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It takes perseverance to be an actor, a lot of it to be popular and much more to sustain the popularity. This unwritten law of tinseltown holds good for all ages. Right from Tamil superstar of yesteryear M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to the post-1950 superstars MGR and Sivaji Ganesan to the post-1980 top stars Kamal and Rajini and to the present ace comedian Vadivelu, the dictum holds water.

From the 1990s to the present, Vadivelu has appealed to a wide audience with his body language, expressions and dialogue delivery all tinged with rustic charm. No wonder he has been the numero uno Tamil comedian, breaking new ground in comedy and edging out the popular comedian duo Goundamani and Senthil who called the shots in the 1980s.

But what generally happens to many popular actors is now happening to Vadivelu, as his latest flick ‘Naai Sekar Returns’ has failed to recapture the spirit and style of his old world charm that held together well till 2011. In a career that started with his uncredited role in En Thangai Kalyani (1988) and humble meandering through Rajkiran’s film En Rasavin Manasilae (1991), Vijayakanth-starrer Chinna Gounder (1992) and so on, he began tasting success from Kamal-starrer Thevar Magan (1992).

The popularity he scripted back in the day reached its zenith in the 2006 film Imsai Arasan 23-aam Pulikesi, in which played a dual lead role. However, spurred by the roaring success of his maiden attempt to carry a film entirely on his shoulders, he tried an encore in further films like Indira Lokathil Naa Alagappan (2008), Tenali Raman (2014) and Eli (2015). But their run unfortunately did not square with his overconfident spirit.

The popularity he scripted back in the day reached its zenith in the 2006 film Imsai Arasan 23-aam Pulikesi, in which played a dual lead role. However, spurred by the roaring success of his maiden attempt to carry a film entirely on his shoulders, he tried an encore in further films like Indira Lokathil Naa Alagappan (2008), Tenali Raman (2014) and Eli (2015). But their run unfortunately did not square with his overconfident spirit

The seeds of Vadivelu’s downfall were sown when he got into an unwarranted spat with actor Vijayakanth — one of his earlier supporters (they both share a hometown, Madurai) — during his campaign for the DMK in the 2011 Assembly elections. The Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK came back to power after a DMK term, and Vadivelu expressed political differences with fellow comedians such as Singamuthu who had also contributed to his excellent performance on the screen. Above all, it is his spat with director Shankar over the Pulikesi sequel that sent him into hibernation.

Now the 62-year-old, who has a career of 118 films spanning 34 years in Tamil filmdom, is pushing hard to put the setbacks behind him and come up with a hit that will earn him glory like in the past. The 2022 release Naai Sekar Returns was hyped as Vadivelu’s comeback, but it has dashed expectations.

Also Read: In Tamil cinema, body shaming makes for ‘great’ comedy

The original Naai Sekar in buffoonish costumes, tresses of hair plaited over the back of his neck, making grotesque gestures and uttering serious lines bordering on the ridiculous…that Naai Sekar crying aloud, “I am also a rowdy”, who brought the house down with LOL moments in the 2006 film Thalainagaram was back then naïve and innocent. That character struck a chord with the masses with his low-class airs and humour-laden mock-heroic lines. Whither gone that Naai Sekar? He is a far cry from the tech-savvy and digitally glossy but slightly aged and weary Naai Sekar projected now.

Vadivelu’s comic utterances gave him iconic status. His oft-repeated word ‘koiyalla’ (rough equivalent of ‘damn fool’) has become part of everyday lingo of a majority of Tamils

The ‘Kaipulla’ who called the bluff of the hooligans, saying, “Nobody has laid his hands on me,” and again saying, “That was the last month” when it was pointed out that he got thrashed just last month by the villain…that Kaipulla, rustic and innocent to the core, wearing the demeanour of a tough guy, had countless people cutting across class, religion and political leanings doubling up with laughter (Film: Winner in 2003).

