Every actor prepares physically and psychologically to get into the skin of a character. Vikram prepares until the character is almost bursting at the seams with the earnestness he puts into it. He is a student whose homework worries teachers into doing some homework of their own. If the film ably aids Vikram, we call it a great Vikram film. If it fails, we still call it a great Vikram role.
In his early films, he often played variants of the college student. After Sethu, he has alternated between refreshing takes on the 'mass' action genre and films that bring out the performer in him. For every Dhill, we get a Kasi; for every Saamy, a Pithamagan. Sometimes, these identities come together in the same film (Anniyan, I). More recently, the star seems to be leading the performer in films like Iru Mugan, Sketch and Saamy Square.
It is hard to classify a selection of Vikram's eclectic roles, because his roles have been varied, and he's constantly defied stereotyping. The list is broken down, for the sake of easier understanding, and possibly to encourage a re-watch, into six categories.
Vikram's dramatic physical transformations began with Sethu. He goes from a handsome and robust college rowdy to a pitifully emaciated shadow. As his body wanes, his eyes, which are our only window to his now concussed brain, show shock and confusion, before becoming tragically blank in the end.
In Kasi, Vikram finds ways to emote without using his eyes. Playing a congenitally blind and impoverished singer who never runs out of backchat, he showcases emotions with just his dialogue delivery and a body language that's superbly convincing.
With blackened teeth, a mud-caked face, and eyes that are empty when they are not searching, Siththan seems almost human without ever behaving like one. A mystic of the graveyard, like his name suggests.
Ambi is an honest lawyer. Remo is a model. Anniyan is a vigilante. And they all live inside the same person. Vikram skillfully plays a self-less man. He brilliantly switches among the three characters in the scene at the psychiatrist's where each persona fights for access to the self.
A beefed up and often well-oiled Lingesan is Mr. Tamil Nadu. He leaves behind many on his way to the top, and they gang up, and inject him with a virus that makes him a hunchback. A nuanced performance by Vikram effectively depicts Lingesan's shock, despair, and what's probably Shankar's favourite emotion — revenge.
Vikram's first hyper-masculine action role, Dhill is the story of how Kanagavel becomes a police officer against odds, thanks to his courage. Vikram's first major role after Sethu, he brought the same commitment to physically transform himself to fit an earnest masala role.
Dhool established Vikram as a serious action hero. He plays Arumugam, an unlettered rustic who fights powerful rowdies in Chennai. Vikram flexes some serious brawn, through his physical appearance, to yet again make a relatively generic character believable.
Aarusaamy, who prefers beer to chutney, is what you might call a morally grey cop, within the limits of a masala film. He is loud, yet dignified. He appears corrupt, but has a heart of gold. What makes this seemingly conflicted character work is Vikram's earnestness. Aarusaamy's intense masculinity is made believable through an often tongue-in-check performance.
Arul — both the lead character and the film — tries hard to be Saamy. Vikram's role is relatively less specific in terms of characterisation, but equally detailed in terms of appearance, body language, and accent. The film might have not aged as well, but Arul, with his aruvaa, is still memorable.
Director: Vijay Chander
Vikram comes up with yet another hand gesture as Jeeva aka Sketch. His palm is spread out while the ring finger points back at his face, as if to point to the 'mass' hero persona that Vikram has cultivated. It reminds you of Gemini, both because of the gesture and because of similarities to the gangster plot; it worked in Gemini, it did not in Sketch.
Director: Balaji Sakthivel
Thiyagarajan is just another medical college student, but certain events turn him into a rather dark vigilante who puts himself through torture to toughen himself. Think of it as Anniyan without the long hair and multiple personalities.
Director: Prabu Solomon
Raja is a super-charming magician with an ever-present mischievous glint in his eye. He is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but has been led to believe that his father has the condition instead. Once he finds the truth, he teeters between hope and sorrow, between confessing his love and living in denial due to fears that he might not recover from his condition.
Director: Mani Ratnam
Vikram plays a local hero running an illegitimate state within the official one. He is torn between impossible love and his own impulsive nature. The conflict in his mind leads to his tragic end.
Deiva Thirumagal (2011)
Director: AL Vijay
Krishna has become one of Vikram's most-loved characters. He plays an endearing grown man with the mind of a child. It's a triumph that the character evokes empathy rather than pity. We don't see Krishna as a lesser human; he's just different, maybe, even better than many of us.
Director: Bejoy Nambiar
David is an alcoholic fisherman with a penchant for moral contemplation and superstition, something you might expect in a person who battles the elements every day. Vikram plays the character with a certain levity that makes his deliberations on what is right and wrong entertaining without becoming frivolous. His singsong manner of speaking Tamil is testament to the kind of work that he puts into his roles.
