In Vignesh Shivan's segment titled Love Panna Uttranum in the Netflix anthology Paava Kathaigal, Aathilakshmi tries to tell her father something during a car ride. The father hesitates — let's go home and talk, he chides her, side-eyeing the driver. Aathilakshmi doesn't relent. The father orders the driver to stop the car, gets down and walks a distance to be out of his earshot before speaking to her. The driver reluctantly gets out of the car and walks towards them, even as the father is yelling at him to go back.
"I want to tell you about love," she says, pointing at herself and the driver. He finally speaks, keeping his gaze to the ground, apologetically, while trying to explain to Aathilakshmi's father how he grew fond of her. "Love panna koodaadhu-nu bayandhu bayandhu," (Despite being so cautious about not wanting to fall in love) he takes a deep breath, looks up at the father's eyes for the first time, before hurriedly lowering his gaze and completing the sentence, "love vandhiruchunga" (love happened).
Manikandan, in an uncredited role as the driver, is the one thing that no actor will aspire to be: Inconspicuous. Despite playing prominent roles in Kaala, Vikram Vedha and Sillu Karupatti, he's not yet what one would call a 'recognisable face.' He blends seamlessly into the character, disappears when the film expects him to. So much so that his casting in this film doesn't betray the surprise in this scene.
Yet, without a performer like Manikandan, the pay-offs later wouldn't have been worthwhile. The film has no love scenes, no montage songs. There is nothing to drill into our heads the love of this couple. Just a passing moment when he's standing behind her — out of focus — while she tells her father, touching her heart that when she's with him, she feels as though she is with her mother. He looks up, his face flooding with surprise, a spark of fear and perhaps even renewed love. His presence is meant to be inconspicuous, yet Manikandan is striking.
You'll see this again and again, throughout his filmography. The blink-and-miss role in Nalan Kumaraswamy's Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, the unassuming rookie cop in Vikram Vedha, the awkward youth in Sillu Karupatti, the son who doesn't want to be at his father's funeral in Aelay, the Irular man who is dragged into trouble in Jai Bhim, Manikandan's roles almost always deflect limelight.
Manikandan, the person, isn't like that, though. He's a bit of a sucker for attention. "My mother is very talented. At every family gathering, she will perform mimicry, imitating family members and get uproarious laughs. Tak-nu audience-a sambaarichuduvaanga," (she'll naturally create an audience around her), he says. He was hardly eight years old when he knew he too wanted the adulation she was getting. He began practising mimicry, first imitating his grandparents and then graduating to film comedians Loose Mohan and Usilamani.
Soon, performing arts took on a bigger part in his life. Born to a tiles maesthri and a homemaker, he was raised in a slum tenement in Greenways Road in Chennai — "Cricket vilaadnadhu, kaathaadi vittadhu, ella santhoshamum inge thaan" (playing cricket, flying kites, all my happiness was here). He studied engineering and graduated. "Ithanaikkum first class," (that too, first class) he says gleefully. As a first-generation graduate, he was preparing to find a job and take care of the family.
But what energised Manikandan was the stage. He once performed 60 voices in 10 minutes. "Inferiority complex-ku oru uruvam irundha adhu indha madhiri thaan irukkum," (if inferiority complex had a shape, it would be this) he tells me pointing at himself sitting hunched on a cafe chair, legs folded under him, hair unkempt, moustache and beard untrimmed. Throughout our nearly 90-minute conversation, he speaks a lot about self-loathing and unfair self-criticism. Sometimes he passes them off as self-deprecating humour, at other times it feels like a child's need for validation.
Either way, Manikandan's is not a life of confidence. Perhaps that's why, despite widespread popularity and acceptance in college, he never thought of taking mimicry seriously. His friends urged him to try his hand at Kalakka Povadhu Yaaru, a comedy reality show on Vijay TV. He didn't think he was worthy. A friend then said, "go, lose and come. But go anyway." Manikandan went, and became the first runner up.
The show gave him the little boost he needed to take his skills seriously. He thought his voice was his asset and joined the radio. He was gaining popularity as a radio jockey, but the sound of applause didn't travel through the FM waves. He didn't get the satisfaction of performing in front of an audience and receiving instant feedback. To compensate, he wrote sketches, performed for his colleagues and sought validation. He felt at home.
One evening in 2009, he was drinking tea at a small shop near his radio station with his colleague Radhan, who later composed for blockbusters like Arjun Reddy, while A R Rahman was receiving his Oscar in another part of the world. "You should also get an Oscar," he encouraged Radhan, who retorted, "yen nee kooda vaangalaame," (why you could get one too). His inferiority complex had now turned into self-deprecating humour, "indha moonjiku yaarunga nadikka vaayppu tharuva," (who will give a chance for this face) he tried to dismiss the idea.
Radhan encouraged Manikandan, without taking on the bigger existential concerns, "Asingamana paiyyan-nu oru character irukkum-le? Adha pannu ya," (there will be characters for ugly boys, no? Act in those roles). If you remember, his friend from his college days used a similar trick on him — "go, lose and come, but go anyway" he had said. The trend is unmissable.
