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Man Of Steel - Chiyaan Vikram

Written By Chiyaan Vikram on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 | 8:11 AM

Man Of Steel 
How suffering turned a college lad into a Tamil superstar

IT WAS THE BEST NIGHT of Kenny’s life. It was the worst night of Kenny’s life. And it began on the pitch-black stage of the open-air auditorium at IIT-Madras.

At first the audience at the annual inter-collegiate festival thought that there was a technical glitch: they could hear the actors but not see them. They began to fidget. They began to boo. Then, about 15 minutes in, some of the viewers began to shush the others. They got what was happening: the play—Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which Kenny had the lead role—began in darkness but, eventually, the lights would come on. The shushing gradually overwhelmed the booing and the fidgeting. There was silence, then laughs. When the curtains came down, there was a standing ovation. Among the audience that October night in 1986 was Shailaja Balakrishnan, who knew that she would marry Kenny even though he was barely aware of her existence. She watched him get the Best Actor award, beating candidates from all the other colleges. Later she would say drishti pattuduchu—someone had cast the evil eye.

Things were going according to plan. Kenny had always wanted to be an actor—at least from 1974, when he was in the third standard at Montfort Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in Yercaud. The boys’ school was staging a musical named Steam Boat and someone was needed to play a cotton-picking slave girl in Alabama. Kenny was chosen. He was dyed black with vegetable powder, squeezed into a white-and-blue dress, and positioned in a corner of the stage. He had no lines; he just had to stand on stage. But that was enough to hook him. He acted through school and at Chennai’s Loyola College, where he joined the literature programme in 1983. He acted in small, larkish events. Once, in an inter-departmental cultural festival, he parodied a famous Horlicks ad—in which a little boy says he doesn’t need to drink Horlicks, he’d eat it straight out of the bottle—by turning it into an ad for underwear. And he acted in big productions, like the college theatre society's adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which his performance had the city’s theatre critics declaring the birth of a star, an endorsement heartily echoed by crush-struck girls from Women’s Christian College and Stella Maris.

The Best Actor award at IIT-Madras seemed to be a sign. Kenny was going to finish this last year at college and then he’d become an actor in the movies, in Tamil cinema, like he’d always wanted.

It had been a long day. After the festival, Kenny hopped onto a bike, behind a friend. They zipped out of the IIT campus, took a left, and soared off into the night. They had turned right at the corner of the road by the governor’s house when Kenny noticed that his shoelaces had come undone. As he bent to attend to them, he heard a loud sound, and the next thing he knew, he was on the road. His friend had been fooling around as usual, resting his legs on the crash bars, and he couldn’t brake in time when he saw the truck speeding towards them near the traffic circle. He accelerated instead and hit the truck. The impact of the collision uprooted the railing around the traffic circle. It was Kenny’s first accident. And he didn’t even know how to ride a bike.

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