It is indeed a dark coincidence that one of actor-comedian Vivekh’s most remembered lines captures the inevitability of death.
In K Balachander’s Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal (1989), Vivekh, as the secretary of a popular singer, repeats the phrase “Inniku seththa nalaiku paal” several times, an invocation of the ritual offering of milk to the dead the day after the cremation. The message is simple: life is not permanent, and one should try to do good when alive.
The 59-year-old legendary comedian of Tamil cinema died in Chennai on Saturday morning following a cardiac arrest. The tributes that poured in recalled many of his defining roles through the decades.
Tamil cinema has granted a unique position to comedians. Each generation has had a set of comic artists who have been as popular and commercially viable as the leading men.
The comedians have arguably left a deeper mark on Tamil Nadu’s popular culture than even the movie stars. Vivekh, whose career reached its zenith in the early 2000s, was no exception to this trend.
Vivekh entered the movies in the late 1980s with director K Balachander. Vivekh was a regular performer at the Madras Humour Club, and was introduced to Balachander by the club’s founder, PR Govindarajan.
Vivekh’s first break came in Balachander’s Manathil Uruthi Vendum (1987). However, it was Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal (1989) that first showcased Vivekh’s comedic talent.
Despite emerging from the Balachander school, Vivekh’s career did not take off. The late 1980s and early 1990s were still dominated by the supremely talented comic duo of Goundamani and Senthil.
Though comedians commanded a significant chunk of screen time with their own subplots, they remained sidekicks or friends of the heroes. Within this milieu, producers preferred Goundamani and Senthil for A-listers such as Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Vijayakant. Others, like Janagaraj, occupied the remaining space.
Vivekh kept at it by playing small-time roles in movies such as Rajinikanth’s Uzhaippali (1993) and Veera (1994). It took a fundamental shift in Tamil cinema and Tamil society itself to make room for his prodigious talent.
By the mid-1990s, Tamil cinema had begun to welcome fresh blood for a younger generation of audiences. As actors such as Vijay and Ajith started breaking through, a new crop of comedians was needed to play sidekicks.
Vivekh and his competitor Vadivelu replaced the Goundamani-Senthil duo as the go-to comedians. Vivekh’s quantum leap came in Ajith Kumar’s Vaali (1999), a mega-hit that saw the comedian play the role of an accidental medical representative.
Vivekh’s emergence coincided with larger social and economic changes. The rapid urbanisation of Tamil Nadu and its transition into the information-technology era pushed cinema towards capturing the goings-on in big cities, especially Chennai.
The heroes were college students or young members of the workforce. In Vaali, for example, Ajith Kumar’s hero meets the heroine played by Simran at a computer class, a craze at that point.
Several of Vivekh’s comedy tracks revolved around the gangs of friends found at urban colleges. The travails of the educated but unemployed youth also became the base for many of his characters.
In Ullam Kollai Poguthey (2001), for instance, Vivekh’s character Arivu rides his Kinetic Honda scooter into a pothole and splashes mud over a crisply dressed old man. Arivu learns that the elderly gent is going for his first job interview.
“If you people are going for a job interview for the first time now, what are we supposed to do?” Arivu wants to know. This was a comment on the employment scenario, and was a highly relatable gem for younger audiences.
In Lovely (2001), Vivekh plays Azhagesh, a young man aspiring to work in the United States. Azhagesh is mistaken for the hero (Karthik) and is thrashed by men sent by the heroine’s father. Even as he is being beaten up, a Punjabi man who runs a tea shop continues to casually brew tea in the background even though there are no customers.
“Yaarume illada tea kadaila yaarukuda tea aathura?” Azhagesh asks. Who are you brewing tea for when there is no one around? This line is used in Tamil Nadu for multiple situations, especially when someone does something without any purpose.
Many tributes to the comedian on social media pointed out that Vivekh’s comedy was laced with social messaging.
Over the years, Vivekh chose to deal with several social ills. There were tracks against female infanticide in Kadhal Sadugudu (2003), caste discrimination in Saamy (2003) and irrationality in Thirunelveli (2000). Even when the scripts had rural settings, Vivekh’s characters were usually transplants from the cities who brought modern ideas to the villages.
This social messaging drew comparisons with the comedians NS Krishnan and MR Radha from the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, Vivekh’s voice modulation reminded many of MR Radha.
Like Krishnan and Radha, Vivekh was multi-faceted and did not feel uncomfortable in serious roles. In Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000), Vivekh appears in a few scenes as the heroine’s cousin, but leaves an enduring impression.
Along with Vadivelu, Vivekh dominated Tamil cinema for a good 15 years. His passing indeed marks the end of an era.