In the two movies that essentially had to condense 3,500 pages worth of richly-imagined historical fiction, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan had a lot riding on tacit, economical performances. For instance, when Vikram as Aditya Karikalan sees the love of his life Nandini in the arms of rival Pandya king in Ponniyin Selvan-1 (PS-1), every fibre of his face conveys the devastation he feels. When Aditya Karikalan meets her one last time in a heartstopping pre-climax sequence in PS-2, a range of emotions flicker in his eyes — from glittering glee, tear-struck pain, glinting rage to dull acceptance — within a few seconds. The scene left editor Sreekar Prasad stunned when he watched it the first time.
“The idea behind this cut was to make sure it has enough faces, expressions, pauses and so on. If you see, the entire edit was never rushed,” said Prasad, when asked about Aditya Karikalan’s final scene with Nandini. “When he enters her chamber, he comes with the enthusiasm of coming back to a lover. But he has to convey so many moods. She is holding a Pandya sword, and that immediately changes his expression. And then he begs her to come with him. He had three, four changeovers for the scene until he made up his mind that he would be defeated. So he gives up and when he does, he wants to die in his lover's arms. These variations were there in the script, but to get it on screen so perfectly speaks about his talent.” This is the wonder of ‘Chiyaan’ Vikram, Tamil cinema’s most beloved soup boy.
Vikram doesn't have as much screen time as some other characters in the Ponniyin Selvan (out on Amazon Prime Video) films, but as Prasad pointed out, his performances aren’t about screen time as much as screen impact. “When you have a powerful actor like him, it makes the translation on screen that much more powerful. He was able to depict Aditya Karikalan’s trauma in those few scenes he had in the film. That is the hallmark of a good actor,” said Prasad who has also edited two other films that are notable for Vikram’s powerful performances, Raavanan (2010) and David (2013).
For many viewers, Aditya Karikalan’s final moments were reminiscent of Vikram as Veera, from Raavanan, also directed by Mani Ratnam. Veera is brash and unusually tender (much like Aditya Karikalan), and ultimately suffers a poetic death. His lips curling into a smile, he dies before his lover’s eyes. Audiences were quick to notice the similarity between not just Veera and Aditya Karikalan, but many of Vikram’s other tragic heroes too. “I’m the original soup boy,” the actor admitted during a promotional event for PS-2. “Ever since college, I have been one. Be it David or PS, ella padathilume konjam kashtam dhan (all my films have had some grief in them).” This heartbreak-shaped hole in Vikram’s filmography is a distinguishing feature in the actor’s enviable oeuvre of 30 years. It’s been a constant throughout his inconceivable physical transformations for roles. Which begs the question: What makes Vikram Tamil cinema’s favourite broken-hearted marvel?
Ponniyin Selvan, although not his first such pan-Indian project, is his first global hit after Shankar’s Anniyan (2005). Ratnam’s film is also Vikram’s first mega hit since I (2015), which, directed by Shankar, was among the actor’s highest grossing films of all time. Ponniyin Selvan sees Vikram present a visceral take on the real-life Chola warrior, pushing the role of Aditya Karikalan and the succession drama of the novel into a deeply personal space. He’s not your average triumphant warrior, but a man tormented by the expectations he has of himself.
Vikram, born Kennedy “Kenny” John Victor, is not someone who has had victory handed to him on a platter. Born to Rajeshwari and Vinod Raj (a character actor who as a young man ran away from his hometown in Paramakudi to pursue his passion for acting), Vikram wanted to become an actor ever since he played a small, non-speaking part in a school musical as an eight-year-old. He went on to study literature in Chennai’s Loyola College, where he continued to act in plays. Shortly after performing in one such play — Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy — at an inter-collegiate festival, Vikram was involved in a terrible bike accident that confined him to a hospital bed. Twenty-three operations to the leg in the course of three years and various complications later, the actor was finally able to walk and rejoined college. He came out of the entire episode stronger just because of one dream: “I just wanted to be an actor. That’s what kept me going,” the actor told Baradwaj Rangan in a profile published in The Caravan magazine in 2013.
