It Took Me 8 Years To Learn To Say No: Harish Uthaman
Playing a cop is not new to actor Harish Uthaman. He has done it with ease in films across languages – Thani Oruvan (2015), Dora (2017), Naandhi (2021) and Bheeshma Parvam (2020) to name a few. And there finally came a point in his life where he was jaded by the idea of getting into the uniform yet another time. So much so that when makers would approach him for narration, he would first ask them if it was for a cop role. “If they said yes, I would apologise and tell them no. I have been doing a lot of cop roles, but not by choice. And somewhere along the way, I got fed up.” And it was during this phase in his career that Ini Uthiram came the actor’s way. The same question was posed to writer Ranjith Unni and filmmaker Sudeesh Ramachandran. It was a cop role after all, but Uthaman’s answer this time was a yes. What changed?
In an interview, he speaks about playing Ilavarasan, a cop with agency in Ini Utharam, the evolution of the on-screen villain and how he looks at Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi and Gayatri Pushkar’s Suzhal as turning points in his trajectory. Excerpts from the interview:
What drew you to Ini Utharam?
When Ranjith and Sudhish called me about the possibility of narrating a story, I asked them if it was a cop role and they said yes. I declined, but they insisted that I listen to the story and somehow got through to me. And I just couldn’t miss this movie. For most films, we don't get solid characters. I am doing character roles in every language, and a lot of people connect me to action movies. So, I wanted to break out of all of that. And this character is like something that helps me do just that.
Although he is a cop, that man has his own logic, ideas and values. The way he sees and approaches things is what drew me to him. Aparna Balamurali has a solid role in the film. And the characters around her, including me, have so much to contribute to the story.
What makes filmmakers cast you as a cop so often?
I think it is good in a way that the uniform suits me. It is also probably because of my build. But at the same time, when I am only given those kinds of characters, somewhere I feel I am stuck.
Cop roles apart, you have also played a lot of antagonists. And it is also interesting how your villains have evolved. In Kaithi, you are the menacing Adaikalam, and in Suzhal, a complicated baddie with a vulnerable side. How do you see this progression of the Tamil cinema villain in terms of your career graph?
Certainly. I think we are all evolving. There used to be a phase where the hero in films could do no wrong, and the entire film would revolve around his “goodness”. I think we have crossed that phase. Audiences are very sensible today. And thanks for mentioning Kaithi and Suzhal in the same line to differentiate my share of villains.
My takeaway from Suzhal was the last scene where my character Trilok gets beaten up. A lot of people felt bad for Trilok in some way in the scene. And I think with that, the actor behind the role, Harish, too experienced a small change. After Suzhal, there is a difference in the kind of roles I am getting.
Your tryst with the Tamil film antagonist started with your 2013 film Gouravam. What has changed since then?
My first movie was in 2010 and my second film was in 2013. In these three years, the pressure that I went through in many ways made me crave for work. And after Pandiya Naadu (2013) became a success, I started getting many roles and started running with the roles one after the other. Somewhere in 2018, I paused and suddenly woke up only to realise that I have been taking on the same kind of movies. I slowed down. I did not take any movie that year but for a Malayalam film. And 2019 onwards, things started changing. So, now I am very clear about the kind of movies I want to do. It took around 8-9 years for me to say no to people for a role.
Tell us about your role, Adaikalam in Kaithi, which had a unique treatment of the sinister villain character.
I did not expect Kaithi to have such an impact because my character was inside the cell throughout the film. I do not have a shot outside the cell. I knew the story, but I did not know what they were creating. The story was super strong, but their vision was huge. The interesting point for me was being able to evoke fear while being restricted to the cell. Lokesh is a magician in that sense. He gets these moments out of you in creative ways. For instance, when Adaikalam is screaming his throat out, a song plays in full volume in the background.
Lokesh also always plays with voices for his films. He likes his film’s dubbing a certain way. For instance, I dubbed for Kaithi during the early mornings because that is when the voice is very gruff and has a touch of bass. Lokesh told me that Adaikalam carried no sort of frustration even when he was in jail. He wanted me to think that the jail was his.
Is there a conscious effort at play to make a character seem different from your other roles, especially when it is the antagonist?
I have not prepared myself for any role. My preparation is sitting with the director and talking to them about my role. Right from the character's smallest movements to how he presents himself, every detail comes from the filmmaker. And I don't think about my previous roles while acting. There might be similarities between my characters, but if I do something just to make my character different, it might not look natural.
How did acting happen for Harish, a person who was part of the airline cabin crew in the early 2000s?
Like acting, even the cabin crew happened by accident (laughs). I finished college in 2005 and got placed at an advertising agency in Chennai. After training, I was posted in Coimbatore and had a meeting with the president of the Paramount Airways, who offered me a job. To give you some context, my dad was a farmer, and I was born and brought up in his farm in a village called Navakkarai in Coimbatore. Until 2003 I was staying in a village where we didn't even have a TV. Imagine how exciting it would have been to fly for a person who had never stepped into a plane!
This was the same way cinema happened. I was in Coimbatore one day, and there was a person who had come to visit my brother. And he turned out to be a director, who gave me my debut in Tha (2011). I liked the idea of trying something new, and that is how I entered the industry. Destiny brought me here, and I am thankful to the universe.