In most other parts of the country, Tamil cinema begins and ends with Rajinikanth. But there is another actor who is just as popular in Tamil Nadu. Elite critics might consider him to be lacking in nuance. But the impact of his career on the Tamil psyche is so profound that most people find it difficult to go through a day without using or hearing instances of his dialogue in conversation.
The peerless Vadivelu has completed 30 years in Tamil cinema. His portfolio has a stunning variety of roles. Comedy is his main vocation, but often, he has managed to move beyond self-deprecating sequences to portray highly-charged character roles that complement the script and the hero.
Tamil cinema has never faced a dearth of comedians. It all began with that audacious talent of NS Krishnan in the 1940s and ’50s, when Tamil films played a pivotal role in the changing political landscape with the emergence of the Dravidian movement. Through the ’50s and the ’60s, comedians such as J Chandrababu and TS Baliah produced roles that have endured in the imagination.
The ’60s saw the emergence of Nagesh. His Jerry Lewis-style mannerisms made him a regular feature in big-ticket movies of the era. Both MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan were known to have adjusted their calendars to ensure the presence of Nagesh on the sets.
But Nagesh wasn’t just a comedian. His association with the directors Krishnan-Panju and K Balachander contributed to the redefinition of Tamil cinema by pulling it away from historical melodramas to urban, middle-class themes. The same period also saw MR Radha, another supremely talented actor, use comedy to propagate rationalist ideas through cinema.
As Tamil cinema entered the late ’70s, movies moved into the rural heartland. Every aspect of cinema was reinvented. Directors Bharathiraja and Mahendran wrote scripts that made heroes more human than god-like. This new era required a completely fresh type of comedy that reflected the flavour of the villages and small towns and brought non-elite sensibilities to the screen.
In came Goundamani and Senthil, the Laurel and Hardy of the Tamil film world. At the height of their careers, the duo converted hopeless scripts into jubilee hits. Witty dialogue laced with superlative timing and clownish mannerisms endeared them to the masses.
In 1988, another extraordinary career was launched through a small character in T Rajendar’s En Thangai Kalyani. Vadivelu had a difficult first few years, since the dominance of Goundamani and Senthil left very little space for emerging comedians.
Vadivelu stamped his presence in Tamil cinema through contrasting characters in two Kamal Haasan starrers in 1992. In Thevar Magan, Vadivelu played Esaki, a worker in patriarch Sivaji Ganesan’s household. Esaki loses an arm during caste clashes. In a famous sequence, the one-armed Ekasai offers to chop the heads of those who insult Ganesan’s character.
Haasan made the comedy Singara Velan in the same year. Vadivelu joined Goundamani and Charlie as the hero’s friends, whose job is to help him track down and marry the heroine (Kushbu). Vadivelu has little dialogue in the movie, and he was expected to put his slim figure and mannerisms to full use. However his “Sattai mela evalo buttons” (so many buttons on the shirt) line is still used today when someone shows off his or her pomp or wealth.
Singaravelan was also the beginning of the Goundamani-Senthil-Vadivelu combination that produced a few hilarious skits in the early ’90s. Perhaps the most famous of these was the tender coconut sequence in Kovil Kaalai (1993), in which Senthil and Vadivelu steal from Goundamani’s shop to start their own business.
Vadivelu’s first big solo hit came in director Shankar’s Kadhalan (1994), in which he played the friend of Prabhudeva’s college student character.
As the ’90s progressed, Goundamani and Senthil began to lose out as their combination had turned monotonous. They were also considered sidekicks for an older generation of heroes, which included Haasan and Rajinikanth. As younger heroes such as Ajith, Vijay, Suriya and Madhavan began asserting their presence, the script required fresh faces for the role of the comedian. Vadivelu along with his rival Vivek fit the bill perfectly.
Vivek modelled his comedy on MR Radha, sometimes even copying the latter’s voice modulation. Vivek also experimented by infusing his comedy with “social consciousness”, addressing such themes as superstition. Sometimes, this moral superiority jarred in its execution.
