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. His younger sister, Devika, is a software engineer settled in the United Kingdom. He had a Tamil-speaking upbringing in Bihar. Ranganathan Madhavan is an Indian actor, writer and film producer. Madhavan began his acting career with television guest appearances, including a role on the Zee TV prime-time soap opera Banegi Apni Baat in 1996. 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).
In early 1996, Madhavan worked on a sandalwood talc advertisement directed by Santosh Sivan, who later recommended him to Mani Ratnam to take part in a screen test for a role in Iruvar (1997). His first appearance in a feature film role came through a small role in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996), where he portrayed a singer in a bar. Madhavan is amongst the leading brand ambassadors for products in India. Madhavan's parents are Ranganathan Seshadri and Saroja. Despite Madhavan's ambition of wanting to join the army, his parents insisted he go to management school and pursue a degree in electronics. After completing the degree, he went on to teach communication and public speaking at workshops around India.