‘Chiyaan’ Vikram is regarded of the finest actors in mainstream Tamil cinema today as his performances in films like Sethu (1999), Kasi (2002), Saamy (2003), Anniyan (2005) and I (2015) testify.
Born Vikram Kennedy in Paramakudi in Ramanthapuram District in Tamil Nadu on April 17, 1966, he did his schooling from Montfort School, Yercaud before doing his BA in English Literature from Loyola College, Chennai. He then followed up his college degree by starting his MBA but failed to finish the course. Once he decided to enter films, he struggled for almost 10 years doing roles in Tamil, Malayalam and and Telugu films and even worked as a dubbing artist before he finally hit the big time with Sethu.
Sethu was a breakthrough film for both director Bala and Vikram. In the film, Vikram played Chiyaan, a college rowdy who falls for a simple Brahmin girl. The film ends in tragedy when the girl kills herself and Chiyaan returns to the mental asylum from where he had escaped just for her. Vikram’s performance took the Tamil industry by storm and at the relatively late age of 33 he was finally a star. His act as Chiyaan also saw the Tamil film industry place great hope in him as the man to inherit Kamal Haasan’s mantle of the next great actor-star in Tamil cinema.
With Dhill (2001), Vikram balanced his reputation as a fine actor with huge commercial success as well. The action film, pairing him with Laila, saw him play a police officer take on corruption in the police force. He tasted further box office success with Gemini (2002), where he palyed a rowdy who wants to go straight but ultimately has to fight it out with the villain. The song O Podu from the film became a chartbuster.
Even as he gained commercial success, Vikram proved the actor in him was alive and kicking with his great performance in Kasi (2002). A re-make of the Malayalam film Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum, Kasi sees Vikram play a good-hearted, blind village singer who is exploited by his brother, an alcoholic and his brother-in-law. Vikram made a major impact in the role and went on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Tamil Actor for the film.
He would go a step further by sweeping all the acting awards – the Filmfare Award for Best Tamil Actor, the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actor and the coveted National Award for Best Actor for Pithamagan (2003), re-uniting him with Bala. But though this is a highly praised performance, it depends on how one looks at the way Vikram’s character is sketched out. And the entire film hinges on this. Considering he seems normal enough as a boy who talks normally as well, one finds it extremely hard to believe that he grows up as an animal devoid of language and any human trait whatsoever. One has to accept this characterization if one is to go along with the film. I couldn’t. Hence, to me Vikram’s central performance is not quite there. However, if one can successfully believe in the credibility of his character, then no doubt he has his moments (see him when he looks out of the train window or reacts to Suriya crying in a film) in the film’s author-backed role. The fact that a huge amount of accolades and awards came his way shows that he and Bala succeeded in overcoming the credibility factor with both audiences and critics.
Even as he wowed audiences with Pithamagan, Vikram had two huge commercial successes the same year with Dhool and Saamy. He was clearly at the peak of his career now. Saamy, directed by Hari, saw him score heavily as an ACP fighting corruption with unconventional tactics if need be. Saamy, along with Kaakha Kaakha (2003) starring Suriya, saw a spate of Tamil police films being made but they remain the defining films in the genre for their time.
Vikram would win his third Filmfare Award for Best Tamil Actor for S Shankar’s Anniyan (2005). One of the most expensive films made in the South, Anniyan sees Vikram play a man with split personalities, one of whom is Anniyan who punishes the corrupt and the unjust. In one of the film’s most hair-raising sequences Vikram rapidly switches from one character to the other. The film was dubbed into Hindi as Aparachit but failed to make a big impact. Still, in Tamil it was perhaps Vikram’s biggest commercial success.
Following Anniyan and Majaa (2005), it would be a long gap before the next Vikram starrer would hit the screen, Bheemaa (2008). The film, a bloody underworld saga, supported by Harris Jayaraj’s extremely catchy music saw a phenomenal opening but received mixed reviews otherwise and could not quite sustain after the first few days.
Kanthaswamy (2009), Vikram’s next release, came with little pretensions and a single aim – to be the big crowd-pleaser and blockbuster Tamil film of the year. Promoted and hyped as the second most costliest Tamil film after Sivaji, The Boss (2007), there is no doubt that money has been spent like water in the film. You see this on screen in the grand production design, interesting choice of locations such as Mexico and the sheer scale of some of the action sequences. Though the story is as old as the hills, Vikram ably carries the entire film on his shoulders. Looking young, smart and belying his age, he makes a most credible hero and what’s more responds with a fine performance giving strength and most importantly, conviction and belief to every scene he appears in, even the corny ones of him as a rooster crowing or the big moral ‘message’ he gives at the end! An added bonus for them is that he has also sung all his songs in the film. The film saw a huge opening at the box office though it didn’t sustain as well as it should have thereafter.
2010 saw, Vikram work with Mani Rathnam in the director’s bi-lingual Raavan and Raavanan (2010), the former seeing him make his debut in Hindi cinema. The films were huge disappointments, however, even if Vikram came in for his share of praise for his act in the Tamil version, even winning his fourth Filmfare Award for Best Actor in Tamil.
The period post Raavan/Raavanan saw Vikram the actor shine in Deivathirumagal (2011), a take-off from I Am Sam. Otherwise, all his films till I (2015), proved to be duds, both critically and commercially. However I, re-uniting him with Shankar, saw Vikram score heavily as a body builder-turned-model whose looks are destroyed by his enemies by injecting him with the deadly I virus. The film showed how he, now a deformed, wart-covered hunchback, takes his revenge on them and reclaim his love (Amy Jackson). I proved to be a huge blockbuster at the box office with Vikram garnering huge praise for his physically demanding performance. He was back and how, winning his fifth Filmfare Award for Best Actor!
Sadly though, among his releases post I, 10 Endrathukulla (2015) didn’t do well at the box office while Iru Mugan (2016) in spite of seeing a great performance from him – actually two as it’s a dual role of a tough RAW agent and an effeminate villain – disappoints as a film. As did Sketch (2018), Saamy 2 (2018) and Kadaram Kundan (2019). That said, Vikram is involved with some pretty prestigious upcoming projects like Cobra and Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan.
On the personal side, Vikram is married to a psychologist, Shylaja. The couple have two children – a daughter, Akshitha, and a son, Dhruv. The latter has made his debut as an actor with Adithya Varma (2019) , a remake of the Telugu film, Arjun Reddy (2017).