As an actor who predominantly acts in character roles, what's the mood like a week before the release of Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan, where you're playing the titular character?
Naturally, the stress is a lot more when you're playing the lead. When it's so close to the release, my usual state of mind is to worry about the reach the film's promotions have received. But with Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan, the response has been great for the songs and the posters and overall the visibility of the film has been good because Dulquer is presenting it. It's not like people don't know such a film is coming.
What about the impact after a film releases? What's your system to understand how a film is doing on release day?
I've had all kinds of experiences. Trivandrum Lodge is the film that gave me a major break and I remember I had gone to the temple in the morning before the first show. By 1, the first half was over and the film was being appreciated. That's when my tension subsided. With 1983, I couldn't go to the theatre because I had to go for an inauguration. This was when there were not a lot of online reviews. So when I got the first call, the report was that the film was just ok. "Oru documentary feel undu" was the statement. I was devastated to hear that. But ultimately it went on to become a superhit.
It was the same with Theevandi. A man said the first half was good but there was a lot of lag in the second half. This was worrying because most of my scenes were in the second half. I was in the theatre and I couldn't focus at all after hearing this. I then stopped picking calls, finished the movie and just went to my office. There were 10 to 15 missed calls then and when I returned those calls, all of them were congratulatory. In fact in the multiplex in Mall Of Travancore, they had even increased it to some 20 shows. You generally get the idea with the number of calls and messages you get on Friday. Either ways, it's not like any one person can give you the correct report because what the audience feels is so unpredictable.
When a film doesn't do well, but if your character is being appreciated, is there a satisfaction from having done your job well?
Initially, it feels good when they single out my performance, even if they didn't like the film. I even use that compliment to pacify myself at that point, but I've realised that this feeling in only momentary. At the end of the day, we know that a character is good only if the film is good. I got praised for my performance in Aadu and KL10 Pathu, but it was really upsetting when those films didn't work at the box office. It's the same with Mayookham. They said I had done a good job but the film's outcome remains painful to this day, even after 15 years.
But didn't a launch like Mayookham cement your face among the Malayali audience? Its songs were so beautiful…
I agree that I got an advantage because of the film's lovely songs and videos but the biggest advantage was that it was Hariharan sir's film. The moment you're an actor in one his films, people look at you with respect. I had gone for Mayookham's audition and I remember telling my friend about the experience. Because I had grown up in Nagpur, I wasn't sure about all the people in the industry. When the friend asked who the director was, I said "a person named Hairharan". He sat up so quickly that the chair fell down. That's the kind of respect people have for him. Even though the film didn't succeed, neither Mamta (Mohandas) nor I ever stopped getting work. That too is a result of his label.
Did you feel like you let him down when it didn't work?
I did. Because everyone Hariharan sir launched went on to become established actors. Mamta too had forged her path but at one point, I hadn't reached anywhere. I was still struggling and my worry was that I had spoilt his name. I was the washout from Mayookham because I wasn't getting the big opportunities. But that's what pushed me to keep improving too. Eventually it did work out and I'm happy it did.
You mentioned that you grew up in Nagpur. What was your Malayalam movie "education" like before moving to Kerala?
Very limited. I could hardly recognise the faces of directors because it was limited to the names and faces that would appear in Nana or Cinema magazines that would reach Nagpur. Of course, the actors were all familiar but not quite like someone who grew up in the State. When I was a kid, we had a family friend, GR Pillai, who had a TV set. We would collect a little money to rent a VCR and get cassettes of several Malayalam films to watch over the weekend. The 1983 film Thaalam Thettiya Tharattu was one such film we kept re-watching because Pillai uncle liked it a lot.
We got a colour television (an Onida) for our house only in 1989. But without a VCR, our only option was Doordarshan. Back then on DD, they would play a film every Sunday evening but the language was alphabetical. Which means that the round would start with Assamese, Bengali, Bhojpuri and then on…So if the film was Marathi, then we knew the next Malayalam film would be after the entire cycle again.
What about holidays in Kerala?
Those were my first experiences of watching a Malayalam movie in the theatre. I clearly remember watching Suryamanasam, Johnie Walker and Chitram in Chertala's Chitranjali or Paradise theatres. My ability to speak Malayalam fluently too was partly a result of these movies and my summer vacations in Chertala.
You often find Malayalis who grow up in the north, struggling to get the perfect Malayalam pronunciation needed for acting…
I need to thank my parents for that. Amma and Achan were quite extreme when it came to what was considered fashionable at that period. For instance, most of the Malayali kids we knew in Nagpur would call their parents "pappa/mummy" or "daddy/mummy". But my parents insisted we spoke to them in Malayalam and called them Achan, Amma. They were very different in every sense. As a kid, I was quite greedy so I was told specifically not to eat a lot when we visit other houses. "Just one laddoo and just two or three spoons of mixture", even though I wanted to finish the whole thing. It's only now after I've grown up that I realise that most hosts are just happy to see kids eating what was served.
