As Jai Bhim finds itself in conversations around Oscar nominations, we take a look at the journey of K Manikandan, who essayed the role of Rajakannu in the film.
“Oru kadha sollata sir? (Shall I tell you a story, sir?)” asks Vedha, essayed by actor Vijay Sethupathi, every time he shares a snippet of his life in the 2017 neo-noir thriller Vikram Vedha.
The man behind this popular dialogue, K Manikandan, too, has many snippets from his life to share. For him, being an actor was ‘far-fetched’, he says, because rejection in the film industry was a constant.
“There are a lot of people who would put you down in the first meeting itself. I lost interest in acting because of the constant rejection and insults,” he said in an interview with The Hindu.
But his talent speaks for itself today, with his effortless performance in Se Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim (2021). The film — in which he portrays the role of Rajakannu, a member of the Irular community (a Dravidian ethnic group) — tells the story of a custodial killing based on a real-life incident that took place in 1993. Jai Bhim, which has been shortlisted for the Oscars this year, depicts the struggles of minority communities in the face of severe caste discrimination.
Gracefully donning many hats
Needless to say, Manikandan is a man of varied talents. While his name has been attached with several acclaimed movies, his journey began as a mimicry artist. The inspiration to pursue the craft, he says, was his mother.
“My mother is very talented. At every family gathering, she will perform mimicry, imitating family members and get uproarious laughs. She’ll naturally create an audience around her,” he told Film Companion.
At the age of eight, he knew he wanted to chase the same high. His tryst with mimicry began with imitations of his grandparents, and later, film comedians.
The 33-year-old was raised in a slum tenement on Greenways Road in Chennai. “Playing cricket, flying kites, all my happiness was here,” he told Film Companion. Being the first-generation graduate in his family, he set out to find employment after finishing his engineering degree. But his heart always remained with the world of cinema.
“A popular reality comedy show turned out to be the platform for me,” he told Deccan Chronicle. Unwilling to participate at first. Manikandan was pushed by his friends. Eventually, he was the show’s first runner up.
From hereon, he realised that his talent lay in his voice. He went on to become a radio jockey, and his introduction to films came as a dubbing artist. “I have dubbed for most of the actors in Tamil cinema,” he told The Hindu.
Over the years, he worked as an assistant director in over 20 movies. His directorial debut, the telefilm Narai Ezhudhum Suyasaritham (2015), was screened at several international film festivals. He was also a scriptwriter of the superhit Ajith starrer Vishwasam (2019).
In 2016, he played a small role in Nalan Kumarasamy’s Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum. In fact, it was this film that turned his fortunes. His dubbing job would offer him around Rs 200 a day, just enough to cover his basic expenses. Things changed, of course, when Kumaraswamy roped him in for the role.
Manikandan received his first notable role in Pa Ranjith’s political drama Kaala (2018). Later, he played the lead role in Halitha Shameem’s Sillu Karupatti (2019) and Aelay (2021). He also appeared in the critically acclaimed anthology film Paava Kadhaigal (2020) in a small but powerful role.
Manikandan sums up his journey in his own words — “When I see myself as an astral projection, I’m always amazed at my courage. Look at this guy, who has had the courage to go this far, despite having been broken so many times before.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)