Santhanam and Sivakarthikeyan: A tale of two comedians
The author traces the journey of the two actors from when they were television staples to now, when their films are releasing side by side this weekend
I can already sense a mob of furious Sivakarthikeyan fans gathering in outrage at my referring to him as a ‘comedian’. Let me clarify that it is simply a reference to who he once was, not the star he is today. For a brief period in television, about a decade ago, he was a comedian. Santhanam was too, but unlike in Sivakarthikeyan’s case, the former’s tenure as a comedian extended well into his film career. There are quite a few parallels to how they both began their ascent into public consciousness. Both started off on television, and for the same channel, no less. While Santhanam became popular for playing the lead character in the cult parody show, Lollu Sabha (which sadly is no more), Sivakarthikeyan’s was as a result of emerging the winner of a dance programme, and later, for turning into an anchor, noted for his comic timing. The early indications were clear: one for the jokes, the other for a lot more than just jokes. Both must not have known then how decisive this seemingly innocuous demarcation would prove to be eventually in their film careers.
And then, they come upon the proverbial divergence in path. Santhanam, of course, took the route of comedy when he accepted to star in Manmadhan — an opportunity he still expresses gratitude to Simbu for. Even then though, he was smart enough to see that the days of track comedy would soon be coming to a necessary end. And so, his jokes were always weaved into the narrative, and his character, even if not central to the plot, was always important for the entertainment in the film. It is as the hero’s friend that he broke into Tamil cinema. Vivek was the wise, elder brother figure to the hero. Vadivelu was the lesser comical figure who’d get pwned by the hero, or have nothing really to do with him. Santhanam was different. He was the hero’s equal, and in many cases, was even accorded the liberty of making a mockery of the hero. Films like Boss Engira Bhaskaran and Oru Kal Oru Kannadi are unthinkable without him, and did well if only for his jokes.
Slowly, of course, the joke wells began to run dry. Every Tamil hero’s favourite friend stopped being so funny anymore. Films like Linga and Nanbenda served as examples, and then, aware as always, he made a clever move once again — this time to transform himself into a hero. But this transition hasn’t proved to be as easy as his entry into cinema from television. This was a man whose mere presence, for almost 10 years, had been enough to get people laughing, and now, he had to convince them to take him seriously. His breakout films as hero — Vallavanukku Pullum Aayudham, Inimey Ippadithaan and Dhilluku Dhuddu — have all been comedies for a reason. He knows the audience would struggle to accept a sudden transition. Towards the end of Vallavanukku… for example, there’s a big love scene in which he’s shown to break down. I found it very hard to suspend disbelief and was simply waiting for the big punchline that’d make the whole scene into a joke. But it never arrived.
Sivakarthikeyan, on the other hand, has made swifter progress, and taken longer strides in his attempt to turn into a commercial hero. For one, it helped that he was never truly pegged as a comedian in films, save for that cameo in 3. The intention has always been to use comedy to make his presence felt as a hero, while slowly breaking audience resistance towards his ability to fight and emote. One film, one nut, one bolt at a time. And now, barely five years since he made his debut in Marina, he’s awaiting a film — Velaikkaran — that’s reliant only on his star power. The transition is complete. It’s the sort of growth Santhanam’s had his eyes on too. Even if this week’s film — Sakka Podu Podu Raja — doesn’t do the trick, given its reliance on comedy, he’ll hope that eventually, he can break audience resistance just as that master planner, Sivakarthikeyan, has done so effectively. It doesn’t hurt that one of Santhanam’s upcoming films is one by Selvaraghavan. Perhaps that’s when everything will change for him, and then, maybe, just maybe, we may have grounds for comparison once again.