To prepare for his role in Jai Bhim, Manikandan stayed with the Irulas for two months to understand their lives and lifestyles better.

Actor Manikandan in black and white shirt
Flix Interview Wednesday, November 17, 2021 - 12:33

In the recent Jai Bhim, which has triggered a fierce debate on custodial brutality and what the courts can do to offer justice, there’s a scene where Rasakannu (Manikandan), a marginalised person who knows his place in society, tells the rich man he cannot take money for removing the snake from his house, because he was merely helping him. “Plus, your wife is from my village,” he smiles. The wife flings a casteist retort at him. Rasakannu’s smiling face crumples like a balloon pricked. If Jai Bhim hit as hard as it did, the way Manikandan humanised Rasakannu had a big role to play. He showed us what a lovely, loving man Rasakannu was, and why he did not deserve to be treated the way he was.

Manikandan has been Tamil cinema’s everyman for some years now, choosing roles that no one would (a man who survives cancer with a testicle less and manages to find love, in Halitha Shameem’s Sillu Karupatti, the man who does not want to attend his father’s funeral in Shameem’s Aaley, in a film culture where amma and appa paasam (affection) is sacrosanct, and the young cop corrupted early on in Vikram Vedha). He’s also a wonderful writer, and his lines made some scenes in Vikram Vedha sparkle. His career in Tamil has been nothing short of a struggle, yet there’s hardly a trace of bitterness or anger at anyone who treated him badly. Just once in an hour-long conversation, he recalls a man comparing his face to “something I don’t want to think about now”. Years later, the same person, forgetting that this new actor making waves had once met him and had been swatted like a fly, told him he was doing a good job. “I did wonder if I should tell him what he once thought of me, and then thought it was pointless. What he said kept alive my creative fire. I smiled and said thanks,” says Manikandan, also an intuitive voice actor.

Remember the father in the Tamil dubbed version of 102 Dalmatians? That was Manikandan. As was the villainous cockroach in Insectibles. He’s also been a part of some well-made television series and has also done a whole lot of mimicry. Ironically, he would one day go on to act with Rajinikanth (in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, as his son), whose voice he had mimicked numerous times on stage and for friends. When he finally made a name for himself in films, the one person who was happiest was probably Manikandan’s mother, the lady who backed her son even when the world ridiculed the fact that her engineering graduate son was ‘jobless’, in their dictionary. She would defend him to the world and weep at home. “She wondered what would become of the boy she raised so lovingly,” Manikandan recalls. The hardest were days when someone called to say a classmate had bought a car or gone abroad.

However, through all this, Manikandan’s father was a strong, silent supporter. “He knew that I was not lazy, that I was working towards something they did not understand.” But his mother, if agitated over all the questioning, would ask him if he would settle down next year, Manikandan had no answer to give her. But, it is all the experiences that life threw at him, what Vijay Sethupathi famously calls the “experience ball” that burnished and honed Manikandan into the actor he now is. He’s there in the moment, absolutely naked in his emotions and the camera seems to sense that and magnify it for the audience. There’s a rootedness and an honesty that is not forced. “I can’t explain this audience connect, but I can assure you I don’t work with audience acceptance in mind. It won’t work well then. I just want to do good work. I think life prepared me for this, by putting me through various situations. Probably why most of my roles are of the everyman you’ll see in your neighbourhood, in the park, next door… I rarely get roles far removed from reality. And, you know what an honour it is to be identified thus. Representing the person on the street is very important. I try not to be superficial. This is their story, their difficulty, their happiness, and I must be true to that,” says Manikandan.

That world comes easily to Manikandan, who is the first in his family to study beyond Class 6. “I lived in Adyar, not the Adyar everyone knows, but on the other side, the Adyar which has a different face,” he recalls. But his father somehow put him through engineering, going beyond his means to do so. It helped that Manikandan was a good student and the family pinned their hopes on him to move them to a better place. But this is when he was caught in the conundrum between what he should focus on — engineering or a career as a solo performer on stage?

“I am basically fickle minded, and keep wondering how to balance my various interests. Finally, my friends told me to take two years off, see if I can make a career in the fine arts, and return to engineering if I could not. The years from 2009-2011 were nothing short of trauma. But from every rejection I learnt how to approach people. That said, I was still about 20 and did not have the maturity to handle ill-treatment. Every aspiring actor goes through this, and I decided that I should probably give it up,” says Manikandan.

