What are we supposed to feel when you wake up to the news of an actor like Vivekh passing away? He was just 59 and even on Thursday he reminded all of us to get a vaccine shot taken at the earliest. In what has become a habit now, you rush to his Twitter handle to see if he’s tweeted a new picture with a caption that reads something along the lines of, “it is all just a rumour. Don’t believe it.”
But, he has not. Instead, we scroll down to see a short clip of him throwing up a bottle of water to the soundtrack of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, as he stands in front of a snow-capped mountain. “Global warming will deplete snow mountains and drinking water may become a rarity.” This nine-second clip captures so much of Vivekh’s personality. His pitch is goofy, even silly to an extent. But when it comes to Vivekh, the message is always in the bottle.
But what exactly are you supposed to feel at this point? What has the last year been if not a crash course in Zen-level numbness. And when it comes to people like Vivekh and SPB, why isn’t that training working?
When people of a certain stature pass away, especially from the movies, it can send most of us into a spiral of memories, with their work reminding us of phases in our lives. Of course, there’s a lot of respect and reverence in these memories, but there’s also a distance because their incredible talent always kept them far away from our reach.
But that’s not the case with Vivekh. It’s so much more personal with him. He might be older than most of us but the pain is that of a best friend suddenly disappearing. That’s probably how he’d like to be remembered as well. When he spoke to you, it never came from a place of authority or with a patronising tone. It was a good friend telling you something; not because he knows better. It didn’t feel like advice because he actually, genuinely cares.
I’ve interacted with him a couple of times but this is my most precious memory: As I was waiting on my bike at the signal at Parsn’s Complex in Nungambakkam high road, he drove up right next to me in his car (a BMW, I think). You wave instinctively, even before your brain registers that he’s a massive star. Such interactions should have ended with him waving back and driving away. But it’s different with him. He smiles, waves back and then rolls down the window to ask, “Helmet enge?, (where is your helmet).” When I said I forgot, he moved his head back and retreated to a half shrug as though he’s genuinely disappointed in me. He doesn’t know me! He’s not doing this for the camera nor does he have to actually care about me or my head. But when he tells you to wear a helmet, you feel like listening. He’s the kind of friend your parents would want you to spend even more time with. Given a second chance, sir, we’d love to be your Cell Murugan for life.
And that’s why he was always more than just the sidekick. Writers could do even more with Vivekh as the best friend. He wasn’t just there to merely provide a series of gags and for the hero to insult him. He did those too, but he would also get a scene later on, usually in the second half, that proved that he would break his FD to help us with an issue. He could be the drinking buddy like Santhanam on most days, but on a bad day, he would also be there like a Kalaiyarasan, sorting you out.
In his debut in K. Balachander’s Manathil Uruthi Vendum, he played Vivek but you can also see that he was playing himself. In his first proper scene, he’s writing an imposition as a punishment with his aged father supervising him. Vivek quips that his father’s an ‘honorary jailer’, a term that has since become everyday usage for many. He would later be defined by his intelligent and unexpected slant to almost every mundane situation. His comedy tracks were shaped by his social commentary in films Thirunelveli (2000) in which he has a hilarious running gag mocking ridiculous superstitions.
In Kadhal Sadugudu, he parodies outworn modes of thinking about sexual assault and in Saamy we get a takedown of superstitious caste practices. Watching those scenes today, you might feel that they’re not as funny as those with just the comedy. But that was Vivek and it made him a comedian that had more to offer than jokes alone. And he proved that he cared not by joining a political party. He didn’t have to because he could still go ahead and plant a billion trees in Tamil Nadu under the ‘Green Kalam’ movement.
It’s impossible to recall all the funny scenes without your brain getting seized in joy (and grief), but here’s a sampler that’s gotten all of us through several bad days. Like the scene in Thirumalai where he rides Vijay through a ridiculous number of diversions until they reach Tirupati or that scene in Chellamay where he shops for a bra and asks if there’s an aadi thallubadi on it, all the incredible scenes in Lovely where he’s desperate to emigrate to the US or the scene where he believes that Chandrababu Naidu replaced laddus with jilebis at Tirupati or the scenes in Run with his father and when he asks a woman “graduate bodyngrathunaala thechi correct panriya?”, or the scenes in Uthamaputhiran, or the scenes in…
The brain aches as these scenes keep flooding back. You may ask a million Tamilians if they remember the ending of most of these films and they’d be clueless. But if you ask them about Vivekh’s scenes in them and they’re already pulling up their collar to act out the scene. It’s going to be impossible to fill the void he leaves behind. In a sense, you wish you had a Mangalam sir or a Chari to talk this through with. So, so many scenes are never going to be the same after today, but you know that he’d want us to remember him for the laughs, with our promise to him being that we laugh even harder the next time. For now, all that’s remaining is the pain and the chaos. I wish I could express our collective feeling. Vivekh sir, what is this, “confusion of the constitution of institution of the loose motion?”