It came as a great shock to the entire country when some people recently denied the burial of a doctor in Chennai who had died of COVID-19. As the incident had been drawing flak from doctors, politicians and the public, an announcement took everyone by surprise. It was from Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vijayakant.
On April 19, Simon Hercules, a neurosurgeon, died of COVID-19. Some people in Kilpauk, where the doctor had been residing, raised objection to the burial of his body in the vicinity. They had also attacked ambulance drivers and hospital staff who had brought the body. Later, a friend of Simon had to bury the body single-handedly. Around 20 people were arrested.
Expressing grief over the incident, Vijayakant went a step ahead by announcing that he was ready to grant a part of the land on the premises of his college for the burial of COVID-19 victims. He had founded Shri Andal Alagar College of Engineering near Chennai in 2001. Though the sentiments of most Tamils are generally against a burial on college premises, Vijayakant is full of praise on social media.
Earlier too, he had announced that the government could use the college as an isolation facility. But these are not one-off incidents when the former Kollywood actor reached out to the public. Starting from his entry into the film industry, Vijayakant has constantly been a benefactor. But after his foray into politics, it has been taken with a pinch of salt.
A hero who saved Kollywood
Born as Vijayaraj in Madurai in 1952, he completed Class 10 before supervising works at his father’s rice mill. A fan of MGR, Vijayaraj had no interest in pursuing higher studies. He came to Chennai in the 1970s with a dream of playing the hero in films. But he could only make his debut as a villain in Inikkum Ilamai (1979), rechristening himself as Vijayakant. Unfortunately, the film flopped and so did his successive ones.
The year 1981 was the turning point of his life when he played the hero in Sattam Oru Iruttarai, directed by SA Chandrasekhar. Expressing his gratitude, Vijayakant in 1993 acted with a lower remuneration in another movie of Chandrasekhar, whose son — actor Vijay — played the lead role. Vijay had then been attempting to gain a foothold in the film industry. Vijayakant repeated this in Periyanna (1999) for the sake of actor Surya.
He also used to act in films produced by his friends, says N Kathirvelan, a well-known Tamil film journalist. “He used to attribute his success to his friends like Ibrahim Rowther, an erstwhile producer.” At the peak of his career, Vijayakant used to provide food to at least 500 persons, including assistant directors and junior artists, at his office every day, says Kathirvelan, adding that he also used donate to charity. “All these gradually came down once he had a family.”
In 1984, he played the lead role in 18 films and most of them were blockbusters. He had never acted in films of any other language. It was after the release of 100th film Captain Prabhakaran (1991), he earned the sobriquet Captain.
When actor-filmmaker Manivannan directed a play about Eelam issue in the 1990s at the Periyar Thidal in Chennai, many actors refrained from play a role in it to escape the wrath of the Central government. But Vijayakant came forward to act in it and raised funds. He even named his son Vijay Prabhakaran, after the LTTE leader, recalled actor Sathyaraj at a function organised to celebrate Vijayakant’s completion of 40 years in the industry in 2018.
In the early 1990s, he was on par with actor Rajinikanth and began to bring the elements of patriotism in his films. He is the only actor in the Kollywood who had worn Khaki in 20 films. By the end of the decade, he also became the president of the South Indian Artistes’ Association and cleared debts of around ₹5 crore owed by the union by organising star nights in Singapore and Malaysia. He also introduced pension for indigent artistes.
“Considering all these facts, we cannot merely say he is trying to gain political mileage by making these announcements,” says Kathirvelan, who had travelled with the actor for a series, named Kalathil Captain (Captain in the field), before Vijayakant’s political entry.”He generally helps the needy. But he was used to easily get persuaded by his close confidantes to whatever they asked him to do.”
The Black MGR title
In 1982, his fans started the Tamil Nadu Vijayakant Thalaimai Rasigar Mandram, a fan club. Since then, he had been providing financial assistance to the poor on his birthdays. “It was MGR who helped the poor, but it was Vijayakant who taught us to serve,” Sathyaraj said in the function. It was one of the reasons he has fondly been called Karuppu MGR (Black MGR) by his fans.
Even before his political entry, Vijayakant used to get involved in welfare activities in each district through his fan club, says Bharath, a film critic. “Whenever his fans or poor people invite for their wedding, he gifts them Thaali (Mangalsutra) in gold. Some goldsmiths even work for his party,” says Bharath.
C Lakshmanan, an associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in 2016 wrote in Deccan Herald that Vijayakant had literally followed the footsteps of MGR, who was known for his generosity like the former.
“It is important to note that Vijayakanth’s generosity is widely acknowledged by the people. He had generously donated after the tsunami struck Tamil Nadu in 2004. In 2002, when Tamil Nadu witnessed a serious drought, particularly in the southern and western districts where weaving communities were badly affected, Vijayakanth purchased their products worth more than ₹10 lakh” Lakshmanan wrote.
However, Vijayakant’s offer to the burial of bodies on his college premises has raised eyebrows of some. One cannot bury a body in a land meant for college, says a journalist. “There are certain rules to be followed while burying a body. It is also doubtful if the actor could have got the idea, considering his health condition.” However, the journalist says the announcement shows Vijayakant’s generosity and should not be politicised.