Manikandan eventually left his career in radio to wholeheartedly embrace the movies. The movies, however, first broke his spirit. Many first-time actors trying to get a break into Tamil cinema will tell you that the industry can be disorganised, disrespectful and disorienting. Everyone relies solely on the benevolence of those more powerful than them.
Manikandan's experience was no different. He struggled to find a position as even the last assistant director, a position that is typically paid a pittance, if at all. When he did find work, he saw aspiring actors like him being treated horrifically, which crushed his soul. After a terrible encounter, the details of which he didn't want published, Manikandan found himself standing again outside a tea shop — which becomes something of his Bodhi tree — cup and saucer trembling in his hand, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Ivlothayum adagu vechu indha velaiya seiyyanuma," (do I have to pawn everything to do this job!) he asked himself. Tamil cinema of the past — dominated by feudal prejudices — broke him. Tamil cinema of the future — driven by possibilities — will soon fix him.
He began working with directors competing on a television show that gave rise to a whole generation of Tamil film directors — Naalaiya Iyakkunar. "Podhuva oru thavippula irukkumbodhu, naama alone-nu thonum," (when we're anxious to make something of ourselves, we feel alone). Naalaiya Iyakkunar opened him up to a community of fellow sufferers. He found solidarity, hope, and some tricks of zero-budget filmmaking there.
The show ended, Manikandan went back to the stage — kalyanam, kaadhu kutthu, kovil thiruvizha, corporate events, he performed at every chance he got. He also became a busy dubbing artist for barely-watched films. "What's the most popular role you dubbed for during this time?" I asked him. "Have you seen Naan Kadavul? In a police station sequence, there will be a Rajini saar look alike. I dubbed in Rajini sir's voice for him," he says, and breaks into mimicry. I didn't ask him to. But he couldn't resist.
In his dubbing days, he made Rs.150-200 a day, which covered his food, commute and evenings at the local tea shops. He enjoyed it, until he didn't. Thankfully, Nalan Kumaraswamy, an acquaintance from Naalaiya Iyakkunar days, reached out for a role in the film Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum. It was a tiny role, but a big one in Manikandan's life — it brought Vijay Sethupathy in.
Vijay Sethupathy, already a big actor, wasn't the type to easily make friends. Manikandan wanted to be acquainted, but Sethupathy wouldn't budge, until one day, they were both stuck under a small roof, waiting for the rain to stop. "It was just like a romantic scene. We spoke for two hours. He adopted me as his brother," he says.
He brought Manikandan to the director-duo Pushkar and Gayatri, who were then making Vikram Vedha. In a flash, they cast him in a role that expects him to stay in the last row and appear harmless, if not entirely inconspicuous. Speaking of why it was easy to cast Manikandan in the role, Gayatri says, "we were looking for someone unassuming, who could pass off as a newbie cop, eager to please. At the same time, he should be convincing in the end where there's a character reversal. So, yeah… inconspicuous and striking is definitely a quality he possesses and that really fit into the character he plays!"
They interviewed him for barely ten minutes. They handed him the role, and the script so he can start writing dialogues. "We needed someone who is familiar with Chennai lingo and has a sense of humour. When we met Mani, he clicked all the boxes. We hardly meet someone whom we feel we can collaborate with. There was something cool and unassuming about Mani that convinced us!" Gayatri adds.
Unless one is a versatile and prolific actor like, say, Prakash Raj, the Tamil cinema industry isn't a place for consistent flow of work. After Vikram Vedha, Manikandan hit a lull. He started a YouTube channel, writing and directing political satire in short form — he meditatively called it Tea Kadai Thoughts. "Kala unmaigala pathi sariyana puridhal illaadha samayathula political satire," (when I didn't have any understanding of ground realities, I did political satire), he laughs. But Pa. Ranjith was impressed.
In his film Kaala, Manikandan plays Lenin, the enthu-cutlet youngest son of the eponymous character played by Rajinikanth. Lenin represents the common-youth, the well-intentioned naive idealist, perhaps even the Twitter social justice warrior, who has to come to terms with the realities of the world. Lenin gets a full character arc. And Manikandan effortlessly takes him from being an indignant cry baby to a grieving son to a revolutionary in his own right.
Sometimes Rajinikanth talking to you or applauding your work is the only validation you ever need. For Manikandan, it was even more important. He comes from a family that has no connections to Tamil cinema. Every time he spoke of his dreams to a relative, they said, "Who do you think you are? Rajinikanth's son? Go find yourself a proper job." Playing Rajinikanth's son was an important milestone in silencing that voice in his head.
By this time, he also began thinking more immersively about his career as an actor. He was developing the trick to find a little bit of himself in every character he played. "Lenin yaaru? Araikorai poraali. (Who is Lenin? An ill-informed revolutionary)," he explains. "In a way, he is what I was. Failed YouTuber is the point where Manikandan and Lenin meet. At that point, I welcome Lenin. He becomes one with me," he says.