Did you ever struggle with lines in Malayalam, at least in the beginning?
Cant say I struggled but I did take a little time. I knew how to read Malayalam but it wasn't perfect. We lived in Kerala until I was around four and my ammoomma had taught me the letters by writing on mud. Until much later, I didn't get the chance to read a lot of Malayalam expect when it was on TV, with the satellite boom. When it comes to dialogues, the general issue was that I was swallowing some of the words in a hurry. That had to be worked on.
But did reading those Malayalam movie magazines and watching those movies create an ambition to enter the industry?
I don't think I ever thought of movies as a career. Like all individuals I agree that fame was a motivation for me, like money may have been for others. But even if I'd worked in a corporate company, I would have enjoyed being known as a "best performer" or something. Basically the idea of my parents being known as my parents, instead of the other way around. I'm enjoying this even today when teachers in my daughter's school address me as Mayookha's father. It feels great.
What about navigating the hierarchies of the industry? Was that challenging?
See when I came into the industry, I didn't know that there were so many rules on the sets. I just went about talking to everyone equally and I didn't know that I should listen to the director completely. But I was naive enough, even then, to make my own suggestions without even knowing how the shooting process works. I guess it my was immaturity and I had only studied mining engineering, so it's not like I had the relevant knowledge.
Wasn't that a problem because how will you know how to gauge the scripts that were coming your way?
Scripts?! No one gave me scripts to read back then nor did anyone come to me for narration. I was given a general idea of the story and my role and I would just land up on the sets. I started listening to scripts only after 2012 with Trivandrum Lodge.
Trivandrum Lodge is a film we have to talk about. It established you as an actor capable of doing comedy. But how did they see that you could do that when you were mostly doing serious roles?
I've generally been very friendly with the assistant directors on sets. They might not be very senior on the sets but I somehow always look at them with affection. When I see them, I think of how their parents would have sent them with so much hope, to improve and make something of themselves.
Mridhul Nair was an AD on the sets of VK Prakash's Karmayogi. He was this kid walking around the sets enthusiastically wearing a pair of shorts. He once called me sir and I told him right then to either me calll me Saiju or Chetta. This developed into a friendship and he could see how I was outside of my character. Later, when they were casting for Trivandrum Lodge, it was he who suggested my name for that role because they didn't want a typical comedian for it. VKP and Anoop Menon, its writer, felt I could do it and eventually they were ready to take the risk.
I've always found that interesting about your trajectory. You may have done many comedy roles but no one ever calls you a "comedian"…
I agree and I think that it's also because of my physicality. Whenever VKP needs an actor for a middle-aged character, he always thinks of me, even if the character is non-Malayali or if it's for an advertisement. I too feel my appearance is such that I cannot be clubbed into one particular type of role or one region. So I've been lucky enough to play as many urban roles as rural, top ranking officers and even characters with criminal backgrounds.
That brings me back to Gunda Jayan, your character in next week's release. Was it a challenge to make sure there are no traces of Arakkal Abu, the iconic character you've played in two hit films in the Aadu series?
Not really because I heard Arun Vaiga's narration and the two characters are very different. Plus Arun himself was there to tell me if there were any repetitions. Arakkal Abu says a lot of stupid things and even the way he smiles is strange and quirky. But Gunda Jayan is a totally different person. The film is a comedy but my role isn't someone to be laughed at. It falls in that thin line and it was not a role written for me anyway.
Another thing I've noticed is general ease at playing the simplest of village next door characters…the kind we all know, wearing a mundu, who lives in the neighbourhood. For someone who grew up away, how did you find that organic simplicity, like your character in 1983 or the cousin in Android Kunjappan?
Speaking specifically about the mundu, I've always worn it or a lungi at home. Language and absorbing the village setting was not alien to me like I said earlier, but I've generally found the mundu to be a great help as an actor. With pants, you are constrained with what you can do with your hands. Either you use the pockets or not, there are no other options. With a lungi or mundu, the options are many. Firstly, the way you tie it says a lot about your character. You can hold one end of it in your hand and that has one meaning when compared to tying it up in half. Suddenly when an important person enters the shot, you can quickly untie it to portray respect…so the possibilities are many. It helps that I have the practise of wearing it from childhood.
Even as a kid in Nagpur?
Surely. I've always lived like a proud pucca Malayali. From when I was 12, I would go to play cricket wearing my dad's lungi. We used to play with a plastic ball and when I batted, the lungi would make sure I don't get bowled through my legs, even if I miss. And because there was no LBW I could play freely (laughs).
But wasn't it common for Malayali kids outside the state to sort of hide their Malayali identity?
It was, but I was never uncomfortable. This wasn't just about the language or the clothes. Even the food was always Kerala style at home and that's what I've always loved. When it comes to owning the identity, I have to give credit to the movies I grew up watching, especially those of Lalettan and Mammukka. They were icons and I wanted to be just like them. What's there to be shy about when you have stars like that to follow?