Sanoop Dinesh recently played Louis Anthony, the antagonist in Abrid Shine’s The Kung Fu Master. In this interview with Varadh Krishna Prakash, he talks about how he became a part of the martial arts film, how it was to execute stunts in the snow and why he thinks The Kung Fu Master is an important film for action lovers.
How was your experience acting and working on the stunts in The Kung Fu Master?
This is my first Malayalam movie. I was working in UAE, and was doing theatre there. I had the chance to audition for this movie with Abrid Shine. I think I was the last one to get cast among the core group. For me, it was more than just working in front of the camera. I had an opportunity to work from behind the camera as well — I was the assistant director as well. It was an amazing experience, we had a great team. We nearly worked for one and half years. The filmmaking process was thoroughly enjoyable, and it was something new for me.
Coming to the movie, we had Jiji [Scaria] as the male lead. In fact, Jiji was the reason why the movie was even made — he was a master in a Kung Fu stunt called Wing Chun. While discussing stunts for another movie, he got inspired seeing Jiji perform those stunts, and seeing his ability to pull off such hand techniques, he decided to do this movie. Then, Neeta [Pillai] came in. She did not have any previous experience in martial arts. She went through the training process and picked it up well. Those who watched the movie were impressed with how a girl stood against such men with the grace and charm that was required for the character. I come from a martial arts background: I’m a black belt holder in karate. I did a bit of theatre and dance too, which gave me a slight advantage for a performance that required physical and mental strength.
What was the conversation between you and director Abrid Shine? Martial arts, as a concept, is completely new to Malayalam cinema. What was the mood like on the set?
It had very positive vibes all the way. Abrid was very clear that he wanted to give the audience something new. I wouldn’t limit this film just to Malayalam cinema — it had that pan-India quality when it comes to action sequences. The story revolves around the action sequences. Abrid also brought in many other martial artists who were experts in different kinds of martial arts. Some of them were experts in Wushu, Kyokushin, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu while some of us knew karate. The director wanted to make something different from the usual stunts in cinema.
Given you’re bringing martial arts into Malayalam films, how challenging was it?
You would have noticed that we did not use any ropes, equipment, tools, knives or pistols during the fights, it was pure hand-to-hand coordination. The director was clear that he didn’t want any intermediate cuts between shots. We had to memorize all the sequences like we do for dance [routines]. Also, during the fights, we had to come in contact with another person, and yet remain in control so that nobody got hurt.
You mentioned that you were doing theatre back in the UAE. In theatre actors don’t get a retake either. Did that kind of experience help while doing this film?
Theatre and films are two different experiences. In theatre, we rehearse vigorously for months to get the scenes perfectly; we practice to remember the lines, and we rehearse to an extent that we are able to perform continuously for 1 to 1.5 hours on stage. In films, we get a second chance. In case our director feels that something is not right or enough, we get another chance to make it perfect.
How was the experience of training the people who were not into martial arts? Martial arts is very different compared to other cinematic stunts. What were the challenges the cast faced during the shoot?
I think Neeta was the only person who was not from a martial arts background. She trained for one and half years and then performed as well as the others. Other than her, everyone in the cast were real fighters. Coming to the challenges, we actually rehearsed it fully in Kerala, and then went to Uttarakhand to shoot the fight sequences. There, we couldn’t execute the movements well due to the snow, and it was very slippery. Usually, people rehearse in the studio and then go for the shot to execute it. Here, we were forced to decide and execute in the location itself. Some people even told me that it would have been easier to fall in the snow. Maybe falling in snow was easy, but standing in the middle of that and kicking in one leg is really tough and challenging. Sometimes, the ice would get into our shoes and would melt inside — resulting in a frostbite by the evening.
Was training Neeta Pillai easier, considering she is a dancer and has a lot of flexibility? Both are completely different mediums, but by any chance, does that help?
Absolutely. Even I come from a dance background. The rhythm in the sequence between me and Neeta was good, as if it was choreographed like a dance movement. Neeta, having a dance background, picked up really well. She was trained by Jayeesh master, an expert in Wushu, Jiji, an expert in Wing Chun, and Ranjith master, who is an expert in Kyokushin. A lot of people helped train her skillset required for this movie. Having a dance background definitely helped her.
You must have really enjoyed the dialogue before the climax fight. How did that happen?
We did a lot of fight sequences before that and Abrid suggested having some dialogue before the climax fight began. Abrid is someone who finds inspiration on the spot. By that time, we had the emotion within ourselves, and after doing all those stunts, we really carried that within ourselves as characters. Abrid was also clear about what he expected from each character and that too, really helped us.
The punches were given utmost importance. Of course, it’s a part of martial arts, but the detailing of those stunts was good. Can you tell us about it?
The idea was to be hand-driven. We could do only 30 percent of the kicks planned due to the terrain and slippery snow, so those punches were planned. Wing chun is a hand-driven martial art. Yes, there are bits of leg movement, but it’s mostly hand-driven. You will see a chain of punches where one hand comes after another continuously — it happened that way, and we are happy that it came out well.
Being a stunt person, how exciting was it to hear about this project happening in Malayalam cinema?
It was my first ever audition for Malayalam cinema. I went to the audition, and Abrid said, ‘Ok, you will fit into this character and we will work on it.’ I believe I got selected due to my little experience in acting in theatres, and also because of my karate and dance background. For any actor, being able to showcase their talent in front of the camera is a moment to cherish. And yes, we will be able to see more projects like this in Malayalam cinema in the future.
Abrid, coming from a relatively small industry, created a project like this, where stunts had so much quality and were realistic as well. Seeing Chinese films, which had Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and thinking that even we can create something like that, was a passionate move from him. He did it with a fresh cast—only Neeta had experience. He also laid the platform for other filmmakers to come out with this kind of a concept. This movie will stand out from an action point of view.
Tell us your three favourite stunt sequences from this movie.
There were three different locations — Beatles Ashram, the cold mine, and finally on the snow. The final fight on snow between me and Neeta is one of my favourites. The one between Neeta and another fighter, Anoop, in the Beatles ashram is another one, and one is in the snow where Jiji is fighting three other fighters. That fight was not only about the movements but also carried raw emotions, and I think he carried that really well. The director actually told Jiji to show more emotional skills than martial arts skills. He was able to portray that really well.
Tell us about an international martial arts film which inspires you. Was there an inspiration behind The Kung Fu Master? What were the benchmarks for the stunts?
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Jackie Chan. He was also an entertainer and an outstanding fighter, as we all know. I remember watching his movie Who Am I? multiple times as it was funny and also had some excellent fight moves. Coming to the benchmarks, the Ip Man series was an inspiration for all of us, along with movies like Raid. Yes, all those films had mega budgets, and we are from a small industry. But if we are able to do even 10 to 30 percent of those stunts, we are happy.