Vivek: A comedy icon who promoted critical thinking and social change

Vivek never missed an opportunity to promote critical thinking, create awareness about social issues or plug the teaching of former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

For long, we have heard the phrase “life is too short.” But, I only grasped the true meaning and gravity of that truth on hearing about the demise of iconic comedy actor Vivek. He was 59.

Vivek suffered a cardiac arrest on Friday, following which he was rushed to a private hospital in Chennai. The SIMS hospital had said in a statement that Vivek arrived in an unconscious state and he was later resuscitated in the emergency room. The hospital added that he underwent an “emergency coronary angiogram followed by angioplasty.” His condition, however, did not improve. In the wee hours of Saturday, Vivek breathed his last.

To say Vivek’s untimely demise is shocking is an understatement. Just a couple of days ago, the actor made headlines for creating awareness about the Covid-19 vaccination. On Thursday, in a well-publicised event, Vivek took his first jab of Covaxin at a government hospital in Chennai to dispel safety fears about the vaccination. It was not a publicity stunt to stay in the news. It was one of Vivek’s things. Something he was known for doing his entire life.

Vivek made his acting debut with legendary filmmaker K Balachander’s Manathil Urudhi Vendum (1987). But, it was with his second film, Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal, that he made his mark in the Tamil film industry. He played the role of a well-meaning, good-natured and loyal assistant to a popular singer. And he takes it upon himself to salvage the marriage of his boss. In the process, he also gives a hard time to his boss’ cunning mother-in-law, played by Kanchanamala. He hides behind the cloak of anonymity of the telephone and trolls the evil mother-in-law by mimicking the voices of popular Tamil movie stars. And the punchline that made him a household name with the Tamil audience was: “innaki setha nalaiku paal.” The dialogue comically summarizes the fragility and uncertainty of human existence. The underlying message of this joke is: if you die today, you become history tomorrow. People around you will pay their respects and move on. The dialogue reminds us that “life is too short.”

Yes, the world will move on from Vivek’s death. But, it is also true, he will have a special place in the history of Indian cinema. He makes for an important part of the childhood memory of those who grew up in the 1990s. He did not just tickle our funny bone. But, he used his humour to make us think. And he never missed an opportunity to promote critical thinking, create awareness about social issues or plug the teaching of former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. And his brand of comedy earned him the title Junior Kalaivanar. Like iconic comedy star N. S. Krishnan, popularly known as Kalaivanar, his humour was also clean, ironic, socially relevant and yes, made us laugh our guts out and think all at once. From corruption to social inequality, Vivek discussed all the pressing issues of our society through his humour. He was a comic with a mission. And the mission was to educate and push his audience to pick facts over superstition.

Vivek did not just preach. A huge fan of former President APJ Abdul Kalam, he launched an environmental initiative called Green Kalam. The campaign highlighted the threat of global warming and the need to increase the green cover across our country.

Vivek’s departure has left a huge void in our cultural and social discourse.

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