RIP Vivekh: A detailed roadmap of the actor's illustrious journey
The author takes you through the entire life journey of the irreplaceable actor
Vivekh was admitted on Friday due to a cardiac arrest and is reported to have succumbed to cardiac complications in the wee hours of Saturday.
Born as Vivekanandan in Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu, on November 19, 1961, Vivekh was a humourist even before he stepped into the world of cinema. It was his tryst at the Madras Humour Club that introduced him to legendary filmmaker K Balachander. After assisting him in the writing department for a few years, the sprightly Vivekh made his onscreen debut with the 1987 Balachander film, Manadhil Urudhi Vendum. As Vivek, the younger brother of Suhasini’s Nandhini, the actor struck gold in his very first film. Although he went on to become a comedian of repute, his initial films with Balachander, including Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal and Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal, were not just about his comic timing. These roles also tapped into the performer in him.
Known for his punchy one-liners, the bespectacled actor continued to impress in ensemble features and was equally at home in big-ticket films like Uzhaippali and Veera as well as close-knit family dramas made popular by the likes of Visu, Rama Narayanan, V Sekhar and TP Gajendiran. He acted in a number of films with these directors and cemented his comic stardom.
His rise in cinema coincided with the arrival of young actors and filmmakers, and the return of college-based dramas in Tamil cinema. It is in this genre that Vivekh often found himself in the 90s and 00s. He starred in a bunch of films with then up-and-coming actors and future stars like Vijay, Ajith, Vikram, Prashanth, Suriya, and Madhavan. With the ascension of such actors into superstardom, Vivekh’s popularity too reached dizzying heights. From equal prominence with the heroes in film posters to acting in separate comedy tracks in smaller films to facilitate their reach, Vivekh was an unstoppable force at the turn of the millennium.
Tamil cinema is filled with dualities — MGR-Sivaji, Rajini-Kamal, Ajith-Vijay… And in the Tamil comedy space too, we had two legends: Vivekh and Vadivelu. Both legendary in their own right, though with contrasting styles, they had very similar beginnings and acted in a lot of films together. Films they starred in together like Middle-Class Madhavan, Pongalo Pongal, and Viralukketha Veekam still enjoy a cult following.
At the turn of the millennium, Vivekh began employing a brand of comedy that would become synonymous with him — social satire. He first experimented with this form in Thirunelveli (2000) and the success of that comedy track spurred him to make that his chosen path.
The turn of the millennium also saw the first of many failures of Vivekh, the hero, with a few projects being announced and shelved soon after. But around the same time, Vivekh starred in almost fifty-odd films in a span of just two years. His unsuccessful bid to become a hero notwithstanding, Vivekh was cementing a place for himself in Tamil cinema. His stupenduous success in comedy allowed Vivekh to chart a new path in his career, one that featured him as part of the hero’s journey. While he continued doing track comedy in films like Palayathu Amman and Pennin Manadhai Thottu, Vivekh was moving on to bigger things.
After providing us with consistent, quality content in the early 2000s, Vivekh stepped down a gear to act in films that allowed his character to grow over the course of the film. It was in this phase that we saw his gold standard work in Run, Dhool, Perazhagan, and Saamy, among others. The humour in these films came with a strong undercurrent of social satire and the questioning of superstitious and casteist beliefs. Neatly packaging messages in humour, he provided sugar-coated bitter pills for the audience to chew on. How can we not smile thinking of Saamy’s Venkatraman storming a school for an oppressed class child’s admission? How can we think of Run’s Mohan turning into Paavadasaami and not laugh? How can we forget Vivekh's parody of Mudhal Mariyadhai in Parthiban Kanavu?
An important aspect of Kalaimamani Vivekh’s comedy was his ability to parody nearly everything. Nothing was sacrosanct; every topic was fair game to him and his barbs and jibes were loved by the political class too. An underrated aspect of Vivekh’s career was his singing ability, especially seen in the way he spoofed some of the biggest hits of the times. Even now, the original lyrics of many such songs are a blur. It is Vivekh’s cover versions that remain in our hearts.
