Happy birthday, Karthi: A natural, totally!

As Karthi turns a year older on 25 May, South First tries to look at his identity as an abled actor.

ByS Subhakeerthana

Published May 25, 2024 | 9:00 AM Updated May 25, 2024 | 9:00 AM

Happy birthday Karthi

Star kids have it easy, they say. That’s why most people either don’t take them seriously or disregard their hard work, individual qualities, and skills.

In Tamil cinema, star kid debuts come in a variety of ways (even with the ongoing debate about nepotism). Veteran actor Sivakumar had little to do with his younger son Karthi’s debut, except to pass on his artistic genes.

Let’s be honest! It is nearly impossible to become a successful actor without drawing some criticism from the Internet. Criticism is inevitable when one is in the public glare, regardless of whether it is justified or not.

However, a handful of actors seem to have accomplished the unthinkable. They essentially have no detractors.

These actors are simply likeable or relatable, and no matter what films they do (you can be sure that they pick decent roles and play them honestly), even the cruellest Internet trolls can’t win against them.

Karthi is one of them!

When he does interviews, he comes out as sincere; he exudes an inherent charm. No matter how serious the questions are, he manages to lighten the tone as much as he can and closes the conversation with a laugh.

A variety of genres is important for Karthi because it helps him break an image trap.

Karthi’s career is notable for rarely working with the same director twice, except for one or two films.

He could carry off an intense drama like Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) just as well as a rural commercial family entertainer like Kadaikutty Singam (2018).

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How it all started

Karthi is a director's actor

Karthi is a director’s actor. (Supplied)

Karthi always knew he wanted to be in cinema but wasn’t sure what kind of work he wanted to do.

He was a big film buff and loved catching movies. However, his actor-father Sivakumar urged him to pursue a quality education before entering the filmdom.

Following his mechanical engineering degree, Karthi was awarded a scholarship to pursue his Master’s degree in the United States.

He then completed a film appreciation course. When he returned to Chennai, he met Mani Ratnam.

Karthi was first offered the role that Siddharth played in Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004).

Mani Ratnam was looking for someone who resembled Suriya’s younger sibling. But, when Mani Ratnam saw Karthi, he was taken aback. He was obese and weighed a massive 90 kg then.

Karthi, therefore, asked Mani Ratnam if he could assist him in filmmaking, as he wasn’t confident about his looks.

The director said yes, and Karthi became his last assistant for Aaytha Ezhuthu and Yuva (2004).

Everything fell into place when he realised he had to look after himself if he wanted to be an actor.

Paruthiveeran—A smashing debut

Karthi in Paruthiveeran

Karthi in ‘Paruthiveeran’. (X)

Then, Paruthiveeran (2007) happened.

The film’s director, Ameer, worked with Karthi’s brother Suriya on Mounam Pesiyadhe (2002). He offered Karthi Paruthiveeran.

The actor’s career graph is fascinating. Since his debut film, Karthi made it a point to play diverse characters and each of them has been unique.

Right from his maiden venture, he made a meaningful impact with a portrayal that did not betray any shortcomings of a newcomer.

This graceful ability to glide into a character made him become one of the sought-after actors in Tamil cinema.

As an actor, Karthi understands what his director needs, without ever attempting to draw unnecessary attention to himself.

He lacks cheeky mannerisms or unnecessary exaggerated gestures but keeps it casual.

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A director’s actor

Selvaraghavan's directorial Aayirathil Oruvan

Karthi in ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’. (X)

In multiple interviews, Karthi admitted how he implicitly follows what his directors say.

He gave up his pants and started moving around in a shirt and a lungi, even at home while filming Paruthiveeran.

He witnessed the prep work his brother Suriya made for his roles in films like Nandha (2001), Pithamagan (2003), and Kaakha Kaakha (2003). He is used to seeing someone like Suriya, at home, internalise the character to the T.

Karthi has a natural ability for acting. It seems that way, at least.

As an actor, he could do anything and become anyone. These include playing Seenu—a lighthearted person who accepts life as it comes to him—in Thozha (2016), an upright cop in Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017), and Dilli—the lorry driver—in Kaithi (2019).

Though Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) was Karthi’s second film as an actor, he delivered a stupendous performance.

Love. War. Betrayal. A lost country. Magical abilities. Ancient history. A destroyed city. What more should film buffs ask for?

Then, came Lingusamy’s road film, Paiyya (2010), where the actor looked his best.

After a run of important roles requiring much preparation, Karthi’s desire to be involved in a commercial vehicle made sense then.

Even with its obvious flaws, the film is nevertheless remembered for its soundtrack and visuals.

Naan Mahaan Alla is a turning point in the actor's career

‘Naan Mahaan Alla ‘is a turning point in the actor’s career. (X)

But it was his arresting performance in Naan Mahaan Alla (2010) that made people sit up and take notice of his formidable screen presence.

The first and foremost reason why the film worked was Karthi. He was, as usual, a joy to watch.

Eventually, Karthi elevated himself to the status of a mass hero with Siruthai (2011).

