The Actor Who (Unfortunately) Became Superstar

Antony Arul Prakash has been playing Superstar Rajinikanth’s double for a decade in mega successes like Enthiran and 2.0. But beneath the facade of the Star is a brooding artiste who is patiently waiting for his breakout
The Actor Who (Unfortunately) Became Superstar

“I’ve not been able to forget what he said about me,” says Antony Arul Prakash, his voice losing the excitement that had dominated our conversation until then. “He said it as he was observing my face from up close, when he was doing my makeup, as though he was making a prediction.” 

Arul is going back to a comment made on the sets of Malayalam film Keerthichakra, way back in 2006, but it’s obvious that he has not been able to overcome its effect. “Sudevan, the film’s makeup artiste, said I will never become a star. He looked into my eyes and asked, “you look exactly like Rajini. Why will people accept you?”

Being compared to THE Superstar is not something an aspiring actor might be too worried about, but there’s an invisibility that comes with sharing the silhouette with a man as larger-than-life as Rajinikanth. “My complexion, my hands, fingers, my height, my weight…everything's the same as Rajini sir’s,” repeats Arul with the nonchalance of a person who is simply stating a fact.  

We’re speaking at the dormitory of Chennai’s prestigious theatre group Koothu-P-Pattarai, an incubator that has birthed some of Tamil cinema’s finest actors. A similarity with a popular star may have been valuable currency in another place in some other part of town. But once you’ve decided to become an actor, especially in the Tamil theater space, originality is as important as talent. 

The 50-year-old’s life has been so much about becoming a superstar himself that this resemblance has come to assume the significance of a curse. “I ran away from home in Papanasam when I was 15 to come to Madras for the first time. I wanted to become an actor even then but I couldn’t survive. My father, a local politician back home, tracked me down and took me back but I was always planning my next move.”

Hailing from a political family in Tirunelveli, Arul managed to complete his studies and was part of student politics, although he nurtured his love for acting right through. “This was around the time I fell in love with my cousin. My dad saw the opportunity and got me married to her right then. He thought marriage would make me forget about acting, forcing me to take over his business and join politics thereafter. But I always had bigger plans.” 

Arul insists that joining politics was always part of this plan but he needed to become an actor first to reach where he wanted to. “My family converted to Christianity two generations ago but we have still not been able to escape caste. Everywhere I went, right from school, I saw caste everywhere. It dictates your entire life, your friends, your future and what you do till the end. As I see it, the only way a person can escape caste is if you become a huge artiste…like MGR.”

This path to social salvation would begin with acting and then on to superstardom. If Arul could become a star, he felt he could transform into an effective politician who would actually make an impact. “It’s not easy to restrict yourself to a business or a job once you’ve set such a goal. I kept telling my wife that I would never be able to settle for the family business and after a point, she too encouraged me to move back to Madras.” 

Arul devised many plans to make his second move, this time with an aim to not just survive, but thrive. He thought he could become a police officer, backed by his formidable academic and sports achievements. But his efforts as a student activist also brought with it a black mark in the form of an old police case with his name on it. With government services no longer becoming an option, he tried his hand at working in private companies, only to sustain his livelihood. “I first worked for a packaged drinking water company and then I started teaching commerce at a school. I preferred teaching because classes got over by three and then I could go from one production house to another asking for roles. I became an expert at this with many strugglers joining me in this routine.”

As Arul tried to survive in Madras, trying his hand at many jobs, he hoped his wife would join him too in the city. She completed her teaching degree and she moved too, giving their life stability. With his wife taking care of the house and his two boys, Arul was able to take a more focused plunge into acting. “Back then, you could work in a film for over 30 days and you’d be lucky if you got paid for the time you spent there. In contrast, acting in serials gave you security. I worked in several superhit serials in the late 90’s, especially those that were being made by Sivaji Productions. In one serial, I did as many as nine different roles. On one day I’d play a police officer and then a prisoner on the next. One day, a director joked that I was doing more roles than Sivaji sir himself.” 

Acting in serials created the notion that Arul had “made it”, at least back in his hometown. “They were just happy to see me on screen, even though I was upset that I wasn’t being considered for a bigger role. After a point, I felt this too was a trap like any day job, so I quit and then tried to act in movies again.” 

His contemporaries became independent directors and actors even though Arul’s struggle was not close to ending. He kept getting small roles in films but none that would make a bigger impact. This is around the time when he was offered the role to star in an animated film based on the great king Raja Raja Chozhan. “They gave me a monthly salary and wanted me to work exclusively on this film. It would be my big launch and it was being planned as an animated film that was to be shot using the latest digital camera technology then.” 

But the company kept sinking money into the project without it reaching the finish line. Arul doubled up as a salesman for the company, trying to get animation contracts from other films, just so they could finally complete the magnum opus. “I gave this film two years and despite their best efforts, nothing was happening. From what I had learnt working there, I wanted to mount a tiny animated film that I could produce and star in. I even got a meeting with Sun Pictures when life began to change…”

He got a call from the office of director Shankar who was making the biggest Tamil film at the time Rajinikanth. With what was then rumoured to be a sci-fi film based on a robot, Arul was chosen after he acted out a scene from Anniyan during the auditions. Unlike Shankar’s previous film with the Superstar, this new film included complex shots that required multiple doubles for Rajinikanth. Shankar too had spotted Arul’s uncanny resemblance and convinced him to join the new project full time. From his dream to become A superstar, his life had now detoured to make him THE superstar. 

“I was given Rs.3000 per day plus expenses. The shoot went on for more than two years and in this time, my look and my hairstyle were reworked to suit Rajini sir’s. It was a comfortable period where money was not an issue. But this commitment meant that I could not act in any other film in this period.”

But Arul’s major life-changing event happened after this phase. In his words, it was when he decided to stop chasing stardom that life began to behave differently with him. He had helped Shankar’s team find actors for smaller roles and one such application led him to a trained actor who took him to Koothu-p-Pattarai for the first time. “Here I was aspiring to become a star and I had not even heard of such an institution. From playing smaller roles, I kept getting promoted to bigger roles in the troupe.” Acting, from being a means to an end, became the end unto itself. He found joy in travelling with the troupe across India, having completed thousands of shows in the past 10 years.  

“I have been asked to play Rajini sir’s double in almost every film since Enthiran. I was his main double in 2.0 and I’ve even been standing in for him in Nelson’s Jailer as well. My demand to filmmakers when they call me to play his double is to negotiate for another part in the same film. Most of the directors promise me a role in their next film but you know how to not take that offer seriously.” 

Arul in a short film Appavin Parisu
Arul in a short film Appavin ParisuAppavin Parisu (A Father’s Gift)

Instead, Arul has chosen to find joy and fulfilment on stage, in roles where he doesn’t remain invisible. Most recently, a performance in a short film got him shortlisted for best actor in the Film Critics Guild’s short film awards. “I only take up roles in small films when I’m offered prominent roles or when I’m needed to play the lead in short films.” As for playing Rajinikanth’s double? “I do it for the love and respect I have for the man.” 

As for his bigger plans for life? “I’ve only just started. I have only been unlucky as a star, that too only in commercial cinema. In everything else in life, I’ve been lucky and successful. Who said I won’t get acceptance?”

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