In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin does a deep dive into cinema and what it means to him, and his admiration for his former cricket captain, actor Vishnu Vishal. Excerpts
This isn't going to be about cricket at all, but I have to begin with one question about your being a Chennai boy and playing for Delhi. Do you ever feel a twinge in you, like "Oh my God"?
There is a huge misconception among CSK fans that I left CSK. Unfortunately, the name of the game called auction isn't like that. Whoever bids for you tends to get you. Kings XI Punjab went the extra mile and got me in the last auction and I've been traded out to Delhi Capitals in the last year. I was a Chennai Super Kings boy to start with for a very long time. Chennai is my place. I have a lot of pride in saying that. In fact, Tamil Nadu is an emotion for me. I really love the fact that I play for Tamil Nadu when I play for the Ranji trophy. But when it comes to the IPL, it's more about professional pride. People breaking the bank for getting the right players and putting a team together to win. It is a matter of pride, and my professional pride is at stake, and wherever I play I'll put in my best performance.
Ashwin, every time I want to talk about movies to a cricketer, people say "You have to talk to Ashwin because Ashwin is the encyclopedia of Tamil cinema". What is this reputation that you have built up?
I really don't know where you heard this from.
From everybody, and most recently, Dinesh Karthik.
Dinesh tends to talk more about cinema in an analytical fashion. I love movies in general. It's not just Tamil cinema. If I can decipher it and connect with it, I watch. People say they watch movies in a lot of languages and genres. I don't feel cinema has a language. I feel it is open for all, as long as you have an eye for it, and understand it. For me, movies are a way to connect. I don't attach myself to the stars. I attach myself to the fun element of it, the comedy side of it, and the learning side of it. If I watch a movie, at the end of it, I must've learnt something. In my early days as a cricketer, my routine used to be to go for practice at 6, come back, watch KTV, have a meal, watch KTV again, sleep, get up, watch KTV, then again practice, come back home, catch up with my engineering portions, and sit back at 8 to watch the next movie on KTV. This is how my life was, so I'm not surprised that movies are a massive connect for me.
You have a YouTube channel. Did it come from your interest in films?
It came out of nowhere. The lockdown was getting very monotonous for me, and for a long time, there's been this huge misconception when people see you… I don't know about it, but a lot of people who are close to me, work with me, felt there is this massive divide in terms of what I am and what people think of me. The problem is that most of my life, I've been positioned for marketing by people as how they saw me. In the cricket world, when you understand questions properly and address a press conference, they feel this guy is not one among us, he is able to assess the situation. That is actually thanks to good schooling my parents gave me. I am actually a full-time fun-loving person who just happened to become a cricketer.
If someone asked me what I would do after winning a match of the match award, I'd go to the room order dosa or curd rice and watch MMKR on the laptop, that's what I am. But, I do Skype my friends and chat about gully cricket.
I sometimes get asked why I'm so serious on the ground. I go to the ground to play. This imaging of what they see on the field, it gets to you.
That said, we hardly get time to express ourselves. YouTube has given me that chance.
You don't go for the typical people among the film personalities you've interviewed. You're going for Vishnu Vishal, Madhavan… How did that selection come about?
For me, it is about learning. I was looking for characters who would give me a body of work.
What was your takeaway from Vishnu?
I watch all Tamil movies, even those that people say are not very good. I wait to see if this movie can bring a smile to my face.
I feel Vishnu Vishal is very very intriguing.
I get that feeling, because obviously there is a connect; we've played cricket together. You get the feeling, he is one among us. I see him comfortably playing the second fiddle all the time, allowing the story to evolve. The story is the hero. You don't get to see that in Tamil movies a lot.
Take Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu. How many would like to do the role? Here, the story is the winner. The movie is an even bigger winner. Let us see what this guy can do?
Mundasupatti, Kullanari Koottam … anything he touches seems to turn into gold.
Letting the story take precedence is an amazing thing.
When you take a movie, it is not just the star, but the overall experience that matters. If you take MMKR, the whole movie has been done well.
In MMKR, who is the hero? Kamal? Crazy Mohan? Delhi Ganesh and Nagesh? Santhana Bharathi? In the song 'Vachaalum vaikkaama ponaalum malli vasam', the small actions add so much to the movie.
You said you don't follow the movies for the stars, but I was going to ask you the famous question from Aaranya Kaandam, "Whom do you prefer; Rajini or Kamal?"
I feel that it's a massive divide. In my locality, kids used to be shouting out "Dei naan Rajini fan" and "Dei naan Kamal fan da", and the kids all used to gang up against each other, but I think I grew out of it eventually. I think both of them are phenomenal.
