The Hero of the Masses
With a chequered career with as many ups and downs as in a snakes and ladders game, Vijayakanth, with his tall, dark and robust physique, can be taken as an icon of Dravidian macho appeal. Written off by the industry 4 times in his career spanning nearly 2 decades, Vijayakanth has bounced back after every dark phase with doubled vigour. 

Hero of the hoipolloi, Vijayakanth completed his 125th film with 'Ulavuthurai' which has the distinction of being the first Tamil film to shoot under water. In this interview, he speaks about his struggles, his successes, his failures and his plans. 

Q: Hailing from a wealthy family, why did you enter films? Did you have to struggle to get a proper break? 

A: It was an accident. We have a rice mill in Madurai and I was managing it. Seeing me moving around in a motorbike, one of the biggest distributors of that area took some stills of me and asked me whether I was interested in acting. I succumbed to the temptation and came to Madras.  

Recommended by my distributor friend, I was even signed by a producer. I shot for 2 or 3 days. After a few days' break, I was shocked to see in the newspapers that another popular actor, whose name I don't want to reveal now, was doing the role I was signed for.  

Infuriated, I confronted the director who, to my utter consternation, informed me that I had been dropped from the film became I could not speak Tamil properly! I was amazed because Madurai is the seat of Tamil language and culture and how could I, born and brought up there, not speak Tamil properly? I took this insult as a challenge and at that moment decided that cinema was my career. 

Precisely at that time my struggle started. The distributor who created in me a love for cinema felt guilty and introduced me to M A Khaja, then a prolific director, who gave me a break in his Sudhakar-Radhika starrer 'Inikkum llamai'. It was actually a negative role and I just had a few scenes and a fight. Director Khaja also changed my original name Vijayaraj into Vijayakanth. Though a brief role, it made an impact on the audience. 

Then came 'Thoorathu Idi Muzhakkam', which was delayed unduly owing to financial constraints, 'Neerottam' and 'Akal Vilakku'. All of them flopped. There was 'Samanthipoo' in which I was villain. But my career then was in such a bad shape that my name was deleted from the credit title.  

Those days most of the production companies were located at Kodambakkam and the bus fare to that area from my lodge was a mere 25 paise. Even that was a big amount for me. My father refused to send me money because he was not pleased with the idea of my entering films. I used to starve, trudge to film companies. I put up with all that only because I was determined to prove my worth in this industry.  

Q: Your career went through several hiccups? How did you survive them? 

A: Every hero has a bad phase, but no hero would have suffered the types of humiliation I was subjected to and still survived as I did. I was written off, not once but more than 4 times, in these 2 decades.  

After 4 consecutive flops, director S A Chandrashekar, impressed by my performance in 'Neerottam,' booked me for his 'Sattam Oru Iruttarai'.vkanth2.gif (39206 bytes) During the making of the film, a popular hero sent feelers to the director that he would like to act in it. Even the distributors were against me as I was not a saleable proposition.  

My position was whether to swim or sink. I told Chandrashekar that his film was crucial for me and if he dropped me, that would be the last nail in my coffin. Chandrashekar had confidence in me and braving all odds went ahead and the film proved to be one of the biggest hits of the day.  

Ironically, even that film did not help me. After 'Sattam Oru Iruttarai,' I did 18 films and every one of them bombed. The industry gave credit to Chandrashekar for that film's success and dismissed me totally.  

While I was idling away my time stoically waiting for yet another break, it was Chandrashekar again who gave me a second lease of life in his 'Saatchi' against the distributors' warnings. 'Saatchi' went on to become a success, but again it did not help me.  

'Saatchi' was followed by a string of flops and aborted productions and my jobless state continued. Around this time, R Sundarrajan came up with 'Vaidehi Kaathirundaal' which was a different type of film and its success really helped me because it was followed by many more hits.  

Those days I used to work 3 shifts. One year 14 of my films were released. I met with an accident during the making of 'Kaalaiyum Neeye Maalayum Neeye'. My eyes were hurt and I had to take treatment. I was written off by the industry as rumours spread that I had lost my sight.  

