I was 11 when Guru Sishyan was released. At that time (1988), I was scornful of Tamil films and rarely caught them. But this film, starring Rajinikanth and Prabhu riffing off each other’s comic timings, was a mammoth hit. Having missed it in the theatre, I rented it out as soon as the VHS version was available, which could take quite a while in those days.
A lengthy sequence in the film involves Vinu Chakravarthy, an actor whose name I did not know back then. He was brilliant as a corrupt cop, whose house Rajini and Prabhu raid posing as income-tax officers. Nothing makes much sense, but we are willing to forgive the lack of logic in the giggle-inducing proceedings.
The dialogue “Ippo Enna Pannuveenga? (What will you do now?)” is used by Rajinikanth and Prabhu, in impeccable comic form, repetitively against the cop. This goes back and forth between the duo and Chakravarthy until the scene had me in splits. The movie, directed by SP Muthuraman, was canned in 28 days and it’s hard to imagine that the makers had time to shoot any scene twice.
If Rajinikanth was over the top and brilliant, Chakravarthy did not exactly struggle to keep up. It’s hard to realise that the actor, only 43 at the time, played the father to Gauthami, who was debuting in the film. The sequences between the superstar and character actor, who could keep up, came in for much praise and contributed its bit to the success of the movie, which ran for 175 days in many theatres.
Over the years, critics would be hard pressed to explain why audiences embraced Chakravarthy. True, he was a natural in front of the camera. His acting style, even in the 1980s, by which time he had slowly managed to gain a reputation, reminded you of the classicism of earlier years. And, in due course, the actor managed to upstage hundreds of character actors in Tamil. But it was his acting style that would limit him in coming years. The actor was never able to lend a contemporary feel to any of the characters he helped bring alive.
Vinu Chakravarthy died on Thursday, aged 71. He was in and out of hospital for the last few months and had been ill over the last three years. He had been diagnosed with diabetes, which was complicated by his high blood pressure. He also had other age-related ailments. He is survived by his wife Karnapoo, son and daughter. He lived in Saligramam, an area favoured by the industry bigwigs in Chennai.
If you see the short and portly frame of the actor and his rustic face, with the forehead often adorned with a kumkum dot, you would mistake him for someone whose ticket into the industry was bought for him by lady luck. You may be excused for thinking that Chakravarthy knew acting and little else.
The actor was often cast in roles that had a touch of innocent charm. Though the actor was not good looking, he kept landing roles as the audiences readily identified with him. He could gain their sympathy with ease. This couldn’t have been easy.
The actor was a scriptwriter in Kannada before facing the camera. Ironically, he debuted in a Kannada film before making his transition to Tamil, where he would find his audience. Early films included Gopurangal Saivathillai, Thambikku Entha Ooru and Amman Kovil Kizhakkale. But it was in the 1990s that the actor become widely known for his roles in films like Annamalai, Nattamai, Veera and Arunachalam.
In Annamalai, the actor is cast in a tense scene with the superstar. After Annamalai’s warning, Chakravarthy’s character Ekambaram is aroused to political awakening and changes his corrupt ways.
The actor believed that superstar Rajinikanth considered him as his lucky charm. He went on to do a record 25 films with the actor, including Rajathi Raja and Athisaya Piravi.
The actor wrote the script for Vandichakkaram (1982), a movie which won filmfare awards for its leads, Sivakumar and Saritha. ‘Silk’ Smitha made her debut in the movie. Years later, when the critically acclaimed The Dirty Picture was released, the man who scripted Smitha’s success was quick to criticise it, saying that Vidya Balan was miscast in the movie. She did not have Smitha’s “wide and inviting eyes”, said Chakravarthy. The actor thought of Smitha as his product and even pointed out that the role of Silk in Vandichakkaram had earned her the moniker. He believed he should have been consulted in writing the script.
Chakravarthy had a workhorse attitude towards his roles. He didn’t exactly pick and choose. He never had to wait for supporting roles as they kept flooding in. Though he acted in Telugu and Malayalam, Chakravarthy did at least 900 films in Tamil. The superhit film, Meleparambil Aanveedu, in which he starred as Veeramuthu Gownder, endeared him to audiences in Kerala. His 1000th film was Muni, the hugely popular horror-comedy flick, directed by Raghava Lawrence. His last film was the sci-fi comedy Vaayai Moodi Pesavum.
However, over a period of time, Chakravarthy, despite his chameleon-like ability to slip into roles, would be typecast in rustic roles. He was mostly expected to mix villainy with comedy, some of it slapstick. He never had the luxury of makeup to change how he looked or a script, innovative enough to cast him against type even though he had the ability to vanish inside his roles. He was constantly undermined and underestimated. But that never seemed to bother him as long as he was in the limelight.
Chakravarthy was born on December 15, 1945, in Usilampatti in Madurai district. He studied in Wesley School in Royapettah and graduated in commerce from AM Jain College. He worked as a policeman and in Southern Railways for four years before entering the movie industry.
He has won the Tamil Nadu government’s Kalaimamani award, in addition to a host of awards given to him by the Tamil Sangams in Singapore, Malaysia and Canada. He was also named ‘Asthana Vidwan’ by Kanchi Sankara Madam.
He has acted alongside well known actors including Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijayakanth, Vijay, Ajith Kumar, Arjun, Ramarajan and Prabhu.
His death is a loss to his family, fans, and the film fraternity.