Edited excerpts from an interview between Dheeraj and Nikhita Thomas before the release of Karnan, Napoleon, Bhagat Singh:
One of the most interesting things about your first film as protagonist is its title, Karnan Napoleon Bhagat Singh, borrowed from a dialogue in Prithviraj’s 7th Day. Can you tell us a bit about its significance?
Dheeraj Denny: The title was an intriguing factor for me as well. The moment I heard the script the title stood out for me. It excited me more than the script. So I asked the director, Sarath G. Mohan, what is the secret? He said when you make a film like this, under a new banner, the title must be interesting. It has to be catchy and have a commercial element to it. And this title has that.
The second half of it is that these three — Karnan, Napoleon, Bhagat Singh — in reality, are not people who lost their battles. In their own ways they’ve won. If you take the case of Bhagat Singh, he was a man who was executed by hanging at the age of twenty-three. Instead of accepting ahimsa, he created revolution in his own way. This was why Britishers executed him. Then there’s Karnan who, when he was asked to give away his kavach, did it despite knowing that it would harm him later. But he kept his word. Now if you take this film’s script, my character sacrifices something important for his profession. So the film’s title is very true to its script. You will see it when you watch it.
Two of the most popular stars in the Malayalam film industry, Tovino Thomas and Nivin Pauly, are your cousins. Both of them are engineering graduates who quit their jobs to pursue a career in acting. As someone who’s following that path, how difficult is the journey of making it in cinema when you don’t come from the industry?
Dheeraj Denny: One thing I’ve felt is that if you’re someone with a film background, then the options before you are limited. Whether he is interested in acting or not is secondary. The pressure from the audience is that he must act in a movie, because they don’t always have an option. There are times when someone enters the industry, does not survive and has to leave. Sometimes their actual passion might be different too. Just because your father’s passion is acting doesn’t mean that yours will be the same but sometimes society really pushes for this thing called nepotism.
As far as I am concerned, I don’t have that kind of pressure on me. Nobody is expecting me to enter cinema because my cousins are actors. I can pursue whichever career I want. I studied electronics and instrumentation and had a good job in a good company. But I’ve always been interested in theatre. My passion for acting led me to cinema. It wasn’t a passion for cinema that led me to acting. There’s a big difference.
If you ask me whether it was difficult, what I saw initially was Nivin chettan’s entry into the industry. He was someone with no foundation who first first appeared in Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Malarvadi Arts Club. Then Thattathin Marayathu became a hit. After that things turned out okay for him. He created a space for himself in the industry.
When Tovino came, although Nivin chettan was already in the industry, in his own way Tovi created a signature. This is difficult work without external help. To survive in the industry without a godfather is definitely a difficult thing. What I saw coming into this was their struggles and the way in which they achieved their current stature. Their actions have given me confidence in that if I try, this will be possible. The path might be easy for someone. The path might be difficult for someone else. Depends from person to person. Personally, it’s been okay for me even with the difficulties involved.
In Kalki you played a very endearing character, Constable Govind. How is Roopesh in Karnan Napoleon Bhagat Singh different from Govind in Kalki?
Dheeraj Denny: Govind in Kalki is someone who came into the force because his father was a policeman. When his father passed away while in the police force, he had to take over. At the very start itself, Roopesh and Govind are different characters. Roopesh is a character who has passed the SI test. Right there you can understand the difference in seriousness of these characters.
Govind is a techie at heart. He was always dependent on Tovino’s character in Kalki. Roopesh is a character that drives himself. I’m not paired with a buddy, I don’t have a team. And I fight all my fights alone. All my friends have become suspects in my eyes. So I don’t have anyone. Overall Govind as a character is fun, people like him a lot. With Roopesh, it’s difficult to even understand what he’s thinking. He’s a character with many layers.
This is not just Sarath G. Mohan’s directorial debut but also your first stint as hero. How was it working with him? And how different is playing a hero from smaller roles?
Dheeraj Denny: I’ve worked with debut directors before as well. So that wasn’t a new experience. I was convinced as soon as I heard the script. Usually when you hear a script you ask for one or two days to read it and only then you commit. This is not to say that I have a lot of projects lined up or that a lot of scripts come to me. But whatever I get, I go through it carefully. With some things your intuitions work well. Karnan Napoleon Bhagat Singh is one of those scripts. Once I listened to the script I gave Sarath ettan my hand and said, “Sarath etta, I’m okay to do this, if you are okay with me.” Then we parted. Very next day they reached out and we went ahead with the film.
Coming to the hero part, when I play a character, in Kalki for instance, I just had to portray Govind. So I did my homework for that and read the entire script a few times. When I read the script I know where this character is placed, which level of empathy people expect from him, what are his ups and downs, that’s all I have to think about.
But when I appear as hero, I’m also that film’s brand. So from its pre-production to this moment it releases, I’m constantly journeying with this film. Roopesh is a layered character, if we were shooting scene fifty-five first and then scene two, I would have to capture his emotional continuity. I asked the director a lot of doubts until I got some clarity. I must have been a nuisance but later he told me that sometimes my questions improved his clarity too.
You’re really involved when you play the hero, even when it comes to other characters. A good percentage of the film’s responsibility falls on you and I enjoyed exploring that aspect of it. Whatever I can do, I do. And the things I can’t, I learn.