Udhayanidhi Stalin, who started off as a producer of star-driven films such as Kuruvi, Aadhavan and Manmadhan Ambu, made his acting debut in 2012 with Oru Kal Oru Kannadi (OKOK), a typical comedy entertainer with Santhanam. He followed it up with similar films in which he unvaryingly played a boy next door, with a comic sidekick and mixed success. In 2016, he received critical appreciation when he starred in Manithan, a remake of the Hindi Jolly LLB. Subsequently, he's worked in films that are a departure from his earlier light comedies. During our interaction, Udhayanidhi speaks about how he got out of his comfort zone post-Manithan and why he wants to continue doing that.
With the Mysskin-directed Psycho releasing this Friday, he also talks about how directors perceive him differently after Manithan. While he insists that his work in politics doesn't shape the roles he chooses, he also acknowledges that the popularity has helped him in his political work. He speaks about how he is a director's actor and why Priyadarshan and Mysskin cast him even without having seen any of his films. Manithan keeps coming up often, a film that Udhayanidhi sees as having changed the direction of his career permanently.
After Manithan, did you consciously choose films that were different from your previous work?
My career can be divided into before and after Manidhan. Because of the success of OKOK, I thought I had cracked a formula and did similar films. I received a lot of criticism for it, but I too got a bit bored of doing the same thing.
But after I did Manidhan, the feedback was that this was the right kind of script for me, something that was content-oriented, and with social consciousness. For a while, I continued to do films such as Podhuvaaga Emmanasu Thangam, a village script, and Saravanan Irukka Bayamen, a comedy directed by Ezhil sir, with four kuthu songs and comedy. But, in a film like Manidhan, I felt I was able to work with passion. Over time, I started getting better roles…
Because of your work in Manidhan…
Not really. Priyadarshan sir wanted to cast me in Nimir even though he hadn't seen my films. I couldn't believe it, me starring in the remake of a National Award-winning film, to be directed by Priyadarshan. I think he thought I'd suit the soft character. Similarly, I had already produced Seenu Ramasamy sir's Neerparavai. He had a script for me, and we made Kanne Kalaimaane.
So, how did Manithan happen?
It was accidental. Director Ahmed had written a romantic film for me called Idhayam Murali, set in Chennai and the US. The film had music by Anirudh and the songs were even ready. But the budget didn't work out. So, we decided to do a compact film. Ahmed suggested I watch Jolly LLB. I loved it and decided to remake it.
Priyadarshan hadn't seen your films before casting you in Nimir. Had Mysskin seen any of them before Psycho?
He hadn't seen any of my films either! I told him that I've done some good films recently. I asked him to watch at least Nimir! But, I don't think he has.
How did Psycho happen, then?
Actually, Mysskin sir was supposed to introduce me in Yuddham Sei, but it didn't happen. May be, if that had been my first film, my career would have turned out very differently. Anyway, he called me two years ago… we meet often, he told me he had a story for me. After I heard his narration… it's not like I didn't like it, but I didn't understand it — it was a script based on aliens. Then, he told me about Psycho.
I was to do a different film with Double Meaning Productions, the producers of Psycho. Three days before the shoot, the producer and the debut director had a misunderstanding, and the film was dropped. It was called Oho My Baby. I got Mysskin sir to speak to the producer and we began Psycho. I'm really happy that through this film, I got the opportunity to work with PC Sreeram sir and Ilaiyaraaja sir.
You've been a fan of Mysskin since his Chithiram Pesuthadi days…
Mysskin sir is very, very unique. I wouldn't call it eccentric… but he has a child-like approach. With Mysskin, Priyadarshan, or Seenu Ramasamy, only what is needed is shot — there is clarity. Also, I learnt how not to act. Mysskin sir wanted my performance to be natural.
Mysskin sir's films are actually perfect for OTT platforms. He has his own audience. Psycho is an out-and-out Mysskin film (without the yellow sari song, though) for the urban audience. My character of Gautham will definitely earn sympathy from the audience. If the film does well… Psycho 2 might happen. Let's see.
Is your choice of films, in some way, shaped by the fact that you're now active in politics?
Not really, because even after Manidhan, I have continued to do only soft, boy-next-door roles without heroism. People will like you irrespective of whether the film has done well in theatres, on television, or OTT platforms. When I meet people during political campaigns, they remember OKOK and Manidhan, they tell me that my 'lawyer film' was super. But they also remember my earlier films like Saravanan Irukka Bayamen, which did especially well in small towns and villages.
When you began acting, did you expect that your popularity as an actor might help your politics?
Acting itself was an accident. It all started with a cameo in Aadhavan. I didn't really like it when I watched myself on screen, but everyone around me told me that it was good. Before OKOK, we did extensive test shoots and analysed my strengths and weaknesses. So, when I was entering films, I had no time to think of anything else but getting acting right!
In 2011, you chose to not do Yuddham Sei, and instead chose to debut with OKOK. Hypothetically, if you were debuting today, would you still pick OKOK?
I would have still picked OKOK. If the film had flopped, I'd have said Yuddham Sei. OKOK was an unexpected commercial success. It is one of the reasons I am still accepted as a hero.
Actually, I was, for a while, trying to make OKOK again and again (laughs). After it released, I hadn't signed another film for a year-and-a-half. Since it was a huge success, I didn't know what to do next, because of comparisons to OKOK. So, I just decided to repeat it. Idhu Kathirvelan Kadhal had Santhanam and Harris Jeyaraj, who had worked in OKOK. The film didn't do well. With Rajesh's assistant Jegadish as director, and again with Santhanam and Harris Jeyaraj, I did Nannbenda. This film did better, but not as well as we had expected for the budget.
Around Idhu Kathirvelan Kadhal, you had mentioned that you're not aiming to win a National Award. Today, you've picked Psycho because it was a challenging role. As an actor, do you look at yourself differently now?
Back then, I had defined my comfort zone. Films with a comedian in my friend's role, a heroine, love at first sight, a foreign song… I thought only this was fun. During Manidhan, watching Radha Ravi sir and Prakash Raj sir perform, I started liking the challenge of acting with them. And finally, when people appreciate me for my work in a film, I want to do more of that. I've realised that I shouldn't get stuck inside my comfort zone. I want to do something new.