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Madhavan was born on 1 June 1970 in Jamshedpur, Bihar (now in Jharkhand), India, to a Tamil family.
His father Ranganathan was a management executive in Tata Steel and his mother, Saroja was a manager in the Bank of India.
He worked with Mani Ratnam again in the critically acclaimed 2002 film Kannathil Muthamittal playing the father of an adopted girl, whilst he achieved commercial success with his role in N. Madhavan was cast alongside Kamal Haasan in the 2003 drama Anbe Sivam, which earned him two notable awards for Best Supporting Actor.
In 2004, he gave a critically acclaimed performance as the antagonist in the multi-starrer Aayutha Ezhuthu and the film secured him his first Filmfare Award for the intense portrayal of a rogue.
He then collaborated with Mani Ratnam for the second time by appearing in the director's production venture, the romantic comedy Dumm Dumm Dumm (2001), alongside Jyothika.
His performance as a boorish boxing coach in Irudhi Suttru fetched him Best Actor awards at the Filmfare, IIFA and SIIMA award ceremonies.
He has also worked as a film producer, first making Evano Oruvan with Leukos Films, before setting up Tricolour Films to produce Saala Khadoos (2016).
After appearing in commercials and in small roles, he later gained recognition in the Tamil film industry through Mani Ratnam's successful romance film Alaipayuthey (2000).
Madhavan soon developed an image as a romantic hero with notable roles in two of 2001's highest grossing Tamil films, Gautham Menon's directorial debut Minnale and Madras Talkies' Dumm Dumm Dumm.
After appearing in further box office hits, Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Vettai (2012), Madhavan took a break from acting.