Says Vikram, “Yes, it was quite an experience. It"s more she dancing while I just join in. I am just a passable dancer. I"m a good fighter but not quite the dancer. I always felt Madhuri Dixit was the best dancer ever. But then I saw how Aishwarya held her own in Devdas. I thought it fantastic. It was really nice to see her dance. I just forgot my own steps and kept staring. Every hero from the South wants to work with her at some point in his career. I got my opportunity finally. It"s wonderful that I"m making my Hindi debut with her. It"s strange that every Miss World and Miss Universe enters movies. But who has had the lingering impact of Aishwarya's? She has some kind of an enduring aura. Over the years she has really evolved as an actor."
Vikram says Aishwarya is a hero in Raavan. “There are three main characters, me, Abhishek, and Aishwarya. I"ve done a lot of tortuous sequences in the past. But this one takes the cake and the ache. And Aishwarya suffered all the wounds, pain, fever and insect bites heroically in the forest. For all the dangerous scenes, she hardly ever used a dupe. She was totally up to the task. I coped. Guys are used to roughing it out. But she fell ill quite a few times."
Both Aishwarya and Vikram play the lead in the Hindi and Tamil versions of Raavan.
Explains Vikram, “I had to do two characters. But she had to play the same character twice, in two languages, one after another. For example, if she had to climb a rock with me, she"d do it climb down and then do it again with Abhishek."
Raavan was shot in the thick forest. Says Vikram, “We were not even allowed to drive in to location sometimes. It was like going to war. The terrain was so treacherous. Every scene was risky. If it wasn"t raining we were near waterfalls so always wet and susceptible to fall ill."
Playing Aishwarya"s noble husband in the Hindi version and then the dark outlaw who kidnaps her in Tamil, was not easy.
Says Vikram, “And we had to do it in two consecutive shots one after another. It was very exciting for me. Originally Mani Ratnam had planned to complete the film in Hindi first and then go on to the Tamil version. But all these intricate locations in the jungles and elaborate sets couldn"t be reached twice. Though I"m known to change my look. But going from the husband"s look to the outlaw"s look after 6-7 months didn"t seem feasible. So we decided to do both versions simultaneously. When you see Raavan in two languages you wouldn"t recognize me as the same person in both. I had to change my body language and get-up completely. I"m known to change for different characters. Even in Aparachit (which was dubbed in Hindi) I tried various looks. It comes from my drama background in school."
Vikram has taken his time over his entry into Hindi films. “That"s because my work in the South has been time-consuming. All my Tamil films take 1 to 2 years. I like to take my time over my projects. I didn"t want to enter Hindi cinema until I was ready."
Vikram was supposed to do only the Tamil version of Raavan. He recalls, “Mani and I were discussing it when he suggested I do the Hindi version, and a different character from the other end of the moral spectrum. It became very interesting."
Speaking of being at the top in Tamil cinema for 20 years, Vikram says modestly, “I always behave as though every film of mine is the first. And I try doing something different each time. It"s like a chess game for me. I"ve done very few films. By the time I release one film my contemporaries complete and release four films. In the year that I had Aparachit, Vijay had 6 films and Ajith had 4."
Vikram admits he doesn"t socialize with his colleagues. “It"s not like Mumbai where there are lots of parties and social events. We keep to ourselves. That could be because Chennai has no night life. The city is dead after 10 pm. The older generation of actors like Prabhu and Karthik were friends. But I head home after work to be with the family."
Vikram"s wife, Shailaja, is a teacher in psychology. “She"s recently started teaching in a very well-known school in Chennai. I discuss my career with her, bounce off ideas. I"ve also become half a psychologist. But my wife doesn"t come to location at all."
The couple have two children. “My daughter is 12 and my son is 8. My son is totally hooked to cinema. He wants to be an actor. But I"d rather he concentrated on his studies. I"m sure he"ll do great in movies some day. I"m also moving towards direction with every movie. It"s subliminal. But I am learning on the sets all the time."
At the moment Vikram is dubbing for the third version of Raavan in Telugu. “I suggested a particular tone and they liked it. Telugu is a little difficult for me." Vikram is now looking forward to his entry into Hindi cinema. “The work in Mumbai is so exciting. When I saw Rang De Basanti, Lagaan, 3 Idiots and My Name Is Khan I wanted to be part of them. I wish we could make films like that in Tamil. Very rarely do they have formula films like Partner and Wanted in Hindi. Most Tamil films are rustic, rural, rugged, and violent. Many of them are set in Madurai, which is known to be an aggressive city."
Many of Vikram"s Tamil films have been remade into Hindi, for example Sethu, which was Tere Naam in Hindi.
Says Vikram, “Salman Khan is a good friend and he did a good job. It was based on the Tamil director Bala"s own experiences. So I guess the creator"s influence was stronger in Tamil. I lost about 16 kgs for my character in the second-half when he goes into the mental asylum. I had one chapatti, one egg-white and a glass of beetroot juice as my meal for the day every day and I used to walk to the location which was 16 kms away. So the gruelling location in Raavan was not unusual for me. If I don"t have to do something challenging I find it boring. In Raavan the scenes were physically and emotionally challenging."
In Raavan, Vikram got hurt every day . “Bruises, wounds, sprained ankle…you name it. During the climactic fight I had a catch in my back. I couldn"t walk let alone fight. I had my physio-therapist with me to relieve my muscle pain. It was strange because for the climax fight I had to have two types of blood-and-gore makeup, one as the villain in Tamil and the other as the hero in Hindi. The unit was a mixture of Tamil and Hindi individuals, so I was comfortable from the start."
Now Vikram"s family is fighting over which version to watch first on release. “Tamil or Hindi, is a toss-up. But I"m not leaving Tamil cinema for Hindi. I"ve four films to shoot in Tamil. I"ve already started my next Tamil film, a psycho-thriller directed by Selvaraghavan where I have three roles. I"ve a film about a stage actor from the 1930s. I can"t do routine films. I"d love to do Gerard Butler"s 300 or PS. I Love You. Even if I do Hindi films, I want to be Chennai-based, always. I"ve already started getting offers. I was bitten by the acting bug when I was in Class 3. My audience has been growing since then. For me, my first Hindi film is like my first film. When we were shooting in Orcha, no one recognized me and then suddenly my driver asked me if I was the actor from Aparachit. It gives me a kick to be recognized."
Vikram"s Hindi is not all that good, but his co-star Abhishek has been helping him with the Hindi.
Says Vikram, “Abhishek is one of my best friends. I am known to be the prankster. But with Abhishek around I had to withdraw from the brat race."
Tamil superstar Vikram, who makes his debut alongside Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the three versions of Raavan in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, got to share the most daunting experiences in the jungles of Kerala with Aishwarya, including dancing high above water-level on "the most slippery rock God had ever invented."