Malayalam director Siddique was in the United States of America during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. He had no idea that, on the other side of the globe, a film he had directed 18 years ago was making the headlines once again, becoming the top national trend on Twitter and attracting the attention of celebrities, corporates and the public alike. Accompanying the #Pray_for_Nesamani hashtag was the face of a man who continues to be the spine of Tamil Nadu’s vibrant meme culture though he has all but disappeared from the big screen – actor Vadivelu.
“My kids told me that Nesamani Chittappa (uncle) had gone viral. I was delighted to know that a character from a film I had made so long ago was still remembered by people, and accepted by the next generation of the audience. Nesamani had become timeless,” said Siddique, who made the Malayalam original Friends (1999) and its 2001 Tamil remake of the same title. In the latter, Vadivelu plays Nesamani, a contractor who has to complete a painting job at a zamindar’s palace with a bunch of incompetent assistants.
Curiously, the hashtag began in a Pakistani Facebook group called ‘Civil Engineering Learners’, with a user posting the picture of a hammer and asking what the tool was called in other countries. A Vadivelu fan commented on the post, noting that the hammer was called ‘suthiyal’ in Tamil and that contractor Nesamani’s head was broken with it. This was a reference to a popular scene from Friends where Nesamani’s assistant drops a hammer on his head by accident. Other Vadivelu fans caught on, and soon enough, #Pray_for_Nesamani succeeded in displacing even #ModiSarkar2 (which was trending thanks to the 2019 general elections).
At the time, Vadivelu was barely doing any films but he was indelible in the minds of the Tamil audience. Known as the ‘Vaigai Puyal’ or ‘Storm from Vaigai’ (the Vaigai is a river that flows in Madurai, Vadivelu’s hometown), Vadivelu made his debut with an uncredited role in T. Rajendar’s En Thangai Kalyani (1988), and steadily built his career through the Nineties by appearing in small supporting and comic roles. By the 2000s, coinciding with the internet boom, he became a major comedian, commanding a wide and loyal fanbase that used his hilarious expressions and phrases in everyday conversations. He even did a solo lead film titled Imsai Arasan 23rd Pulikesi (2006), a Rs 3 crore historical comedy produced by Shankar and directed by Chimbu Deven, which went on to earn Rs 15 crore.
Actor-director Parthiban has worked with Vadivelu in several films, and the two of them are known as a ‘hit combination’ for comedy. Search for ‘Vadivelu Parthiban comedy’ on YouTube and you’ll find scores of video compilations of their scenes together. Their association began with a film called Karupannasamy that was eventually dropped, but the scenes that Parthiban wrote for it were used in Cheran’s drama film Bharathi Kannamma (1997). “It was difficult to convince Cheran to include those scenes because he had written the script for Bharathi Kannamma and he was reluctant to use another person’s writing in his work. But by the time he did Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000), he was keen to include comedy scenes with the two of us in the script,” recalled Parthiban.
Parthiban ranks Vadivelu among the finest actors of his generation. In a typical Parthiban-Vadivelu scene, the former would play an intelligent man who indulges in word play and asks unusual questions while the latter would become increasingly frustrated. Take the “Hello yaar pesurathu?” (Hello, who is speaking?) comedy scene from Ninaikkatha Naalillai (2001). It’s an ordinary line that most of us would have used while calling someone on the phone, but it becomes hilarious when the two seasoned performers, who have a perfect rapport, mine it for comedy.
“Our combination works because I’m someone who has a minimalist approach to acting while Vadivelu is the opposite. If I deliver my lines without any expression, he will do it with a lot of expressions and gesticulation. That contrast really worked with people,” said Parthiban, adding that their work relationship was such that he would write a line for a scene and Vadivelu would come up with a spontaneous ‘counter’ for it while rehearsing.
