Part of almost 40 films, in roles small and significant, it is over the past 10 years that the Malayalam film industry has really taken stock of the actor. Neelima Menon writes.
IN AN EARLY SCENE from Jailer, as Varman — played by Vinayakan — is about to be bludgeoned by Rajinikanth’s Muthuvel Pandian, he quickly fishes out his phone to reveal a secret he knows will unsettle the unflappable Muthuvel. Vinayakan, lean and unassuming, clad in a lungi and sleeveless t-shirt, sporting strands of large black beads, and with his startling ash eyes that seem to pierce into your psyche, is frightening as Varman.
In retrospect, Varman is a typical, one-dimensional, irredeemable Rajinikanth antagonist, but it is what Vinayakan brings to the table that lends heft to the character. In Malayalam and broken Tamil, Vinayakan breathes fire into the psyche of a villain who casually tosses his victims into sulphuric acid and can sit back and hack a body into pieces — all without batting an eyelid. His body language is unbridled, his eyes are hypnotic, and he has a swagger that’s terrifying. In Jailer, Vinayakan doesn’t allow the inimitable aura of Rajinikanth to overwhelm him. On the contrary, he matches the superstar in every scene: dialogue for dialogue, glare for glare, swag for swag.
In a film studded with some of the biggest pan-India and southern film industry stars, Vinayakan emerges as dynamite. Here is an actor without the baggage of stardom, required only to ace the darker shades of grey, who seems to be his own man, undeterred by the might of even of Rajinikanth. Who really is Vinayakan? From debuting as a Michael Jackson double in a Mohanlal film to a State Award-winning actor, here’s a look at his trajectory
IN THE BEGINNING
Vinayakan would have perhaps been bracketed as the local gunda’s sidekick if not for Anwar Rasheed who offered him the part of Satheesan in Chotta Mumbai (2007). The role of the neurotic and waylaid Satheesan, the younger brother of corrupt CI Nadesan (Kalabhavan Mani), marked the first instance when Vinayakan was a core element of a film.
When Malayalam cinema made Kochi its headquarters, some of Vinayakan’s Maharaja’s College friends (Amal Neerad, Anwar Rasheed, Rajeev Ravi) approached him. The cinematic narrative was also changing by then, making way for fresh, realistic stories with ordinary characters and nuanced storytelling that encompassed dialects and local milieus.
In Amal Neerad’s Big B (2007) Vinayakan was Pandi Assi, henchman of Sayippu Tony. Neerad remarks that his friendship with Vinayakan goes back to their college days when the latter used to drop by frequently to visit his girlfriend (who later became his wife). “Even then, he was a local star and was part of this dance group called Blue Mercury… fire dance was his specialty. I remember watching him in awe back then, when he performed on stage at Maharajas as a dancer and actor,” adds Neerad. “Since I began with still photography, he was also my favourite model. He is so earthy and at the same time so international when you keep a frame on him. I always used to say that he will be a sensation if he walks on international ramps.”
Like his predecessor Kalabhavan Mani, Tamil and Telugu films beckoned Vinayakan very early in his career. He had a brief but memorable role as Thenkurissi, who lusts after the heroine Panimalar (Parvathy) in Bharat Bala’s Maryan, which headlined Dhanush. There is a scene where he sneakily slips into Panimalar’s slippers and perversely feels them, bringing an unbridled lust into his body language that sends a chill down the viewer’s spine.
True, Vinayakan was slowly finding his feet in Malayalam cinema, which was otherwise experimenting with radical themes, but it wasn’t until Kammatipaadam that the actor found his equitable space on screen. Until then, while he was getting his share of films, it was also true that he had to struggle against the societal prejudices and stereotypes surrounding dark skin and the representation of Dalits on screen.
In Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded (2009) he was playing a stylised and madder version of his role from Big B; in Martin Prakkat’s Best Actor (2010), he was one of four members of a criminal gang in Fort Kochi; and in Masala Republic (2014), he was Bengali Babu, the leader of a local union. But in Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam (2016), set against the backdrop of a Kochi Dalit colony of the same name (that is eventually usurped by the real estate mafia and turned into a concrete jungle), Vinayakan played Ganga, a Dalit man who carries with him all the complexities and insecurities of someone from that region. Ganga has grown up with Krishna (Dulquer Salmaan) and his brother Balan Chettan (Manikandan). The film was marketed under Dulquer’s name, but he was primarily the narrator while Vinayakan and Manikandan were the heroes.
Kammatipaadam showcased the actor in Vinayakan in all his glory. In one of the most popular sequences in the film that establishes the poignant bond between Ganga and Krishna, through a telephonic conversation, his garbled, pain-filled voice tugs at your heart. Ganga has always lived under the shadow of his brother Balan. He is a bit of everything — he nurses an affection for the woman promised as his wife, yet is very rude to her. He knows Krishnan is in love with her, yet very casually informs the former of his intention to marry her. Vinayakan simply lives as the bucktoothed, crude and irrational Ganga. The two stages of his life — youth and middle age — are enacted with aplomb by the actor.
In Midhun Manuel Thomas’ screwball comedy, Aadu Oru Bheekara Jeeviyanu (2005), he is the Dude from Hong Kong in a red jacket, boots and blue glares. His mission is to scare the hell out of you, but Dude ends up being plain silly fun. The scene where he announces himself in front of Shaji Pappan and team, guns blazing and poker-faced, is vintage Vinayakan.
