"I really liked the Utopian world they created in Charlie. I liked the characters and their shades. But, I'm also aware of the fact that I'm much older than Dulquer Salmaan… So, for Maara, we had to design a story that had the same soul," actor Madhavan tells Baradwaj Rangan in a free-wheeling conversation. Excerpts.
It's been 25 years since you've appeared on the big screen. In 1996, you featured in 'Chup Tum Raho, Chup Hum Rahein' in Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Does it feel momentous?
Trust you to come up with this sort of research. (laughs). I still feel like a student. I look at my body of work and, even now, cringe. I don't think there's a sense of achievement. But, I'll look forward to the rest 25 years of my career as an actor with far more enthusiasm, eagerness and interest than I had speculated about it 25 years ago.
Few years ago, when people asked you what's the highlight of your career, you said 3 Idiots. Do you still maintain that?
Yeah, I think it's one of my landmark films, not just because it was a phenomenal success. It touched everybody's hearts around the world. I've seen Chinese, Koreans, Germans and Africans come up to me saying "We've seen that film, it was impactful." So, apart from saying you did a great job, nobody said Aamir did so well or Sharman did so well or the storytelling, that was all taken for granted. But the impact with the film was so high that it's my landmark film of my career for the rest of my life.
That film actually also kind of triggered something in you, right. In the sense of being attentive to the screenplay beats and how it connects to the audience. The film kind of changed how you look at screenplays that come to you…
Actually, that was something I was very careful about much earlier. Even before I did Minnale, even Alaipayuthey I had found bits and pieces and went to Mani sir. He would yell at me or quietly take it, if it made sense. I think my biggest forte is screenplay. With Minnale too, it started off as a love story of two friends who are in love with the same girl and I remember turning it on its head because I remember seeing Sadak that had the same story, and I wanted to go wide. So, I said let's think out of the box and thankfully Gautham [Vasudev Menon] was so open to it and we went to Bombay to settle down for a week to write the screenplay with Vipul Shah, a friend of mine. Then I realised there is an amount I can contribute to the screenplay, and have a bit of a hold on how the story is told. Then on, that interest happened. I have actually contributed largely to the screenplay of my films, but never got the credit for it. Sudha [Kongara] insisted I take it for Irudhi Suttru, but from Ramji Londonwaley to 3 Idiots, I've always contributed. Now, I've taken the onus to say I'm going to contribute to it as director, because it will become easier for people to trust me when I say something about the screenplay.
So, what is it about Maara that said, "This is speaking for me, I need to work on this"?
Maara is an adaptation, it's not a remake, like most people say. I really liked the Utopian world they had created in that film, I liked the characters and their shades. But, I'm also aware of the fact that I'm much older than Dulquer, and Shraddha is no Parvathy, so we had to design a story that had the same soul and would have the right impact when Shraddha and I were portraying the roles. Also I wanted to give reasons behind a lot of things that I thought should have been there in the original screenplay. So we took it upon us to actually adapt the story.
I remember how when lockdown started, everybody was like yay and putting up videos saying things will return to normal after 28 days. They were cooking and cleaning and expressing gratitude about how Nature has changed, how we're having family time, and good air to breathe. But, as it continued, people got affected tremendously, financially, emotionally and psychologically. The kind of content they started consuming on OTT also started changing. Suddenly, they realised they didn't want to see morbid content anymore, and started gravitating towards lighter films. People started going to see older films and shows such as Friends and Big Bang Theory, or Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, things from happier times.
Then on, I realised I wanted to make movies that would actually make people happy and not complicate their world even more. Maara was the kind of story we wanted to say even before the Covid era. We wanted to say what happens when we make a world nearly perfect with everybody being good people. In this largely grey world, what happens when everybody is black-and-white? Will we still have problems and how will people deal with them? We wanted to create a Utopian world, create those characters and see if it had the same impact as the other films we do.