Following a copywriting gig, a few ad films and a six-episode television serial on Doordarshan, Vikram finally got the break for which he’d been waiting. The actor was noticed by a bank employee, who along with his colleagues, wanted to turn producer for an experimental film. En Kadhal Kanmani (1990) revolved around a serial smoker who had to give up his vice in order to marry his girlfriend. The film was a box office dud, which was followed by a string of films that suffered the same fate (this included titles that were some of the earliest to test out his anguished side such as Thanthu Vitten Ennai, 1991, and Ullasam, 1997). It would take another 10 years for Vikram to taste success with Sethu. In the meantime, he stayed afloat by dubbing for many popular actors, including Prabhu Deva. “We did this interview with him in The Hindu long ago and at that time he said that if Sethu hadn't worked, he was willing to take up a job in an orchard somewhere in Australia,” recalled senior journalist Subha J. Rao.
Director Bala, known for melding raw human dramas with themes of social injustices, gave Vikram his big break with Sethu (1999), with a role that is the granddaddy of Tamil soup boys. The phrase comes from Dhanush and Anirudh’s 2012 viral song ‘Why This Kolaveri Di’ and refers to any young man who has had his heart broken by a woman. The song’s wild popularity led to a new standing tradition in Tamil cinema — the soup song. The ‘Kolaveri’ phenomenon prompted new-age romances to feature one song dedicated to the jilted hero.
In Sethu, Vikram plays the titular role. Sethu, better known as Chiyaan (a moniker that has stuck with the actor ever since), is a college ruffian who falls for a meek woman from an orthodox family. Their star-crossed romance gets a tragic twist when a traumatic brain injury leaves him in an asylum. In yet another signature Bala ending, a miraculously-cured Sethu raced back home with joy only to find his lover dead. Despite the hits that came his way post Sethu, Vikram has maintained Chiyaan is a role he’ll always carry with him. “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…This is why I attach Chiyaan to my name,” Vikram told Frontline in 2004. “I don't think there can be any other director that can have such a hold on an actor,” remembered actress Sangeetha, who worked with him in Bala’s Pithamagan (2003). “Suddenly Bala sir would just tell Kenny to jump from a height and run. He will never ask him why. He’ll just be like ‘Okay Bala, let's go’.”
Rao recalled watching Sethu at a screening in Delhi, shortly after it won a National Film Award. “It brought back memories of college elections and the boys whose lives had changed because of it, and at the end of the film, I cried so much that everyone was staring at me. The love hits you when ‘Vaarthai Thavarivittai’ plays,” she said. Rao, who has interviewed Vikram many times, believes grief and gravitas come naturally to the actor. “Vikram is someone who portrays heartbreak beautifully probably because he is someone who has had many creative heartbreaks in terms of films,” she said.
Between Sethu and Pithamagan, Vikram tried his hand at the suave action hero in various shades. In Dharani’s Dhill (2001), he plays a aspiring young cop who has to choose between doing the right thing and climbing the ranks. Then came hits Gemini (2002) and Dhool (2003), which saw him play the angry young man navigating a world of crime. It was in Hari’s Saamy (2003) — in which he plays Tirunalveli’s hardened new commissioner of police — that cemented Vikram’s position as a bonafide action hero. Yet even in these macho roles, Vikram made them his own by adding a sense of vulnerability to the part. “This is why even in a Saamy, you have extremely tender moments, as he isn't someone who shies away from tenderness, despite showing masculinity on screen,” Rao said. When his girlfriend Bhuvana (Trisha) gives him a piece of her mind for taking a bribe, Saamy (Vikram) is enraged, but isn’t afraid to lay his bitter past bare. “Manasu kekkala (My heart can’t stand it),” he tells her with a tinge of helplessness. Later on when his father is killed in a bombing, his eyes give his pain away, and the machismo takes a backseat.
Romantic or platonic, if Vikram’s brief on paper is heartbreak, the consequence is dire and heartrending. In one of his most immersive performances, Vikram plays Chitthan in Bala’s Pithamagan (2003), a feral social outcast, who has little to no people skills. That is, of course, until he meets Sakthi (Suriya), who breathes life into him with his unconditional generosity. Sakthi’s eventual death sets off a very human emotion in Chitthan, who finally learns the meaning of grief when he watches his dead friend burn at the cemetery. The role went on to fetch Vikram a National Film Award.