The typical path for a Tamil actor hoping to get big is to work in a cop or gangster film. If it was Singam (2010) for Suriya, it was Siruthai (2011) for Karthi!

The actor played a dual role in Siva’s directorial. One was a small-time burglar, the other a police officer.

After shouldering a string of underwhelming films like All in All Azhagu Raja (2013), Biriyani (2013), and Alex Pandian (2013), Karthi delivered a fantastic performance in Madras (2014).

There are no overly dramatic scenes in Pa Ranjith’s directorial (Madras). This is the biggest advantage of the film. Even with all the drama and anguish, the undercurrent of humour was perfectly maintained.

Madras was one of the few films where Karthi’s true potential as an actor was fully realised.

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Karthi, a risk taker

A poster of the film Madras

A poster of the film ‘Madras’. (X)

In between, Karthi did Kaashmora (2016), Dev (2019), Thambi (2019), Sulthan (2021), and Viruman (2022)—which were not all that impressive.

The thing with the actor is that he never gets blamed for “failure films” as he consistently delivers what’s needed for a story.

Karthi, who is also fiercely opinionated, always argued that “masala” films should be appreciated rather than dissected.

He is someone, who firmly believes that films should be watched for their entertainment value, as well as their artistic merit.

A major challenge for today’s actors is staying relevant and constantly reinventing themselves to meet the evolving preferences and sensibilities of the audience.

Perhaps, Karthi is aware of this. His preferences for films and genres are always changing, which is why he no longer has a wishlist.

It’s clear that he enjoys taking chances and doesn’t think twice about doing so. His latest films Sardar (2022) and Japan (2023) bear testimony to it.

As a lifelong learner, Karthi was like clay that prominent filmmakers like Mani Ratnam could mould into whatever he desired.

For instance, Mani Ratnam sat with Karthi for two hours to convince him to remove the moustache for his fighter pilot role (Varun Chakravarthy) in Kaatru Veliyidai (2017).

Karthi said in interviews that it wasn’t easy to play Varun Chakravarthy, elaborating on how his persona differed from the conventional heroes of Mani Ratnam.

Mani Ratnam made quite clear that Kaatru Veliyidai was not a feel-good film like Alaipayuthey (2000) but rather an experiment.

By surrendering himself to the filmmaker, the actor was in for a roller-coaster ride.

Karthi got to know that fighter pilots put in four hours of training each day as they prepare for the possibility that they won’t need to retire at forty.

Mani Ratnam's Kaatru Veliyidai

Karthi played an Indian Air Force officer in ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’. (X)

Varun’s persona bore similarities to those in 1960s foreign war veteran films, which depicted how returning soldiers struggle to lead “normal” lives.

Naturally, it was challenging for him to absorb Varun Chakravarthy’s character.

Karthi was in the spotlight again; thanks to Theeran Adhigaram Ondru. Many films show a police officer as a hero with limitless possibilities. But in the H Vinoth film, they showed how cops work around their limitations.

But, if there was a major turning point in Karthi’s acting career, it was Kaithi.

In the film, Lokesh Kanagaraj attempted to do something that appears to be a unique achievement for Tamil filmmakers—fusing masala sensibilities with Western clichés. The result was, to put it mildly, astounding.

Karthi is excellent in the role of Dilli, who simultaneously wields a machine gun and eats bucket biryani.

He exudes the energy of a beast about to erupt and shows the fragility of a father, who loves his daughter dearly.

Also Read: Karthi gets candid about his role in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

A winning streak

Karthi and Jayam Ravi in Ponniyin Selvan

Karthi and Jayam Ravi in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’. (X)

The birthday piece wouldn’t be complete without talking about Karthi’s incredible performance as Vanthiyathevan in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan franchise (2022 & 2023).

Karthi considered himself fortunate to have worked on Ponniyin Selvan, a project that many well-known Tamil film personalities such as MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, and Kamal Haasan, had imagined but never carried out.

“Mani (Ratnam) sir often says only a skilled writer can excel as a director. He advised me to read widely to become a better writer. Nonetheless, my collaboration with filmmakers and constant thoughts about cinema helps me understand the audience’s needs,” he said in a press meet.

Karthi acknowledged that even though he was first afraid, the audience’s support of his role was what kept him going.

There were debates over the film’s casting choices when the project was first revealed, but practically everyone thought Karthi was a fantastic fit for the role of Vanthiyathevan.

Ponniyin Selvan‘s cast fits the narrative so well that it’s not surprising if Karthi is identified as Vanthiyathevan by this generation.

With Karthi, less is always more. As he demonstrated in Ponniyin Selvan, he could step into a role and embody it, conveying all of the subtleties and layers with a limited number of words and facial gestures.

And yes, without a doubt, Ponniyin Selvan could be described as a feather in his cap.

We are glad he didn’t try to become another Suriya and instead discovered his own identity. May he never stop shining as the star he is!

Happy birthday, Karthi!

Also Read: Tamil hero Karthi has an impressive line-up of films