My oldest memories of Raghuvaran (1958-2008), the lanky actor with a distinctive voice, are from the films Makkal En Pakkam (1987), Poo Vizhi Vaasalile (1987) and Puriyaatha Pudhir (1990) of the 'I know… I know' fame. In Puriyaatha… Raghuvaran is a sadistic, doubting husband. In a situation, he thinks he has caught his wife off-guard. The easiest thing for the filmmaker would have been to make the husband lecture about value systems, get violent towards the wife or even kill the guy. But that is ordinary writing for actors with normal talents. With Raghuvaran, the two-minute scene gets elevated with just two words — 'I know…' It is said that while a musician communicates feelings through the instrument he is playing, and a dancer through body movement, the 'instrument' that an actor uses is himself (Making Movies by Sidney Lumet). Raghuvaran demonstrated that.
In Samsaram Adhu Minsaram (1986), Raghuvaran as Chidambaram, the eldest son, was pitted against veteran Visu who played Ammaiappan Mudaliar, the patriarch of a typical middle class family. The film had a host of characters, but the main conflict revolved around Raghuvaran and Visu. It was an equal fight, but Raghuvaran shone bright. By then, the actor was a bankable character artiste, though his career was leaning more towards the villain end of the spectrum.
Mani Ratnam's Anjali (1990) a family-kids' drama about a special child dipped deep into the vast reservoir of acting skills Raghuvaran possessed. As Sekhar, a nice guy who handles the emotional pain and love that the entry and exit of a special child with a terminal illness brings about in a family, Raghuvaran's trademark performance possessed much grace. But around the time, the actor's image as a dangerous villain got cemented. Thanks to Ram Gopal Varma's cult film Shiva (Telugu, 1989).
The 90s had occasional gems such as Aahaa..! (1998), which brought out the versatility of the actor, but the decade marked the clear shift from Raghuvaran the character artiste to Raghuvaran , the undisputed lord of villains in Kollywood. This was also the time when the seasoned Nasser had peaked as the most-hated villain in Kollywood with films such as Thevar Magan (1992) and Kuruthipunal (1995); he also opted for varied roles (Avvai Shanmugi, Bombay, Iruvar, Jeans) and turned director with Avatharam.
During that decade, Raghuvaran featured as the bad guy in big-ticket films like Ratchagan, Shankar's films Kadhalan and Mudhalvan, and a few Rajinikanth films like Baasha, Arunachalam and Muthu. But he was not the regular villain who smokes a pipe, rapes the hero's sister and mouths a catchy phrase before getting killed by the hero. He was a villain who set the boundary limits of the hero; a villain who built the hero; and a villain who created a world for the heroes to rule.
As Mark Antony in Suresh Krissna's iconic Baasha (1995), the actor catapulted Rajni's stardom to an altogether new plane. The film renewed Rajinikanth's cult status easily by three-four years till Padayappa almost came close to doing it again. Baasha was Manik Baasha only because Antony…Mark Antony was Raghuvaran.
Mudhalvan (1999) saw Raghuvaran play, unarguably, his best villain role. Baasha was no less, but being a Rajini film, it had its own constraints. Ultimately, people poured into the theatres for Rajini. But with a lead artiste like Arjun, and a fairy tale-type script that placed the corrupt and cunning chief minister Aranganathan central to its plot , Mudhalvan must have offered Raghuvaran a feast — a full meal to quench his hunger for a strong character; a challenge to harness his acting potential to the fullest. Raghuvaran was then about 40 years of age, and with intelligent voice modulation and a change in body language, he played a much older political leader. Again, a case of an actor using his body as an instrument. The controversial interview in the film that sets the entire story in motion is among the most cherished scenes in Tamil films. And if you look at the scene closely, there was also Arjun as Pugazhendi. You tend to miss him — simply dazzled and overwhelmed as you are by Raghuvaran as the Chief Minister.
The 2000s saw Raghuvaran fade as an actor. The number of movies he did dwindled. The roles he bagged were not the ones that he would have really wanted to do. Many roles did not need him either. But there were occasional exceptions such as Run and Yaaradi Nee Mohini (April 2008), released within a month after his untimely demise. During the decade, Raghuvaran also did passable roles in a few mega budget films. But he always left his mark. Do you know Raghuvaran has acted in Rajinikanth's Sivaji? It is also glaring that there was no (notable) collaboration of Kamal Hassan and Raghuvaran. Unfortunate for Tamil cinema; for the audience.
Around this time, Kollywood witnessed the meteoric rise of another gifted actor, Prakash Raj. He seemed to be the new Raghuvaran; a versatile actor capable of doing roles as varied as a legendary political leader (Iruvar), a dreaded village goon (Ghilli), a possessive father (Abhiyum Naanum) or a medical college dean prone to stress-laughing (Vasool Raja MBBS) with equal deftness.
But, the position of a villain with exceptional craftsmanship and a unique voice is still vacant…