Bahujan radical, political force, artiste: Vijayakanth was the quintessential Tamil icon

The actor and DMDK chief died in Chennai on December 28.

WrittenBy:Rajesh Rajamani
Vijayakanth, 1952-2023.

In recent years, public memory of Vijayakanth might be that of an inconsistent politician. 

His political entry with the formation of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam in 2005 and its vote consolidation in Tamil Nadu posed a significant threat to the two powerful parties in the state – the DMK and AIADMK. In less than a decade, he quickly rose to the position of leader of the opposition in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. Political commentators and analysts were shocked and surprised, as it pushed the monumental DMK to third place. 

But his temperamental conduct in the house and failed alliance with the AIADMK led to a fall that was as quick and steep as his rise. Coupled with his occasional erratic and aggressive behaviour during press meets and election campaigns, he was soon reduced to memeable content. And with his deteriorating health in recent years, he was almost forgotten in Tamil Nadu’s political space.

Vijayakanth’s political career can, at best, be considered a flash in the pan. Even his party never made serious efforts to spell out its ideology. In fact, the terms ‘Desiya’ (evoking a nationalistic identity) and ‘Dravida’ (claiming Tamil Bahujan roots) in his party’s name are at loggerheads with each other. 

But that’s also because Vijayakanth’s initial political success was a direct result of his glorious career in cinema. If we must remember Vijayakanth, it should ideally be in relation to how he created a revolutionary Tamil Bahujan image in cinema. In a career that spanned three decades, he created a unique space for himself. 

And unlike his short-lived political spree, he posed continuous threats to the other two giant stars of his time – Superstar Rajinikanth and Ulaga Nayagan Kamal Hassan – often displacing both to dominate the film market.

imageby :

Revolutionary Bahujan radical

When Vijayakanth, whose original name was Vijayaraj Alagarswami, entered Tamil cinema in the late 1970s, he was dismissed as someone replicating Rajinikanth’s image – with similar dark skin and luscious hair. The suffix ‘kanth’ was also considered an effect to mimic Rajini, who had already established himself in the industry.

But very soon, in K Vijayan’s Doorathu Idi Muzhakkam (1980) and SA Chandrasekhar’s Sattam Oru Iruttarai (1981), Vijayakanth created a new image for himself. His character as a fiery radical who fights against established power structures in Sattam Oru Iruttarai became a recurring motif in his films.

Though both Vijayakanth and Rajinikanth played the angry Bahujan man for a major part of their early careers, there was a significant difference between the two. Rajinikanth’s characters questioned landlords, zamindars or capitalistic heads, but they were often localised in nature and never talked about power structures. On the other hand, Vijayakanth’s films often identified and spoke against invisible power structures. 

A scrutiny of the film names is telling. During the 1980s, Rajinikanth starred in films with names like Kuppathu Raja (King of the Slum) in 1979, Kaali in 1980, Polladhavan (The Dangerous One) in 1980, Murattu Kaalai (The Fiery Bull) in 1980, Raanuva Veeran (Soldier) in 1981 and Thanga Magan (The Golden Son) in 1983, among others. As the titles suggest, the films were focused on the individual Bahujan protagonist’s narrative. 

Contrast this with Vijayakanth’s films during the same period: Sattam Oru Iruttarai (The Law is a Dark Room) in 1981, Sivappu Malli (Red Jasmine) in 1981, Jadhikkoru Needi (Justice Dictated by Caste) in 1981, Needhi Pizhaithathu (Justice Saved) in 1981, Pudhu Yugam (New Dawn) in 1985, and Neethiyin Marupakkam (The Other Side of Law) in 1985.

It’s clear from the titles that Vijayakanth’s films were ideological and focused on social power structures and their interactions with political law. In that way, he engaged his audience with serious and complex political questions, unlike the simplistic ones posed in Rajinikanth’s films. So it’s not surprising that while Rajinikanth claimed the Superstar title, Vijayakanth was rightfully given the title of Puratchi Kalaignar, revolutionary artist.

Vijayakanth’s questioning of social and capitalistic power structures continued through his cinema career. It included films like Alai Osai (The Sound of the Waves) in 1985, Cooliekkaran (The Coolie) in 1987, Uzhavan Magan (Farmer’s Son) in 1987, and Ezhai Jaathi (The Caste of the Poor) in 1993. In Alai Osai, the song Poradada Oru Vaalenthuda, composed by Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja, became an anthem against caste oppression for Devendra Kula Vellalars, a Dalit community in southern Tamil Nadu.

And in Ezhai Jaathi, Vijayakanth’s character vociferously argues that the underprivileged should shed their individual caste identities and come together as one.

When tensions around the Eelam war peaked in the early 1990s, and the Indian state was cracking down on LTTE sympathisers in Tamil Nadu, Vijayakanth was brave enough to offer solidarity to the Tamils of Eelam by naming his 1991 film Captain Prabhakaran – a hat-tip to the LTTE supremo. This later gave Vijayakanth his new title, Captain, which he was fondly called by fans and followers.

There were, however, certain setbacks to the political content of his films in the 1990s, when he chose to play to the regional caste pride market in films like Chinna Gounder (1992) and Kallazhagar (1999). But these were short-lived and it is only fair that we judge his films holistically. Because throughout his film career, Vijayakanth never shied away from speaking the politics of Tamil Bahujans.