Thirdly, something I was very excited about and telling Dhilip [director] when we started working on the script is that in today's transcendent world of relationships, you end up meeting somebody in person, you like what you see and the way they talk, and you exchange phone numbers, and then what happens is you converse on WhatsApp. It becomes mundane, you ask about if they have eaten, slept, watched a movie, and slowly a relationship develops over a period of time on WhatsApp. You get more intimate, inquisitive, and you start having a relationship, whether it's a guy or a girl. Then you start forming the relationship online, and you have created an entire virtual relationship with that particular person. And then you have a second meeting, where you don't know where to pick up from — the fact that you're physically meeting for the second time or the fact you've had an intimate relationship on WhatsApp.
So, most relationships are not able to bear the burden of the stress that you don't know where you really are with the other person, especially when it's romantically inclined. Then, you form an opinion about this person who is "so kind to animals" seeing what they're promoting on Instagram, but see that they're rude to the waiter or anyone and you're like who's this person I'm dealing with?
So what happens if a guy like Maara, for instance, doesn't carry a mobile phone? What happens if he doesn't have a digital presence? What happens when you're not really looking for a relationship but through some divine intervention you get to know about somebody whose house you're staying in? And you get to profile this person through the kind of things people are talking about, doing and it's the same thing with Maara. What is if you have a question and you're incomplete because there's one thing you're not able to achieve till you're 45 and you don't know how you're gonna do it, but somewhere, somebody is doing things and we're having a butterfly effect and that person's deeds are actually helping you achieve a dream that you never thought was possible.
This is the kind of effect that Maara and Paru have on each other's lives. Through all this profiling that people are talking about, what happens when they meet in person for the first time — is it a lasting relationship, does it feel like it should happen, do they hold onto each other, what is the quest? And that's the relationship you want to explore and that's something Maara is attempting to do.
This looks like a fairly ageless character. By ageless, I'm using Kamal's term. Are you structuring yourself to that?
Well it's definitely not without experience. So I won't say ageless. It's definitely a middle-aged individual because the kind of things he tackles and the way he does it in the film have to come from mature life experiences. So it's not ageless and not so old that the romance doesn't work. Kamal sir has made some characters ageless in a way, but this one is very specific about his (Maara's) experience.
On the other hand, you have Nambi, a movie that you've directed, where the character goes from 25ish to 75?
Yes, it does. When the time comes to speak about the film I'll elaborate, but we've done some things in that film that I don't think anyone has ever done in any film in the world.
Wow, that's a big promise.
It is. See, I don't know how I'm going to fare as a director. There's a great chance I'll fall flat on my face simply because I completely lack the experience of directing some things from start to the end. I've never directed even an iPhone film, forget a short or a documentary. So, I have to agree it has been a big leap of faith. Having said that, this is a story I passionately wanted to tell, I consider it more of a national duty than just making a movie. I've put my money where my mouth is as far this film is concerned. So I'm all excited and in this film I'm going to show you things that haven't been done in any film before. One of the things I can tell you right now is all the characters go from 29 to 79 in this film, nothing you see about them is prosthetics or false hair, moustache and beard, padding for weight or anything. Everything you see is real.
You said you've never directed before, but was there some part of your mind where you said what it might have been like had I directed a movie? Or, did you just decide to become a director because of the subject? You were initially to co-direct and that didn't happen.
To be a director, I think you need to have not just control over the unit or set or know exactly how a story has to be told. But you have to be a bit of an excellent editor or a choreographer, art director, cinematographer. I've never done anything like that, I've never set foot in an editing room. I don't even know how to start telling anybody how to edit. I was supposed to co-direct as a formality so that the project could sustain the budget. I did not imagine that direction would be thrust upon me at the last minute. There was the Herculean task of speaking in English and Tamil, and be the character and convince people. It was a challenge apart from producing and writing it. This wasn't something I was looking to take up, but the sheer passion of the entire unit to tell the story helped us finish the film.
