Guppy is what one would call a film with a ghost, but not the scary kind. As viewers, we’re all complicit in overlooking the film when it released, only to watch it later and realise what we had missed out on. “Made with love” is a cliché, but it’s evident in every frame of this film. An ego clash between young Guppy (Chetan) and Thejus (Tovino Thomas) the engineer who’s come to build the new bridge to save this little coastal town, Guppy had that distinct Iranian cinema quality to show us the world through the eyes of children.
Tovino’s rise to stardom happened after the release of the film. He talks about the strange and unique emotional connect he shares with the film that was narrated to him the day his daughter was born. Over a long phone call in between handling his newborn son, the actor-star talks about the little things in life he has now come to embrace. Excerpts.
One of the aspects of Facebook and Instagram is how they have made it easier for films to enjoy an afterlife. Guppy completed four years yesterday, and it’s good to see the film getting a lot of love now, even though it was largely neglected upon release. As its lead, what’s the feeling now? Is it relief or is it sweet revenge?
One of the reasons why people like me today is because I was a part of Guppy. But back when it released, people assumed it was just a children’s film. It didn’t have any ‘big’ names and it was ignored. We could have promoted it more, but we did do all that we could. But these are things that even out in the long run. Guppy may not have received the appreciation or the money it deserved, but I’ve acted in films that got more than what was due. It is a film that continues to live and be loved and that’s a result of the love that has gone into it. Even when I spoke to its director John Paul George and DOP Girish Gangadharan yesterday, it brought back all those memories from the shoot. It’s an experience I will always remember and, in a way, these are things that go beyond a hit or a flop.
When you look back at Guppy, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Is the film itself, what happened during shoot or after release?
With Guppy, it has to be the days of shoot. Even emotionally, it’s a film that really had my heart. We had started shooting in Nagercoil almost immediately after the baptism of my daughter Izza. At first, the thought of being away from her so early on was really eating at me. I think I really transferred all that love and my paternal feelings of that period onto Chethan, who played Guppy. It was perhaps my way of dealing with how much I was missing her and that feeling contributed to my character’s, who misses his daughter Malu through the film. Even when I watched the film during lockdown, it was a rush of all those emotions.
Does that happen a lot? Does your state of mind often contribute to your character’s?
It did with Guppy. The day John came to me to narrate the script was the day Izza was born. At first, the doctor had told us that she would be born on the 21st of January, coinciding with my birthday. But she was born 10 days before that, on the 11th. That was the day I had asked John to come to Irinjalakuda for our discussion. And because he had come all the way from Kottayam just for that, I couldn’t postpone. He came over and waited outside the hospital for me. I held Izza for a few minutes and then took John along and went home. We discussed the script until midnight, and my father even made tea for us because everyone was at the hospital. It started from there. In a way, Guppy is Izza’s twin.
Did you have any reservations considering John was a first-time director pitching an ambitious script that involves a certain amount of world building?
In terms of the script, I remember telling John that it lacked closure. Though I loved the scene where my character Thejus Varkey rebuilds that tank for Guppy after their clash, I felt it wasn’t enough to match the emotions of a boy who had just lost his mother. That’s when he told me about the last scene where we show Guppy sitting behind Thejus as he rides away. So it ended with two people who had nobody, finding each other. That was all I needed to hear.
What about the execution part?
John isn’t someone who exaggerates. He tells you like it is and he knew exactly what he wanted. From the ways the houses are painted to the way the people dress in it, he had a clear idea about Guppy‘s world. That’s why it ended up winning all those awards. I have a theory that the mood of a film’s set is based entirely on the mood of its director. John had that discipline and a calmness to him, and it spilled onto all of us.
That’s rare, isn’t it?
Yes. One day, a plastic bag was lying on the ground as we were about to shoot. In general, the overall neatness on set is the duty of the art department’s. On any other set, you could imagine the director getting really angry about this, but John just picked it up and threw it in the bin. It might not seem like much, but such things really set the tone for others to behave.
What about your performance in it? What do you think about it when you watch it now?
We have to keep changing. I’m not a trained actor and I’m learning the craft with each film. I was an introvert as a child and it has taken a lot of time for me to grow from that to a person who is comfortable performing in front of a crowd. It’s natural to feel that I would have done things differently now.
