The sudden demise of Tamil actor Vivekh after COVID vaccination has caused a stir both online and offline. Many allege it was the vaccine that killed him, even though the state health department has clarified it has nothing to do with his death.
If the actor were to come back to life again, he would probably use a dialogue from his film Tirunelveli (2000) to address such people: ‘Ungala ellam 200 illa, 400 Periyar vanthalum thirutha mudiyathu (Forget 200, even 400 Periyars (Periyar was a Tamil social reformer) cannot change you all). That was Vivekh for you. He always took the initiative in carrying forward the schemes introduced by various governments for the larger good, be it tree plantation or plastic eradication or taking COVID vaccination.
Vivekh, who studied commerce in American College, was interested in arts from a young age. He learnt Bharatanatyam and knew to play harmonium, violin, tabla and piano. A voracious reader, he was a fan of Sidney Sheldon. After completing his post-graduation, he worked for a while as a telephone operator at one of the post offices in Madurai and then got a government job after clearing Group IV exam of Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission. While working in Madurai, he got the first prize in a district-level dance competition and was selected for the finals in Chennai.
It was at the finals that Vivekh got introduced to ‘Kala Kendra’ PR Govindarajan, who was also the founder of Madras Humour Club. Vivekh then regularly started to visit the club and learnt the laughter trade. Attracted by his talent, Govindarajan introduced Vivekh to the popular filmmaker of that time K Balachander, who included him in the making of Manadhil Urudhi Vendum.
Initially, Vivekh was interested in writing dialogues and only assisted Balachander in making about half the film. However, knowing his comical skills, Balachander gave him a role, and Vivekh became an actor.
During his initial days in the film industry, he acted in comedy scenes that were penned like jokes published in a magazine — with no connection to the larger thread of the film. The scenes were placed only to satisfy distributors who wanted commercial elements to attract women and children audiences. But, Vivekh tried to bring value addition to those magazine-like jokes.
He tried to imitate the then stars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan. In 2001, in the film Kottai Mariamman, Vivekh made a spoof of a court scene from the film Parasakthi (1952), the debut film of Sivaji Ganesan. That spoof is still talked about.
He then started penning his own comedy tracks and, in some cases, he improvised on the dialogues written by others. He continued to create social awareness against superstitions and common misbeliefs in society. Because of the social messages he included in his comedy, at one point of time, his fans called him ‘Karuthu‘ Kandasamy (karuthu is Tamil for message or opinion). Vivekh built his characters on appreciation or criticism he received for espousing social causes. In 2002, he played the role of Karuthu Kandasamy in the film Youth.
His writing was not limited to only the silverscreen, he wrote for magazines as well. The Tamil magazine, Ananda Vikatan, became a household name in Tamil Nadu because of his humourous stories. The years between 2001 and 2010 were a ‘dry decade’ for Tamil cinema. Most films released in these 10 years had action themes. But it is during this time Vivekh’s career graph grew. Many directors wanted to cast him in their films because his comedy track provided the much-needed break in a fast-paced, action-oriented script. The audience started to look for the actor in each and every film. Some heroes who understood the trend roped in Vivekh to ‘add value’ to their films.
Amid this trend of action films, K Bhagyaraj, a filmmaker often considered as ‘king of screenplay’, made a film titled Parijatham (2006), a family drama. It had the quintessential Bhagyaraj touch with fun-filled dialogues and screenplay. The film garnered positive reviews and also became a commercial success.
The film was talked about in the industry, but it was Vivekh who openly appreciated it. The social media was not big at that time. The only way for actors to reach out to the public was through popular magazines like Vikatan. Vivekh wrote an article, in the form of a letter praising Bhagyaraj and the film. In the article, he expressed concern about the situation of the Tamil cinema then, saying the industry was not able to find a new form of storytelling and that mass heroes were doing only “formula” films.
The World Cup football season was on and he made the article topical by touching on soccer. In the opening paragraphs, he wrote: “It is said that when Pele gets the ball under his foot, his mind thinks of 20 possible movements at a time. Likewise, the script you (Bhagyaraj) choose also brims with such possibilities. You are able to convert a ‘stamp size’ script into a bigger picture. That’s what you did in the film Darling Darling Darling. You repeated the feat with your recent film.”
He continued: “It is because of the scarcity of scripts that our heroes have become ‘dadas’ (gangsters) wielding knives, pistols and machetes. They look angry in every poster. Someone challenges somebody. Half the time, they are flying in the air, with the help of a rope. About 10 to 20 people run in and out of focus with a wooden log in their hands. Heroes with bloodied eyes seem to be telling the audience, if you come to the theatre, you are going to die”.
“The scissors in the editing rooms are smeared with blood. The face of the music directors in the re-recording rooms are covered with ashes from bombs. No one speaks dialogues like ‘Sister, I will protect you by keeping you in my eyes’, ‘Mother. I am there for you’. All say the same three words – potru, thookkiru and mudichiru (all means to kill someone).
“Big budget films, expensive action sequences and shooting in foreign locations have all burnt the pockets of producers and many films are unable to release since they still have to pay back money to the financiers. When we call Nadigar Sangam (actors association), it looks like an all-party meeting. At least hereafter, there should be films with a good story that reflects the human’s softer side, makes one think of humanity and which can be seen along with family members. You have belled the cat!” he wrote.
Just like O’Henry short stories, the actor had a twist at the end of the article. When one reads that article even after 16 years of its publication, one literally feels a jolt. Especially, in one article where he mocks people who keep Malayalam cinema as a yardstick to judge Tamil films.
He writes: “When I came out of the theatre, one family had commented that ‘the film gave a feeling as to what a decent Malayalam film can give’. Oh God! The film connoisseurs used to refer to Balachandra Menon (of Malayalam film industry) as ‘Kerala’s Bhagyaraj’. I felt like shouting ‘our Bhagyaraj is original’.
For Vivekh, Tamil cinema was king.