The end of last year saw the unfortunate death of actor and politician Vijayakanth who was lovingly called the "Puratchi Kalaignar” (revolutionary artist) or captain by his fans and followers.
In the last decade or so, Vijayakanth has essentially become meme material. He is either known for his bombastic dialogues that turned out to be comical, like in the case of Narasimha (2001), or the supposedly patriotic scenes that have now become funny viral videos, or his dance moves which continue to be extremely caricatured by mimicry artists.
In the political space too, he became known for his angry outbursts and to make things worse, his declining health condition seems to have slurred and slowed down his speech. All this led to several memes and troll videos on the internet and they collectively have become public memory of the actor. Anyone born after the 2000s would have grown up witnessing these things on the internet and may not have taken Vijayakanth seriously.
This unfortunately is a shortcoming of the internet meme culture because if you look at Vijayakanth’s career through the 80s and 90s, he was completely in contrast to what is presented to us through these memes. In fact, he was the OG Tamil-style icon. Vijayakanth was a very handsome, charming, woke and stylish working-class hero.
Before I argue anything else, I want you to know that he was a very good dancer. In the song ‘Punnakaiyil Minsaram’ from Bharathan (1992), he and Bhanupriya dance with absolute grace and style. The song has an innovative empty set, matching costumes and kick-ass choreography. And if you notice, Vijayakanth pulls off all these glaring costumes with ease. He can be seen wearing transparent coats, red shirts and even red pants. And with every costume change, his hairstyle and colour changes too. In the same film, you should also watch him dancing to the song ‘Pottathellam’. It is a fun song where he dances alternatively with Prabhu Deva and still makes it all look easy. But do check out him dancing for ‘Adi Kaana Karunguyile’ from Poonthotta Kaavalkaaran (1988).
Vijayakanth was still in his thirties but played a much older role in the film. His dance moves might not be out of the world but they are full of grace and beauty. In the song ‘Namma Kada Veedhi’ from Amman Kovil Kizhakale (1986), it's full of mischief and playfulness.
Even when he shared space with trained dancers like Shobana in the song ‘Azhagiya Nadhyena’ from Paattukku Oru Thalaivan (1989), he matched up with his graceful moves. When he got older and had put on some weight, his dancing still remained quite agile and sophisticated. I could continue giving you infinite examples to prove what a beautiful dancer he was. But let me stop with this last one from Senthoorapandi (1993), where his dancing has a certain floating quality about it. He dances as if he's resistant to the gravitational pull of the earth and it’s a pleasure to watch.
Apart from his dancing, I would like to bring your notice to what a good-looking man he was. Dark-skinned with luscious hair and a thick moustache, he was delicious to look at. While his looks slightly changed with age, he looked like an absolute snack in films like Auto Raja (1982) or Amman Kovil Kizhakale, Vijayakanth was able to pull off all kinds of costumes with ease. Whether it was the dhoti and shirt clad character in films like Chinna Gounder (1992) or the very stylish urban character in Pulan Visaranai (1990), he was able to belong to each one of them.
In fact, I think he must be the only Tamil hero who could wear a hat stylishly and not look like it was borrowed from someone. Vijayakanth was also known for building the action genre through the 80s and 90s. His films had sophisticated action sequences that brought a certain raw quality to them. Unlike the memes that we've seen, his action films were hardly over the top. Instead, they focused on physical force and added depth to how they were choreographed. You could really feel the intensity of a punch or a fall in his action sequences. Vijayakanth was known for doing his own action sequences and this brought a live energy to his films.
The climax fight in Pulan Visaranai was very uniquely choreographed in an empty room. This is unlike the action sequences in those times when fights always involved a lot of props flying in the air, then falling down or breaking. In this film, the fight was very physical between Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar. The choreography, along with the lighting and sound design, brings you the intensity of the action block.
Vijayakanth played the cop in more than two dozen films. His macho persona worked very well in them. For instance, in Sethupathi IPS (1994), he performed very risky scenes – fighting on top of multiple cars to bring the scene’s momentum to the audience. It was his extreme devotion to the form that made his action films very unique and unmatched. And of course, Vijayakanth was the iconic working-class hero of his times.
To put it in today's words, he was completely woke. His films often voiced against social power structures and stood for the rights of the underprivileged in society. There was an inherent understanding of class and caste in his films. His songs like ‘Poraduda’ from Alai Osai (1985) became an anti-caste anthem in the southern districts of Tamilnadu and in other films like Ezhai Jaathi (1993), he vociferously spoke against how some leaders use caste merely to consolidate their oaths, but never worked for the rights or welfare of their own people. His films with SA Chandrasekar played an important role in consolidating the initial part of his career. In almost all these films he played the angry working-class hero who rebelled against the system when the Sri Lankan civil war was at its peak, Vijayakanth chose to name his hundredth film Captain Prabhakaran (1991), extending his solidarity to the Tamil Eelam people. Vijayakanth was also very open to experimental films. So it wasn't a surprise that he often worked with first-time filmmakers. And those who graduated from film schools regularly went to Vijayakanth to pitch their initial films. His collaboration with Aabavanan in films like Oomai Vizhigal (1986), Uzhavan Magan (1987) and Senthoora Poove (1988) saw different facets of his performances.
Aabavanan's films eventually became famous for their well-choreographed action set pieces and you can witness that in the climax Rekla race in Uzhavan Magan. Another interesting thing about Vijayakanth was that he never shied away from playing the sensual man on screen. In raunchy songs such as ‘Pallikoodam Pogalama’ from Koyil Kaalai (1993) and ‘Izuthu Potheena’ from Honest Raj (1994), Vijayakanth gave the female actors a run for their money by dancing more sexily. This when most of the male actors come across as rigid in such songs.
If anything, these songs reflected how he was very confident and comfortable with his on-screen persona and didn't want to play it safe. When we look back at his long career, it's quite apparent that Vijayakanth has represented several interesting personas — the angry working-class hero, the upright police officer, the mischievous young man, or even the sensual dancer.
Whatever it is that we might prefer in these roles, it is about time we put to rest these caricature memes of Vijayakanth because, as we said, he was the OG Tamil style icon.