A couple of years ago, you said it was getting increasingly difficult to reinvent yourself, but I've always looked at you as somebody who is ahead of the curve almost at every point. When people were acting in Tamil, you were acting in Tamil and Hindi, you went into OTT, and when people said they need a role equal to the hero, you got good solid roles even though they were called secondary characters. What did you mean when you said that?
The reason I said it is because one of the things that went right in my career was not to take my so-called stardom seriously. That is something that people safeguard like a lion's territory. You couldn't do a movie where the heroine had a substantial role, you had to be the hero, have a proper hero's introduction, you are the alpha male on the set at all times, you couldn't dare to do a secondary role in any film because you'll lose your Tamil market.
The Tamil market positioning is so strong and so coveted that people dare not do anything else or step outside their line. I never took that bit seriously when they said don't act with Kamal Hassan in Anbe Sivam because he's a superstar, he'll eat you alive and cut your role. I was the first guy to say, "Are you kidding me?" I didn't want to be an actor in the first place, to be on the frame with the icon and have my grandson sing praise of the time I actually spent time with Mr Kamal Hassan on screen. That turned out to be a right decision. People wouldn't have dared to do secondary roles in Hindi and I was doing Run, Anbe Sivam. I went and did Guru, Rang De Basanti. People in Hindi also wouldn't do non heroic roles, they'd say they'd want a solo hero.
Although Rang De Basanti was spearheaded by Aamir Khan, and here's a trivia — I'm only there for about nine to 10 minutes in the whole film, and I've only worked for eight days. The rest of them worked for 200 days. But the film has become synonymous with flight lieutenant Ajay Rathore because of the way it's written. So, I realised soon that I need to listen to what my heart says. So in the last two years, things have dramatically changed in my life as well. Thankfully, Breathe was another gut move, but turned out to be a heart move and became an iconic hit on OTT. Now it looks like the only way out. When I was talking about OTT at that time, people were laughing at me.
I saw this many years ago, I used to keep telling Sudha to prepare herself… that people will discard their bad film works onto OTT, which will ruin their career, and to not make that mistake. Today, thankfully, I have to reject three offers a day because I'm getting them from Hindi, English and Tamil OTT and movies. Right now, I'm shooting an original in English and that's got a huge market. So, my wife is saying, "All your craziness is bearing fruit right now, because you're saying no to so much of work that I'm kind of afraid."
Now I have the luxury to pick and choose, I'm getting more money than I ever did in my life. At a time when Covid is biting everyone's ass, I'm safe even though a lot of my money is stuck in Rocketry.
You said money and that struck me because I've never heard a successful actor say this. I read it somewhere saying that after a while into the Covid year you started worrying about financial liquidity because, of course, you have your property and investments but when there is no actual liquid money then to maintain such a lifestyle. Your staff are dependent on you.
It is a fact that nobody prepped for eight months of liquidity. I don't have a house. I rent houses. I like to be 'up and go' kind of a guy. So, for me to make sure that my staff wasn't starving it was very important. I was in the middle of Rocketry, and I had to pay that staff as well. I can't go up to them and say "Sorry you're on your own." So, I had to pay the salary till October- November, till the film was completed. That was a big challenge staring me on the face. But, thankfully, this is where the reputation kind of saved me, in the sense that people started coming to me and saying, "Can you do a talk here or there, we will pay you for this" and endorsements started coming in a big way because the pan-Indian appeal saved me tremendously. I started doing endorsements and shooting during the Covid era and suddenly projects started coming in. I was wondering which property I need to sell to sustain, and then, thankfully it was all sorted.
So apart from the professional reinvention due to Covid, what about the personal reinvention?
