RIP Vivekh: An important humourist departs

We never worry about the mortality of seemingly omnipresent artistes like Vivekh. We don’t consider the possibility that some day, they may not be around to invoke laughter or incite thought—in Vivekh’s case, it ought to be ‘invoke laughter and incite thought’. For the last three decades or so of Tamil cinema, Vivekh has been a ubiquitous presence. He has enlivened our films with his socially conscious comedy, and weaponised his humour against public issues like corruption, poor governance, casteism, superstition… Let’s remember that he began doing this at a time when the word ‘woke’ had not yet been ascribed with the meaning of social alertness.

Vivekh has also been a charismatic presence as an actor, bringing to his serious characters—like in Boys, SivajiAlaipayuthey…—a rare vulnerability that even some top actors fail to register. Last year’s Dharala Prabhu, among Vivekh’s last films, was a fitting example of his impressive range as an actor, and his ability to play a good man so well that you would rather that the hero falls in harm’s way, not him. He was whatever cinema needed him to be: the track comedian who would be a necessary distraction from the serious hero, the well-meaning friend quipping witticisms, the selfless guide, or occasionally, even a protagonist. This is why as Tamil cinema evolved, and many actors and comedians got left behind, Vivekh continued to be relevant. As a new era of stars got ushered in—and then, another—who should stand along them, taunting and supporting in equal measure, but the enduring Vivekh?

The actor will be remembered as a man with the laugh of a child, as a comedian who inspired us to laugh so. In the self-serving world of cinema, his work aimed at changing the world for the better. And quite fascinatingly, when films seemed to take themselves too seriously, he was there, a force of balance, to lighten up things. This was a humourist who desired positive change but never at the expense of mirth. He would plant trees, play the keyboard, speak about social responsibility, but also post slow-mo videos of ‘style’ in which he took pride in the smaller joys of life, like flipping a water bottle and seeing it land straight. Following news of his demise, social media and WhatsApp groups have been flooded with samples of his work, and laughter emojis are the order of the day. I dare say that Vivekh, whose WhatsApp status, for the longest time, read, “Don’t worry, be happy”, would be mighty pleased.

His death, like SP Balasubrahmanyam’s last year, reminds us that even the immortal among us, the artistes, leave this world. Must one even be surprised that in just his second film, K Balachander’s Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal (1989), Vivekh, all scrawny and bespectacled, joked about the pitfalls of taking life too seriously and summarised the transience of life thus: “Innikku sethaa, nalaikku paal.” This actor often channelled Rajinikanth in dialogue delivery, Sivaji Ganesan in exaggerated modulation, NS Krishnan in social awareness… but the all-round good intent and wisdom in his work… that was all Vivekh.

This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.

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