I Don't Chase Stardom: Tovino Thomas

"I want to have the freedom to do big and small films. Stardom can come in the way of that, so I don’t pursue it," says the actor
Tovino Thomas interview
Tovino Thomas interview

Tovino Thomas is a grounded actor, a star who says he’s in a “happy space”. But in Nadikar, which is releasing on May 3rd this week, he plays an actor who becomes a superstar and struggles to find peace with his stardom. Directed by Lal Jr, the film also stars Soubin Shahir, Bhavana, Dhyan Sreenivasan, Shine Tom Chacko, Divya Pillai and others.

Between his packed schedule, Tovino made some time for a chat with Film Companion about Nadikar, his approach to cinema, how he unwinds and more. Excerpts from the conversation below.

You're playing a superstar in Nadikar who goes through several ups and downs. Personally, what is it about stardom that you have found most challenging to handle?

I don’t give my stardom too much importance. My approach to cinema is different. I haven’t done films because I wanted to become a star. I do films that make me happy. I want to have the freedom to do big and small films. I want it to be like that. In fact, stardom can come in the way of that, so I don’t pursue it.

There is such a thing as bankability or likeability. That is indeed important. Unless the audience likes you, they won’t go to theatres. The audience’s love is important, but I don’t want to label that as stardom.

A still from Nadikar
A still from Nadikar

But when you become a star, life changes so much, doesn’t it? There’s money, fame, recognition – doesn’t that change a person?

Maybe it’s because I’m in a joint family, I’d say I haven’t changed all that much. Nobody in my home is in cinema or is famous. I am friends with people in the film industry but my closest friends are those I’ve known since my LKG days. I’m probably the only celebrity they know! They actually make fun of me for being a celebrity. 

When I’m at home, I can’t say, “Amma, give this superstar a tea.” I talk to her like I always used to. When my films do well, I only think about the opportunities that will come my way professionally. Nothing else. 

We just had Varshangalkku Shesham which is also about the film industry. But Nadikar has a darker tone to it, doesn’t it?

I’m somewhat embarrassed to live life as a celebrity, so I did have to act in this role (laughs). My process as an actor is to put myself in the shoes of the character that I’m playing. I should be able to justify the character’s actions and thoughts – things that I won’t be able to justify as Tovino Thomas. What I understood about this character is that he is an ill-fated superstar. He has money and fame but he isn’t happy. He is restless. He feels like he’s part of a rat race. He lives in luxury but he’s unable to enjoy it.

It’s like one of those journeys you come across in books like The Alchemist. A journey to find himself. He doesn’t embark on it voluntarily but it happens because of the people around him. He figures out what gives him satisfaction. He is someone who struggled a lot to become a star, but he loses his way. In my case, the people I live with keep me grounded and they will take me down a peg or two if I behave arrogantly. Nobody has let me go into that zone. But this guy is someone who doesn’t have anyone like that. He has loads of money. He is surrounded by yes-men. He becomes convinced that he is beyond awesome.

He becomes more focused on what stardom has given him and that eventually makes him discontent. The film is about how he finds his way back.

A still from Nadikar
A still from Nadikar

When 2018 (2023) came out, I remember you saying in an interview that Malayalam films have to work with a lot of constraints. Mythri Movie Makers is one of the producers for Nadikar. How did they come on board and is there less pressure when a big producer like this is backing a film?

We received a lot of support because of Mythri. We are able to do a much wider release, for instance. Godspeed Cinema is also one of our producers. Mythri was very interested in the remake of Driving License (2019) that was directed by Lal Jr, and they were keen to produce his film. This year has been big for Malayalam cinema and no other industry has produced so many hits. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any constraints. But that’s not the case. Even now, when a Malayalam film comes out, it first has to garner positive word-of-mouth for it to get a wider release beyond Kerala. 

But I’m hopeful that will change. At least, post-release, films like Manjummel Boys (2024) and Aavesham (2024) have been able to breach boundaries. I watched Aavesham when I was shooting in Tamil Nadu and we went to watch the film in a theatre there. Only a handful of us were Malayalis in the audience. We saw how much the crowd enjoyed it. If we manage to get a film to the audience, we can be confident about people enjoying it. It’s an organic process. I expect that distributors will become more interested in Malayalam films in the future. 

A still from 2018
A still from 2018

Your last release Anweshippin Kandethum (2024) was doing well but was swept away by Premalu (2024) and Manjummel Boys (2024). Were you disappointed that it didn't do better?

Premalu and Manjummel Boys became blockbusters. We can’t compare the collections for Anweshippin with those films. But we have different expectations from different films, and I have a good sense of that. I did a film like Adrishya Jalakangal (2023) – and I did it without expecting any magic at the box office. But that’s a film that reached an international audience through film festivals. I also won an international award for it at the Fantasporto International Film Festival in Portugal. I found it very satisfying to be recognised by a circle like that. I find satisfaction in commercial success also, but that is different from this appreciation. I want both. 

Anweshippin was profitable for the producer. Many people appreciated the film when it came out on OTT (available on Netflix). Manoj Bajpayee, an actor I greatly admire, mentioned my name in an interview because of this film. These are the things I desire, and I’m in a very happy space right now. 

Tovino Thomas in Anweshippin Kandethum
Tovino Thomas in Anweshippin Kandethum

When a film doesn’t do well, do you do a post-release analysis on why it didn’t work?

There are people in my life who don’t need to impress me or wish to hurt me. I consider them to be my critics. Not only friends and family, there are people in the film industry too who are in this category. I discuss my films with them. I know they won’t be biased and say things just to comfort me. We discuss what could have been done better, and I have been doing this analysis for many years now. Maybe that’s why I’m still here.

You're an actor who does several films a year. In an earlier interview we did, you told me about wanting to slow down and taking care of your health. Have you been able to do that?

Yes, I have slowed down. That’s also because our films are getting bigger now. We could shoot a film in 30-60 days earlier. But now we need 100 days to shoot a film. So, the number of films also comes down.

I’m still not able to take frequent breaks. But now, I take a one-month break every year, and we go abroad. If I’m at home, someone or the other will keep dropping in and we won’t get our privacy. But if we go on a foreign trip, nobody will know me and we spend time together happily. 

A still from Nadikar
A still from Nadikar

When you look back at your career, which are the films that you feel have been turning points for you?

I don’t want to make that assessment based on box office success. This list is off the top of my head, but here it is: Prabhuvinte Makkal (2012) was when I understood what cinema is as an insider. ABCD (2013) is a film that gave me visibility. It made me a recognisable face. Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015) made my name recognisable. You Too Brutus (2015) wasn’t a hugely successful film but many did like it. That was the film that made Basil Joseph call me for Godha (2017). Muhsin Parari, who co-wrote Thallumaala (2022), has told me that it was You Too Brutus that convinced him that I could do the role. Guppy (2016) is a film that has given me unconditional love from the audience. Oru Mexican Aparatha (2017) gave me bankability. Producers need to be convinced about you when they spend their money, and this movie gave me that. Godha and Mayaanadhi (2017) also helped me become a bankable star. Minnal Murali (2021), of course, changed my life and perspective. I did things in Thallumaala that I never thought I’d do – like dancing! I picked up new skills through the film. 2018 gave me a lot of love and appreciation. Every film has its own significance. All my films have given me something precious like that.

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