The Inimitable Masquerader
When he essays the role of a lawyer afflicted by multiple personality disorder or that of an autistic gravedigger who barely speaks or a mentally challenged man with the mind of a 6 year old boy, or a body builder, model and crippled hunch back, he makes you feel for every single one of them, moving you with such intensity that you come out of the theatres with a lump in your throat. Winner of the National Award for his mind boggling act in Pithamagan and 6 Filmfare awards, Chiyaan Vikram’s life story reads like a film script albeit not his. Thank God for that! Else, we wouldn’t have known whether we’re coming or going. As interesting off screen as on it, the south Indian sensation makes Vanaja Banagiri privy to pick up stuff from his cupboard and no, she did not find any skeletons. But then knowing him, they are probably hanging from the ceiling looking like chandeliers! After all, they belong to the king of makeovers, don’t they? Without much ado, let’s put our hands together for the inscrutable, inimitable, invincible actor of all times as he speaks on himself, he and him…
From the time I was in the 3rd standard, I wanted to be an actor. In the 8th standard, I fancied a sports car so I wanted to be an actor. As I grew up, I wanted to be actor because I fell in love with acting. The experience of being on the stage was exhilarating, to put it mildly. Even when I was backstage, I knew every single dialogue of every actor. There is nothing else I wanted to do except act.
Even when I was in school, I used to like weird roles not the mainstream ones. For instance, in Julius Caesar, I wanted to play Brutus not Caesar. I was attracted to the unconventional, challenging roles. I studied in a boarding school in Yercaud. I used every opportunity in the school and learnt Karate, horse riding, I wasn’t good at it, swimming, playing musical instruments, just about everything that was taught. I learnt to play the guitar, piano, violin, saxophone, I was a jack of all. I played all games – Tennis, Football, Cricket…I would hang around at the school’s theatre club helping out backstage. I used to know by heart every dialogue of every character. Finally, I landed the lead role in `The doctor in spite of himself’ when the original actor fell ill. It was a rib tickling comedy. My performance had everybody sit up and take notice. It was exactly like `a star is born’ kind of reaction that happened again post `Sethu.’
I graduated in English literature from Loyola College in Chennai and enrolled for MBA. I acted in several stage productions including adaptations of `The Caine Mutiny Court Martial and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy winning several `Best Actor’ awards for my performances.
The Dark Phase & The Bright Spark
“I had won the `Best Actor’ award at IIT Madras and was on a high. I was driving back home on my motor bike when a truck knocked me down. I suffered a serious leg injury. I was bed ridden for 3 years and went through 23 surgeries to avoid amputation. I would barely be able to walk on the crutches for a short while, so I finished my dissertation from home.
My body had taken a severe beating but not my spirit. I met Shailaja, my wife, during that phase. When I asked her about her future plans she said she would specialise in psychology. When she asked me I said I was going to be a superstar. She told me much later that she thought I was suffering from delusions of grandeur! But I did not for a second doubt that ever.
I recovered miraculously and started my journey. I always knew it will happen. Acting is in my blood. I used to keep writing affirmations like `I am the best’ for 10 years of my struggling phase. I used to go to dancing classes, I would call a friend and practise dialogues… Everything I did was in the direction of becoming an actor. I lived as if producers and directors were waiting outside my door with offers.
During that time I started modelling and featured in commercials for brands like Chola Tea, TVS Excel and Allwyn watches. I also appeared in a TV serial `Galatta Kutumbam.’ During my final year MBA, I was approached by veteran director C V Sridhar for a lead role in a film. That’s how ‘En Kadhal Kanmani’ happened in 1990 followed by `Thanthu Vitten Ennai’ and P C Sriram’s college love story. None of the films made a great impact. I moved to Malayalam and Telugu after that as offers came from there. I appeared in a series of films in supporting roles. While I learnt a lot from my Malayalam films with Mammooty, Suresh Gopi and Jayaram, I breezed through Telugu films like `Chirunavvu Varamistava’, Bangaru Kutumbam in which I played ANR’s eldest son, `Aadalla majaka’ and `Akka Bagunnava’ to keep myself afloat. I briefly returned to Tamil with Pudhiya Mannargal which had A R Rahman’s music but it didn’t work. A role in Illayaraja’s musical Kangalin Vaarthaigal and a brief role in Parthiban’s Housefull were the only ones that were critically acclaimed. As actors, we expect a lot from our films but things don’t exactly turn out the way we hope they will.
I did several Malayalam films and few Telugu films during this period because I needed the money. It was a huge struggle. I also dubbed for other heroes in Tamil. I continued attending dancing and acting classes during this period. I refused several offers from television as I felt it would distract me from the mainstream film roles.”
Love’s labour not lost
“I love cinema to death. I eat cinema, drink cinema, live cinema. Cinema is my life. I don’t do anything else. I would watch one movie several times to observe different aspects. I still do. I remember watching Bala’s `Mile sur mera tumhara’ and hum the tune in Balamurali Krishna’s voice. Look at the beauty of life, Bala picked me for the part 2 of the same video, which made me happier than all the accolades I have received. You have to keep evolving, constantly creating milestones and crossing them one by one.