In the last decade or so after Rajini became a sort of a national icon, people started looking at him like some sort of a superhero. But, Rajini is also a phenomenal actor who was a symbol of hope for a generation of the Tamil audience. I've seen all his movies right from Aarilirundhu Arubathu Varai to Baasha and Arunachalam. I went to Udhayam theatre near my house to watch one of his movies, but returned because a 25-rupee ticket was being sold at a thousand rupees.
Kamal was the artist. His style was more like "Dei naan porandhadhe nadikka dhaan" (I was born to act). Both of them are the greatest gifts Tamil cinema could have got.
If you had to pick one movie for each, what would you pick?
For Rajini, it would be Baasha. I can't ever get tired of the film. For Kamal, I'd say Michael Madana Kama Rajan. The writing, the opening song, everything about it, actually. I can dissect it scene by scene and dialogue by dialogue. It's my all-time favourite.
What about music?
I love music, but don't go into its depths.
You have grown up with Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman. What is your taste?
I can directly compare Tamizh music to the cricket field that I know. Sachin-a Kohli-a? Dhoni-a Kohli-a? These are all cliched questions. We tend to compare. Otherwise, we cannot sleep. We can't eat. This is an evolution. Without MSV, we would not have had Ilaiyaraaja. Without Ilaiyaraaja, Rahman would not have happened.
It is a legacy. Ilaiyaraaja is like the wine that sits in a cellar. His music will be evergreen. Without Rahman, we would not have explored the new dimensions that we are aware of.
I am just sad that the Tamil music industry does not have a well-concocted concert culture. For the kind of music expertise we have, we should have more concerts.
Can you mention a few of MSV's or Ilaiyaraaja's songs?
I always wanted to address this problem of comparison. It is like selling commodities to sell people. When you are selling them, a lot of misconceptions happen. When there are fans of two big stars, they tend to fight over trivial matters. They forget the larger goal.
It is the Indian mentality to ask, "Is this one better or the other one?" Everybody is good. Everybody is great. They are all torch bearers.
When you talk about MSV, what is the first thing that you remember about him? His harmonium. He brought character to music. He let lyrics rule the roost. Then came Ilaiyaraaja. He also gave importance to lyrics. But he also added some amazing music.
A R Rahman brought everything new and everything modern into the field. He is the modern Math teacher.
Tell me which are the songs that you like of these composers? Those that have touched your world?
Before I go to play a game, it is Rahman. After the game, it is Ilaiyaraaja. Good or bad, it is Ilaiyaraja. Because, you have an Ilaiyaraaja song for every mood. When the sun sets and the moon rises, Ilaiyaraaja also rises.
His songs seem to give you the melatonin that makes you sleep. On the days when I am sitting and chilling, MSV sticks out. I listen to MSV for the lyrics.
There is a lot of similarity between people in the film industry and those in the sports industry, particularly cricket. It is believed that people in these two industries receive disproportionate attention compared to those in the other fields who do a lot of good work. What do you think about their domination? Why do people want to read more about you?
Cricket is preferred to other sports, mainly because we are not an entirely sports-driven country. We are embarking on an unreal journey. We have Sindhu and Saina Naiwal and Srikanth. Likewise, there is a standup comedy section. And, there are TV stars. They are opening up. But, I think they should open up faster.
This is a generation of social media, and information travels very quickly. Films play an important role, because films encapsulate people from different walks of life. Let us take Mission Mangal, for example. It is a movie that showcases how Indian scientists are amazing. The actual scientists who worked in Mission Mangal are not as popular. We are talking about Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan. We are not making stories of real scientists. I think what is missing from the movie industry is the story of such people.
There is the story of a success here. But how about the life of the scientists? They show a little bit of Vidya Balan's life at home and all that. But what about the journey?
I think films can play a larger role in opening people up. Why are our films centred around characters rather than the story?
You seem to be relaxing into the role of a talk show host. You are really comfortable in front of the camera. Do you have any acting ambitions?
(Laughs). I am not sure I will be entirely good at it. I have a problem. Whatever I want to do in life, I want to be the best. That is not in my hands. This itself is a relaxation for me. I have done a couple of ad shoots. I don't think it is my cup of tea.
Which is the movie that has given you most hope?
Indian — I'm not even in doubt. I've always thought that director Shankar was 10 to 15 years ahead of his time. And you can see that in his 2.0 as well, where he brings out the importance of birds, and all of these are messages to our audience. Films with meaning don't run very well in India. When I speak to directors or heroes, they say that I'm looking only at Chennai and that the B & C centres matter. I say, if you don't make the B & C centres grow, they will never matter. When are you going to make them grow? If you make 10 films, and nine are for the B & C centres to make them believe in only that, what about the next movie you send? Let's say, you make a really revolutionary movie, it will not run in the B & C centres. So, what about people in those centres? Will they be conditioned to the same chocolate at 25 paise?