Oh the fact that I was hurtling, because I was forced to hurtle down ahead without knowing. I had predicted something like this five years ago, I was very aware of what was happening around the world, I'd seen Ebola and I used to look at a crowded Bombay or Chennai, where we survive by jugaad. I mean it's just a miracle because it's Brownian movement of people that actually seems controllable, right? And I was worried what'd happen if a pandemic were to hit and I actually coined this word for myself saying I'm a great Chancellor of pandemic, because look at how crowded this thing is. I had read Bill Gates's analysis about this in 2015 as well and I knew it was very close to every mundaneous cycle or something like a pandemic was hitting the population. And when it did, I almost started smiling, it was surreal. I was like what the hell is it that serious? And I thought okay fine it's gonna happen. But I was able to see that the impact was not going to die down soon as opposed to what the optimistic guys were saying. A big producer/ director told me it will end in three months and I was like, "You don't know what you're talking about".
Maybe, this is how you make movies because you don't really know and there is no way this thing is gonna end in June. In fact, even now I'm going to tell you there is no way you're going to see theatres in all their glory and everybody keeps saying you talk about doomsday and it's not doomsday. Till schools and colleges open and we're running without incidents for three months, your theatre is far from becoming normal. Very very far and it's anybody's case that's how long it's going to be. Everyone's coining words like new normal and there is nothing called normalcy for a bait.
Before the pandemic, I remember everything was so fast, we just didn't know why we were working, why were doing this, what really mattered, I also got stuck up in that race. And suddenly you're forced to stop dead at the tracks. Suddenly you're like, "Oh god, why was I sweating this, why was I replying to this person in my life or why was I even bothering about investing in something like this. So I realised it's better to have liquid cash in hand to manipulate your day-to-day needs for the next one year. It's more important than having assets that people feel would make sense. One of the things I really wanted to do was live life to the fullest, I used to always do that. Now I want to mean it and do it.
When you say you were kind of expecting something like this when a Maara skips theatres and goes directly to OTT, are you in a way prepared for it? Does it hurt or are you in a zen mode saying it had to happen?
I think I'm more towards the latter. What am I missing Baradwaj? What are the solutions we have right now? Because even if they were released in theatres they'd talk about the cinematography and other things but the impact of the storytelling would be there any which way. If that is not there it's a sunken project any which way even when there's theatres. So the essence of the film will come out and people's relatability will tell whether it would be a hit in theatres or not but thanks to OTT we will be releasing it in 200 countries at the same time. Your reviews are instantaneous, but you won't get a Friday evening or a Monday morning box office result. It's going to be speculated how successful the film was and it remains to be seen how the critics take it, and how its going to be etched on the Internet, because any reference to the film later on will only be through research, and say how did Maara do? With theatres, there's tangible numbers.
So does this affect the perception of stardom? Because, OTT won't reveal what numbers they do and everything is up in the air because the hit perception is mainly because whether more people liked it or did not like it. That's the only sense that you get from social media. How do you process that?
At the end of the day, we all know how a film has done irrespective of what's being written about or said about it, every person knows how a film has performed. Whether we liked it or disliked it is a different deal. We still know how it has performed and that has become an imaginary yardstick for even the OTT platforms to understand. You go to a YouTube video and see the comments, you know. That, I think, sets your remuneration for your next project. So, if your remuneration for your project is not cut down dramatically, and if they say take this and I ask for more and they say, "Sorry sir, the last film was terrible so you won't be paid even half of that", you know you're in trouble. If someone asks for negotiation, you know you've managed to hit the target one way or the other.
Secondly it's the endorsements, they'll do their research. They won't just invest crores on somebody. Recently, I did an endorsement, we shot in Dubai and we were able to do it quickly, release it and the person made 380 crores with that in the first week and was kind enough to call me to say it made a difference. You know the person endorsing it is saying what you need. So, all that put together tells you it's working and what you're doing is good so far, there is absolutely no real number you can say. If Vikram Vedha did 40 crores, you can't say please give me 10 crores, but if the producer is happy to spend that much money on your remuneration, you'll know where you're heading.
Incidentally, I just got news that Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan are doing Vikram Vedha in Hindi.
I don't know how true that is, but that's exciting news.
