When Arakkal Abu (Aadu) describes the moment he chopped off a man's hand, there is menace in his eyes. Later, when this goon of a man cries profusely, revealing his desperation, he unwittingly transforms into one of the best comic characters. Saiju Kurup calls this an actor's 'connect' with the audience, something that took him a long time to crack.
After his debut in Hariharan's Mayookham, it took Saiju almost 28 films until he got his big break playing the sleazy Shibu Vellayani in Trivandrum Lodge. Ask what motivated him to stick to this uncharted terrain, and he says: "The thought of being a struggling actor seemed better than my previous job."
How have you been dealing with the lockdown?
I've begun to enjoy it. Initially, I was fine, but it got really difficult in between. I then became optimistic and considered the lockdown period as a break everyone got in life. I watched a lot of web series. I really enjoyed Paatal Lok and Mirzapur. Out of Love had just a few episodes but it was brilliant. I also liked the first season of Rangbaaz and Aarya.
You're one of the few actors who got to work as soon as the lockdown was lifted with CU Soon…
Yes. It was a damn good experience shooting for it. This was a film shot differently. We had to hold the camera and say our dialogues and it was difficult to enact. We had to make sure the lights and angles were correct, based on the guidance we got. Cinematographer Sabin Uralikandy was with us throughout, but we had to support him as well. In fact, I had to do many retakes, sometimes 25 or more, to get my part right. I even wondered if I had forgotten to act because I did not shoot in March and April. But Fahadh Faasil told me it was okay and that 30 to 40 takes was very normal for this film, and I was relieved. I feel great that I got to be a part of this film, even though my screen time was brief.
Now that you've seen a prelude to what could possibly be a post-Covid-19 movie set, what do you feel would be the major changes?
I really don't know. From next week, I begin shoot, including an outdoor schedule, for a webseries in Malayalam written and directed by Mudhugauv-fame Vipin Das. I am not sure what to expect and what challenges we will face.
You've said that initially, you thought acting was about dialogue delivery alone. When did it strike you that there's more to it?
Around 2007-2008, I began to understand that I needed to improve my skills but wasn't sure how. In Lal Jose's Mulla, during which I struggled a lot, I began to learn the process of reacting to my co-actor's dialogues. Until then, I used to react even before the co-actor had delivered his dialogue. Mulla also helped me understand that one could act with one's eyes.
Trivandrum Lodge happened much later. What kept you going during that phase?
My biggest motivation was that being a struggling artiste would be easier than going back to my corporate job. Also, I strongly believed that anyone introduced by director Hariharan would do well in movies. My family was also confident that I would get a break. Having said that, I used to cry a lot when alone. I did not ever feel 'why me' or blame it on fate, because I knew my performances did not connect with the audience and create magic onscreen. I kept hoping.
How do you work on your character?
Usually, the brief by the writer and director is good enough for me. I draw inspiration from real life to portray almost every character. Emotions are easier this way too. Even if I have to emote anger, I might go back to a childhood incident where I strongly felt that emotion.
So, is there a character you could not relate to but ended up doing anyway?
That has to be Arakkal Abu in Aadu because I don't know any person like him till today. All the other characters I have essayed are people I have known at some point.
You've been doing a mix of serious films and comedies…
I think my physical appearance prevents me from getting typecast. Last year, I did a lot of roles with humour, but I still receive offers for serious characters.
A space that you feel you've not explored and would love to try?
Honestly, I have not felt so. My ambition is to do movies for another five to six years. Every day, there is a new filmmaker who comes in and showcases his magic and I am thankful that they write characters keeping me in mind. Reaching this stage is a bonus; I never thought I would work in movies. It was my luck to make my debut as lead in a legend's film.
The outsider-insider debate has been doing the rounds in many film industries. Have you felt it exists in Malayalam?
My answer could sound very cliched, but the fact is that you might land your first few films based on contacts but sustaining in the field is only based on performance. Not everyone is a born actor, but the day his/her performance improves, there will be a connect with the audience and this leads to popularity and more films. Talent needs to be supported with good roles. And if you are part of a film that has a good box office run, it adds more weightage.
Is there a certain genre that you've become more comfortable with?
I like doing serious characters, for making others laugh is a tough job. Even the other day, I cracked a joke when I was with a friend and it didn't work. I was hugely disappointed, and thought, "Shey, ente comedy ippozhum work avunillalo" (My comedy still doesn't work in real life). The credit to my humorous roles go to my directors and co-actors. I got well-written roles, and even if they had been done by another actor, he would have benefited from it.
What is your best character so far?
It has to be Unni in Mayookham. I don't know if I portrayed it well, but it is the best character I've got till now. The character went through two phases in the film; in the first half he is an anti-hero, and in the second, his childhood friend transforms him. It is rare to receive such roles, but I got to do that in my first film itself. Of course, the film was directed by a legend and I got to lipsync to songs by KJ Yesudas, MG Sreekumar and P Jayachandran.
You've completed 100 films. What is your state of mind?
Numbers are just numbers. There are extremely successful actors who have done just 50-70 movies in their lifetime but are most revered. Manju Warrier is a big example. In her first phase, she only did about 20 movies, but everyone remembers her. Having said that, I am very happy to have done many memorable roles. Most people address me as Arakkal Abu but there are some who call me Pappettan, Shibu Vellayini, Prasannan and Samyukthan too.
In short, you're a happy person…
Definitely. (laughs) Alla enu paranjal enne adikanam (If I say otherwise, I should be hit).