Selvam collides into Style Pandi on the streets. In a bright-red avocado print shirt, a coiffure from 1980s, a funny moustache and a broad swagger, Pandi is angered. “Fall at my feet and apologise. Or else!” he warns.
Selvam refuses, “Else what?”
One thing leads to another and Style Pandi, played with bravura style by Vadivelu in Nagaram Marupakkam (2001), runs away — after threatening to break the other’s bones. Selvam coincidentally follows him home. With no recourse left, Pandi throws himself at Selvam’s feet and pleads for mercy. “Only build up, pa! No substance,” he confesses, weeping.
Like many of Vadivelu’s lines, this, too, contains multitudes — it can turn into a meme, or a comment on the politics of spectacle sweeping the world, or a snide remark about the colleague who got the highest raise. But one thing is for sure: for the actor whose lines pop up in everyday Tamil life, “build up” is indeed the substance.
Vadivelu dominated Tamil film comedy in the 1990s and 2000s. Even though his career began a few years earlier, his claim to fame came in the 1992 film Singaravelan, where he played a nondescript role, being third or fourth-fiddle to the significantly bigger comedian Goundamani.
He had very few dialogues. His small build, dark complexion, unruly hair, and broken English added up to his humour. But, Vadivelu made every word count. “Only you possible,” he tells Velan (Kamal Hassan, the film’s hero), about something that’s seemingly impossible. In retrospect, that might just be said of him, too.
His comedy is made up of delightfully exaggerated facial expressions, intonation, and an embellished sense of self. Calling his humour slapstick and self-deprecating wouldn’t quite explain its true greatness. What Vadivelu does is what Tamilians call “getthu kaatradhu”, the closest English translation might be “disproportionate build-up”, which falls apart to great comic effect.
A typical Vadivelu character is that of an unemployed villager, or a tactless businessman, or a perpetual college student, or even a disrespected cop. As Snake Babu, Bullet Pandi, or Kaippulla, Vadivelu plays the bombastically pretentious Everyman, who will go to any length to pose as the omnipotent, strong, valorous, undefeated leader. But he knows and we know that he is a “dummy piece” (a Vadivelu-ism for something that looks substantial but is actually ineffective).
It is this nature of his work that makes him remarkable in the film culture of our times, argues Stalin Rajangam, a film scholar and Dalit intellectual. In his essay about Vadivelu, he writes that the comedian plays an important role as the antithesis of the Tamil hero, who is often the symbol of valour, honour, pride, patriarchy, caste supremacy etc. Vadivelu mocks all of these, not from a distance, the way his contemporary Vivek did, which appeared holier-than-thou. He does it from within, playing characters seemingly similar to the heroes, yet, having his facade crumble spectacularly, exposing our hypocrisies and vulnerabilities.
Take Maruthamalai (2007), for instance, where he plays Encounter Ekambaram, a police head constable. At one point, he walks up to the market and threatens a vegetable vendor for a bribe. A beggar arrives at the same time. The shopkeeper treats them both equally, flicking coins at their faces, which Ekambaram fails to catch. What follows is a hilarious takedown of the police. So much so that at one stage, when Ekambaram chides the beggar, “Haven’t I asked you not to beg where I’m claiming my bribe?”, he retorts: “Haven’t I told you not to claim your bribes where I come to beg?”
But Vadivelu had his share of problems. Casteist slurs, blatant misogyny, rape jokes — and rape as joke — are sprinkled all over his oeuvre. For much of his 25 years as a comedian, his work was rejected by serious critics as slapstick and crude. After an ill-fated tryst in politics, Vadivelu’s career petered out by the 2011 election, in which he campaigned for the DMK, which lost, leaving the ruling AIADMK adequately angered. The several alleged resurrections failed to bring his career back up.
Until the internet took over. Vadivelu’s distinct ability to embody the hypocrisies of the common man, find comedy in real-life situations — even if tragicomic — and create believable characters, has made him a somewhat fortuitous theorist of modern Tamil society. His exaggerated facial expressions and loaded body language lent themselves incredibly to “meme” culture, which needed captivating visuals to tell its story.
Vadivelu saying “Ahaan?” and “Is it?” are now part of legitimate language to respond sarcastically to fake news or false claims. Various kinds of Vadivelu laughter have been cathartic for those who celebrated Tamilisai Soundararajan and H Raja of the BJP losing in the recent Lok Sabha elections, for instance. His “Venaam, valikkudhu, azhudhuduven (No, it hurts, I’m about to cry)” has been the balm for many cornered souls. His “Vada poche! (Alas! The vada is gone!)” was once used to explain Hilary Clinton’s electoral loss.
The already cinema-happy Tamil people find in Vadivelu the power of mockery and satire as a way to explain life. He has a portfolio so vast that there’s a meme-worthy scene for every situation. From appraisal meetings in Chennai’s IT corridors to serious political dissent, Vadivelu’s comedy is for situations when words fail the Tamil people.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘How the Tamil people found a language of mockery, satire and memes in Vadivelu’s comedy’