The Vikram Prabhu Interview is a Silverscreen exclusive
Vikram Prabhu likes to call himself a greedy actor, and is someone who thinks degrees and surnames don’t matter in the long run.
Vikram Prabhu possesses a boyish charm, but underneath that exterior is a quietly confident man determined to make it on his own. He makes light of his surname, yet is aware that he has to live up to the legacy of two stalwarts in his family. He picks his movies carefully, and after the unusual Kumki and Ivan Veramathiri, Vikram will be seen in an action thriller next – Arima Nambi. It is directed by debutant Anand Shankar; and the actor reveals that “they hit it off instantly. We had the same wavelength and his ideas are fresh and novel. It’s a fast-paced thriller with a great script. It has shaped very well thanks to a solid technical team that’s supporting it.”
Being on sets with a novice director isn’t any different, Vikram says. Of course, they “gelled well”, but he has found the same creative freedom while working with a seasoned director as well. “I keep asking, questioning…and that goes for everyone I have worked with. Some suggestions would be implemented, some won’t. It is ultimately what the director wants, though. I understand my character and give my own spin to it,” he explains. [quote align=’right’] Vikram thinks it is important to believe in the films he does, and won’t sign on to mindless scripts just to pad his numbers. [/quote]
For Vikram Prabhu, becoming an actor was simply a “matter of time”. But – “I wanted to learn things the hard way, without any surnames backing me up,” he shrugs. An Arts and Theatre course at the San Diego University was followed with a short stint in Direction at the New York Film Academy. But doesn’t Wikipedia say something about an MBA? “See, anybody can write anything on Wikipedia. Now, I’m telling you what I actually did,” he chuckles, adding that he received some hands-on training as well, during the course. “I learnt direction, acting, stage carpentry, music and screenplay writing. Theatre is where everything is born, I learnt the basics from there.”
He also grew up while in America. Sharing a room, living on pocket-money, and tossing a few recipes together to fend for himself. But once Vikram got back to India, he was struck by the sudden realisation – “that things aren’t the same here, and that we still have a long way to go.”
[quote align=’left’]It is ultimately what the director wants, though. I understand my character and give my own spin to it,[/quote]Director Vishnuvardhan was his first boss; and Vikram was his Assistant Director. “I knew him from before and besides, I liked the way he dealt with story and script. You see less drama, clear visuals and detailing in his films,” he explains. While acting simmered at the back of his mind, he also loved the experience of working behind the camera. “For some reason, people felt that being an AD was not the route to take up acting – whenever they used to tell me, I would simply nod my head,” he laughs.
But he was quite clear about something – “I didn’t want to have a typical star-son launch with major song, dance and mind-blowing action scenes. I wanted a different debut. I wanted to be part of something I believed in and enjoyed watching,” he declares. Vikram then spotted a newspaper article. Prabhu Solomon was looking out for an elephant mahout to play the lead role in his new film. “I went and met him the next day,” he recalls. “I remember Prabhu sir staring at me for 5 minutes and I think those were the longest 5 minutes of my life. He narrated the script to me and asked me to make a portfolio; along with suggestions to grow a beard.” There was no promise of a role yet. But the same evening, he got to hear the news – from his father. The director had called him up to ask permission; to cast Vikram as the hero in Kumki . That’s when my father knew I wanted to become an actor, he grins.
Kumki was not an easy debut for someone who’d grown up in the US. “By that time, I had started thinking in English; and was alienated from Tamil for a while,” he says, before adding “See, it is not that I don’t speak Tamil, it’s just that I have a problem with diction. I love Tamil, we speak Tamil at home and besides, everybody knows that my grandfather took the language to another level. And in Kumki, I had to speak through my nose.” But the movie, to its credit, brought out the actor in him – “That’s when I realised one should be willing to go to any extent to get that perfect shot, it is fun. I love trying out different looks for I think it is important not to repeat any.” He did turn into a seasoned mahout at the end of the shooting, he recalls – “To get it right, I observed a mahout, his mannerisms, how he walked and talked. I had to reach that comfort level with the elephant – after a while, he could recognise my voice and scent. I spent 53 days with the elephant. He would sometimes pull my hand, push against my legs, I was always aware of it.”
If Kumki had bordered on difficult, his second movie, Ivan Veramathiri, was nothing short of tough. Though his role was appreciated, Vikram faced his first share of brickbats – about his dancing. But then, he was dancing with an injured foot, he reveals – “I felt gratified when Vijay called me up and told me that he found it graceful. Anyway, lesson learnt – a hurt actor is a handicap to any film set.”
[quote align=’left’]Unless you try to bring out the best in you, no famous degree will come to your aid. Come on, my grandfather didn’t have any degree[/quote]It is also important to be “in the moment” while playing a character on-screen,” he says. But Kumki demanded something more and he recalls being stressed while filming the climax. “I was acting all by myself, there were no elephants or supporting characters. I was running around like a mad man. For seven days, I had to be in the same mood. I remember going all quiet. I even cried. It was difficult to shrug it off.” A professional degree in theatre comes with you only to a certain extent; it is of little, or no help in the “real world”, he says. “Unless you try to bring out the best in you, no famous degree will come to your aid. Come on, my grandfather didn’t have any degree. I wanted to have some hands-on training and that is why I became an AD. You learn a lot.” And yes, the journey is as much a struggle for a star-son as it is for a rank outsider. “It is only a myth and I speak for myself when I say that we have a lot to answer for. It is no cake walk to be a star-son. There is nothing to fall back on; just talent. No matter how big your surname is,” he declares.
Vikram admits it took him a long time to understand the enormity of his grandfather’s popularity. “I value him more than before for the kind of person he was. Also my dad for that matter. If today’s generation could do even a quarter of what they did, it would be a major achievement,” he says. He can still fondly recall the two days of the year – October 1 (Sivaji Ganesan’s birthday) and May 1 (his grandparents’ wedding anniversary) – when their house would be open to the public and they have elaborate lunches for the hordes of fans who come to meet his grandfather. [quote align=’right’]“For some reason, people felt that being an AD was not the route to take up acting – whenever they used to tell me, I would simply nod my head[/quote]
His memories of his father though, are limited to those many visits to his film sets in Kodaikanal, Ooty and Kulu Manali; and “feeling shy” in front of his heroines. It didn’t take him much time to realise that there is more fun in watching movies instead. Vikram says his dad is a man of few words who bawled when he watched the climax of his first film. His father’s comedy movies are what he likes the best – Chinna Mappillai and Kanni Raasi being favourites, along with popular ones like Chinna Thambi and Agni Natchathiram. These days, Vikram admits, he hardly gets any time to himself and when he takes a break, it is “spent contently with his family over a biryani.” He also occasionally loves to barbeque with his friends, travel, and read some thrillers.
Otherwise, Vikram, who calls himself a “greedy actor” thinks it is important to believe in the films he does, and won’t sign on to mindless scripts just to pad his numbers. If that’s being greedy, then greed is no vice.
His upcoming flick, Arima Nambi, directed by Anand Shankar, is scheduled for release on June 13.
(This article has been edited after it was published.)