Vimal is at his diplomatic best when we meet him for an interview. The actor is busy dubbing for Anjala
in the city, and is nursing a sore throat after hours in the recording studio. He offers a brisk vanakkam
and indicates that he’s ready to begin. Traces of a childhood spent in Manapparai linger in his tone.
Though it’s been years since Vimal moved to Chennai, he still harbours fond memories of the place he grew up in. “People think I moved here only after Pasanga. I’ve been in Chennai since my sixth standard. I’m a Kodambakkam boy through and through.”
He seems pleased about it.
Vimal’s sole ambition was to get into the movies. Naturally, his education suffered because of it. “I found it a trial to be studying at home when I could be watching films and dreaming about which character I’d do. After finishing my 12th standard though, I’d had enough.”His father, a contractor, was supportive, but also wary of his son’s ambitions. “He pointed out that we were a normal family with no connections to anybody in the industry. He warned me of the pitfalls that lined the path to success.”
Bhaskar, the secretary to lyricist Vairamuthu was Vimal’s only hope. He was revered in the actor’s small community in Kodambakkam. “He was a big shot to us. We used to pester him for anecdotes about stars back then and he would always oblige.”
The secretary was equally obliging when Vimal met him to gain a foothold in the industry. “He made me meet a lot of people and even got me a few minutes with SJ Suryah sir.” Nothing concrete took shape from these meetings, but the actor did figure out his next course of action.
Later, Koothu-p-pattarai beckoned Vimal, and he spent many pleasurable years learning the basics of theatre from Na Muthuswamy and several other renowned artistes. The experience is something he terms ‘life-defining’. “I was very young when I joined their troupe. I had nothing in terms of experience and only limited knowledge. My years of study with the group shaped my life and my ideals with respect to acting,” he explains.
During the last few years at Koothu-p-pattarai, Vimal got acquainted with director Dharani, who was a regular at the troupe’s space in Virugambakkam. “I went over to him casually and asked for a chance to assist him in his next film. He didn’t have a position open, but he did cast me in his next project.”
The role offered to Vimal was small. “Blink and you’ll miss it kind of a role”, as Vimal says. But it didn’t matter at all. “Mostly because the movie was Ghilli. Also because it gave me the opportunity to see how movies were made. It was an eye-opener.”
Though Vimal finished shooting for his portions early on, he chose to stay till the end. “I was the unofficial assistant director for Ghilli and Kuruvi. I had small roles in both movies and worked hard to understand the behind the scenes stuff as well.”
Despite a steady stream of small roles, luck did not favour Vimal. Quitting wasn’t a solution, either. “Those days, I thought putting myself out there meant taking on as many small roles as possible. I wasted a lot of time on it when I could have been knocking at people’s doors and auditioning for major roles.”
Vimal was prepared to bide his time and wait for the right launch pad, though. And in a few months’ time, he got what he wanted. From an unlikely source. Actor Vijay Sethupathi, who was also part of Koothu-p-pattarai at the time, informed Vimal about the casting call for an upcoming children’s film. “I wasn’t that keen on going there at first. I didn’t know what kind of a role I’d have in the project and I wasn’t willing to settle for a small role yet again.”
But Vijay Sethupathi was having none of that. Convinced that Vimal was perfect for the role, he pushed him to go to the auditions. “When I finally did, Pandiraj sir did not like the way I looked. I was clean shaven at that time because I was playing a female role in a play.”
The film’s cinematographer Prem Kumar wasn’t quick to dismiss Vimal though. “He told me that he’d seen me somewhere recently. I showed him the advertisement I had done for a chips brand. It was fairly popular that time as it was played regularly during the World Cup matches.” That advertisement earned him another shot at an audition. A few weeks later, Vimal walked in with a moustache, beard and a full head of hair, and walked out with the lead role in Pasanga, and a contract.
The success of Pasanga brought him many offers. Vimal observes that most of these films were rural comedies. “Probably because of my thick accent,” he jokes. The few attempts that he made to break the mould, and act in stylish urban films turned disastrous. “I realised that it was just not my kind of film. Aasaikku nadichachu… so I stopped asking for the city boy kind of roles and started playing to my strengths instead.”
Signing Maappillai Singham was motivated by this decision, he informs us. “In the few years in the industry, I’ve been a part of a variety of movies. Some films’ stories revolved around the hero, some had a hero and no story. Of course, the errors were partly my fault as well. But all that is going to change now.”
Vimal has learnt many lessons from the six years in the industry, chief among them being the ability to choose scripts with a discerning eye. “I admit that some of my earlier movie choices were done without a moment of thought. If I like the story, I’d immediately sign on for it. Now I’ve learnt to be more cautious.”
He also plans to put his Koothu-p-pattarai experience to full use. “The audience has seen only one side of Vimal the actor. The movies I’ve signed so far give me hope that from now on, people will begin to see me in a different light.”
For now, the actor is looking forward to spending some quality time with his son and also, getting into shape. “I’m under strict orders to bulk up for my next role. So I’ll have to set aside my books to go work out for a while,” he sighs. “Karu Palaniappan gave me those books, you know. Kanavu Thozhirchalai by Sujatha is the first one I finished, and it had such a deep impact on me. I am trying to get over it…but it hasn’t happened yet.
Post Maappillai Singham, Vimal will begin work on an untitled film to be produced by SR Prabhu. Plans are also on to begin movies with Pandiraj and Sarkunam by the end of this year.
The Actor Vimal interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.