Nesamony, the comic painting contractor in Friends (2001), has nearly two decades down the line became quite popular globally with social media memes revolving around him. The memes are such a hit that even non-Tamil audiences have come to know about the comedian through their Tamil counterparts.

Vadivelu’s comic utterances gave him iconic status. His oft-repeated word ‘koiyalla’ (rough equivalent of ‘damn fool’) has become part of everyday lingo of a majority of Tamils. A household word! His famous line in a film “If there is no Trisha, then Nayanthara” was borrowed for the title of another film. Similarly yet another of his lines ‘Naanum Rowdy Dhaan’ (I too am a rowdy) later became the title of a hit film.

There are numerous such lines of Vadivelu that have become popular memes. And on social media therefore, Vadivelu still reigns supreme. Nobody, at least on social media has a grouse or grievance,  against him.

Yet the ace comedian is at present struggling hard to get his act together in films.

Now the 62-year-old, who has a career of 118 films spanning 34 years in Tamil filmdom, is pushing hard to put the setbacks behind him and come up with a hit that will earn him glory like in the past. The 2022 release Naai Sekar Returns was hyped as Vadivelu’s comeback, but it has dashed expectations

The history of Tamil cinema has precedents for Vadivelu’s dire situation. In fact, superstar Rajinikanth seems to now be sailing in the same boat as MGR, when the past matinee idol found himself struggling. After Sivaji (2007) and Kabaali (2016), Rajini is yet to come up with a blockbuster suiting his stature — a blockbuster of the same calibre as Baasha (1995) that set off waves bordering on the political to the point of Rajini lending a strong voice that tilted the scales in favour of the DMK in 1996 elections. That was the zenith of Rajini’s popularity.

Unfortunately, Rajini tried to board the bus a quarter century later – the bus he very much allowed to zip past him in 1996. Age, ailments and his indecisiveness over entering politics and leaving his fans dangling seems to have lowered his stock. His professional rival Kamal, however, has proved he’s still very much around, with his latest Vikram. Yet, the famous and familiar Rajini-Kamal competitiveness seems to have lost its sting.

As for MGR, he too was confronted with the same situation Rajini and Vadivelu are in now. Back in the day, the last mega hit the deified matinee idol dished out was Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (1973). After that no film he acted in could recapture the magic of his fabulously glorious days. With a string of flops such as Pattikaattu Ponnaiya (1973), Uzhaikkum Karangal (1976) Oorukku Uzhaippavan (1976), Navarathinam (1977), Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandian (1978), MGR could feel his stark fate  in cinema staring him in the face.

Also Read: Vadivelu returns as Naisekar. Here’s a tribute

Half-a-century before that, M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar had to launch a do-or-die battle when the odds were heavily stacked against him. With his mesmeric and melodious voice singing high-pitch notes and casting a spell on Tamil Nadu of 1930s and 1940s, he was perched atop when he was caught on the wrong foot, arrested in the infamous journalist Lakshmikanthan murder case in 1944. His magnum opus Haridas, released at the time that he went to prison, was running for three Deepavali festivals in a row when he came out of prison. In the three years he was away from cinema, people’s tastes and preferences underwent a change. So, his comeback attempts such as Rajamukthi (1948), Amaravakil (1952), Shyamala (1952), Sivagami (1960 – posthumous) could hot bring him back the glory of his earlier films such as Sivakavi, Ashokkumar and Haridas.

Credited with a total of 13 films, MKT had lost his steam completely after his decade-old glory in filmdom. The Tamil film audience had by then broken free of the spell of songs and gave itself to the lure of fiery and revolutionary dialogue penned by faces of the Dravidian movement such as C N Annnadurai and M Karunanidhi. Besides, MKT had contracted diabetes and suffered from poor vision. Finally, he bade adieu to cinema and to the earth at a young age of 49.

History has several lessons for all. Somehow it seems that the more we learn them, the less enlightened we become!


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