CHENNAI: In a city that worships its film stars, literally — temples have been built for MG Ramachandran and Khushboo, fans of Rajinikant and Kamal Haasan routinely perform arati, break coconuts and bathe posters of their latest releases with megalitres of milk in raucous celebration, people have voted artistes from the world of films such as MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha to power — to become a film star is perhaps the dream of its millions.
Not everyone achieves that dream. Yet, when they do, as did actor Vikram, their relationship with the city changes forever…
It was through the songs of his films that I first encountered Vikram… My son, a madly energetic eight-year-old then, raced home from his best friend’s house singing Tamil songs… and demanded that we buy the cassette.
On and on, in a loop, I heard those songs from Saamy, in 2003, one of his many successful and acclaimed films in the early part of the decade – Dhill, Gemini, Kasi, Dhool, Pithamagan…
Some seven years later, doing a triceps pushdown at the gym, a gentleman suggested I ought to hold the bar in a certain way. I glanced sideways at him and back… Those eyes. I had seen them before somewhere. Wanting to look again, I turned. He was gone.
Later in the gym, in the way details of people are offered easily, I learnt that he was Vikram. Superstar… To his friends, Vikram is Kenny.
Born John Victor Kennedy Vinod Raj in Madras, Kenny studied at Montfort, a residential school in the hill station Yercaud… Completing school, he returned to join Loyola College… In 1986, his last year of college, Kenny met with an accident that was to change his life radically.
‘I was riding pillion. And the guy who was driving the bike was a classmate… As soon as they took off, Kenny was alarmed to see that the rider was resting his leg on the crashguard even while piling on speed. ‘I said, “What are you doing??? Put your leg down!”’ Simultaneously, Kenny saw a lorry approaching fast. ‘He could not brake. He accelerated instead and we hit the lorry.’
The accident resulted in Kenny’s right leg being fractured and damaged to the point that the doctors said he would not walk again… Kenny spent his last year of college indoors, bedridden. The one responsible for the accident escaped unhurt. ‘Nothing happened to him but I got jacked for life.’
For the next three years, Kenny underwent prolonged treatment at Vijaya Hospital which included twenty-three operations…Kenny had dreamt of being an actor from the time in school when he was on stage and heard the sound of applause… An actor who could not walk? That was not an option. He brought his willpower to bear.
‘When I was in hospital I used to do weights. My legs were thin like sticks, I had to have traction. So to build my torso and upper body, I would do dumbbells, and then,’ lying flat on his bed, ‘benchpress with the food trolley,’ lowering it to his chest and raising it in the air.
Soon the doctors started bringing patients by, believing Kenny’s example would motivate them. ‘They would say, “Show your biceps. Show your legs.” Then turning to the patient, “See! You have only a broken hand.”’
When he met his future wife, Shailaja, who was planning to do a PhD in Psychology, ‘I was on crutches. She asked me “What do you do?”… I replied, “I am going to become a big star. I am going to have these many cars, these many houses.”
She thought I had delusions of grandeur… Finally, adopting the screen name Vikram, ‘I got into movies. I struggled and struggled… I got small movies, then another, then another.’
The first was En Kadhal Kanmani in 1990. It did not do well. The second was Thanthu Vitten Ennai a year later. It did not make him a star either.
He made several other movies, some with directors who had earlier delivered hits. Each time, Vikram thought ‘This movie will be my break.’
By 1994, Shailaja and he were married.
‘My parents, wife, were all supportive. My father-in-law helped us a lot.’ He gave Vikram a Maruti car… But a car required petrol, petrol cost money, and Vikram had no money.
‘I had to manage with air-conditioning, on 100 bucks a day, or the petrol would finish. If Mani Ratnam called, I’d want to be fresh when I went to see him. I would drive a little with it on, then switch it off. Do stuff like that!’
Things did not get better even though Vikram made enough movies to be recognised on the streets… his income was barely adequate.
‘My dad had an Omni. I would always keep it filled with just five litres. After I became an actor, it would always run out of petrol and I would have to push it to the petrol pump. It’s funny, when you want to be recognised, say in an airport where you need a ticket in a hurry, people look blankly at you.
But on the road, everybody would recognise me when I was pushing the car. “Sir, Vikram Sir… maatintingala? Stuck?
Yenna thalaiva, padam illaiya? What boss … No film on hand?” ’ –
Tulsi Badrinath is the author of Madras, Chennai and the Self; Conversations with the City. This is an excerpt of a chapter on Tamil Nadu film star Vikram