A week before the release of Twenty One Grams, where he plays yet another police officer, actor-writer Anoop Menon explains why he does not listen to narrations, how he found ease in front of the camera and his undying love for cameos. Edited excerpts:
How do you go about choosing a script? Do you prefer reading the script or listening to a narration?
I prefer reading. Narrating works as well but only if it's a 10-minute narration. However brilliant a script is, I'll fall asleep if the narration is two hours long. My attention capacity is super low. Even as I am speaking now, I'm thinking about a multitude of things. I can't concentrate.
But isn't 10-minutes too little to make up your mind?
A 10-minute narration or just the crux of the story would do. If you can engage me within 5-minutes, then something in the script is working for me. But when you talk about a script like Twenty One Grams or Traffic, it's impossible to get convinced because it's an interconnected script with so many things to keep in mind. Even if you're narrating the script of a classic like Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, the CBI comes in, someone dies and then we reveal the killer. It sounds too simple but it's obviously a lot more.
But in a script like Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, you can get the essence in five minutes. The character arc is there. They tell me that my character is a womaniser and you get what it's about. As for films like Twenty One Grams, it's better if you read it. Reading doesn't disengage me, even if a script takes two or more hours. Looking at one person and hearing him read, I think of a thousand other things.
What about gauging if the director can actually pull off the script? Doesn't that require a direct interaction?
You can't really understand. I feel screenwriters are very good actors. They can fake their brilliance. When you are articulate, then it's very easy to pull off a story that sounds good. But the written word on paper does not lie. Eventually, the primary reason is that I can't focus on narration for that long. Also, I don't want to ruin the morale of a person by yawning. I don't yawn because I'm sleepy, I yawn because I yawn (laughs).
Have you had an experience where you've yawned and you see the narrator's face just drop?
That happens every time. I have this yawning problem when I try too hard to concentrate. So I tell them, "either you narrate it in five minutes or just leave the script with me." I usually read it the very night and give them an answer the next day. All my bedtime goes in reading the new scripts I'm offered. Either way, a bad script guarantees you good sleep. So it's a win-win.
Even if a script is not working for you, do you still go ahead and finish reading the whole thing?
I abandon it halfway. I've also had instances where the script worked but the film didn't. So I understand that the script is not enough. There are so many factors. Casting, scheduling, budgeting, editing…all of these aspects can go wrong. I cannot name the film but I've acted in one with a great script that was also shot and completed well. Then there was a big chunk added to it that I hadn't seen that was just going on and on. The film was supposed to be just two hours long. Then with the extra scenes, it became forty minutes longer. The edit became the film's antagonist.
But you're also a screenwriter. So when you're reading, does the screenwriter in you think about the craft side?
That is one of my disadvantages. I always think from the script side. This approach might work for some but not for many. I can't judge everything and I might go gloriously wrong. But once the scriptwriter starts analysing the film, the actor in you takes a backseat. I fail to think that a script might work for me as an actor and I think I should. Instead, I think about it as a complete entity with the character graphs, motivations, its ebbs and flows.
Do you remember an instance when your suggestions helped the script, but went against you as an actor or your character?
There are many instances, but this is okay because Indian films eventually work because of the scripts. There's a limit to how much a film can be salvaged by the making. Even Aamir could not salvage Thugs Of Hindostan. Content should be the last word.
When Twenty One Grams came to me, we were shooting in a hotel. Bibin waited for me for over three or four hours. So I asked him to leave the script with me and then the shoot got delayed by an hour. I was bored so I took the script and I started reading it. I slowly got hooked to it and in that one hour, I finished the whole thing. I was stunned. So I called up Bibin and I asked him to come back at once. It is one of the best scripts I've got in a while.
Do you consciously do something to make the role different, especially when it's the kind of role you've done before? Like, maybe ask for a back story or a quirk?
That is my job. There are certain directors who do it. Others give us the freedom and want us to interpret the character. In Twenty One Grams, we've added a few mannerisms to make him distinct. But I don't add too many nitty-gritties because that can ruin a role. I try to play myself as much as I can. When Nawazuddin does a Raat Akeli Hai, there's a lot he can do with it. My cops have been upright men who are required to simply be in the moment. Sometimes we think, if a flaw will add a flavour to this character. But when you add a flaw to a police officer, the audience might lose that connection or trust. It's a very dicey situation.
But I see you have a good time when your role is either dark or if it has a comedic element to it.
See I've done movies for money. I've done films just to do films because I wanted to shrug off that tag of being a serial actor. Not because I felt there was something wrong with being called that, but because people didn't give me movies because of that. So I did films continuously and there was no real choosing of scripts. But now, I only do films that excite me or films that I enjoy doing.
I've always admired the ease with which you just "be" in front of the camera…like it's a very natural thing for you. How did you develop that comfort level?
I don't really know. I was an anchor first. So the camera was not really a big deal. I have done over 150 interviews, that too without any preparation. So at 12 at night, I will be told that I have to interview a Kavitha Krishnamurthi or a Bharat Gopi the next morning. I have done interviews with people who I know absolutely nothing about. You develop a camaraderie with the camera in the process. Even before that, I used to be a public speaker. I guess a combination of all these factors has helped.
What about the actual process of acting? Was that daunting at first?
I'm not very well equipped as an actor. I'm not a mimicry guy. Nobody in my family is in films. I don't know how to fight. I have a ligament tear so I can't even run and basically, I'm a non-violent person. I also cannot dance to save my life. I didn't have a six-pack figure either. So everything was against me. I honestly don't have a clue but I'm 100 films old.
But when you look at your older films, do you feel that you've improved as a performer?
I don't look back at all. I've heard of this Spanish custom where people write things down on a piece of paper and then burn it. What happened yesterday does not matter. I don't want to have any sort of baggage.
I think in the early stage of your career, or perhaps because you did a film like Thirakadha, I think you had to deal with comparisons…
I was compared to everyone. It's like when a kid goes to school, he comes back sounding like his teacher. Mammootty and Mohanlal were like these teachers. I have also taken inspiration from Nedumudi Venu and Nagesh but because I looked like Lalettan, maybe the comparisons were with them. I've heard that when Amitabh Bachchan started, Dharmendra would say that he was like a combination of Motilal, Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar.
Even though you have a market of your own, why did you never stop doing supporting roles or cameos, even though many people wouldn't do it?
Shouldn't I consider myself lucky? I'm more comfortable doing supporting roles and cameos. I love cameos because you get good money and just two or three days of work. In #Home, I worked for just three hours. In Traffic, I just shot for two days, even though I had 28 scenes. I want every director or producer reading this to know I welcome small roles that end in under a week. I guess it's because I love spending time with my family and I love my travels.
Finally, when does your screenwriting happen through all of this? Are you an obsessive writer?
I'm obsessive about nothing. When I get a locked script, I just love to see it because I've never written one. In my career, my only locked script was David and Goliath and it bombed. In Trivandrum Lodge, I would write scenes that needed to be shot the same day! P Balachandran would come in the morning to simply lie to director VKP that I've written my scenes even though I haven't put pen to paper.