Bala and I go back a long way. In 1997 he was making his debut as a director with `Sethu.’ He offered me the lead role of a rogue. For me, it’s important to live a role. I like to get into the head of the character and behave the way he would. I take the director’s instructions mostly but do give my inputs. I shaved my head and went bald to get into the skin of Sethu and grew my nails long. I did not accept any other offers during the making of the film as I did not want the continuity of the film to get affected. The film went through hell with depleting funds, not finding a distributor and finally opening with a single noon show in theatres. It was a harrowing period of my life and my fire was in danger of dying down. Audiences loved it so much that eventually it ran for 100 days in several theatres and will be remembered forever. Critics called me a `revelation’ , the film as `an unforgettable experience’ and I went on to win several awards including the Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize. It was amazing to finally get where I always visualised myself to be.
I did not sign any film for 65 days after Sethu’s release; I wanted to pick the right role. I completed my pending commitments I had taken up before Sethu. Then followed my successful phase with a series of hits and I tried to push the envelope with every role.”
Method acting and all that jazz
“In every film, I have some sort of a makeover not because I have a fetish to look different. It is because I live that character. I find that process most invigorating. For me, it’s a dream come true to live somebody else’s life. For Dhil in which I played a police officer I went on a strict fruits and juice diet to look that part. Playing a blind folk singer for Kasi was quite challenging too. I would sunbathe for hours to get that tanned look and I would get headaches while practising to look blind. I would like to believe I am a thinking actor; I am a method actor. ‘Anniyan’ and `I’ took me to a different level. For `I’, I had a range of looks. I had to gain weight for the body builder part in the first half and lose 25 kgs for the other parts in the second half. I had to live on egg whites and apples and work out. It was the toughest I have ever done. My friend Bharat who is an expert in fitness and has won several contests helped me train. More than the weight loss, the prosthetic make up was gruelling. Sometimes I would sit for 17 hours waiting for a shot, I couldn’t eat, drink through a straw and at the end of the wait, it would be a shot of one hand or the back! That’s what I find most exciting. It’s an interesting game for me. That’s my poison. I am addicted to it.
Work does affect my mind at times. When I was doing 3 roles for Anniyan, I was completely muddled in the head. But then I just go there and do it in a way that, that character would do it. I imagine what I would do in that space. I go into that zone. And I live there till it’s a wrap. For Dheva Thirumagal, it took me 10 days to get into that character; the way he walks, the way he talks…I take the director’s instructions but I do make suggestions. Everybody has seen my body of work so they take my suggestions. Even Mani Ratnam is open to my inputs but not Shankar. He has it all etched out and likes to stick to that. Mani Ratnam and Shankar are my most favourite directors.; they are my dream directors. Shankar is the only director I approached for work after Sethu was released. I have never ever approached anybody else for a role.
I love doing an out and out commercial mass masala film as well. But I would like to approach it differently. I walk differently. I talk differently. No two roles should look the same. I don’t even sign two films at a time because of this reason. If I don’t do that, I won’t be happy. My wife keeps saying I should have been in Hollywood. If I ever do an English film, I will do that differently too; I will be more subtle. I am sure I will do a Hollywood film; it’s on my bucket list.
I don’t go out, I don’t party, I work and go home. I constantly watch people, in the airports, on the streets, everywhere. Even now in the hotel I’m staying (in Kuala Lumpur) there is a walk way where people come for walks. I keep watching and imitate their walk right behind them without them realising that I’m doing that. I do it all the time. I love mimicking people. I am a great mimic. Earlier, during the landline days, I would often answer the phone and pretend to be somebody else, nobody would know; now it’s a different story; people know how different I can sound but I still try…
For Dheva Thirumagal, I changed my voice. It requires a lot of training. It’s almost subliminal for me. I like to mould a character and make it credible. You have to make it plausible and at the same time unique. That’s the challenge.”
Philosophy of life
“I have been around for 25 years in this profession. Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down. Cinema is like lottery. It’s important to have your feet firmly on the ground even when your head is in the clouds. Just be yourself. I like to maintain equanimity in all situations. That’s what keeps us in good stead.
You got to be yourself. I am a very very shy guy. I have to be comfortable with people for me to start talking, joking…Once I am, there is no stopping me. I have a whacky sense of humour and can keep people in splits. I am a strange guy in that sense.”
“I get turned on by a woman’s sense of humour. If she’s also a stunner, that’s a perk I wouldn’t mind! I am a die -hard romantic. I love to romance my woman and make her feel special. I get put off by shallow, pretentious women.”
“Today is my first day of shoot for Anand Shankar’s `Iru Magan’ which means two faces. No prizes for guessing how many looks I will be experimenting with in this film! This is the first time I am acting with Nayanthara. It’s a Sci Fi thriller. Anand has that largeness; he pushes the envelope; he’s very progressive; it’s not always like that. I am looking forward to this experience.
Cinema is very different today. It’s constantly evolving. It’s interesting to be a part of the changing scenario. I am looking forward to running with the horses and hunting with the hounds, in a manner of speaking.”