Vikram, then an up-and-coming 'mass' hero, plays Gemini, an up-and-coming gangster, with a tangential interest in university education. Sandwiched between Dhill and Dhool, Vikram is in top masala form in Gemini, be it the swagger or the 'O podu' hand gesture. He has since then created variants of this gesture in films such as Majaa, Dhool, and Sketch.
This is perhaps the most unassuming of Vikram's post-Sethu roles. Think of Arivumathi as a more relaxed spin on Dhool's Arumugam, combined with the playfulness of Raja in King. He is charming, speaks broken English, and is pretty easy to provoke into a fight. He is heroic without really being larger-than-life.
10 Endrathukulla (2015)
Director: Vijay Milton
Vikram plays a nameless character. Does it matter what the name is in a star-driven film, when it is the star playing out his 'mass' hero persona? He christens himself at various points in the film as Mani Ratnam, Sunil Gavaskar, and even Bill Gates. Squarely in masala territory after the intense I, Vikram exudes coolth throughout.
Kadaram Kondan (2019)
Director: Rajesh M Selva
Another instance of a mysterious and nameless protagonist. Vikram does more for the film than what it does for him. He plays a 'mass' character that is unusually inaccessible to the viewer because it doesn't have any signature, like a punch dialogue. He still keeps it interesting; a fine balancing act.
Iru Mugan (2016)
Director: Anand Shankar
Vikram plays Akhilan, an intense RAW agent. He also plays Love, a suave, criminal scientist. In a way, the role is similar to the nameless characters he plays in Kadaram Kondan and 10 Endrathukulla. We don't really know whether Love is a transperson or gay. In a mainstream film, it's unusual for the lead character to be so ambiguously defined. Vikram's conviction, though, is well-defined.
Vinnukum Mannukum (2001)
Vikram, as Selvam, looks a bit like he would prefer to be anywhere else in the world but within the film's frames. He doesn't get anything interesting to do, except for a brief shot where he sings to a parrot perched on his fingers. Otherwise, he looks checked out.
Kadhal Sadugudu (2003)
Director: V Z Durai
Vikram looks even more bored in this film, which has a plot straight out of the 90s. A film about parental consent for marriage, it probably gives Vikram far less to do compared to even some of his pre-Sethu roles.
Director: Susi Ganesan
Kanthaswamy is a CBI officer by day and a vigilante superhero in a rooster costume by night. He also briefly dresses up as a lady with a Mona Lisa smile and performs a strange cross between dancing and fighting. In a film that is mired in cluelessness, Vikram still manages to be superbly entertaining in his set pieces.
'Anal' Murugan is a gym boy who hopes to play the villain in films. Vikram seems to be having a lot of fun with his get-ups. Because the role is underwritten, many of these often don't rise beyond a cool fancy-dress idea. But, where else can you see Joker and Jack Sparrow shake a leg in an item number?
Director: AL Vijay
Kenny Thomas, an erstwhile RAW agent with an endearing love story, is a person without vision who skillfully moves around using echolocation. His vision seems far clearer than that of the makers, though.
Thanthu Vitten Ennai (1991)
Director: CV Sridhar
Vikram, as Raju, really hams it up in this film. He gets a strange sequence where everyone at his office thinks he's a murderer because his shirt has red paint on it. His "no! no! I'm not a murderer" is so over the top here, but reminds us of his hilarious act in Dhool, where he recounts his foiled attempts to learn English as a boy.
Director: PC Sreeram
Vikram, in probably his earliest notable role, plays Jeeva, a mellower version of the college student in Sethu. Some of his expressions in 'O Butterfly' are precursors to similar lovestruck ones in 'Maalai En Vethanai' from Sethu.
Pudhiya Mannargal (1994)
The college student is getting angrier, getting closer to Sethu. Satyamoorthy is active in college politics. After he becomes the student body chairman, he is forced by events to become a political activist. He tries to clean up society, something Vikram would go on to do again in films like Samurai and Anniyan.
Director: JD & Jerry
Dev, the son of a smuggler, is an amateur singer. He runs a music troupe called 'Vanambaadi'. Dev is essentially an antithesis of Guru (Ajith), who is a local rowdy. They fall in love with the same girl, before reconciling their differences. You can see traces of Saamy in the way Vikram struts with a pistol in hand in the climax.
Director: R Parthiepan
This is Vikram's homage to Parthiepan, the actor. He entertainingly channels the latter, right from the intonation of his first dialogue. He gives flowers to his girlfriend, who happens to be a flower-seller, and asks 'pookaarikke poova?' just as Parthiepan would have. In his comedy track with Vadivelu, it's hard to shake off the suspicion that we're actually seeing Parthiepan wearing elaborate prosthetic makeup to look like Vikram.