Most actors who don’t have a film background have one thing in common – a passion for films. A drive that keeps them motivated through the struggle. Not so with Vishnu Vishal, who made a promising debut with Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu in 2009. Vishnu didn’t watch films, didn’t like films. In fact, he thought film personalities were fake. He did have a passion, but it was for cricket. But when an injury confined him to bed, films became his best companions. He caught up on every film he had missed. Even that wasn’t enough to change his perspective on films. When he returned to cricket though, he realised that thanks to the injury, he would never perform well again. In fact, when he plays the CCL tournament these days, it still bothers him. It was at that time that Vishal’s uncle, an ardent movie buff, encouraged him to try his hand at films.
“I used to be a very reserved person, the type who locks himself in his room when are home. So you can imagine how hesitant I was when my uncle came up with this idea. I still remember, I cried to my father and uncle and begged them not to force me. But, slowly I grew interested in it, and then took it up seriously. Auditions led to many rejections. Everyone had a different reason, from ‘You look immature’ to ‘Your eyes are too small’ to ‘How much can you invest?’ After 6 long years, I had finally given up. That’s when Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu happened.”
To be completely focused on a passion isn’t easy. But Vishnu, having been forced into the field, could draw on his father for motivation.
“No matter what I choose to do, my father will support. He came to watch every match I played. When I had to meet producers, he waited with me for hours. He has seen me through my best and worst times. I can never forget this one incident: It was a time when I had given up hope in films. I had stopped watching cricket once I quit playing. But, one day, a friend forcibly dragged me to an India vs West Indies match at Chepauk. The moment I entered the gallery, Robin Uthappa, who had been my junior, hit the ball for a huge sixer. The crowd was on its feet, cheering. My heart sank. After I sat down, the crowd began cheering again, although nothing much was happening in the match. I turned back to see Rajinikanth and his family entering. That whole situation seemed metaphorical to me. There was cricket on one end and cinema on the other, and here I was in the middle of it, not able to reach either end. I walked out of the match, went home, and cried to my father. It infuriated me that no matter how much work I put in, I couldn’t succeed in either cricket or cinema. Even at that low point, my father encouraged me, telling me that I would definitely do well in my job. That’s the kind of belief he had in me. Whatever I am today is because of him. I don’t take any credit for it.”
Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu was a success, but Vishnu was a newcomer, and had no one to advise him on his choice of films. Straightaway, he picked films he may not be too happy with today. His next two films, Bale Pandiya and Dhrohi, received a negative response. He thought his career was over. Because, in cinema, there are no third chances.
“Those two films were survival choices. My first film became a big hit and the next day, films had become my profession. I wanted to make sure that I stayed in the industry. That’s why I made those choices. Thankfully, I later chose a script, Kullanari Kootam, which I genuinely liked. It was well received. From that day onwards, I decided that I would always do scripts that I personally like. Between Kullanari Kootam and my next film, I actually rejected 11 scripts. If I had told this to someone then, they would have really wondered whether I was in any position to reject 11 offers. But that’s how Neerparavai, Mundasupatti, Jeeva, Indru Nettru Naalai, and now Velainnu Vandhutta Vellaikaaran have happened.”
Arguably, Neerparavai has been Vishnu’s best performance till date. His portrayal of Arulappasamy, a chronic alcoholic who reforms his life after falling in love was well received. But sadly, this Seenu Ramasamy directorial never really got its due. Something that still bothers Vishnu.
The failure of that film changed me as a person. More than getting my due, the fact that the film’s intentions weren’t recognised hurt me. We had worked so hard for that film. We were always shooting in the hot sun by the sea. There were so many days when my skin would literally peel off my face. When collections were low, I was sullen. I didn’t know what more I could have done as an actor. At that point, I realised that the kind of movies people like are changing. With the Pizza, Soodhu Kavvum, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom releases, I realised that quirky films are the films that click. And then Mundasupatti came my way.
Vishnu’s next release is Velainnu Vandhutta Vellaikaaran, which, going by its promotional content, seems to be a pure commercial entertainer, with a strong dose of comedy. It’s a surprise for those who have followed Vishnu’s career in cinema, to see him in a potentially over-the-top avatar.
“I love watching commercial films. It’s a high to watch actors who are larger than life. But only certain actors can pull it off. To be honest, I’ve also wanted to be one of them. But my image is that of a subtle actor, and I felt that if I suddenly tried to be that kind of a hero, I would lose out. A friend once told me to pick films that have an interesting concept. I was told that only films like INN would work for me. I had to ask myself, ‘Am I only capable of that?’ I want directors to consider me even when they think of fun, commercial movies, and not just for the serious and subtle roles. VVV is my first step towards it.”
At the press meet of the film, Vishnu admitted that he wasn’t comfortable playing a loud and overtly expressive character. That he had been apprehensive about ‘overacting’ during the first two days of the shoot. But when he watched the footage, he felt he had nailed it.
“After those two days, I had stylists fly in from Mumbai to style me for the film. For the first time, I felt confident about my on-screen look. Let me be clear: this fancy, flashy avatar is not overdone. I do not have over-the-top stunts or punch dialogues. The real hero of the story is comedy, and my character, Murugan, is just a very happy person.”
“I always read the comments to any video or article about me. The negative comments always catch my fancy. One comments to the trailer said, ‘Going by the trailer, I don’t think highly of this film. But since Vishnu is there in it, I may watch it.’ It puts some pressure on me, and my film choices. But a calculated risk is necessary. Whoever has seen the film thus far has loved it. I even had a distributor tell me to keep making such films. The aim of this film is to please the masses and make them laugh.”
The VVV team is unabashed about the film’s motive. They’ve repeatedly admitted that the focus isn’t logic, but entertainment. In a promotional video done in collaboration with PutChutney, they said that VVV has all the necessary elements of a commercial film – lack of logic, colourful costumes, dance numbers, and comedians like Soori, Robo Shankar, and Motta Rajendran. Here, Vishnu takes a lighthearted dig at himself and his past films.
“A few years down the line, when people think of me, I want them to think of me as an actor who does good movies; movies they’d want to pick up and watch at home on TV. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be a bigger star. But being a big star, according to me, is not about turning a bus or a train upside down in the films. For me, it means being able to do a mix of many genres, but also being commercially viable and saleable to my producer. That’s what I want. Out of 20 films I do, people must say ‘Adhula 18 padam paakalam pa‘.”