Another famous combination is Vadivelu and Kovai Sarala, with the two of them playing a couple that’s always at loggerheads. He has also done several films where he has meaty solo comedy tracks. According to independent journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, Vadivelu represents the common man in the Tamil public’s imagination. “I think he captures the Tamil way of life through his comedy. We consider him to be one among us. There were comedians before him like Chandrababu, Thangavel, Nagesh and so on, but the audience saw them as stars. There was a distance between the actors on screen and the audience, but Vadivelu bridged it with his unique dialect and body language,” said Muralidharan.
She believes this is why Vadivelu’s one-liners such as “Vada poche!” (the vada has disappeared) are used to describe just about everything that happens in Tamil Nadu, be it politics, cinema, sports or any controversy. “We would have all seen a name-dropping guy like Vadivelu from the ‘Laden-Bin Laden’ comedy scene from Muruga (2007) where he boasts of having connections with international rowdies. Most of us would find such people annoying in real life but after you’ve seen Vadivelu doing the same thing, it’s only his face that you can think of when you see such people,” said Muralidharan.
Director Siddique, who has made many successful comedies in his career, agreed. “It is when a comic actor completely immerses themselves in a role that the audience is able to feel their emotions. It’s not about just cracking jokes. You understand Nesamani Chittappa’s frustrations at everything that goes wrong. That’s what makes the character so memorable,” he said.
Despite being a household name in Tamil Nadu and working with all the top stars — from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to Vijay, Ajith, Vikram and Suriya — Vadivelu’s career plummeted in 2011 when he campaigned for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) during state elections. The comedian had a fallout with actor-politician Vijayakant, the founder of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), and he used the opportunity to verbally attack the latter during the campaigning.
Muralidharan said that it’s a misconception that it’s easy for film stars in Tamil Nadu to launch their political career. Citing the examples of Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, Muralidharan noted that these personalities had worked hard to become successful in politics and that it did not happen overnight, merely on the basis of their star value. Vadivelu made a serious miscalculation when he entered politics without any prior experience of serving the public.
“Vijayakant and Vadivelu had a very successful chemistry on screen, and Vadivelu broke that image publicly for the audience,” said Muralidharan. “The Anna India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) eventually won the election and Vadivelu’s campaign led to people from the industry distancing themselves from him.”
Vadivelu’s film offers dried up, and though he made a comeback of sorts with the Vijay film Mersal (2017), his career wasn’t the same. He also faced a temporary ban in the Tamil film industry in 2018 after he refused to cooperate with producer Shankar and director Chimbu Deven for the sequel of Imsai Arasan.
But, Vadivelu is now set to make a comeback once again – this time, in a full-fledged role in anti-caste filmmaker Mari Selvaraj’s Maamannan which also stars Udayanidhi Stalin, Keerthy Suresh and Fahadh Faasil. The film is expected to release in June 2023, and the poster shows a grim Vadivelu, dressed fully in white, and seated next to Stalin with a gun in his hand. “I was stunned when I saw the poster,” said Parthiban. “After Thevar Magan (1992), I think this will be another impactful role for Vadivelu. I’m saying this as his fan.”
Interestingly, Vadivelu plays a servant whose hand is chopped for opening the doors of a temple in Thevar Magan. Over the years, the film – which revolves around the clash between two powerful Thevar clans – has been slammed for fanning the caste pride of the dominant caste in Tamil Nadu, and Selvaraj has been one of its vocal critics. In his previous film Pariyerum Perumal (2018), which is about a Dalit law college student, Selvaraj cast comedian Yogi Babu in a humane and empathetic role which was very different from his usual body shaming humour.
Muralidharan is hopeful that Vadivelu’s collaboration with Selvaraj will help him break free of being typecast in Tamil cinema. “Vadivelu became famous through a certain brand of comedy and he was stuck doing the same kind of roles in Tamil cinema. There’s a lot to his acting skills that I think Selvaraj will explore in Maamannan,” she said. Nesamani Chittappa’s extended internet family can hardly wait.