“He is the only one who doesn’t match with that terrain! That was deliberate. I wanted a fool who is not related to any of these things… and Vinayakan is a director’s delight. He would ask me, ‘Brotherey njan aa Axe Gangile alade pole nadakkatte?’ (Brother, shall I walk like that guy from the Axe Gang?) and I would tell him to walk any way he wants. So, the walk was his contribution. He did look like a dude from Hong Kong. In fact, Vinayakan was the only actor I was insistent about having onboard,” says Midhun.
Vinayakan’s rawness is best left unpolished. Even his stride, according to Rajeev Ravi, has “a special rhythm”. Part of almost 40 films, in roles small and significant, it is over the past 10 years that the Malayalam film industry has really taken stock of the actor.
In Chandrettan Evideya (2015) he just makes a brief and unlikely entrance, as the fictional King Raja Raja Cholan who has his sights set on the beauteous court dancer, Vasantamallika. He has no dialogues… but each time he stands there in his ill-fitting royal robes, gold jewellery and a sneer, the impact is hilarious.
But Kali (2016) is one performance many critics hold high above Kammatipaadam. The sheer rawness he brings to the dabba operator John — a no-nonsense roguish thug, who speaks with his eyes — is unnerving. When Sidharth (Dulquer Salmaan) refuses to pay for a juice citing a fly floating on it, John gives him the option to either pay for everything or not pay at all. Sidharth opts for the former, only to realise that he has no money in his purse. That’s when John shows him exactly who he is. It’s a knockout act that at times overshadows the hero.
“He is a single-make (sic). Vinayakan has been in cinema for a long time, even before us. He has done various small roles, seen a lot of evolution as an actor, and worked hard for his roles. During Iyobinte Pusthakam, though he had a calf injury, he never let that come in the way of his performance, which required him to run through the forests,” maintains Neerad, a self-confessed fanboy, who picks Anwar Rasheed’s Aami, Kammatipaadam and Aadu as his favourites from Vinayakan’s repertoire.
In fact, in the anthology Aami, though Vinayakan has a brief role, fans still talk about that terrific unrehearsed fight scene between him and Fahadh Faasil. Similarly, in Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014), a film set in the pre-independence era, he plays a tribal, Chemban. Not only does he look the part, Vinakayan also gives the impression of having done it all his life.
In the critically acclaimed Ee Ma Yau, a stunning satire on death directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, Vinayakan played Ayyappan, the protagonist’s friend and the lone sane voice of reason in a household where a funeral is taking place. There is a beautiful scene where the strain gets to Ayyappan and he has a breakdown, but it’s at such an unexpected juncture that we are as stunned as the onlookers at the funeral. Vinayakan is brilliant here.
In last year’s Oruthee, the no-nonsense Sub Inspector Antony inspires trust in Radhamani to fight her battle, as he silently pushes her. Vinayakan was an interesting casting choice here.
THE MAN BEHIND THE ACTOR
Anju Mohandas, the casting director of Kammatipaadam, recalls how Vinayakan would smoke a joint and suddenly go on a tangent about “loving somebody so much that you want their happiness. And then we tell them to let go”. It took her a while to realise that the actor was simply “in character”, talking about Ganga’s love life. When the shoot was going on, Vinayakan would recite the dialogues loudly and repeatedly, stroll around, and say, “Eda Gangayada”.
For Ganga, Vinayakan worked towards having a paunch and grew his hair, and then worked as hard to get back to washboard abs. “He doesn’t like talking about it. Even if he talks it's gibberish and he goes into another space altogether,” Mohandas says of Vinayakan, who she describes as quite liberal and also prone to “positive tantrums”. She recalls he was annoyed by the stained brown prosthetics teeth he was given for Kammatipaadam, as he felt it gave the impression that “poor were unhygienic”. “Go rub it off and give me better ones,” he told the make-up team.
Dulquer Salmaan, she suspects, was in awe of Vinayakan. “He is our homegrown Bob Marley in thinking and attitude, very musically inclined, and on the sets, he is always listening to some kind of music. His playlist is revolutionary, with an evolved sense of music. The ‘Puzhu Pulikal’ song he sang was better than the one that was recorded,” she admits.
Vinayakan, according to her, takes his own sweet time to get close to people. But after the initial coolness, he will also run to you for a warm bear hug. He has a great sense of style and often “fights for costumes”.
Another close friend of the actor (they worked together in a Kochi theatre group and did ads back in the late ‘90s) says Vinayakan has definite opinions about everything in life. “His thought process when it comes to dance and music was unique.” Not many know that he worked as an assistant to renowned fashion photographer Suresh Natarajan in Mumbai and Taha in Kochi. “Vinayakan was keen on the kind of lens that was used and more than photography he had interesting thoughts on designing and images.” He also took dance and music very seriously. “He knew what rhythm was. He loved reggae, rap, and folk. But I wasn’t aware of his acting interest. He was always interested in doing something out of the box. As a person, he is very straightforward and blunt. Haven’t you listened to his laughter? Everything is there in his laughter. Unrestrained and natural,” the friend sums up.
Of late, the actor has been on a sticky wicket, especially when it comes to his relationship with social media. Recently he received flak for expressing his displeasure at the media coverage during Oommen Chandy’s death. Two years ago, he was accused of sexual misbehaviour by a Dalit activist. Last year at the promotional event of Oruthee, Vinayakan stirred a hornet’s nest when he made an inappropriate comment to a female journalist and ridiculed the #MeToo movement. He apologised following the public uproar.
His Facebook pictures are bizarre, ambiguous and thought-provoking, and perhaps point toward Vinayakan’s politics. Clearly, the actor believes in being unconventional — on and off screen.