of Bomman Irani. He was great in Munnabhai. I like Manoj Bajpai a lot. At the international level, it would be Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and, of course, Merryl Streep.

What are the methods you follow in your career?

I am basically a director's actor. Nobody can rise above the bad script. I need a good director. I need a good character. Once that is there, I always leave the decision to the director. I am confident about my performance. The homework I do is to look different in every role. Apart from the framework for the character that I discuss with the director, I concentrate on Nadai, Udai, Bhavanai (walk, looks and expressions). It is very subtle, I work on that. When I go to the gym, I try a different type of walk. Then I work with the director on my suggestions. Most of the time directors are very happy with the homework I have done. It is not just makeup every time; Losing weight, putting on weight, even that many people are not doing it. That does not make much difference. Finally, it is all the director's work.

It is said today that stars especially male stars rule the film industry? Don't you think directors should rule the industry for more good films to come?

Only recently it started happening. People started noticing directors. They always have been behind the screen. Bharati Raja was one of the first directors who people could recognise on the street. Now Bala is like that. To the extent that now when a director's name comes in the credits, people clap. They did it for Ilayaraja, they did it for A.R. Rahman. Now, they are doing it for the directors.

How young are you?

I don't know. You are only as young as you think you are (laughs). I know it is a bad answer (laughs again).