Man of Steel (Baradwaj Rangan on Vikram)

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IT WAS THE BEST NIGHT of Kenny’s life. It was the worst night of Kenny’s life. And it began on the pitch-black stage of the open-air auditorium at IIT-Madras.

At first the audience at the annual inter-collegiate festival thought that there was a technical glitch: they could hear the actors but not see them. They began to fidget. They began to boo. Then, about 15 minutes in, some of the viewers began to shush the others. They got what was happening: the play—Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which Kenny had the lead role—began in darkness but, eventually, the lights would come on. The shushing gradually overwhelmed the booing and the fidgeting. There was silence, then laughs. When the curtains came down, there was a standing ovation. Among the audience that October night in 1986 was Shailaja Balakrishnan, who knew that she would marry Kenny even though he was barely aware of her existence. She watched him get the Best Actor award, beating candidates from all the other colleges. Later she would say drishti pattuduchu—someone had cast the evil eye.

Things were going according to plan. Kenny had always wanted to be an actor—at least from 1974, when he was in the third standard at Montfort Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in Yercaud. The boys’ school was staging a musical named Steam Boat and someone was needed to play a cotton-picking slave girl in Alabama. Kenny was chosen. He was dyed black with vegetable powder, squeezed into a white-and-blue dress, and positioned in a corner of the stage. He had no lines; he just had to stand on stage. But that was enough to hook him. He acted through school and at Chennai’s Loyola College, where he joined the literature programme in 1983. He acted in small, larkish events. Once, in an inter-departmental cultural festival, he parodied a famous Horlicks ad—in which a little boy says he doesn’t need to drink Horlicks, he’d eat it straight out of the bottle—by turning it into an ad for underwear. And he acted in big productions, like the college theatre society’s adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which his performance had the city’s theatre critics declaring the birth of a star, an endorsement heartily echoed by crush-struck girls from Women’s Christian College and Stella Maris.

The Best Actor award at IIT-Madras seemed to be a sign. Kenny was going to finish this last year at college and then he’d become an actor in the movies, in Tamil cinema, like he’d always wanted.

It had been a long day. After the festival, Kenny hopped onto a bike, behind a friend. They zipped out of the IIT campus, took a left, and soared off into the night. They had turned right at the corner of the road by the governor’s house when Kenny noticed that his shoelaces had come undone. As he bent to attend to them, he heard a loud sound, and the next thing he knew, he was on the road. His friend had been fooling around as usual, resting his legs on the crash bars, and he couldn’t brake in time when he saw the truck speeding towards them near the traffic circle. He accelerated instead and hit the truck. The impact of the collision uprooted the railing around the traffic circle. It was Kenny’s first accident. And he didn’t even know how to ride a bike.

Today, he remembers those moments in flashes. He went into shock. There was no pain, only numbness. The pain started when some friends, who were following in a car, reached the spot and lifted him into the backseat. And then there was laughter. Kenny was always high-spirited, and when they reached the government hospital at Royapettah, he found that his sense of humour had returned. He jokingly protested when the medical staff began to snip away his clothes. (“This is imported underwear. Do you know how much it cost?”) And as his friends surrounded him, he covered his crotch in mock modesty.

Then things got serious again. A severed artery was emptying blood into his right leg. There was a possibility of gangrene. Strange terms were floating in the air. Haematoma. Thomas splint. Amputation. Consent forms needed to be signed for the amputation, but his mother refused to do so, preferring to take him to the privately run Vijaya Hospital. The ambulance driver took a scenic route to charge more money. And somewhere in the middle of this worst night of his life, there was the ward boy standing beside Kenny when he was hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled into a lift.

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7 Responses to “Man of Steel (Baradwaj Rangan on Vikram)”

  1. I was waiting to see when this would be available online (I’d read it a few days ago in the hard copy edition); a fascinating piece (there were a lot of facts I didn’t know), although I do think Vikram is a bit slippery and evasive (I don’t mean those as criticisms) and I don’t think the article is able to completely account for him. [For instance, what are we to make of his bravado? Hard to take it at face value, but it doesn’t seem to be tongue-in-cheek either — Rangan chooses a “wait and see” stance that suspends judgment and is more — I almost want to say — ethical, but doesn’t necessarily make for the most satisfying journalism, especially where personality profiles are concerned…

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  2. Found this very engaging throughout. Specially loved the passages on Sethu’s production and release. Qalandar mentioned this elsewhere but this piece actually seems informed by much of the conversation on Vikram that we (and “we” includes a number of folks on this and other forums in the past) have had over the past several years. The history outlined here is pretty interesting, didn’t know the particulars of Vikram’s pre-Sethu age even if a very cursory sense of that history is always suggested in his interviews elsewhere. Ultimately found the piece to set the stage for Shankar’s “Ai” in a way that really burdens that film (perhaps unfairly) with some weighty expectations. Which is to say now I REALLY can’t wait for it!

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    • Agree GF (and in a sense my comment came off sounding more negative than I’d meant it to be, given that it seems like my first word on it, rather than part of an ongoing conversation on Vikram that various folks had been having on naachgaana.com and satyamshot for years). But yes, I can’t wait for Ai!

      Aside: I’ve had numerous issues with The Caravan’s coverage of popular cinema (as a general matter, “serious” Indian publications are often at their sloppiest when talking about popular cinema, and the otherwise reliably excellent Caravan had been no exception), but I am really glad to see them engage Rangan on more than one occasion of late — I really see this magazine as being able to foster a serious cinematic discussion in the years to come…

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  3. Just finished reading this caravan article…Never knew there was so much behind this man I admired! The article was very engaging throughout and emotional in parts (parts where there are personal quotes and reflections by his wife and Vikram himself are so wonderful) but I personally did not like the narrative and the way Rangan dealt with the personality of Vikram. So, where he is talking about the films/industry its smooth but when it shifts to the person/profile of Vikram the writing is very weak and reads like a caricature of a superhero. The only instances where I got glimpses of the real Vikram, was were his wife talks about him or Vikram talks about his mother. But, yes its much better much much, than the usual film and review section of the caravan.

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