The cardboard boxes must have looked terrifying to young Vineeth. They somehow signalled to him the end of a dream he had just begun to dream. He thought wistfully of the few years he spent in Malayalam cinema as a boy actor, playing serious roles. But in the time that he had gone for his degree— BCom at a college in Chennai— he got fewer offers. He was ‘transitioning’: neither boy nor grownup characters had suited him. So after his graduation, he applied for Chartered Accountancy with a heavy heart. And there came those dreaded cardboard boxes of study material. It was an important course, he knew, but it also meant that if he went ahead with it, there would be no going back to the charming world of cinema. But then, one day in May 1991 would pull him right back in.
He was dropping off his mother at the Chennai Central Railway Station that day. Those were years when folks from the film industry travelled by trains; flights were not that common. From somewhere, he heard the voice of Vijayakumar, assistant to director Bharathan. They spoke of the old days and Vijayakumar went away with Vineeth’s phone number. The next morning, he got a call and a familiar voice beamed in. “Evdeyaarnu nee?”— Where were you? Vineeth was thrilled to hear Bharathan’s voice again. The director was doing a Tamil remake of his critically acclaimed Malayalam film Thakara and asked Vineeth to come and try out the hero’s friend’s part. When he went though, Bharathan made him try the main part instead and a week later told him the role was his. That sealed it. The cardboard boxes went away and Vineeth, the actor, was back.
Avarampoo — the Tamil remake of Thakara — changed everything for Vineeth. “Bharathettan was the first director to pick me out as an actor but that film did not happen,” Vineeth says in an interview to TNM. He was then a Class 9 student training in dance with Kalamandalam Saraswathi, classical dancer and wife of renowned writer MT Vasudevan Nair. The couple told Bharathan about the boy dancer when the director was planning a film on Rishyasringan, the young sanyasi whose meditation was broken by a seductive woman. Vineeth’s joy knew no bounds. You can hear the excitement even today as he talks of that day in the distant past.
Vineeth's photo shoot as Rishyasringan
“There was a photo shoot and Bharathettan told me to keep whatever moustache that sprouts — it was just beginning to grow. There was an announcement in the newspaper about MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathan and Ilayaraja (renowned Tamil musician) coming together for the film. But there was some issue with the producer and the project got cancelled,” Vineeth says. You can almost visualise the dejection on his younger face, looking younger than he did in that famed movie Nakhakshathangal that launched him as a hero in 1986. It was this Rishyasringan movie that Bharathan later made in 1988, as Vaishali. By then Vineeth was in his Chennai college.
Nakhakshathangal was big. It put two teeny tiny people in a story of love and obligations. Vineeth and the late Monisha, 15 and 13 years old respectively, won a lot of affection from viewers. Monisha won the National Award for best female actor that year. Both of them hardly spoke Malayalam those days — Vineeth having come from the Good Shepherd School in Ooty and a few years in Kerala, and Monisha from Bengaluru. But director Hariharan groomed them into wonderful young actors in a beautifully told tale of a misfortunate boy’s life.
Watch: Song from Nakhakshathangal
Before Nakhakshathangal though, Vineeth made his debut with IV Sasi’s Idanilangal. “It was a multi-star cast and I got to see all of them working — Mohanlal, Mammootty, Seema, Menaka. The film was produced by renowned Tamil director K Balachander. I played Sukumari aunty’s (late actor Sukumari, also related to Vineeth) son. I was shocked when they gave me shorts to wear. It was a time when only little children wore shorts and I thought I had outgrown that stage,” he says laughing.
He was referred in the sets as MT sir’s wife’s student. “Those were days when, if you are a teenage boy recognised for a role, you keep getting called for movies with teenage characters. Rahman did that for a while, then I did,” Vineeth says.
So, he kept getting called for a number of movies, many acclaimed ones among them— Pranamam, Oridathu, Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal, Amrutham Gamaya, Aranyakam, and so on. He notably played the lead characters in Idanazhiyil Oru Kaalocha, a story by poet Balachandran Chullikad, and Oru Muthassi Katha directed by Priyadarshan.
