You know how they say comedy is serious business; few comedians have epitomised this as Vivek has done over the last two decades, with this socially conscious humour. This is fairly well documented, of course, but what sometimes seems to get forgotten is that he was as adept at being a serious actor as he was with his comedy. It’s the consequence of being a comedian of the highest calibre. “Vivekh was a serious person in real life and a profound thinker. He was quite revolutionary in thought,” says director Saran, a long-time collaborator of Vivekh.
While there were glimpses of the serious actor that he had the potential to be, right from his debut, Manathil Urudhi Vendum (1987), many of his early roles did not enjoy too much screen time. One of the earliest films to feature him in a full-length supporting role came almost a decade after his debut in director Keyaar’s Enakkoru Magan Pirappan (1996). If this film, which featured him as a friend, father, and husband was a step forward in the evolution of Vivekh as a character artiste, Kadhal Mannan (1998) proved to be a major leap. Saran’s directorial debut did not just help actor Ajith take his first steps towards stardom, it also defined Vivekh as a sincere, versatile actor. Vivekh’s Oiyaa was more than just the ‘hero’s friend; he too falls in love and goes through heartbreak and reconciliation. The success of Kadhal Mannan meant that Vivekh stopped being seen only as a comedian.
Comedy often comes in Tamil cinema at the cost of individual dignity, but Vivek, even when playing a man who gets rebuffed by the heroine (like in Alaipayuthey), earned our respect. Director Mani Ratnam reportedly told Vivekh that he regretted not really utilising the actor in him to the maximum. Meanwhile, filmmaker Shankar remedied it, as his three films Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji turned out to be crowning jewels in Vivekh’s career.
The Shankar-Vivekh collaborations earned the latter a lot of credence as a performer. In fact, if AR Rahman can be said to be the calling card for Boys (2003), you could call Vivekh its ‘visiting card’. His presence anchored this film that starred a bunch of newcomers. His ‘Mangalam sir’ was a friend all of us wished we had in our lives. He was understanding, funny, emotional, and strict when he had to be too... Take, for instance, the scene when the boys in Boys tell him they are hungry. Vivekh’s eyes well up, his lips quiver; the performer in him really shines. “I am sad that Vivekh, unlike Nagesh sir, did not get to play the protagonist in many films. He was yet to give his career best as a lead character and was supposed to do many more films,” said director Vasanth, who knew Vivekh right from his Manadhil Uruthi Vendum days.
Another powerful Vivekh character was Chari in Anniyan, a perfect example of the kind of role that played to the allround strength of Vivekh. He was the hero’s friend. He was a witty cop. He was also a funny presence. As the hero’s friend, Vivekh does the usual: make jokes and help his romantic pursuit. As the cop, he helps in the investigation. In a similar vein, Vivekh’s Arivu in Sivaji too is the perfect foil for Rajinikanth’s titular role. We laughed when Vivekh laughed, and we shed a tear when his eyes welled up at Sivaji’s suffering.
“Vivekh wasn’t an amateur who grew up to be a talented artiste. He was talented right from the beginning,” adds Vasanth, who tells us that he always wanted to make a film with Vivekh in the lead. This is an emotion shared by Gautham Menon too, who worked with the late actor in Minnale and Yennai Arindhaal. Talking about how Vivekh played a huge part in shaping Minnale, Gautham revealed that the actor was the first choice to star in VTV Ganesh’s role in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. “We had also discussed making a film called Revolver Richard inspired by his character from Yennai Arindhaal.”
While it is unfortunate that most of his films as leads were either shelved or received cold reception, things began to look up in 2019. In Vellai Pookal, Vivekh was showcased as a serious investigator. Yes, we got hints of this side in films like Meesaya Murukku, Manithan and Thozha, but in Vellai Pookal, his lead actor credentials were established. As the suave investigator, Rudhran, Vivekh shouldered this film by a relatively inexperienced team.
He followed this up with a top-tier performance in Dharala Prabhu (2020). Stepping into the shoes of a National Award-winner, Vivekh, as Kannadasan, delivered a poignant and enjoyable performance while taking the ideas of surrogacy and IVF treatments to the Tamil masses. As Harish Kalyan, his young co-star in Dharala Prabhu says, “As an actor, I learnt three important lessons from him how to analyse a scene or dialogue from the audience’s perspective, timing, and how to improvise on the spot.” At this late stage in his career, Vivekh had also become a guiding force for the up-and-coming stars of Tamil cinema. “Vivekh sir never aged; he could blend with every age group. He was friendly with everyone,” says Srikanth, another frequent collaborator and an actor who was guided by the veteran comedian.
Vivekh had plenty more to offer. He was ready to become a director. He was ready to make his OTT debut. He had reached a place in his career where the younger generation of filmmakers saw him as the actor he was, and not just as a comedian. The time was ripe for reinvention… Alas. Many writers will have to rework their scripts now. Many filmmakers will have to look in the direction of other actors. Many young actors will have to seek guidance elsewhere. As Gautham succinctly sums it all up, “In script I write, I will look to see if I can use Vivekh somewhere in the film. From now on, it will only be his memory that will linger.”
While the late comedian’s jokes were all the rage, it must be noted that Vivekh was a consummate performer too. Here is tracing the evolution of Vivekh as a character actor, in conversation with some regular collaborators
(With inputs from Kirubhakar Purushothaman and Navein Darshan)