Tamil director Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam is his first film since Kandukondain Kandukondain in 2000. The musical drama, which explores caste against the backdrop of the Carnatic music scene in Chennai, also marks the return of actor and dancer Vineeth to Tamil cinema. Vineeth plays Mani Iyer, the bigoted assistant of mrindangam maestro Vembu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu). Mani detests the talent and ambition of aspiring Dalit musician Peter (GV Prakash) and schemes to thwart his progress.

While Vineeth has been appearing in Malayalam films, including 100 Days of Love (2015) and Kambhoji (2017), his last Tamil release before Sarvam Thaala Mayam was the period drama Uliyin Osai (2008). “Rajiv Menon is a director who comes out with very intense human emotions,” the 49-year-old actor told Scroll.in. “I was waiting for something this substantial. I have negative shades in the film. It is a very interesting performance-oriented role.”

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Sarvam Thaala Mayam (2019).

Mani is both passionate about Carnatic music as well as deeply insecure about sharing its riches, Vineeth observed. One of the themes of the February 1 release is the teacher-student relationship between Vembu and Mani, which Vineeth could relate to, given his training in classical dance. “We all have that divine bonding with the teacher,” he observed. “Mani lives like a family member with Vembu Iyer. He has surrendered his life to his guru. But the devil in him starts emerging when his family is shattered. When Peter comes into the picture, there is drama.”

Vineeth’s dance training is part of family tradition. He is a member of the clan that produced the renowned Travancore trio Padmini, Ragini and Lalitha, and is the cousin of actress Shobana. Vineeth began training in Bharatanatyam at the age of six. He was encouraged to pursue acting by his dance teacher, Kalamandalam Saraswathy, and her husband, the author MT Vasudevan Nair.

After a small role in IV Sasi’s Idanilangal (1985), Vineeth began stacking up credits in Malayalam cinema, including Nakhakshathangal (1986), Aranyakam (1988), Kabuliwala (1993) and Parinayam (1994).

His first Tamil film was Bharathan’s Aavarampoo (1992), which was a remake of the Malayalam-language Thakarai (1980). Among his notable Tamil films are Pudhiya Mugam (1993) and May Madham (1994) – in the latter, Vineeth plays a photographer who gets entangled with Sonali Kulkarni’s heiress.

May Madham was along the lines of Roman Holiday, and the script was fascinating,” Vineeth said. Venus Balu’s film was shot by PC Sreeram and scored by AR Rahman.

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Enmel Vizhunda, May Madham (1994).

More fame followed for Vineeth through Kathir’s blockbuster Kadhal Desam (1996), in which two college friends (Abbas and Vineeth) unknowingly fall for the same woman (Tabu).

“The beauty of unconditional relationship between friends is what worked in the film,” Vineeth said about Kadhal Desam. “It speaks about the commitment of friendship and romance and how there is something beyond that. AR Rahman’s music was the star attraction. Even now, the movie is shown on television during Valentine’s Day.”

Despite his steady appearances in films, the transition from dancing to acting was not as smooth as Vineeth expected. It took some time getting used to acting, especially in the early days, he recalled.

“The technique of acting in both the art forms are two extremes,” he said. “In dance, the acting has to be elaborate and loud because you are performing for a theatrical audience. In cinema, subtlety is everything. Even a wink, a frown or a twist of the eyebrow can make a difference when the lens comes close to you. I had to consciously make an effort through my initial films to keep a line between the two.”

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Mustafa Mustafa, Kadhal Desam (1996).

Dancing may have aided his sense of timing. But it does not offer any specific advantages for male actors in general, Vineeth observed. “Bharatanatyam’s technique was evolved to suit a female, even though the art form was initially performed by men,” he said. “The process of training for men is very important, because boys are taught in a masculine way. There will be an element of grace, though. You cannot call it effeminate.”

He credits Kamal Haasan with having popularised classical dance through films. “A lot of young boys took up dancing because of Kamal sir,” Vineeth said. “I was exposed to another side of masculinity in dance through Kamal sir’s dance. As the times changed, dancing took a back seat as there were very few trained artistes.”

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Ra Ra, Chandramukhi (2005).

Vineeth has kept his feet in both worlds – he balances his film roles with professional dance performances. “I took up whatever came my way, but things have changed now,” he said. “My journey had dancing on one side, and I had to balance both the art forms. That was difficult. Reaching stardom is a different journey altogether, where you really have to work and build an image. I was not really into that.”

His best is probably yet to come, the actor observed. “There is so much more that I can do,” Vineeth said. “As you grow older, your area [of expertise] becomes more fertile as you get so many different kinds of characters with which you can experiment. In my case, I have done very few of those kind of roles. In Malayalam cinema, I have done many character-based roles. But I would love to explore more and do my best.”

Vineeth in Sarvam Thaala Mayam. Courtesy Mindscreen Film Institute.
Vineeth in Sarvam Thaala Mayam. Courtesy Mindscreen Film Institute.