In this phase, Vivekh also worked with a lot of big-ticket filmmakers like Mani Ratnam and Shankar, who used him for more than just comedy. While Vivekh’s role as Sethu in Alaipayuthey is criminally underrated, there were no such issues in his collaborations with Shankar. Be it the ever-giving Mangalam sir in Boys or the good-natured and funny cop in Anniyan or the jovial pillar of support in Sivaji, Vivekh’s performances in Shankar's films are unforgettable. It is in these films that the full spectrum of his ability became clear. Vivekh could make us cry as easily as he made us laugh, and this revelation held the actor in good stead for a few more years despite yet another false start as a hero in Solli Adippen.
The late 2000s saw the brand of Vivekh losing steam. With a newer crop of actors coming up and choosing their own Vivekhs from the newer crop of comedians, it was time for the original college friend to graduate. It is only with Dhanush that Vivekh shared the kind of terrific chemistry that mirrored the camaraderie he had in his earlier films. Almost every Dhanush-Vivekh film — Padikadhavan, Uthama Puthiran, Mappillai and Velaiyilla Pattadhaari — boasted of humour that was for the ages. In between, he tried a serious role in Naan Dhaan Bala and also starred in a stagey comedy film, Palakattu Madhavan, in the mid-2010s. But the cold reception to these films meant it was time for yet another reinvention.
This ability to reinvent was the cornerstone of Vivekh’s career. Just as people were writing him off as a has-been in the final leg of his career, Vivekh returned in big-ticket films like VIP and Yennai Arindhaal. Post the success of his role as Azhagusundaram in VIP and Revolver Richard in YA, it was time to see a sobered up Vivekh trying something new. He could not pull off playing a college student anymore, but he play their dads. This triggered his second coming as an actor. He was back to his roots of being a good actor who also does comedy. His turn as a strict, yet passionate father in Hip Hop Tamizha’s Meesaya Murukku was lapped up by a new generation of fans. He reunited with his old friends Vijay and Ajith in Bigil and Viswasam, respectively.
In 2019, Vivekh made one of the most important films of his career, Vellai Pookal, which saw him play a cop investigating a murder in the USA. He played the no-nonsense Rudhran, who hardly smiled in the investigative thriller. It was an extremely surprising casting choice. But Vivekh came up aces. He again blew our minds in his most recent onscreen appearance in Dharala Prabhu, the Tamil remake of Vicky Donor. Stepping into the shoes of Annu Kapoor, who won a National award for that role, Vivekh aced the character and in fact, even bettered it.
Before his untimely passing, he finished shooting for Vijay Sethupathi’s Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kelir and Sundar C’s Aranmanai 3. His long-standing dream of working with Kamal Haasan too was achieved with Shankar’s Indian 2, which is still under production. It is said that he was set to make his OTT debut soon, and was also going to make his directorial debut.
His illustrious film career aside, what equally endeared Vivekh to the masses was his philanthropy. His close connection with former president APJ Abdul Kalam was notable and he was known for his social activism, especially his Green Globe initiative. Through this, Vivekh planned to plan 1 crore saplings, and had realised a third of that dream at the time of his demise. Even as condolence messages poured in on social media remembering his onscreen work, there were just as many voices highlighting his Green Globe initiative and pledging to take it forward.
Vivekh was someone who was not deterred by failure. Personal trauma did not stop him. Success never blinded him. He was always moving forward. Even a day before he suffered cardiac arrest, he was spearheading a campaign to urge people to opt for Government centres for COVID-19 vaccination. He was called Chinna Kalaivanar and Janangalin Kalaignan for a reason. Vivekh was a socially conscientious, once-in-a-generation comedian who never failed to make us think… even while we were laughing our guts out.
Vivekh’s funeral took place with full state honours. The actor is survived by his wife and two daughters.