My close friend and associate Ibrahim Rauthar had by then floated his own production company just to promote me and his 'Uzhavan Magan' was in the making. Because of the rumours about my illhealth , the distributors stopped funding it. 

To dispel the rumours, I participated in a day's shooting for the film in the presence of the entire media and industry bigwigs. That was my third difficult phase.  

For a long time, my films were not big grossers, but proved safe bets at the box office. While I was doing 'Pulan Visaaranai,' I suffered another setback, but of a different type. Luckily 'Pulan Visaaranai' became a hit and I overcame the difficulty. With my 100th 'Captain Prabhaakaran' clicking in a big way, I was finally accepted by the industry.  

Now I've reached a point where I can carry the entire film on my shoulder. 

Q: Was it true that at one point of time in your career, many heroines refused to act with you? 

A: Yes. During the making of 'Saatchi' and 'Paarvayin Maru Pakkam' almost all the heroines refused to act with me because I was a flop hero. Ironically, the same heroines acted with me later when I became a hit. I understood this industry well only during the bad phases.  

Q: Is it to wreak vengeance on them that in your films now heroines are used as mere glamour dolls? 

A: I am not that avenging type at all. I don't agree that in all my films the heroines are mere glamour dolls. In some films, yes, they are. But there were such films as 'Poonthotta Kaavalkaaran,' 'Chinna Gounder' and 'Amman Koil Kizhakkaale' where the heroines had equal importance. In 'En Aasai Machchaan,' the climax was completely centred on Revathi.  

In my films, heroines are treated with dignity. You can never come across vulgar dance movements, vkanth1.jpg (29582 bytes)embarrassingly intimate love scenes or double entendres. Only 'Pathavi Pramaanam' had an overdoze of sex and that film failed. 

Q: Radhika and you made a hit pair. Did your personal rift with Radhika make any difference to your career? 

A: Not at all. I have given hits with other heroines, Radha, Revathi, Sukanya and so on.  

Q: You have so far not acted under noted directors except Bharathiraaja whose film with you flopped. You have not approached them even for your home productions. Instead, you prefer fresh Film Institute students. Is it because you want to dominate your directors? 

A: Time was when I approached every top director, begging for a role. Now I consider all my directors as big. Most of my films have been directed by Chandrashekar, Rama Narayanan and Sundarrajan. I have struggled and come up to this level on my own. I know what it is to struggle. So in my own productions, I give opportunities to directors who are going through a lean phase.  

I don't reject a director outright just because he has given a string of flops. Hits and flops are not in our hands. I prefer Film Institute students because they not only come up with fresh ideas but are flexible and receptive to our suggestions.  

Q: While some of your earlier films propagated leftist ideas, your recent films and your off-screen activities suggest that you are interested in entering politics. Are you? 

A: My 'Sivappu Malli' and 'Auto Driver' had overtones of communist ideology. I believe in communist ideology. I organised a felicitation function for (DMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister) M Karunanidhi as I am an admirer of his scholarship and erudition. I am a DMK sympathiser, but politics is farthest from my mind. I did not even go for electioneering.  

Q: The trend is now changing. How long are you going to play the role of an avenging cop? 

A: You are asking this question just because a few love stories have clicked at the box office. Film trends change every 6 months.  

Q: You are still a hero of the masses. Why are you not making efforts to cater to the class? 

A: I agree. I am more popular in the rural areas down south. But some of my major hits have done well in 'A' centres also. 

Q: Despite the hoopla that preceded it, your 125th film, 'Ulavuthurai,' did not do as well as expected. What went wrong? 

A: I think we were too excited that it was my 125th film and went on adding things not necessary for the film. Thereby the film lost its edge. Technically it is a brilliant film and it is the first Tamil film shot under water. We should not have killed the heroine in the first half, and that I think was a major mistake. Still the film did well down south. 

Q: What are your future films? 

A: I never plan my future. Right not I am working for 'Dharma,' a sentimental story. In the next film, I am doing a double role, of father and son.  

Q: Is it your love for Tamil that prevents you from acting in other language films? 

A: I am a great lover of Tamil. I am not shrewd enough to pick up other languages and I feel it is meaningless to act in a film without knowing the language. I am happy and contented being an exclusive Tamil actor.