He moved to television and wrote some humour scripts. That was when Naalaya Iyakkunar — the one show that has single handedly given Tamil cinema some of its best contemporary names — began. “Nalan Kumarasamy called me to work on some films. I saw it as a great chance to act without having to beg for a chance. And, it was a huge platform. That space also taught me life. It told me that I was not the only one with a dream, that there are many like us. Most importantly, it told me loudly that I was not alone.” Manikandan and other struggling actors kept discussing cinema in roadside tea shops and on various mottaimaadis (terraces). They spoke about cinema theory and about big filmmakers abroad whose names they could not even pronounce. “I did not know then how immature it all was. Our world was different, our cinema was different. And then, I began learning from the biggest teacher — life. I decided to analyse myself to see what I am and what was within me. Dubbing work for TV serials, cartoons and shows kept him busy. “I once spoke as an 80-year-old grandfather and it was challenging but fun,” he says.

Around 2016, the young actor, backed only by the passion to make cinema and artistic honesty, decided to turn director for a short film Narai Ezhuthum Suyasaritham and got Delhi Ganesh to essay the role of a retired person, while he played a person on the lookout for a job. The short film did the festival circuit rounds. Shortly after this, Nalan called Manikandan to do a small role in his Vijay Sethupathi-starrer Kaadhalum Kadanthu Pogum. This was when Manikandan got to spend time with Vijay, who had, by then, become the people’s hero. A brotherhood was born. Later, Vijay would recommend his name to Pushkar Gayatri for writing the dialogues for Vikram Vedha. They gave him the job in 10 minutes. “He’s an amazing boy, my thambi. He keeps reading books and has a high intellect. As high as he soars with his books, he can go deep and be intense, and can also be subtle. He never argues his point, he will communicate with a certain clarity. He’s very responsible towards work, and has numerous interests. He thinks deeply, and I thought he would work well in Vikram Vedha. He’s the one who came up with the line, ‘Vaal irukarnaala eliyum poonayum onnu aayiduma, Sir?’ (Just because both have a tail, will the mouse and cat be the same). Mani is a very talented actor, and represents the common person. I believe he's an arputhamana (miraculous) gift for the art form,” Vijay says.

Manikandan is willing to do anything to make a role look believable. Nalan told him he was to play a driver in Kaadhalum Kadandhu Pogum. “I confessed I did not know how to drive. So, I took my friend’s car out and learnt to drive,” says Mani, who spent two months with the Irulas to understand their lives and lifestyles better, for Jai Bhim. This stay also taught him the brutal ground reality of the marginalised. In a clip from a television interview that has gone viral, he speaks of how he casually asked the children why they dropped out of school. “Anna, they won’t sit near me, they tell me to my face that I stink…” he recalled a boy telling him. That stay made him more empathetic, and more mindful of his privilege.

In between, Mani started a short-lived political satire show on his YouTube channel. “I am a failed YouTuber,” he says. Shortly after this, Kaala happened. “Till then, when I told someone I was trying for a role in cinema, they would tell me, ‘Nee enna Rajini payyan-nu nenappa’? (Do you think you are Rajini’s son?) I could now tell them, yes! Kaala was like being on an excursion, where you could spend time with some amazing minds and actors one has always admired.”

Shameem, who directed Manikandan in two films, still recalls how he was one of the few to walk up to her and tell her he loved her debut Poovarasam Peepee. “I watched it when I travelled to a friend’s wedding. It was playing on television and we had to vacate the room. I was riveted, and so stayed back, watched the movie and then left.” Shameem would also encourage Manikandan, who was convinced he could not pull off his city dweller character in Sillu Karupatti that his lack of confidence in his spoken English skills was not a problem area, because he had the attitude to pull off the role.

Today, Manikandan might be a very well known name, but there’s no difference in his attitude. “My friends keep me grounded. So do some colleagues. I am grateful they don’t see me as an outsider,” he says.

What is Manikandan’s performance process like? “I don’t aspire to become a character. Rather, I look for some similarities between me and the character and build on that, like I’m constructing a house. With Rasakannu, it was that I too like everyone around me to be happy. Like Vijay Sethupathi anna said, Rasakannu was actually living the life like a King, amid Nature.”

With Jai Bhim, the torture scenes were shot on a near-silent set. “That momentary sound and then the silence when the camera turns on is like meditation. It helps you enter the zone. That said, one can’t switch to being an actor effortlessly when one is doing a serious scene,” he says.

Director Tha Se Gnanavel, who directed Manikandan in Jai Bhim chose him because he wanted someone who could appear like he was living in the moment. “He has a face where he can be anything. He could grasp the accent I was looking for, and his face has an innocence that is endearing,” he says.

Manikandan, thanks to his interest in writing, acting and direction and voice acting (he’s even filled in for Vijay Sethupathi during dubbing for minor fixes), has always been asked why he was not focussing on one single thing. “I’ve always struggled to answer this. This question has been chasing me from the age of 20. I’m 33 now. I consider all of them as being central to my growth as an artiste. They all feed off the other, and help me become a better writer, performer and director. I think I am happy being interested in it all.” I give Manikandan the analogy of the grain of dirt that helps make a pearl. Are these three grains of dirt? He smiles. “You’ve just given me my answer.”