So when you have a movie like Nishabdham which comes to OTT, many people did not like it. What happens in that kind of situation? Is that rare Madhavan miscalculation or is it something that went awry after you had things in place? How do you handle those kinds of things?
Let me answer this question by asking you a question. Why do you think somebody like me did a film like Nishabdham?
There you go. Sometimes, when you're doing a film like Rocketry, you need the money. Sometimes it's in the perfect place, they give you the right amount of money, and I don't want to get into every film of mine, I think it's not fair to have every film of mine to leave back a legacy. Even the top-notch superstars have some forgettable films that are pitied as well. Sometimes, you try to tell them that this is not the script you want to work on and sometimes you have friends who ask me to trust them that the film will work and, as an actor, you want to convince yourself because the money's good and the people you're working with are nice and you're comfortable working with them. They're taking good care of you, somebody's connection is there so you're hoping and praying that works.
In Nishabdham, Anushka Shetty was the main lead and I was to come in and go and it was right after the end of Rocketry. We were in Seattle, I got to do the film over there, I met some lovely people, it was a great time shooting the film. I also made money that I could actually invest in Rocketry, which kept me out of the doll drums. So yeah I don't mind taking a bullet for it. It could have done well but it didn't according to a lot of people, but it's okay.
You can afford your hits and misses…
You have to choose your misses very carefully, but I think it doesn't make a difference. Nobody's betting exclusively on my last release. They'd have to bet on the larger repertoire of work because they know this guy is capable of coming up with a Vikram Vedha or a 3 Idiots or an Irudhi Suttru.
The series you're shooting now, you're doing it in an extraordinary situation where there are masks and physical precautions you have to take. So I'm imagining that it's so much for an actor to think apart from the role, the lines. Has acting become difficult because of all this?
So much more difficult. Especially for people like me because we're character-driven actors. We have to get into the character, stay in it, deliver lines. If I just do my normal stuff and my numbers then you're okay. You take out the mask, become who you are, wear the mask and move on. But see when I do roles like I do and come onto the set, you are Madhavan till you take out the mask. So because physically the mask is covering my face, it's preventing me till the shot starts and I can take out my mask only when the shot starts. It was terrible. I realised and told people it's not going to work like this because as much as I'd like to stay in character and I have this mask on, Maddy is fearing for Covid. So we decided to come out of the plan and sanitised everything. We tested every fourth and I didn't have to wear a mask every day, I can be in character till I go there. So we're coming up with new processes and different ways to enhance the feeling of confidence that everyone on the set needs. Even if you're doing an intimate scene or you're hugging somebody, you don't need to keep wondering whether the person is going to cough or sneeze because then there is no way you'll feel the intimacy of the scene. One of the good things about it is that you can see how well you can cope in situations like this.
So you're saying the fear is gone now?
I won't say gone, but I don't think the fear of death is there in anybody. But I do know the fear of losing your schedule. You can't afford your main leads to get infected because that's straight 15-20 days gone, including the people they have infected in the process. That's a worry. Having said that, I have been extremely cautious. I've been in Delhi locked up in the room for the past 48 days. I haven't stepped out of the hotel except for the shoot, I haven't met any of my friends, I ate the hotel food which sometimes gets to you, and then started cooking on my own. Those are the things we didn't have to worry about while shooting during non- Covid era but I think that's the kind of compromise you'll have to get used to.
So, with Maara you're working with first-time feature filmmaker Dhilip and you've worked with Shraddha Srinath in Vikram Vedha so there's a comfort level, what was that working environment like because this is the last film you've worked on before Covid.
I took so many things for granted then. So, Dhilip wasn't supposed to direct this film, it was supposed to be done by other directors when we first bought the rights for adaptation. And slowly, it didn't work out with one of the directors and people were not understanding the kind of changes that I wanted to make. I wanted to make sure it had much more mature characters than what Charlie had, because Maara needs to be that kind of guy who solves issues and has experience.
