I once had a conversation with director Vasanth on the actors in his films. I told him that some of the performances in his films – and the performers who enacted the roles – had gotten much more visibility and encomiums than he did. A case in point would be Prakash Raj in Aasai. In response, he smiled and said that Sachin Tendulkar runs as hard when he is the non-striker as he does when he is on strike. And that you need to work hard as a team to ensure success overall. While the influence and impact of directors on performances are sometimes hard to gauge, what I find to be less difficult to assess is the impact of a supporting part. I will hasten to add that this is not just about talented character actors. This article is also meant to shed spotlight on some lead actors who have also aced the part of a foil in some truly memorable sequences. Here are a half-a-dozen sequences (in reverse-chronological order) where I thought that while one actor shone brightly, the other actor playing a supporting part – at least in the context of this scene – enhanced the impact of a sequence gracefully, unobtrusively.
Vijay Sethupathi in ’96 (2018)
In ‘96, there are several sequences where Trisha calls the shots. The character of Jaanu is that of a woman who knows that she can take privileges with her childhood love interest Ram, played by Vijay Sethupathi. As a result, Sethupathi’s performance takes on a bit of a willingly submissive shade in many of his scenes with Jaanu. There are two sequences where the apparent focus is more on Trisha. The first one is the scene outside the salon where Trisha calls him an “aambaLa naatukatta.” The way he blushes – if you notice carefully, he is actually out of focus here – at the compliment is lovely. Even more powerful is the forlorn face he sports once Trisha has narrated a version of the story that both wish had been true. Again, Trisha’s scene really but the way Sethupathi’s reactions enhance Trisha’s performance is as ineffable as it is undeniable.
Click on 'Play' to get to VJS' best moments in the two scenes
Ramesh Kanna in Pammal K Sammandham (2002)
This list would be incomplete without the mention of a comedian. It was nigh impossible to zero in on just one. There are many strong contenders, such as Manivannan and Gemini Ganesan in Avvai Shanmugi, Nagesh in MMKR, Manorama in Aboorva… and so on. But I chose Ramesh Kanna because I feel that he has rarely been given his due. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he came into his own as a comedian, acting in significant parts, exhibiting pitch-perfect comic timing in movies like Thenali and Nee varuvaay ena…He outdoes himself in PKS where he works very effectively with his co-actors. He is especially hilarious in the scene where he cracks the hilarious Madras Eye joke. Ditto for the exasperated, deadpan way that he mocks an inept actor. “Aram seiyya virumbu” will never be recollected in an unfunny manner anymore!
Vatsala Rajagopal in Rhythm (2000)
Dear familiar readers - I just saw you roll your eyes. Yes, no list is complete without Rhythm. Guilty as charged. :)
Arjun’s mother in Rhythm not only speaks the most famous line of the movie but also has hands-down the most tender moment in the film. As marvelous as she is in the “romba nalla paiyyan pa nee” scene, she is outstanding in the scene in the temple where he urges Arjun to remarry. Watch her as she says, “ivaruku eppavume veLaiyaatu” following an amusing remark from Nagesh - it is utterly lifelike. The moment that drips with tenderness is the one where she holds Arjun’s face and says, “engaLukaaga kalyanam pannika koodaatha?” The easy chemistry she shares with veteran Nagesh is a joy to behold. Nagesh repeatedly mentions the fact that they have been married 45 years. It is a testament to their ability as actors that they give us that sense that they are family.
Kamal Haasan in Thevar Magan (1992)
Kamal Haasan wrote and acted in Thevar Magan. It is one of his strongest works as a writer. But what makes this movie the classic it is, is that every actor from Sivaji Ganesan to Vadivelu has at least one sequence where they completely take control of the scene. It is hard to look away, as they completely inhabit their characters and bring to life the razor-sharp lines written by Kamal. Kamal, the actor, turns in a great performance, yes. But he is equally secure to take the backseat in service of the story. Be it the panchayat scene that belongs to Sivaji and Nasser, the photo frame scene that is owned by Gowthami or even the hospital sequence where Vadivelu turns in a masterful performance, Kamal generously lets his fellow actors bring their roles to life, while enhancing the scenes in his own little way. Another instance is the way he moves behind the pillar in the memorable verbal volley with his father in the legendary "vethai naan poattadhu" scene. Respect and dissent have never co-existed this impactfully.
I couldn't find a good clip from youtube. But watch this little vignette from Poatri Paadadi... for an example of how naturally Kamal interacts with Sivaji. You can sense the former's innate admiration for the latter:
Delhi Ganesh in Nayagan (1987)
One of Mani Ratnam’s nuanced observations of the recognition or lack thereof, of effort that gets puts into filmmaking was, “I don’t mind if viewers don’t notice it as long as they sense it.” (I am pretty sure I paraphrased it quite accurately.) Mani Ratnam’s films are hit or miss when it comes to impactful supporting performances. While we have some brilliant supporting characters – both in terms of characterization and acting – such as Jaishankar in Thalapathi and Jayasudha in Alai Payuthey, we also have wasted performers such as Vivekh in Alai Payuthey and Delhi Ganesh in Iruvar. Ganesh might have had an insignificant and forgotten part as an RMV-like persona in Iruvar. But his performance in Nayagan is one for the ages. He is always on the sidelines (except for maybe the hospital scene where he is injured) yet is never invisible. Watch his performance in the famous NizhalgaL Ravi-death scene. The way he requests Kamal to not see the charred body and especially the manner in which his voice quivers as he says, “Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku Naaykare…” is enormously moving. He has, after all, seen Ravi since he was a kid. So, the use of “kozhandhai” makes complete sense."Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku"
Rajnikanth in Johnny (1980)
Rajnikanth, in the early stages of his career, made it a habit of stealing scenes with his effortlessly magnetic on-screen persona. In movies like 16 vayathinile… and Moondru Mudichu, he had outperformed his co-stars by a distance in his scenes thanks to the shaping of his characters as well as his arresting performances. As he came into his own as a star, he came across as an increasingly secure actor, one who seemed to know how to cede the spotlight to his fellow stars in service of a scene or the story arc. He has extended this respect and courtesy to co-stars, character actors (Vadivukarasi in Arunachalam), villains (Raghuvaran, in many a film) and comedians (Coundamani in Mannan). The crown jewel, to me, will be his performance in the proposal scene in Johnny. It is Sridevi’s scene from start to finish. But Rajni is beautifully expressive in this scene. Right from the moment where he realizes that this could be an uncomfortable conversation to when he says, “pada padaa-nu pesitengaLe” he is quietly effective, even as his co-star walks away with the honors. Yes, Sridevi nails this scene but she, as with the other actors I mentioned earlier, was handed the hammer by her helpful co-star!