His name is Vikram Kennedy Vinod but everybody calls him Vikram. The popular Tamil star was thrust into the limelight when he won the National Award for Pithamagan (2003). As orphaned, autistic graveyard-keeper Chithan, he was extraordinarily engaging. Two years later, he was again in the spotlight as Ambi, the lawyer with a multiple personality disorder in the psychological thriller Anniyan.
Now, transformed into evil Veera in Mani Ratnam's Raavanan (Tamil) and good guy Dev in the Hindi version of Raavan, he is probably the only actor in the world playing diametrically different roles in two versions of the same film, shot simultaneously.
Raavan is Vikram's first Bollywood venture and his maiden project with Mani Ratnam, the brooding director from Chennai who has actors queuing up to work with him. Years ago, Vikram auditioned for Ratnam's Bombay, but could not get in. Was this long wait worthwhile? We'll know once Raavan/Raavanan hits the screens this week.
But, for Vikram the verdict is already out - the verdict that he has given himself. In an interview recently at Cannes, where he was promoting Ratnam's new work, he told e+ that he finds dark characters are always more fascinating. "Girls love bad boys," he quips. "In college, everybody wanted to be Julius Caesar but I preferred to be Brutus or Cassius. I found these men far more interesting, men with shades of grey, rather than ones like Caesar, who are all plain and boring."
This is exactly why Vikram is so passionate about his role as Veera in Raavanan. "I was very keen not to replicate the Hindi Beera that Abhishek Bachchan plays."
If this was not difficult enough, what was even more trying was playing two different men, very often on the same day. "As Dev in the Hindi edition, I am stylish, suave, controlled, focused and even cold. But Veera in the Tamil version is very volatile. One minute he's smiling and the next minute he's snarling. He's a people's man - doesn't care about his looks."
Both versions had to be shot at the same time because the locations were on hostile terrain, where sets were falling apart because of inclement weather. So, Ratnam was forced to go back on his decision to begin shooting one edition after the other was wrapped up. This meant that Veera was changing into Dev, and Dev into Veera in a matter of hours. Obviously, Vikram had to work hard on his body language and dialogue delivery to make his parts credible. This became all the more imperative, because he had little scope to alter himself physically. "I had planned to reduce my weight and look leaner to play Dev, but that was not possible. So, I thought of other ways to be different."
But how did he manage to speak Hindi? "If Aishwarya Rai can speak Tamil and if actresses like Simran, Kushboo and Jyothika who never knew Tamil could end up as Tamil superstars, surely I can manage Hindi," says Vikram. He says he didn't use a dubbing artist for the the Hindi Raavan, otherwise there would be little point to the entire exercise.
Another crucial test was to pack Raavanan's ten heads into one person - Veera. "Veera's character is so rich, so varied and is such a cocktail of personalities that I just found my role electrifying."
In fact, the buzz in Chennai is that Raavanan will be miles ahead of Raavan. Look at the promos, look at Vikram: He is going to take Ratnam's Tamil version to the top.