Those of us who have been following the career of Vijayakanth, the Tamil star and the political leader who passed away in Chennai today (28 December) at the age of 71, have been a little surprised by a spate of YouTube interviews in which almost everyone in the Tamil film industry has been talking spontaneously about his large heart and true leadership qualities.
These are not your typical cinema industry people spiels where exaggeration and hype are the norm. These are truly heartfelt tributes to a man who rallied together the disparate forces of Tamil cinema like nobody else before or after did.
The surprising part though is where were these effulgent words of praise before 2015? To be sure, people did talk of Vijayakanth's munificence and leadership qualities but not in the wholesome manner that has been the feature in the last five-odd years.
To wrap your head around this is to understand the quintessence of Tamil Nadu politics and filmdom, which are forever connected seamlessly. Till J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi were around — this is no real conspiracy theory — the governing forces ensured that nobody straddling both the politics and film industry was given the true and positive adjectives they deserved.
It is only after the two leaders passed away, the film industry could feel a little free and air the kind of views that they harboured in their hearts. This shows that Vijayakanth, as a leader among actors, had earned the respect of both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi as his political outfit Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (formally floated in September 2005 in his hometown Madurai) managed to hold its own for over a decade against the mighty two Kazhagams that have been ruling for over five decades now.
It is only after he fell ill from around 2016, that the DMDK has become a shell party, and has been managing to run itself using his past glory and standing.
Vijayakanth was captain not just in name
But for a decade starting from 2005, Vijayakanth was plucky and savvy to run a political party from the front showing that it is actually possible to throw up an alternative to the AIADMK and the DMK.
With some more strategising and more financial resources, the DMDK could have — it will forever remain tantalising what if in TN politics — emerged as a real third political power that the state has not witnessed. In the 2011 state elections, his party, in alliance with the AIADMK, did outsmart the DMK and Vijayakanth was anointed the leader of the opposition.
As a politician, his leadership acumen came to the fore in the way he spiritedly took on an authoritarian Jayalalithaa on the floor of the state assembly. After his party and the AIADMK had a fallout, Vijayakanth did not hold himself back and faced the onslaught of Jayalalithaa whose forces ran the assembly as if it were their fief. It was a rousing show that established that he was a captain not just in name.
The thing about Vijaykanth's political innings was that he was never wishy-washy. He brought to the fore a forthrightness that was forever a part of his personality. It is this ability to take the centrestage firmly that makes him different from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, the two stars who as politicians did not find much success.
Talking of Rajinikanth and Haasan, even when they were at their peak in Kollywood, Vijayakanth proved his fighting character by emerging as a big and bankable star in his own right. From a dark and gawky youngster, hailing from the rural milieu of Madurai, who was looked down upon for his unsophisticated ways in the filmdom, Vijayakanth always swam against the current.
Of course, Rajinikanth, with a similar skin tone, had proved earlier that it was possible to succeed in the Tamil film industry despite not possessing typical fair looks. But Rajinikanth had the relative advantage of being launched by the titan K Balachander. Vijayakanth wasn't that lucky as his initiation into films was less than impressive. (But it is no secret that Rajinikanth's success was his inspiration and that he changed his original name from Vijayaraj to Vijaykanth for the screen).
A career that was filled with obstacles
Having started in the less-heard Inikkum Ilamai in 1979, Vijayakanth found roles hard to come by and his early stages in the industry were filled with hurdles and hardships. His unprepossessing demeanour was held against him. Directors shunned him for various reasons, and also because his acting was raw and hammy.
But Vijayakanth persevered bravely for two years with nondescript films till Doorathu Idimuzhakkam (1980) gave him a role that made people take notice.
And in 1981, Sattam Oru Irutarai, in which he played an underdog on a vigilante justice spree, gave him a good break. (It also set a template for a large part in his career).
But even then, Vijayakanth did not find the going easy. All through till the mid-80s, heroines were reluctant to be cast alongside him because of his skin colour. But after the success of Nooravathu Naal and Vaidhegi Kaathirundhaal (both in 1984), Vijayakanth's career graph well and truly changed. By the time, Captain Prabhakaran (1991) arrived, he had started to make the transition from an actor to a star.
As an actor, Vijaykanth was never really known for his histrionics. He had his shortcomings, but he surmounted them and became a star in the league of Rajinikanth and Haasan, which is a testament to his diligence and determination.
His film career will be known for his masala movies in which he played a cop or a military man taking on the terrorists and other bad elements. He is said to have essayed the police or service personnel in around 23 films.
Those roles were an extension of the nationalist spirit that always ran in him. Even when he was fully aligned to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, Vijayakanth never found refuge in secessionism which the DMK and its allies lapsed into from time to time. As in his film characters, his heart ticked for the nation.
He rallied Kollywood like never before
The thing about Vijayakanth's phase as a top star of Kollywood was that he had the essential good reason to usher in a sense of egalitarianism at shooting spots. The food spread was the same for the actors and the technicians, and he ensured that everyone went home with a full stomach. Indeed that was the hallmark all through, and you could get free food at his office in Pondy Bazaar every afternoon.
He also, quietly and unobtrusively, provided money to indigent technicians in times of medical emergency or as education expenses. Countless film hands have profited from his large-hearted ways. Also, he was never mean and took it out on actresses who refused to work with him in his initial unsure phase. Further, when his films and roles became the stuff of meme material, Vijayakanth took them in typical easy spirit. Malice was unknown to him.
No wonder he emerged to be a popular helmsman of Nadigar Sangam, the all-powerful apex body of the Tamil film industry. It was his leadership efforts that pushed the organisation, trapped in huge debts, to financial health.
The way he organised 'star night shows' to rustle up funds for the Nadigar Sangam, bringing along everyone including the big shots Rajinikanth and Haasan, is now the stuff of film industry legend. It is an effort worthy of case study in management school.
When Sivaji Ganesan passed away in July 2001, the then Jayalalithaa government (she had her issues with Sivaji) played mean and was not ready to extend a ceremonial send-off to the man.
But even as the biggies looked unsure and hesitant to take on the might of Jayalalithaa, Vijayakanth jumped into the fray with his typical flourish. It was his rousing initiative that ensured that Sivaji Ganesan got the homage that he well and truly deserved.
That momentous occasion established what Vijayakanth was truly made of. From then on, it was only a matter of time before he made the transition to politics. He never dilly-dallied like Rajinikanth nor was he vague like Haasan. His approach was akin to what he was on screen — brash and in-your-face.
As a politico, Vijayakanth wasn't innocent. But he brought to the table a certain naivete that was endearing and sincere. His politics was practical, but his party never reached great heights because he couldn't find leaders who could continue in his vein.
Falling back on his wife Premalatha and brother-in-law Sudheesh to run the affairs of the party showed that he, after all, wasn't all that different in following the cult of family politics. The DMDK, alas, remained a one-man party.
After his ill health, the DMDK has ceased to be a real force to reckon with. And with his death, it might just wither away. That sadly is not what Vijayakanth deserves. But he will be remembered for his leadership qualities, and as a man with a kind heart who became a star even while retaining his simple outlook shorn of any artifice.
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