Seated on a cushioned chair in a spacious apartment is a much older and calmer Vivekh, who flashes a smile. In films, he speaks a lot. He jokes, plays pranks on others and also delivers punchlines without a pause. But he is a different person when you meet him. He is conscious of what he speaks. In fact, each word is spelt out carefully. “Can we finish this conversation in twenty minutes?” he asks, adding his mother slipped and fell in the bathroom. Vivekh looks visibly tired. “It’s been quite a long day,” he says and sits down for a chat. If there is one guarantee in his interview, you won’t get cliched answers. There is honesty rather than diplomacy.
Excerpts from the conversation:
After Naan Thaan Bala (2014), you are back as the protagonist with Vellaipookal.
I was insanely busy once doing 25 films minimum every year. But I am past that stage. I don’t want to continue playing a sidekick to the stars. That is when director Vivek Elangovan narrated the script on Skype. Vellaipookal is made by a group of techies from Seattle. Initially, I wasn’t keen on doing this film because the whole crew is in the US. I felt distant and didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. Slowly, I got convinced. I went there, and they treated me like a family member. Hey, I recommended Sathyaraj sir for the role, but the makers insisted that I do it. It was destined, I guess.
For a comedian, playing a retired cop in Vellaipookal should have been challenging.
Absolutely. In particular, I had to work extra hard on my dialogue delivery and posture. I made a conscious effort to make it real. It will be a little more emotional. I had met a few senior police officials and they guided me in the process. I enjoyed facing the camera because it wasn’t the usual role. The film has an interesting climax, and that really got me kicked. I have played cop roles in Singam and Yennai Arindhaal previously—but Vellaipookal was altogether a different ballgame. I am an avid reader of Sidney Sheldon thriller novels. Naturally, the genre of Vellaipookal appealed to me.
You have completed three decades in the film industry. Have you ever felt you should have got better roles when you were younger?
Better late than never. (Smiles) MGR became a hero only at the age of 40. But I never wanted to become one. I have worked with stalwarts like K Balachander sir and Mani Ratnam. I was happy with what I was doing. I have no regrets. KB created not just characters, but beings so human that even 30 years later, the audience responds to his films with the same excitement. He was one of the great directors, who instilled in me, discipline and taught me cinema.
Do you think the audience will accept you as a retired cop?
Your approach has to be honest—irrespective of the roles. You have to deliver the goods. When I was approached with Vellaipookal, I thought to myself—hey, I never dreamt I would do something like this—so what’s wrong with doing it? I loved the premise of the story. We shot at the Washington Nuclear reactor, Mount Rainier, an active volcano, and other places in the US. The experience was nothing short of amazing.
I did try my luck in a handful of commercial entertainers, which came and went so discreetly that they didn’t affect my career. I was never considered ‘a marketable hero’, and never got promoted to that category. I am not complaining—I found another niche— comedy—which is equally enjoyable and brought me as much comfort as I need.
How satisfied are you with your film-related work?
Being a well-known comedian has assured me a good life, but I didn’t stop at that. I am into planting trees on the advice of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Besides, I run a charitable trust that helps the poor with education and medical expenses. On the whole, I am content. I found out along the way that the true purpose of films isn’t to show oneself off. I won’t accept a role just for the sake of it. I did something like Vellaipookal, but that doesn’t mean I am moving into serious roles. Comedy interests me more and I will continue focusing on that. But don’t ask me if I would want to play a college student again. I am done with that.
So, you are choosier than ever before.
I am. When the makers of Viswasam approached me with an offer, I was apprehensive in the beginning. Though my screen time was lesser, I agreed to come on board since it’s an Ajith film. The reach was great and fulfilling. They shot a lot, but not everything was retained. (Smiles) The same happened with Yennai Arindhaal.
Comedians who attempted lead roles often don’t meet with the same success.
It’s not when a comedian turns hero, the audience expects a full-length entertainer. Today, expectations have changed. You give them quality content, they don’t mind watching it. Further, one should make sure the writing is perfect where the hero-comedian balance is struck. Even in Vellaipookal, you can find some of my trademark quirks.
Same kinds of films don’t run anymore. Content is important—be it humour or a serious story. No film with a strong script has failed. And, if the content isn’t good, no hero can save the film. Before, there were separate tracks for comedy, but now, it’s not the case. The role of comedians has declined. As everyone knows, comedy is the toughest emotion to handle. Everything about it is difficult—writing, directing and acting.
Your sense of humour is both subtle and strong. How do you connect with everyone whenever you go?
It is in the genes. The credit goes to my mother Maniammal. She cracks jokes even during difficult times. As for my career, I think I earned success. Comedy may look spontaneous, but a lot of effort goes behind every dialogue. I write my own comedy tracks. Additionally, it is important to know where to stop, and that comes over a period of time.
The last time I met you, you were writing two scripts, and one of them was a psycho-thriller. How is it shaping up?
I love writing, and direction has always been on the cards. While shooting Alaipayuthe, Mani Ratnam, in fact, asked me if I was interested in making a film. It is about time, too.
You are a part of Thalapathy 63.
After Kuruvi (2008), I am collaborating with Vijay once again. He hasn’t changed at all. I love working with Atlee also. He is an asuran, and his style of working reminds me of his mentor Shankar—be it thought process or execution. I am having loads of fun on the sets.
You belong to the older generation. Still, you are relevant.
Could you stop saying this, please? (Laughs) Perhaps, there is a young actor in me who is desperate to learn. I will be relevant as long as he is alive. (Smiles) I am very fortunate I am in a profession where there is no retirement age. You get better as you get older.