But Vadivelu was different. The hallmark of his trade was self-deprecation. Vadivelu’s characters thought very highly of themselves – they were clownish versions of the gang leader. This was effective as it reflected, like the Soona Paana character in Kannathal many ordinary people: empty in substance but high on confidence.
Such roles played in tandem with actor Parthiban left the audience in splits. The pinnacle of this combination was achieved in Vetri Kodikattu (2000), in which Vadivelu played the role of a villager who returns from Dubai and tries to civilise people of the village. His voice modulations became legendary with this movie, with the way he said “vandhutaanya” (he has come!) now a staple in conversations across Tamil Nadu.
Vadivelu hails a poor family in Madurai, which explains his moniker “Vaigai Puyal”, or storm of the Vaigai river. He brought to the screen the inherent humour of southern Tamil Nadu. His heavy Madurai accent was a refreshing change, and ensured an immediate connection with small-town movie-goers. Films that featured Vadivelu performed exceedingly well across markets, something that his rival Vivek could not achieve.
As the 2000s began, Vadivelu became the undisputed king of comedy, sometimes doing as many as 15 to 20 movies a year. But his comedy was not free of criticism. Sometimes, they bordered on the risque and the vulgar. He was also accused of being insensitive to certain subaltern communities, especial the nari kurava tribe on whom he has done several stereotypical sequences. As it was the case with his predecessors, Vadivelu was accused of normalising casteist slurs, for which he has been condemned by Dalit intellectuals.
Like Goundamani and Senthil, Vadivelu turned scripts without any substance into massive blockbusters. This was mainly due to his inputs to scripts. Actors who have worked with Vadivelu have often said that even when directors went blank, the comedian would come up with something extraordinary on the sets that would lift the whole production. He also had a keen sense of what audiences wanted and what worked in a particular context.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Sundar C’s Winner (2003). An otherwise boring story was transformed into a milestone thanks to Vadivelu’s Kai Pulla character. Almost every dialogue is a gem.
Vadivelu handled different genres of comedy with ease, though he is often characterised as a slapstick comedian. In the observational comedy 23 Pulikesi (2003), a political satire and now a Tamil classic, Vadivelu played the dual role of a heartless but comical dictator king and a revolutionary. The film showcased his versatility – he was hero, villain and comedian at the same time.
There were elements of prop comedy in Kanthasamy (2009). Great one-liners marked Giri (2004) and Maruthamalai (2007), in which he narrated his own fantastic characteristics with a straight face.
During his peak in the mid-2000s, Vadivelu’s imagination knew no bounds. By this phase, he was a colossus in the Tamil film world, which came with the freedom to meddle with scripts and override even established directors.
However, Vadivelu’s downfall came not because of artistic stagnation, but off-screen politics. For multiple reasons, his personal equation with actor-turned-politician Vijayakant soured during the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly in 2011. Vijayakant allied with J Jayalalithaa against M Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Vadivelu addressed public meetings on behalf of the DMK and mocked Vijayakant, sometimes even using abusive language.
DMK was trounced in the election, and Vadivelu’s career took a nosedive. The pressure from a vindictive AIADMK meant that film offers dwindled. By 2014, Vadivelu was completely sidelined.
The comedian would have become a distant memory if not for the advent of social media. As the concept of memes took shape, Vadivelu was resurrected on the screens of computers and mobile phones.
Political satire through memes gave Vadivelu’s iconic lines a new dimension. They fit the demands of political satire perfectly. If a government promises something and delays delivery, there is “Varum Aana Varathu (It will come but it won’t come)“ from Thottal Poo Malarum. When a political leader inflates his own popularity, it invokes the “naanum rowdy thaan ya (I am also a rowdy)” sequence from Thalainagaram. Hypocrisy in politics is chastised with his “thakkali chutney” comedy.
One cannot miss the irony here. A career that was undone by politics has seen been given a new lease of life through new-age political satire.
Vadivelu may no longer be a preferred comedian. But in terms of popularity and achievements, he will remain the standard for comedians of the future.