Being face-to-face with John Kennedy Vinod Raj, better known by his stage name Vikram, is just euphoria. You search for traces of Ambi and Remo in Anniyan as scenes from Sethu and Pithamagan flash through your mind. A boyish smile lights up his face as the Anniyan star speaks about his latest films — Raavan in Hindi and Raavanan in Tamil — in the office of Madras Talkies in Chennai.
To be given an opportunity to act in a Mani Ratnam film is a wish come true. But what happens when the legend offers you two roles in his project?
Vikram plays Veera, a fierce tribal leader in the Tamil version. In the Hindi film, Raavan, he is the stylish and focused policeman, Dev. The two characters are as similar as chalk and cheese.
"I was happy when Mani Sir offered me the roles and had confidence in me," he recalls. "The challenge lay in playing two different characters that are opposites — one evil and the other good."
Confidence in the self
What about initial self-doubts?
"No, I have immense confidence in myself — to the point of being arrogant. I am always keen on doing roles such as this. I was waiting for an opportunity to work with Mani Sir. He and I had been discussing the script for the past four years. When the role was offered, I put aside my other projects. I was excited. People tell me Veera is one of the best characters created for an actor in Indian cinema."
"Veera," continues Vikram, "is someone very earthy, religious and a leader. He is like quicksilver, very moody and volatile. One moment he is innocent and the next minute he is killing someone. He loves his family and people. He has his own set of rules."
On the other hand, Dev is cool, smart and absolutely focused. He is not interested in people. The only person he is obsessed about is his wife, Ragini.
Looking back, Vikram says: "In the beginning, I presumed I would be growing my hair for Veera. And for Dev I would sport a clean-shaven look." But that was not to be.
"We were on location for a couple of months and the sets were getting washed away," he said.
Mani Ratnam decided to shoot Raavanan and Raavan simultaneously.
"I realised it was going to be tricky when Mani Sir told me, ‘Let's do the two roles back-to-back'."
This meant Vikram would be looking the same for both Dev and Veera. "I love such challenges. I have done it in Anniyan. Although the costume defined each of the three characters in Anniyan, there were scenes where Ambi would suddenly become Remo and Remo would become Anniyan. There I made it dramatic to bring out each character," reminisces the 44-year-old actor.
"For Veera and Dev, I could not do that," he explains. "People around me were saying: ‘One role is in Hindi and the other in Tamil, so what's the big deal?' The actor in me did not permit that. Since both characters are toned down, I played with body language, postures and expressions to mark the difference in the two characters. Yes, this is Veera and that is Dev, two individuals with distinct personalities."
Shooting back-to-back, he would have just nine minutes to slip from one character to the other, as he juggled between Veera and Dev.
"While changing my costumes, I would go through the lines of the next scene and step into the shoes of a different character. It feels good now when people who have watched the films ask me: ‘How did you accomplish that?'"
Getting into the skin of the character is not new for this versatile actor.
You saw him as the blind singer in Kasi and as the undertaker in Pithamagan, with the latter fetching him a national award.
He won critical acclaim for his roles — including that of Ambi, a lawyer with a multiple personality disorder — in Anniyan (dubbed in Hindi as Aparachit).
"Playing different characters does affect you. I had a tough time during the making of Anniyan and so too in Pithamagan and Sethu.
"For Anniyan, we would shoot for 15 days and take a break. During those times, I liked to sit on my terrace and watch my pigeons. I did nothing then. It was my way of dealing with the pressure because I was going mad."
Working on the sets of Raavanan and Raavan was tough not just for him but for everyone in the unit. Shot in rocky terrain and forests, the crew put up with physical hardships too. Injuries during shooting were a routine thing.
"AB [Abhishek Bachchan] is a close friend. We share a good rapport. Right from the beginning, we did not watch each other at work. He never saw me as Veera and nor did I see him perform as Beera. We kept away from each other except when we shared a scene.
"AB has put in a lot of effort. He is fantastic. This film is going to be the best for him and even for me. I am eager to see his performance. Ash [Aishwarya Rai Bachchan] is very committed."
Getting into characters
"Undoubtedly," agrees Vikram, "this is one of my most memorable roles. Just like Anniyan, Sethu and Pithamagan charged me up, this project gave me a high too. You will not see ‘me' in these characters. Every character that I have portrayed so far is unique — even Dev, a straight character who is unlike the multifaceted Veera. I have tried to bring out a difference in my characterisation of him. I have put in my best and am satisfied."
Interestingly, Vikram, who does not know a word of Hindi, has dubbed for Dev. "Dubbing in Hindi was the most difficult part of the film," he says. But the feedback has been encouraging.
"After watching rushes of Raavan, people called up to say that they liked it. I was told, ‘Vikram's dubbing helped the character.' It gives me joy. "
The release of Raavanan and Raavan has been a great moment not just for Vikram's fans but also for his two children.
"They love seeing me on screen," smiles this father.
For 15 days, they are out visiting theatres and sitting among the audience.
"Actually, we are a gang of 12. I am often left out since I avoid theatres despite their coaxing to watch it from the box."
Once the celluloid lights are dimmed, home is where his heart lies.
"I don't visit discotheques. I chill with my wife and children, sometimes watching a film or just bullying the children."
Or else you could catch him at the gym — "My second home," says the actor.
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.