Seconds after the ring, I hear a characteristic voice greet me with a "vanakkam" and a smile on the phone. Actor Kaali Venkat is on his way home by car, having just finished a short trip to a forest with poor network connectivity. "This is one of the first interviews I am giving after the film released," he smiles. The film that he's talking about is no ordinary feat. Gargi, starring Sai Pallavi and Venkat in a tender courtroom drama, has moved many since its release this month. The film follows Gargi (Sai Pallavi) in her quest to "avenge" her father off the child sexual abuse charges levelled against him. And supporting her pursuit, Kaali Venkat plays Indrans, a lawyer looking for a break in the courtroom.
Venkat's Indrans, a lawyer with an occasional stutter, who also doubles up as a pharmacist, is an embodiment of the indomitable human spirit. Throughout the film, he is often reminded of his inability to handle a case. In many ways, Venkat looks at himself as Indrans. "He doesn't steer away from his own truth at any point of time. He has never gotten a case before, and he has a deep complex. Indrans is a symbol of everybody's inability and insecurity. So, when he actually has a small moment of victory, the audience could connect to him. Everybody has an Indrans and innocence in them. Similarly, he sat inside my mind deeply," Venkat says.
Director Gautham Ramachandran's script was so fresh and nothing like he had ever read before, Venkat recalls. "I was at an outdoor shooting last year when actor Kalaiyarasan told me about Gautham and how he wanted to approach me for a film. Gautham and I then met up and he narrated the script to me. He was just finishing up the first half, and I was getting slightly nervous," Venkat remembers with a laugh. "It was a sensitive script, and I did not know how audiences would take my role." But once Gautham finished narration, pieces began moving in Venkat's head. "Many films have been told about abuse before. But this one takes a new perspective altogether. We shot the film 15 days after this conversation. The film is what it is today because of Gautham and the writing."
While Indrans forged an instant connection among fans and critics alike, the actor is quick to divert the praise to Sai Pallavi. "Half the credit goes to Sai Pallavi because most of my scenes are with her. When an actor acts out a scene, he is not the only one in a frame. He only works with what the actor opposite him gives," he says, going on to compare her simplicity to acting peers Vijay Sethupathi and Sivakarthikeyan.
Humour, a quality that comes naturally to Venkat on the big screen, is also something that gets a natural touch in Gargi. This is apparent, especially in Venkat's scenes with Sai Pallavi. It was also a difficult line to tread, the actor points out. "We never really planned the humor. Audiences laughed at instances I never thought would evoke laughter. For instance, in that scene in the jail, I was genuinely telling RS Shivaji an update about his family. But that evoked laughter at every theater I went to. But what's important is that the characters stay true to themselves in the film. Indrans cannot overstep the line, because he is not close to Gargi. But at the same time, he wants to be genuine," he says.
Comedy is also one of the most difficult things to crack as an actor, Venkat notes. The supporting actor has been a regular in Tamil films for the past two decades. But following a long line of blink-and-you-miss-it roles, it was Mundasupatti that gave him recognition. In the 2014 comic caper, Venkat and Vishnu Vishal play photographers who set off on an adventure to a village where photography is banned. The film established Venkat's caliber as a comedian, which was later reinforced by films such as Sudha Kongara's Irudhi Suttru, Petromax, and most recently, Sivakarthikeyan's Don.
"I absolutely enjoy it. I don't even think I am eligible to be called a comedy actor, because we have such legends in our cinema. But doing humor is something of pride to me," he says.
But comedy is not all that he is remembered for in films. His roles in Atlee's Mersal and Sudha Kongara's Soorarai Pottru, have demanded the actor to excel at emotionally-charged scenes. He plays a heartbroken auto driver, who loses his young daughter to medical negligence in Mersal, and a simpleton, who amasses money from his village to help his friend Maara (Suriya) fly in Soorarai Pottru. At the end of the day, it helps that he is a director's actor, Venkat says.
"In Atlee sir's set, the environment is so freeing and fun. He gave me the freedom to perform at my own pace. He made the set silent and made me comfortable enough to get into the zone. And Sudha ma'am looks at a movie like an audience…the way she explains a character is just incredible. I often tell her jokingly that I would even jump off a roof if she told me to. That is the trust that certain filmmakers give actors," Venkat adds.
Supporting actors, today, are increasingly given attention, and Venkat welcomes that change among audiences with open arms. "I don't look at roles as small or big anymore. It was Nasser sir who taught me that. When I was working with him on set a while back, he told me I had done a good job in one of my films. And I laughingly pointed out that I barely had two scenes in the movie. That is when he told me how important it is that an actor gives his everything to a role no matter the screen space."
And as the conversation ends, the actor also notes matter-of-factly that Gargi might just be his 100th film. "I have done many small roles in movies, and this might be my 100th film," he smiles. So, has he reached a milestone? Gargi might have given him a break, but Venkat is not planning to rest on his laurels. "All I know is that I want to keep doing interesting things and stay relevant in the industry. There are also no markers of success in cinema," he says, adding that he has no set goals as an actor.
"But if I had to pick a dream role, it would be on the lines of Sivaji Ganesan sir in Muthal Mariyathai. Let's see if I get to do something like that when I hit that age. For now, I just want to keep going."