Each time the audience sees you in a trailer, there is a certain amount of excitement. But, there's a term that mostly goes with each performance — "comeback". Why is that?
It's because of the number of times I have disappeared from the scene (laughs). I think what we usually see in Indian cinema is that an actor who has played lead roles is expected to keep appearing in movies. It's unlike Hollywood, where an actor does not do a movie for five years. But if you don't act in our movies for that long, it means that you're out of the field. No one will cast you after that.
Was it a conscious decision to become very selective with scripts?
It's not just that, in my case. A lot of unforeseen events affected my career. I've had multiple instances when my films got shelved midway. There were those instances as well when certain good films did not come my way. These obstacles have been a part of my career right from 2008. Even when my first film, For The People, was competing its 100th day, I was still working in Chennai, shooting corporate ad films. I did not do any films then because I kept getting the same serious police officer roles. That was until Sathyan Anthikad offered me a comic role in Achuvinte Amma.
Did he call you after seeing For The People?
Yes, but more than a year after that film released. He wanted a newcomer, but it wasn't working out. Just like you, Sathyan sir too asked where I had disappeared after For The People. So, when he heard that I was waiting for good scripts, he had the confidence to cast me in the film. I still haven't got such a role in Tamil.
Didn't Mysskin's Chithiram Pesudhadi release around the same time?
I met Mysskin before the release of Achuvinte Amma, and Chithiram Pesuthadi happened. But it took eight months to finish, even though it was a small film. I decided to focus on the film and complete it before moving on to other projects. So, I lost out on the offers I got and the advantage I had because of the massive success of Achuvinte Amma.
Is that what went wrong for you in Malayalam?
When I look back, I think I made a misstep by branching out into another industry even before I had established myself in one. I was aware of it even then. Chithiram Pesuthadi came to me through a friend, and I told him that I should I wait for Achuvinte Amma to release before signing new films. But he insisted that I at least listen to the script and then reject it. When I listened to the script and met Mysskin, it felt totally fresh. That was a time I was already dealing with a few issues in Malayalam cinema.
Issues such as…
At that time, in Malayalam cinema, it was considered a sin for upcoming actors to even ask for a narration. I have lost many films in Malayalam because of that.
Didn't the success of Chithiram Pesuthadi help?
A lot of it was still working out because these films were hits. So, after Chithiram Pesuthadi, I did Anjathe here and that too became a hit. Then, I did Classmates in Malayalam, again a big hit. This was a point in my career when things were going well, and I had managed to create a market in both industries, which was very rare.
After Anjathe, I was offered a big-budget mass film. But that was proving to be too 'mass' for me at that time, so I found a script that was in between — Pookada Ravi. We completed 70% of it. Samantha was the heroine, but the film suddenly got dropped. Because Pookada Ravi didn't work, I lost out on the offer for the big-budget film. It was a strange period. Whichever film I got into started getting dropped because the director and producer would have a fight. I had to return the advance I took for over 20 films. It was shocking. I lost years because of this.
Did that make you even more choosy?
I was choosy and careful even then. The one relief is that the films I said no to didn't really end up becoming huge hits with other actors. So, my judgment was right. I have personally experienced how important luck is in a person's career. This period of constant stumbling blocks went on for over 10 years. But, I think Kaithi is the film that to going to change that for me.
What was happening in the Malayalam industry then?
After Pookada Ravi, I did a Tamil film called Thambi Kottai. The producer and the director were having major issues, so I had to step in and invest my own money. I lost a lot in that. I then decided to focus on Malayalam. So, I signed on to do a big film called Veera Puthran. In 2010, its budget was pegged at around Rs 4 crore or 5 crore. Because I was doing such a big film, I kept getting offers. So, I stuck to it even though I didn't want to lose the market I had created in Tamil. And I was one of those rare Malayali actors to get rural roles in Tamil, even though the usual trend is to cast them in urban characters. Just when I had given it all up to focus on Malayalam cinema, I got a call from Myskkin again… the phone call from hell (laughs).
Why do you call it that?
He wanted me to do a negative role in Mugamoodi, a film starring Jiiva. I told him that I was already screwed in Tamil and that it would be a wrong decision. But he insisted that if something were to go wrong with Mugamoodi, he would make a film with me as a hero, to compensate for it. That's why I went ahead with it. And because it was produced by UTV, I knew it would also get a smooth release. But the film required eight months of my time. I got injured during the shoot and I couldn't do any film for two years after. And those two years were when Malayalam cinema was seeing a huge change; I missed out on all that. I started doing a small Tamil film called Kathukutti, which took over a year-and-a-half to complete. I was under a lot of financial pressure because of this gap. Of course, if I had no ethics, I could have gone around acting in many more movies to just sustain myself. Which is why I think I'm the last person who should have ended up in such a business.
Mysskin still hasn't kept his promise…
He hasn't. Usually, when a director grows along with an actor, both of them keep moving forward with bigger films. But after Mugamoodi, Mysskkin went into his own zone of cinema. That too went against my career.
How you remain calm through all these phases?
Possibly, because I am spiritually inclined. Spirituality is the only thing I'm interested in outside of cinema. If I weren't so ambitious, I would have been very happy following the spiritual path. So, even when I went back to Malayalam, these obstacles followed. I did a good film Kavi Udheshichathu. But that released opposite a film such as Puli Murugan, and got washed out. There were always these gaps between films, and the audience looked at me as a comeback actor, rather than as a full-time one! A lot of people in Malayalam thought I was more interested in doing Tamil films. The shoot of Mugamoodi went on for many months, but we weren't making a Baahubali.
But, it's not like anyone really doubts your acting ability or talent. You are that rare actor who can play a positive role just as comfortably as a negative one…
What can I say except blame things on my luck. I believe things will change with Kaithi. Both Karthi and I generally gravitate towards a certain kind of script, and I trust his taste. When Lokesh Kanagaraj, the film's director, wanted to cast me in this film, Karthi was happy to call me up to ask me to do it. In Kaithi, my role in positive. It's based on the events that take place over one night, and I'm very hopeful about this film. I'm sure this is the change that will turn things around for me.
What did Karthi say when he called?
He said he wanted me to listen to this script and he called to make sure I give this film some serious thought.
Why is that?
Because, he didn't want me to take it any less seriously because this role, too, is that of an upright police officer. It's interesting how my role in Anjathe from so many years ago, is still giving me roles even today.
What do you think of Lokesh as a director? He has already signed on to do Vijay's next film.
I'm very impressed by him. I know he has many friends who are very capable of doing class films, but he's that rare breed who can make class films that will appeal to the masses. People don't understand how difficult it is to balance both. Which is why the next Vijay film will be very interesting.