As the posse of journalists crowded around Vinayakan, the actor looked flummoxed and terribly uncomfortable. When the journalists requested him to eat the ‘laddu’ from his mother’s hand, he brushed it away scowling at those around him. “Please don’t ask me to put up an act,” he beseeched. And then the ever-persistent question came: “Did you expect it?” “I neither have interest in the system nor do I have belief in it,” came Vinayakan’s reply. “Why don’t you have belief in the system?” came the counter-question from a journalist. Vinayakan shot back again, “Why don’t you think? I don’t have to tell you. That’s my technique, my business (points to his head) I don’t have to talk about it to anyone. I sell my body to live.”
This sums up what was a bizarre press conference minutes after the Kerala government bestowed Vinayakan with the best actor award for his spellbinding performance as ‘Gangan’ in ‘Kammattipaadam.’ In the film that brilliantly explored the lives of Dalits who are strewn and tossed aside in the urban transformation of Kammattipaadam into present-day Kochi, Vinayakan, donning a grizzly beard, haunting eyes, and protruding molars, was able to captivate the Malayali audience with his craft. His fervent chanting of the ‘puzhu pulikal’ track (that he himself composed) at a wedding function and the maniacal manner in which he went about maiming his enemies were richly applauded by an audience who had never seen Vinayakan in this form before. The actor has mostly appeared in negative roles in his long 20-year career punctuated by comedy roles here and there. Even though in ‘Chhota Mumbai’ and ‘Big B,’ Vinayakan played roles that accentuated the mood of the film, it was Rajeev Ravi’s ‘Kammattipaadam’ that laid bare the actor’s skills.
The jury’s selection of Vinayakan for the award this year has many shades. One, it was reflective of the changing posture of the jury towards films like ‘Kammattipaadam’ that explored concepts and areas where mainstream Malayalam filmmakers have seldom dared to venture in the last decade. Second, it was seen by many as a return to the 80s and 90s often called the ‘golden age’ of Malayalam cinema when strong scripts on unconventional topics backed by compelling acting ruled the day. Third, by choosing little-known Vinayakan over much bigger and conventional favourites like Mohanlal and Dileep, the jury was seen to be preparing to wade into uncharted territory to recognise new talent. Finally, Vinayakan’s physical features do not fit into the stereotyped frame of how a lead actor should look like in Malayalam cinema and beyond. But that his genius was rightly tapped by the jury for the prestigious honour heralds a bright future for the industry where skills matter, not looks.
Perhaps, that’s why when journalists pressed him for an answer, Vinayakan, sporting black shades, retorted that while he was happy for the honour, it was unexpected. He repeated that he does not have any interest or belief in the ‘vyavastha’ (system). He said he believed in democracy. When peevishly asked whether he would continue to act, Vinayakan shot back with a finger in the air, “till death”.