Vineeth and Karthika in Idanazhiyil Oru Kaalocha
Actor-singer Krishnachandran dubbed for Vineeth in most of his early movies. Ironically, Vineeth won the state award for best dubbing artiste (male) in 2020 for giving voice to Vivek Oberoi's character in Lucifer, actor Prithviraj’s first as a director. “When I debuted in movies at 15, it was a transitional stage and my voice was changing. It wouldn’t suit a romantic hero and the characters had a certain maturity to them. A few times, I had made attempts to dub but it somehow did not work out. In those times, films were more dramatic. But I have to say Krishnachandretan’s dubbing elevated my performance. It is from Ghazal onwards that I began dubbing for my characters,” Vineeth says.
When Prithviraj asked to dub for the main antagonist in Lucifer, I was a little nervous. It is not like dubbing while acting in a film when you are well-versed with the lines. It is a tough process,” he adds.
It seems to have worked well, for he has gotten more dubbing offers — including the big budget film Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham — and of course, the state award. When friends call, he ends up doing the job, he says; and he considers every field of cinema a creative process. But he’d much rather act. The best years of his acting career came in the 90s, soon after the success of Avarampoo.
Watch: Song from Avarampoo
As soon as Avarampoo ended, Hariharan called him for Sargam, in which he played a musical genius. Suddenly Vineeth was doing multiple films in Malayalam and Tamil. Kabooliwala and Manathe Vellitheru became two turning points in his Malayalam career, one establishing him as a young romantic hero, the other proving he could handle negative shades really well. “Pachika (Director Fasil) really groomed me well for Manathe Vellitheru,” he says emotionally.
In Tamil, among other projects came Kadhal Desam, where Vineeth and Abbas played college students in love with the same woman, played by Tabu. The movie, with its themes of friendship and romance and the music of AR Rahman, became very popular. However, all the busy schedules cost Vineeth a few precious films — Manichithrathazhu, where he was to play Ramanadan, the man next door and dance partner of Shobana, Sallapam in which Manju Warrier was launched as a heroine, and Aniyathipravu in which Shalini was introduced.
In the 2000s, when it seemed Vineeth slowed down a little in Malayalam, he was actually busy with films in Telugu. “Manichithrathazhu which I lost (in 1993), I got in another form 13 years later through its Tamil remake Chandramukhi,” he says in that optimistic way of his. Even the characters he lost, he doesn’t rue, but hails the movies for bringing out some fresh performances.
Watch: Song from Chandramukhi
The actor in Vineeth is still very much that excited lad of the 80s, thrilled to get good stories and characters, no matter how big or small they are. He picked up older characters in the last decade, once appearing as the father of Nithya Menen! Vineeth, whose daughter was then all of eight, had been a little unsure of the role. “Initially it was supposed to be a pair of parents who represented a romantic couple of the 1990s and Mohini and I were to do it. A new actor was supposed to play our daughter. When I heard it was Nithya Menen I asked them if it would look like a school drama where younger people stick on grey hairs to play dads. But then it all turned out well,” he says.
Through all of this, he danced. It was as a dancing student of Saraswathi that he won his first chance to act. Through all the movies and all of his studies, Vineeth never stopped learning to dance. He won the Kerala state award for best choreography for Kambhoji in 2016. Vineeth turns especially articulate when he talks of his later guru, Padma Subrahmanyam. He is thrilled that he could attend her special online classes amid the pandemic. “When there is such a long lockdown, there is nothing else for an artiste to do. I began online classes for my institute in Kochi and that was a solace. Another blessing was that I could attend special classes by Dr Padma Subrahmanyam that she took for her senior students, on her traditional compositions. It was blissful. In that way, the lockdown was extremely productive for me as a dancer,” he says.
The actor next awaits the debut directorial of Akhil Sathyan, son of veteran director Sathyan Anthikad.