Balance between macho and tender 

Vijayakanth’s physical image in cinema defined the Bahujan Tamil male. Dark skin, thick hair, moustache – he was able to smoothly shift between macho and tender roles. It’s unsurprising that his macho physique brought him several roles where he played a police officer. Even in these roles, he remained an upright, honest officer who ran into conflict with police power structures.

While these roles seemed synonymous with each other, what’s interesting is how Vijayakanth was able to carve out a unique subgenre of action films through them. Similar to the famous sword fights in MG Ramachandran films, Vijayakanth’s created classic action scenes where physical fights were choreographed with raw grit and force. Unlike most films where the action choreography was often hyperbolic and fantastical, his films offered earthy, stylish fight sequences.

These action scenes reached their peak in films like Oomai Vizhigal (Mute Eyes) in 1986, Pulan Visaranai (Investigation) in 1990, Chatriyan (1990), Bharathan (1992), and Sethupathi IPS (1994), among several others. In particular, the climax action block in Pulan Visaranai, where Vijayakanth fights the antagonist in a completely empty room, remains one of the most stylishly choreographed scenes in Tamil film history. 

At the same time, Vijayakanth could turn around and play absolutely tender roles that were emotionally haunting. In his super-hit film Amman Kovil Kizhakale (East of the Amman Temple) in 1986, he melts you with his performance as a man in love.

Anyone doubting this claim must check him out right away in the song Unn Paarvaiyil Oorayiram and see for themselves.

In other films like Vaidhegi Kaathirunthaal (1984), Poonthotta Kaavalkaaran (1988) and Vaanathai Pola (2000), he continued to play very gentle and tender roles. So it is not surprising that the most popular break-up song for Tamil men in the state turns out to be a Vijayakanth song, Rasathi Unna Kanatha Nenju from the film Vaidhegi Kaathirunthaal.

Making dance his style statement

Until the arrival of Prabhu Deva, Tamil cinema celebrated Kamal Hassan as its best dancer. While there is no doubt that both are great dancers, we have to understand that what they presented on screen were very trained performances.

But Vijayakanth changed this pattern with simple but graceful dance moves filled with abundant oomph. Even when he gained some weight in the 1990s and later, his dance moves retained their grace. It’s about time the Tamil public acknowledges and celebrates the sexiness he brought to the screen. That, combined with his charm, often made him delicious on screen. 

Consider the song Adi Gaana Karunguyile from Poonthotta Kaavalkaaran. Even though Vijayakanth plays a much older role in the song, his cheerful and energetic dancing effectively captures the celebratory moment here. In Vetri Mel Vetri from Nallavan (1988), he could playfully dance with mischief.  

And in Bharathan, his choreographed dance and matching costumes with actor Bhanupriya in Punnagayil Minsaram screamed pizzazz. 

While jogging and exercise scenes were primarily reserved for ‘glamorous’ female actors, Vijayakanth flipped this over to play up his glamour quotient in Pottethellam from Bharathan. In Paattukku Oru Thalaivan (1989), he performs with trained dancer and actor Shobana, managing to match – even outdo – her grace in the song Azhagiya Nadhi. What he lacked in formal training he made up for with his moves.

In sensual songs, most male actors would prefer to play it safe, even asexual. Vijayakanth turned up the heat, giving his female counterparts a run for their money. In the songs Pallikoodam Pogalama from Koyil Kaalai (1993) or Izhuthu Pothina from Honest Raj (1994), Vijayakanth’s dancing itself makes the songs strictly PG-rated. But topping the sensual charts is Rendu Kannu from Tamizh Selvan (1996), where Vijayakanth and Roja achieve seduction without glamour or dance. As an aside, Vijayakanth in this movie plays a reserved-category IAS officer who struggles with the politics of the bureaucratic system.

Even in his later part of acting career, when he started to look older, Vijayakanth continued to surprise us with his graceful moves. The subtle beauty of the song Thanthana Thanthana Thaimasam from Thavasi (2001) stands as a significant example to it.

A kind-hearted human

Within the film industry, Vijayakanth was always known as a very kind-hearted man. In an industry that was deeply hierarchical, he was someone who ensured that everyone in his film set was treated alike and served the same food. As an actor, he introduced several debutant directors to the industry and helped build their careers. He was also a producer’s delight, willing to work long hours non-stop and, in some instances, even up to 72 hours, to ensure the film’s timely completion and release. 

While filmmaker SA Chandrasekhar played an important role in consolidating Vijayakanth’s position during the early part of his career, the actor repaid his gratitude by playing a secondary character in SA Chandrasekhar’s son Vijay’s film Sendhoorapandi (1993). At that time, Vijayakanth was at the top of his career and Vijay was still struggling to find his ground in the industry. But still, Vijayakanth was generous enough to play a secondary role and help push the film’s box office success.

When he was the president of the South Indian Artistes’ Association, he organised fund-raising cultural events in Singapore and Malaysia to repay the debts of the actors’ union. Stories of his philanthropy, where he financially helped members of the film industry, continue to regularly emerge.

Vijayakanth was a man of several great qualities and achievements: revolutionary artist, style icon, philanthropist, political force, humble human. But when we look back at his long and successful career, one thing’s for sure – he will be remembered most for how he represented the average Bahujan Tamil male on screen. He showcased their aspirations, struggles, anger, love, family, style and flaws in all their glory, without ever compromising their self-respect and dignity.

Also see
article imageIthu oru pon maalai pozhuthu: How I learned about my mother through the music of SPB


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like