How did he pull it off? “All of us used to be so tense and he (Vikram) was the only one who was so chilled out on set,” Sangeetha recalled. The actress played Gomathi, a small-time drug peddler who carries a torch for Chitthan in the film. “He just used to deliver. His mind was running in parallel to Bala's. The moment you say cut, he is distracted. Only he knows how he comes into a shot. We were in awe of whatever was going on because I hadn't seen anyone like Chitthan in films before.”
Sangeetha, who had to completely de-glam for the role and deliver her lines dressed with plain saris and paan-stained teeth, said Vikram’s philosophy was simple but deeply-rooted in a commitment to authenticity. “I was a glamour heroine,” Sangeetha said of herself. “I used to feel very shy to face everyone in Gomathi's look. Vikram just came to me and told me one thing. ‘We are performing something very different. If we crack our characterisation, appearance, makeup and costumes, that is 70% of the acting done. The remaining 30% would need you to push yourself with dialogue and body language.’ Kenny (Vikram) would come to me and be like ‘Look at how I look. I have to do very little to pass the shot.’ Till date, I follow that advice.”
The dedication that Vikram brings to his roles may be expressed through superficial elements like costumes and make-up, but it’s much more than skin-deep. Bejoy Nambiar, who directed Vikram in David (2013), recalled how the actor prepared himself for the role of a washed-up fisherman. “One day before the shoot, he landed up in Mangalore …. He looked brooding and upset and I thought something was wrong. When I went into his room, it was littered with all the costumes that he himself was washing. He wanted to wash and age the costumes himself,” remembered Nambiar.
Always eager to experiment with physical transformation, almost two years after Pithamagan, Vikram appeared in Shankar’s Anniyan as Ambi, a frustrated but meek everyman who suffers from a dissociative identity disorder. His two exceedingly different personalities were Remo, a metrosexual ladies man; and Anniyan, an unhinged serial killer who goes after the corrupt. The blockbuster hit, which enjoyed superlative success in the Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi markets, is still remembered for its breathtaking stunt work and visual grandeur. Speaking to The Hindu, Shankar described Vikram as the “life and soul” of Anniyan. Ambi undergoes, not one, but three heartbreaks in the course of the film. His lover rejects him for his fragility; his sister dies over an act of indifference; and possibly the biggest pang of heartache strikes when he realises he has inadvertently become a murderer because of his disorder.
There’s a sense of humility that Vikram brings to his roles which sets him apart from other Tamil movie soup boys, who frequently used bar songs to launch into a tirade against the women who have broken their hearts. Perhaps this self-awareness is what has stopped many of these films from becoming commercial blockbusters, though conversely, they’ve been the foundation of Vikram’s loyal fandom. “He is what you call a rakshasan. He tasted success very late, but his growth has been phenomenal,” said Sangeetha of Vikram. “I can't imagine anyone else in the roles he is excelling in now.”
For Rao, the soup boy tag that Vikram carries isn’t a fair assessment. A soup boy is one who blames the woman for everything, which Vikram’s characters don’t, she pointed out. Instead, there’s an angst in the men he plays, like the bashful young struggler that Vikram played in Thanthu Vitten Ennai (1991), who isn’t afraid to cry in front of the woman he loves. “I think it comes from that spot of vulnerability he has gone through in life,” said Rao. Pointing to his character in Deiva Thirumagal (2011) as an example, Rao said there’s a generosity of spirit that most of Vikram’s characters possess. Vikram plays Krishna, a young father with an intellectual disability who fights for the custody of his daughter with his deceased wife’s sister. True to Vikram’s tradition, the film has a heartbreaking climax in which Krishna gives his daughter up, despite winning the case. “If you look at his films, all of his characters have been very accepting,” said Rao. “The character can have grey shades, but his heart is filled with sunshine.”
