The trailer of RJ Balaji’s Singapore Saloon has a poignant dialogue, which sums up the core of the film. “Ivangalukulam, namba avanga keezha irukara varikum okay. Konjam mela pona kuda azhichiruvanga (They are okay with us as long as we are below them. If we get even slightly above them, they will destroy us),” says Kathir, an aspiring hairstylist. The dialogue rings true not just for the character, but the actor behind it and his journey too.
“I don’t think that line was there in the first draft of the script when we went for the shoot, but I felt the line would add a lot of meaning to this character as well as to a lot of people who have faced this in life,” the actor and comedian tells Vishal Menon in an interview. “It happened to me as well when I first started getting recognition.”
Written and directed by Gokul, Singapore Saloon talks about the struggle of an engineer who wishes to open a salon, having fallen in love with the craft as a child. The film, which co-stars Lal, Meenakshi Chaudhary, and Sathyaraj, explores the obstacles on his path. “In cinema, like politics, they say that there are no permanent friends. They are good to you as long as they think you are below them. Once you treat them as an equal, they are not able to accept it. This is true everywhere. But I’m not blaming them when I say this. People enjoy being in certain spaces, so it’s difficult for them to accept things when equations change. But I’d rather take a step back from people who think this way.”
The actor-comedian, who began his career as a radio jockey, entered the film industry as an outsider. Even if he has tasted success, he still goes by one philosophy: his work is his visiting card. “Imagine the kind of support that an industry insider would have compared to an outsider," he says. "If an outsider, who has struggled their way into the industry gives two to three failures, there will be no other chances for them. Even if an insider delivers ten flops in ten years, they are still able to survive their eleventh year with two films in their hands."
He goes on to explain this with a recent film he watched. "I watched Ananya Pandey’s Kho Gaye Hum Kahan (streaming on Netflix). I thought she had done a good job, but imagine someone from the outside getting a chance like this after not having worked on great films before. I have always been taught since my radio days that I need to treat every link (every portion he gets to speak in a show) I get as my last link. That’s the philosophy with which I work on my films and give it my all so that I get another opportunity to get the work that I do. I don’t want to ask for work to anyone too.”
While the actor has continued to stay connected to audiences over the course of his career with his unique brand of humour and identity, he reveals that he still battles self-doubt. RJ Balaji goes on to explain this with an anecdote from attending the college fest of IIT Madras, earlier this month.
“It was a show where young students of the college would be present and I had to interact with them for a while, and I was super nervous,” he recounts. “I had been part of these events for the past 18 years. And eighteen years ago I was able to connect with the young crowd. But I was not sure whether I could do it now. I went into the show with these insecurities and doubts and planned for a 45-minute session. However, it went on for an hour and fifteen minutes and the crowd was in splits and gave me a lot of love and warmth. I came out of the hall with validation and reassurance.”
Watch the full interview here: