‘Ajith sir makes others feel important on sets,’ says Kartikeya on working with the actor for Valimai

Actor Kartikeya, who made his Tamil debut with last week’s release Valimai, talks about his experience of working in the big-budget actioner, sharing screen space with Ajith, and more
Kartikeya and Ajith Kumar in Valimai
Kartikeya and Ajith Kumar in Valimai

When Kartikeya asked H Vinoth why he was picked to play the villain in Valimai, the latter told him he needed an antagonist who would represent the youth of the country, someone who would also demonstrate physical strength. Kartikeya’s Naren, for that reason, is a muscular hunk who spearheads a biking cult named Satan’s Slaves and manipulates young bikers into embracing a life of crime. The RX 100 actor feels that the character is more than the sum of his physical attributes. As opposed to his role in the 2019 Telugu outing, Gang Leader, which marked his debut as a villain, his character in Valimai is “brainier, possesses a strong ideology and whose actions have catastrophic consequences.”

Kartikeya calls it a character with “huge scope for both performance and action.” Despite initial hesitation to foray into a new language, he found himself drawn towards the script and the character. It’s also a strategic move, he says. “Gang Leader strengthened my position as an ‘action hero’ with several action films coming my way later. Considering the scale of Valimai, I was sure this is the right move.” Surmounting the language barrier, however, was not too difficult. His familiarity with Tamil films (dubbed into Telugu) came in handy. “I had seen several Tamil films—including most of Rajinikanth’s iconic ones—in Telugu, and I began watching them in Tamil to familiarise myself with the language. Since I already knew what the dialogues were, I picked up the words easily.”

Facing the camera on the sets of Valimai, however, was a mix of nostalgia, nervousness, and excitement. “Everyone around me was speaking a language I wasn’t familiar with and this was a new industry as well. Strangely, it reminded me of my early days during the making of my first film, Prematho Mee Karthik.” H Vinoth’s reticence further added to Kartikeya’s concerns. “Vinoth sir is not expressive by nature. He barely reacts after canning a shot and is not the kind to throw hyperboles like ‘great’ and ‘excellent’. The most you can expect from him is ‘okay’, and he moves on to the next shot. I once asked him whether I was performing well to which he simply responded saying that he cannot analyse performance. Instead, he only checks the 'meter' of an actor’s actions and expressions.”

This style of direction offered Kartikeya plenty of room for improvisation and an opportunity to explore the character more closely. “I would speak to Vinoth sir about the character’s state of mind during a particular moment. I would ask him questions about how Naren would react in certain situations, even those that aren't in the script. This would also allow me to gauge the tone of my performance and help me avoid inconsistency. It was not a case of underperforming in a scene and overperforming in the other. Of course, it helps that playing the villain comes with a level of liberty and you can even surprise the audience by doing something unexpected.” An example of this ‘surprise element’ is when we witness the swashbuckling villain break down towards the end when he learns that his empire has fallen. There are traces of Joker here and there, especially with Naren’s idea of spreading chaos, but Kartikeya’s performance during his culminating moments comes across as a pleasant surprise.

Valimai is, obviously, the actor’s most high-profile film to date, mostly attributed to the presence of Ajith Kumar, and Kartikeya adds that he was in awe of the star while sharing the screen with him. “It was scary initially, sure,” he says. “Ajith sir, however, is funny on the sets and makes sure everyone is comfortable. He makes every single person feel important; he keenly listens to you, asks about you, expresses an interest to know more about you. It’s not just his performances, films, or box office collections; he is a unique human being. The connection he has with his fans is mind-blowing. We appreciate the performances and films of several actors, but stars like Ajith sir and Pawan Kalyan gaaru have a personal connection with their fans that goes beyond their onscreen presence.”

Performing the stunt sequences in the film, it turns out, proved to be harder than mouthing Tamil dialogues. The numerous chase and action sequences were extensively shot for over 50 days, and moreover, the pandemic and production delays forced Kartikeya to maintain his physique for two years—a period in which he also headlined Chaavu Kaburu Challaga and Raja Vikramarka. Kartikeya, however, makes light of the difficulties involved in canning the action sequences. “To be honest, with the resources, exposure, and technical expertise we were provided with, it wasn’t as strenuous as it looks. Big-budgeted films tend to be shot over more working days, unlike my movies, where we have to finish the entire shooting in 40 days and the fight in 2 days!”

The actor doesn’t have any inhibitions about getting stereotyped as a villain; he sees it as a win-win situation. “I believe there’s nothing to lose while playing the villain. Firstly, I don’t have to carry the burden of the film on my shoulders. However, if the film works, it will invigorate my career. It’s a nice place to be in,” he signs off.

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