Exactly five years after Ambi, came Veera, the wild rebel who holds a police officer’s beautiful wife captive in Raavanan (2010). “If you hadn’t married your husband, would you have been with me?” Veera asks Raagini (played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) with a wicked glint in his eye. And seconds before plummeting to death, and missing her hands by a whisker, he locks eyes with her, his grin depicting both the satisfaction of having done the right thing and the pain of never being able to touch her. “He is also perhaps a romantic at heart and maybe that is why he gets these roles,” said Sreekar Prasad, who thinks it’s all got to do with Vikram’s eyes. “They give you the feeling of helplessness, especially when he is going through hardship. It is also a pain in his voice, but his eyes speak a lot. If there is a disappointment that needs to be conveyed in a second, he can do it beautifully.”
In recent years, Vikram’s choice of roles have been more misses than hits — including a dull Saamy remake (2018) and Cobra (2022), which saw him play a shape-shifting maths wizard cum assassin — but it’s worth noting that unlike most heroes who would prefer to put on blinkers about their ageing, Vikram’s roles are gradually reflecting his maturity. “In Mahaan (2022), we finally saw a Vikram who was accepting of his real age. He is a very suave person and he lets that natural suaveness flow despite showing the lines on his face,” said Rao.
Prabhu Solomon, who directed Vikram in King (2002), said watching Sethu convinced the director that he needed an actor like Vikram for his film about a doting son who thinks he’s fulfilling his father’s last wishes, but ultimately discovers that he (rather than his father) is the one whose days are numbered. The director likened Vikram to water: “If you pour water in any vessel, it will take up its shape. He immediately grasps the character.” Recalling the film’s climax, in which Vikram as Raja bids his family goodbye, Solomon said, “Any actor can recite so many lines, but to depict so many things with just an expression is difficult.”
Nambiar was assisting Mani Ratnam on Raavanan and watching Vikram during that time, he wrote David with the actor in mind. The director remembers narrating the script, which follows three characters named David, to Vikram on a car ride during the promotional tour of Deiva Thirumagal. Vikram’s David is an alcoholic fisherman who drinks to forget the pain of an ex-lover who left him at the altar. But when David sets his eyes on Roma, his best friend Peter’s fiancée for the first time, love is ignited, and so is guilt. “I've seen him play characters that have lost their love, but I hadn't seen him play a tonally lighter role then. That is what excited me most,” said Nambiar. It took Vikram only one conversation to understand what Nambiar wanted. “I told him I didn't want him to be brooding at all and that I wanted him to be full of life. And that is the only time I had to brief him. He took that and flew with it,” said the director.
Nambiar believes Vikram’s emotional vulnerability might just be the magic sauce of his soup boy charm. In David, Vikram eventually lets go of his feelings for Roma, not before undergoing a brief moment of agony as his dreams go on to crumble in yet another altar. “We were shooting the wedding scene on top of a cliff and it was a bit of an unrealistic location. There wasn't much space and the logistics of it were daunting. But what I distinctly remember is that shot of David watching Roma and realising that she is in love with Peter. What you see in the film is the first take. He internalised it so beautifully that in that chaos, I remember feeling like I didn't need to do much after. If you notice, I haven't taken too many wide shots because when I got this shot, I knew that we got it all.”
Ponniyin Selvan also saw Vikram in a role that didn’t disguise his age. In the books, Aditya Karikalan is in his early 20s, but Mani Ratnam aged all the characters and Vikram brings to the warrior prince’s persona a world-weariness and simmering rage that only comes with advancing years. What hasn’t changed, however, is the heartbreak that Vikram continues to suffer onscreen (in real life, the actor has been happily married since 1992). The highlight of PS-2 is the scene in which he chooses to die in Nandini’s arms after being rejected by her. Will we ever see Vikram catch a break from deep heartbreak on screen? Rao said she is waiting to see him in a middle-aged romance. “Vikram also does shy romance beautifully, where he's unsure of himself around a girl or a woman. Unfortunately, I don't see any filmmaker using him in this space. He’d also do so well in the Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara kind of space,” said Rao. Some grown-up lovin’ and a happy ending in a cathartic foreign vacay? We hope directors and writers and Vikram are listening.