So, finally, I met Dhilip who happened to be the producer's husband. He told me he's an ad filmmaker and had smart ideas and, somehow, I felt he understood what I wanted to do with this film. We changed the beginning and climax, and it started becoming exciting. So from something that I wanted to drop and say its not working out, we tried our best, from then it became an exciting project and I was it would be great to ask him to direct and he offered to direct. That was a happy coincidence and I made sure he was up to speed in directing a film I was involved in. Nobody's ever going to forgive us saying it's a first-time film, so it's okay to make a secondary product. So, it was a long painful process and I had to convince him that what I'm doing is for the betterment of the film, we had to actually scrap the first schedule after shooting in Puducherry for three days, simply because a lot of things had been taken for granted and it was wrong.
Can you give me an example?
The first schedule was a disaster — from the location, art work and camera work to the characters. Everything was off. What happens when a new director comes to you is he's a mix of the kind of people he's trained with, that he's learnt to emulate or admire. You have to understand which of the decisions he's taking is of a traditional mentor-student relationship which I need to break and which of his decisions is actually original that's from the heart that will take my cinema to the next level. Sometimes, when I don't pay attention, those things will reflect in the casting as well as the crew.
When I was prepping for Rocketry and went there, I saw it was completely wayward. When I told them to call it off Shruti (producer) and Dhilip understood and called it off. I was very sure it would be the end of the film and they'd shot for two to three days, but they persisted. I said I'd have to finish Rocketry's shoot and come back. Amazingly, Dhilip didn't give up and still wanted to do the film and I liked that. We made changes to the script and I told him to make sure we don't make the same mistake with the cast. On that front, Dhilip was a pleasure to work with because he wouldn't take a suggestion easily and resist for all the right reasons and when he took it up it came up as magic on that front.
Shruti was a great producer to work with and didn't cut corners and understood things. When we started shooting, it was just a matter of two months and we finished the shoot. There was no delay because of the money. Shraddha is an awesome professional. I kind of get uncomfortable with actors who don't know the language, especially with the kind of films that I do. You need to be on your feet with the language and we're looking to deliver above the script, not just the bare minimum lines. I was a little skeptical, Shraddha isn't a Tamilian but thankfully we didn't have many scenes together, but whatever she had, it had to look like she was from the state. To Shraddha's credit, she comes well prepared to the set. You don't have to call her twice, wait for her to finish her makeup, wait for her to know her lines, everything is packed and you're ready to jump above the script in many ways, so even though we had limited scenes it was a complete pleasure to work with her.
In one of your speeches, in Harvard, you quoted Abdul Kalam, "Dreams are not that you have when you're asleep, dreams are the things that keep you awake." What is that dream for you?
Thankfully, we've come to an era where we cannot think locally. I want to tell you this with absolute conviction. We have talent in South India that is actually better than the rest of the world. The only thing limiting is the vision of the producers, or people who want to put money into those projects. I think it's time where we can finally say there is no point in making something very local. Now we have to look globally. My dream is that very soon, India will make content that others will take inspiration from. We have that within us, we're just understanding ourselves to a great deal, be it the storytelling in Bollywood or Hollywood, Bengali or Malayalam films. If we are able to come together collectively as an industry and put our resources together and when we say imagination is the limitation, then I think we're very very very capable of bringing up superb world-class products.That's going to be the new normal. All superstars in the country are thinking hard about the kind of subjects they need to indulge in.
Post-Covid, what is it that people want to see in theatres and why would they even go to the theatres? What are the subjects that qualify for theatres, for short form, for limited series or television? Those decisions need to be taken, you can't relegate a not so good story and make it a OTT film and OTT film to a eight-part series, all that is not going to happen. You're competing with the best in the world and you have the ability to be the best in the world. That is my dream. I think live sound has to become normal. I think departments that actually don't exist in the South should start existing and we should have a proper scientific casting department, art and production department. All these things should be established and shooting must be smoother and a lot more people will be employed. I also want technology to advance and producers to know their end-goal while producing a film in such a way that we also make money like Hollywood.