Few actors have Prakash Raj's range. He's hammed it up as a villain and saved countless masala films, while the heroes were busy saving the heroines. Everyone loves his roles in films such as Ghilli, Singam and Sarileru Neekevvaru. In films such as Kanchivaram, OK Kanmani, and Dhoni, he's played poignant characters filled with goodness. He's done comedy in films like Azhagiya Theeye and Mozhi. He's also played roles that are not so easy to bucket into 'good' or 'evil'.
Check out his performance in these films.
This role is pathologically diabolical. Prakash Raj's Major Madhavan is hopelessly smitten with his sister-in-law. Smooth and civilized on the outside, and a madman on the inside, Major Madhavan does unspeakable things. He drenches a little baby in the rain, suffocates his wife, kills a puppy, kills his superior and makes it look like an accident… he personifies obsession, which is sometimes darker than plain evil.
Iruvar must be one of his most impressive roles. The lofty demeanor, the Machiavellian restraint, a face that reveals little and yet betrays a mind that's constantly plotting, Prakash Raj's Tamizhselvan spans all shades of gray.
In Antahpuram, Prakash Raj's Narasimha is a bit twisted in his adherence to feudal beliefs. His son gets killed, indirectly due to him. Yet, he wants his grandson to grow up in the same milieu and avenge the death. In the end, though, he allows his daughter-in-law and grandson to move on. Narasimha comes across as both savage and human.
In a little-known but marvellous performance, Prakash Raj plays Maharani, a transwoman who runs a brothel. He is the film's villain. Still, he plays the character with a self-awareness that renders Maharani both human and not-so-human.
Okkadu and its Tamil remake Ghilli were the ideal canvas for the unbridled hamminess Prakash Raj brings to his negative roles. He plays a no-holds-barred evil guy. The only respite to his villainy is the seemingly genuine soft spot he has for the heroine.
Vishwanathan is a successful doctor who doesn't want to marry his daughter off to a rowdy. He's constantly angry, hyper, and fanning himself to calm down. Not to forget his laughter therapy. In the end though, he turns out to be a decent person who is just highly strung.
Prakash Raj plays a father in conflict with his son, but you know that he will eventually patch things up in the end. In M. Kumaran Son Of Mahalakshmi, it's not just the son's independence that's at stake, but his identity as a son itself. The melodrama is high, and Prakash Raj is superb as the greedy husband who ditches his family for success, and eventually repents.
In Anniyan, Prakash Raj's DCP Prabhakar starts off as an honest investigating officer with nothing on his mind but the truth. Once Vikram's Anniyan murders his brother, he starts to get unhinged and brutal. Though not yet in the Obul Reddy zone (from Okkadu), there are dark shades to Prabhakar.
Prakash Raj plays a control-freak who needs to engineer every aspect of his son's life. That is, he plays a typical Indian father. And like most fathers, he relents to his son's wishes, after a ton of argument and drama. Difficult to classify as entirely good or bad.
In Velli Thirai, Prakash Raj plays Kanniah (later Dileepkanth), an aspiring actor who double-crosses his friend to get ahead in his career. He does repent eventually, but not before a fun sequence (we saw another version of this in Jigarthanda) in which he stars in a film without realising it.
In Arai En 305-il Kadavul, Prakash Raj plays God. Why is this then not sorted as the nicest character he's played? Because, humans in the film don't think of him as that nice. No one likes a know-it-all.
A film that cleverly subverted the villain 'image' Prakash Raj created for himself is in Amal Neerad's Malayalam film Anwar. His character was deceptively written to come across as a die-hard anti-Muslim police officer, and the film's big interval twist relied almost entirely on this 'image' we started projecting on the actor.
Subramaniam is not exactly a gray character. He starts off as a controlling, narrow-minded father at the beginning, and ends up becoming a supportive one by the end. In the middle, he strikes his son, puts him in a coma, and gets arrested by the cops. You can see his gradual transformation as he sheds his middle-class notions and embraces broader ideas about parenting.
Wearing nothing but a dubious-looking loincloth, Prakash Raj plays Kaala Bhairava in Singeetam Srinivasa Rao's underrated (and unnoticed) film, Little John. For the first time in this list, we have a truly evil character who wants the destruction of the cosmos. His introduction scene as he crawls out of a cobweb is creepy fun.
Ali Bhai is pure evil. He is also a bit gullible. The role isn't especially notable in his vast filmography. But Prakash Raj has consistently found ways to play the same character over and over again with interesting variations, and Ali Bhai is an example. If Okkadu's Obul Reddy (Muthu Pandi in Ghilli) was loud and exciting, Ali Bhai is slick and menacing.
In Mozhi, Prakash Raj plays Viji, a bachelor with no cares. He is witty in a way that is natural, unlike typical counter-based Tamil comedy. The role is a joy to watch. To think this was the same year he played the creepy Ali Bhai in Vijay's Pokkiri!
Prakash Raj plays a doting father whose only preoccupation is his daughter, Abi, played by Trisha. This role is all goodness.
The film revolves around Prakash Raj's Relangi Mavayya, a kindhearted villager, and his two sons. Classy and dignified, this is probably one of his quietest mainstream roles.
Prakash Rai remade Ashiq Abu's Salt N' Pepper into the trilingual Un Samayal Arayil in Tamil, Oggarane in Kannada and Ulavacharu Biryani in Telugu. The Kannada version did very well. His character – an anthropologist named Kalidasa – is deeply flawed and stubborn, but still immensely likeable.
One of the reasons for this is his almost-childlike fascination and love for food. The love story, one of our rare mature romances, gave us the 'feels' stronger than when they're played by actors half his age.
Unlike Anwar, a film that completely messed up the Prakash Raj persona was the 2018 Malayalam dud Odiyan. How can the big twist of a film be "Prakash Raj is the villain?" Painted with several layers of black, the darkness of which keeps fluctuating with each scene, Raj's Ravunni will go down in history as one of the silliest villains in Malayalam cinema, even topping his OTT AF performance in Suresh Krissna's epic disaster Prince.
(With inputs from Karthik Keramalu)