How Vikram transforms into the characters that he plays

14 January 2015

After a settlement was reached on the stay of its release, the Tamil film I, directed by Shankar and starring Vikram, releases today. Vikram plays two characters in the film, a body-builder named Lingesan, who idolizes Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a disfigured hunchback named Koonan. In our December 2013 issue, Baradwaj Rangan profiled the Tamil superstar in ‘Man of Steel,’ and in this extract from that article, Vikram tells Rangan about the work he puts into the characters he plays.

The first time I met Vikram, at his home near Elliot’s Beach in Chennai, on a very hot evening in early May, he was wolfing down dinner—steamed vegetables in a shallow plastic container—using a pair of chopsticks.

He appeared surprisingly small—but then heroes who usually stare out of 70-mm screens can seem so when you see them in person. The shaved head and the alarming weight loss he’d recently undergone added to the impression. This is one of his looks for the hotly anticipated mega-production, Ai [now I], from Tamil cinema's biggest blockbuster director Shankar. Shailaja told me later, "These past ten months, Vikram has been eating like a hermit."

This isn’t the first time. To appear emaciated in the latter portions of his first hit, Sethu, which were set in a mental asylum, Vikram lived only on fruit juice for six months, and once he lost the desired weight (16 kilograms), he maintained the look by subsisting on a scanty diet: an egg white, one glass of beetroot or carrot juice and a single dry chapatti through the day. The film is about a college student who falls for a girl who does not reciprocate his feelings at first—and by the time she does, he’s lost his mind. It was shot mostly in sequence—the first scene of the screenplay filmed first, the last scene last—so that a healthy-looking Vikram could be shown slowly deteriorating. Towards the end of the shoot, the first-time director, Bala, had just one instruction for his leading man: “Have just enough strength to stand up.”

While preparing to play a blind singer in Kasi, Vikram practised drawing his eyeballs up into their sockets so that only the whites could be seen. He started with one minute, then two, then five, and then he practised drawing his eyeballs up after dousing his eyes with glycerin, for the scenes where he had to cry. Once shooting started, he would roll his eyeballs up through the whole day on the set. He had to do eye exercises at the end of every day's shoot so that he wouldn’t end up with a squint. He said, “My eyesight changed because of Kasi. He had perfect vision earlier, but now wears glasses to drive, watch movies and work on his laptop.

Baradwaj Rangan  is a National Award-winning Film Critic and Deputy Editor with The Hindu. His book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, was published by Penguin in 2012.