At the back of a fast-walking, fast-talking hyper-energetic Kaala, the English-speaking, wrist watch-wearing, well-dressed Mugilan of Sillu Karupatti was tougher for Manikandan. "Naan parakkavatti madhiri iruppen," he adds, self-deprecatingly. To his mind, Sillu Karupatti was his most distant performance. He trusted his director, Halitha Shameem, to get the best of him. And she did.
Sillu Karupatti garnered high praise. Speaking of Manikandan, film critic and editor of Film Companion South, Baradwaj Rangan says, "in Tamil cinema, we use the word 'hero' instead of, say, protagonist, automatically expecting a certain tough macho swag from them. But Manikandan has a wider range. He can be honest, vulnerable and real. His reactions are natural, it doesn't feel like he's putting them on for the camera."
But Manikandan wasn't as happy about the reception as he was relieved. It was serendipitous that Mugilan, like Manikandan, was an awkward and distant character in the film. It worked out.
Halitha's next film, Aelay, about an estranged father and son, was more in Manikandan's zone. But as the film progressed, he discovered his Achilles heel — romance. It's telling that he has better chemistry with Samuthirakani, who plays his father, than he does with Madhumathi, who plays his love interest. Jai Bhim, a film that has long scenes of gruesome violence didn't make Manikandan as uncomfortable as the few scenes of intimacy. The feeling he also transferred on Lijomol Jose, who plays his wife.
"With 200 people watching, several of them teasing, how can I perform an intimate emotion?" he asks, when I pointed out that his romance scenes are always rather awkward. An assistant choreographer came to his rescue. She asked Lijomol to whisper something in his ear, which she managed to pass off as a kiss. Manikandan isn't proud of it.
Yet, for someone who started his career on a comedy show, his film career is full of serious roles. It is almost as if he's given up on his past to embrace the present. It was then that Milind Rau chose to cast him against the grain. Make no mistake, Netrikann, Milind's adaptation of the Korean film, Blind, is a serious — even dark — thriller. But to break the ice, and to make us invest in the journey of its protagonists, it needed someone who can perfectly balance vulnerability and light-hearted humour. Milind always wanted Manikandan for the role, giving the character his name too.
In my review of Netrikann, I had written, "it's hard to tell whether his character is written with more visual detailing than Durga's (Nayanthara), or that Manikandan fills these gaps as an actor." In our conversation, Milind puts my confusion to rest. "Manikandan brings a lot to the character," he said and offered an example. In the hospital canteen scene, when he tries to tell his superior that Durga made the connection between the two crimes, the superior cuts the call. But Manikandan keeps talking. He says, 'okay sir, good night sir, sweet dreams sir' just to save face in front of Durga, with impeccable comedic timing. That was Manikandan's improvisation. "There is an honesty about him that's what makes him so convincing," Milind says.
For Manikandan, though, his work isn't as much about honesty as it is about courage. Every time fear makes him want to be inconspicuous, he draws courage from wherever possible to show up and do the work. "Even today, when the camera rolls, my heart beats fast. Bayapadaadha maadhiri camera munnaadi okkaandhirukkardhe, bayangara nadippu. Adhukku apram thaan character-ku nadikkanum," (To appear fearless in front of the camera itself is my biggest act. Only then, can I act as the character).
And then, after a pregnant pause, he says, "When I see myself as an astral projection, I'm always amazed at my courage. Look at this guy, who has had the courage to go this far, despite having been broken so many times before."
It's this courage that's taking him where most performers don't go. Despite receiving many offers, he doesn't sign many films at a time. Just before the release of Jai Bhim, director Tha Se Gnanavel, told me that he needed actors who can commit to the film. "I wanted someone who will live with the Irula people, observe, learn and embody their lifestyle. It can't happen when someone is shooting multiple films at a time and coming here sporadically. Manikandan could make that commitment," he said.
Yet, by the time he's 33, Manikandan has performed on innumerable stages, made an independent film (that's coming to Sony Liv soon), started and abandoned a YouTube channel, acted in a dozen films, written dialogue for blockbusters, been an assistant director in several films, won a handful of awards, preparing to direct his next — a life that appears scattered for the layperson. "Don't stretch yourself too thin," every well-wisher says to him. In Manikandan's mind, writing, acting, direction etc. aren't different things at all.
"Ellaame performance thaanga. Paper munnaadi panringalo, stage-la panringalo, camera pinaadi panringalo. Puriyudha? Naan solradhu puriyudha?" (Everything is performance, whether you do it in front of a sheet of paper, on a stage or behind a camera, you understand? Do you understand?) he asks rather eagerly, as if my understanding of his theory matters to him.
Those who matter understand him just fine. When I ask Gayatri about his strengths, she says, "Mani is super talented, not just as an actor. We believe he has huge potential to become a great writer/director/actor all bundled into one. We are really excited about something he pitched to us and are planning to produce it soon!"
For a man who's spent much of his career not standing out, work now comes to him. "Every morning, I'm like a child waking up to a new gift box at my bedside. Haiiii," he enacts the excitement of a gift-receiving child. This time, it doesn't feel like a performance at all.