But that's what it is right now…
It is such a powerful media! There is responsibility at your doorstep. Let's just put it this way, Sir. How many people from the film industry come from B & C centres? How many of them have struggled to come up? So many people in Chennai are now ruling the roost. If they don't take these movies to the B & C centres, then who will? This is actually a topic very close to me. Now, if I say to the people through my channel, "Do this, do that, eat carrots, they're good for your eyes," no one will listen. But, if someone like Ajith, Vijay or Kamal Haasan says it, hundreds of people will listen. THAT is power.
So, when you said Indian gave you most hope, you're talking about the fact that the common man can still make a difference…
Of course! What is democracy? It is for the common man. There have been times in my life where I've felt that people don't have hope. Sir, tell me this, how many times during the 'election holiday' have you seen everyone in your friends' and family circle go and vote? "What is going to happen by my one vote?" Nothing will happen unless a difference is made for my "brothers and sisters" in B & C centres through movies. Unless we do that through film and television, they will always eat that 25 paise chocolate and never aspire for more.
There is one theory about the influence of movies that says people absorb the bad things from movies. But, if a movie says something good, like Taare Zameen Par said something about dyslexia, or if a movie is trying to educate you about why discriminating on the basis of skin colour is bad, people watch the movie, but continue to do what they were doing. Have you seen that happen in real life?
Okay, take Indian itself, for example. How many people must've bought and worn the exact same dress worn by Manisha Koirala in that film? How many people must've had the speaker featured in the song 'Akadanu Naanga'? But has anyone ever turned around and said I will not pay those thousand bucks at the license gate? Why haven't we done that? It's because no one has written anything on that. Magazines will write about Manisha Koirala's style statement. There should be a follow up to everything. Everybody wants to write what sells on paper. If I do a clean-up campaign and say "Hey you know what, I stand for voting or I stand for donating" and don't follow it up after that one day, people will not see it. Now for example, for an eye donation pledge campaign, if I wear a pair of glasses, those glasses will get sold, but no one will donate! Since you're a part of the film industry, let me ask you one thing. After the wave of love movies from the 90s, how many love marriages took place in Tamil Nadu? Would it have increased or not? I married for love too. There is an impact, because everyone made a love story. If you want corruption to go, it's not enough if Shankar alone makes a movie on corruption; everyone needs to make one! Will it run if we all make movies on that, Sir? It may or may not run, but commercial movies run if any director makes them.
You clearly come across as somebody who loves watching movies on the big screen. But now, some are saying that all of that is going to change, and because of Covid-19, we may not see movie mania anymore and people will get comfortable watching stuff at home. What is your estimate about that?
To be honest, I think it's really sad. Sitting on this side of the fence as a cricketer, I know how much I miss the game. There are so many people who miss their livelihoods. A lot of people couldn't work on a day-to-day basis. I've heard so many sad stories about how people aren't able to earn their bread. And the film industry is badly hurt as well. I go into the advertising industry and I see those working on the set who depend on it for their daily bread, and I feel really sad for them. I heard that the film union is doing a good job with respect to all those people. Whenever you speak to any star, they say "Let the OTT platform be, there is nothing like watching a movie in a theatre", which I agree with as there is nothing that can compare to a huge crowd and popcorn. I feel it's really a testing time for the entertainment industry as a whole, and I don't know how they can make bubbles and open theatres with social distancing, but I'm looking forward to it. Once the theatres open up, I'll be one of the first people to go and watch.
The film industry and sports depend on audience energy, feedback, inputs… You're playing an IPL without that. How does it feel?
The audience pulse is outstanding, without doubt, but like I said earlier, if you give me cricket and the normal things in life, I'll be fine. The happiness for me just comes out of putting the ball out there, hitting it with a bat and competing.
Does the happiness go up when you take a wicket and everybody cheers?
Oh definitely! It has happened so many times, where after taking a wicket, I walk up to the boundary line and thousands of people applaud. In fact, when I used to play test matches in Chennai, the entire stand used to go up in unison when I took a wicket. Crowds are like your blood vessels, like the WBCs and the RBCs. There is no match without them. But I'm sure the ratings on TV will go through the roof, because people were all starved of it all these days. And I'm really hoping that things will start bouncing back. From what I've seen, everybody is starting to wear a mask, which means that they are aware that a threat named Corona exists. I'm sure we will learn how to live with it in a very responsible way.