I, for one, feel your voice modulation has improved since then, even though the performance as a whole is still excellent…
I’m a good critic of myself and I don’t get carried away even when someone praises my performances. I know what I did wrong and I’ll work on fixing it. Eventually, acting is so much about one’s presence of mind, how you react to a particular situation on the set. And so, you can’t be a hundred percent sure about anything. For instance, let’s say my character in Guppy was a result of my taking a reference from the traits of a person I know from my hometown. Now I can’t show him to the audience and ask them to see how well I played him. We try, and eventually we’re only as good as our last movie.
Was there a scene that took a lot from you?
It’s that scene where my character builds that tank for Chetan. The whole film is in that scene. Is Thejus a villain or is he a hero? It’s when he realises that this boy is just a few years older than his own daughter and that’s where a connection if formed. It’s a scene where the entire transformation of his character needed to be conveyed.
Even otherwise, I feel Thejus is one of your most complex characters. As an audience, we’re trained to hate anyone who picks a fight with a child. But you humanise the man, hiding his personal tragedy throughout the film…
These are matters you can work on only because of how well the character is written. Ego has no age. A person’s ego can get pricked even because of animals, let alone little kids. In the film, both Guppy and Thejus are people who are loved in their circle of friends and they aren’t bad people but the way things pan out, there’s a clash and it hurts both of them equally. It’s not about the blacks and the whites. It’s a film that embraced the shades of grey that are in all of us. When you have a director with that clarity, you get the space to add that to the character’s behaviour to make him appear to be a very real person who has to hide his pain.
What did you feel when you first watched the complete film?
During the preview, it really worked for us, but John hadn’t shown me the tail end of the film where we see both Thejus and Guppy riding away. I invest my emotions when I watch a film, and in the theatre during its FDFS, that’s when I saw that scene for the first time. I couldn’t hold myself back and I was sitting next to Chetan. The movie got over and as people started leaving, I had to wear my sunglasses to hide my tears. I stepped out and I noticed that John too was wearing his pair. We were really happy, so it really hurt us when enough people didn’t turn up to watch the film on the days that followed.
Have you ever wondered about how it would have been had the film released today, with all the stardom you now have?
I have but what’s the point in that? Eventually, the producer lost his money and that’s the reality.
Did that change how you perceive the profession?
It did, just like how the lockdown has changed so much about the way I approached my career.
The lockdown has really showed me the value of spending time at home. We had our second child Tahaan during the lockdown, and this time has been special. So, I’ve decided to reduce the frequency of my films. I now feel like I was working all these hours to make the money I never had the time enjoy. I’m not stressed about my movies anymore. I’ve accepted the wait like most of us have had to.
Do you feel you over-exerted yourself?
See, I’ve done most of my films with firsttimers who look at their first film as their lifelong dream. I accept that, so I didn’t want me to be a reason for further delays. I would complete one film and then join another set the very next day. For Oscar Goes To, I worked 50 hours non-stop. For Maradonna, all of us worked 18-hour days for 16 days straight. And if I’m working that hard, others on the set have to work even harder. But, is it worth it? Can’t we plan things better and work in peace?
That kind of hard work is expected of actors in the industry, right? Even though, it is overly-romanticised and does not contribute to a healthy working atmosphere.
Exactly. In a particular year in the 80s, Lalettan did as many as 36 films. We’re able to work with a certain luxury today because of what they have built for us. But does that mean we have to work the same way today. Even the generation of our dads worked like that, and we seem to doing the same. My dad is a lawyer and he used to finish work, come home and then go to plough the fields. They all walked 10 km to go to school, but can any one of us manage that today? Times have changed and we should be trying to do things differently now.
Aren’t you worried that our generation will be compared unfairly to the seniors?
But, it’s not like we are lazy, right? We are all willing to work hard but not at the cost of a healthy and wholesome lifestyle. During shoots, it’s very easy to get into a groove with the crew and forget everything else, but that eventually leads to mental fatigue. But when films are planned properly, there’s an overall higher quality with everything, even our output. I think a lot of us are learning a lot about life during the lockdown. I feel we’re conditioned to work hard in the illusion that happiness is something we will achieve some day far ahead in the future. But, that’s not true. The time I spent home now has taught me that happiness can be a part of our everyday life. That’s my first priority. Everything else can come after.