In this session titled "Making of a Modern Legend", hosted by India Film Project, R Madhavan speaks to Baradwaj Rangan about his process of selecting scripts, how he doesn't think of a role as too small and says that the best is yet to come.
BR: When you started Alaipayuthey you had already acted in serials. At what point did you get the realisation that "wow, okay I think I have nailed that scene"?
Madhavan: Since I never wanted to be an actor, I never trained to be one. There was an Alice in the wonderland look on my face till I started Alaipayuthey right upto Anbe Sivam. So, I remember my first take being okay-ed by Mani Ratnam but I couldn't believe that he'd actually said okay. It was an out of body experience for me. When he offered me Kannathil Muthamittal, it was reassuring that he actually considered me an actor and that I am capable of pulling off a role of a Tamil poet because my Tamil was anything close to being that of a poet. But he was casting me! It happened again with Aaytha Ezhuthu which was completely different from my background. Every time I got an okay or when I read reviews, that's when I felt like "hey, you know what, this looks like it will be a lifelong profession". I remember clearly telling Mani Ratnam that after your film I don't think I will be acting anymore and he only replied with his all-knowing smile. But, I actually felt that! You start off with someone like Mani Ratnam in your debut and then where do you go from there, especially since you don't have a background in the industry?
Later, I worked with Kamal (Haasan) sir in Anbe Sivam and I distinctly remember the time I was doing a couple of scenes with him. I had butterflies in my stomach while he was rehearsing for the scene. If there were selfies at the time, I'd take zillions of them! On set, there was of course a power equation because he was Ulaganayagan Kamal Haasan and I was a huge fan. But, something strange happened when action was called. This power equation suddenly vanished. Somewhere inside me, I knew that I can't be like this with Kamal sir but then again, it all vanished and I was being who I was supposed to be. That was a huge transformation within me.
Believe it or not, it happened again with Aamir Khan in Rang De Basanti and 3 Idiots. I was in awe of their achievements but when the camera was turned on, it was you or me. That was the moment I thought I could stand on my own.
BR: Once you started planning your career, what is the one thing that you look for in a script?
Madhavan: One of the things that has worked for me is that I have the ability to select scripts depending on the space I am in my real life. I realised that when I want to select a subject, first of all, I need to engage with my own self and see the world that I am in at this point of time. I don't know how to explain that but I think it's extremely important. Your body tells you what you're going through in your life and your mind tells you who you are and what you relate to. You hear a subject and the relatability is instinctive and instant. For example, after finishing 3 Idiots, everybody told me not to do Tanu Weds Manu. But, I was looking at the films that were being made at that time and wondered why nobody was making love stories in India? Why is romance from towns like where I grew up never being shown? I remember telling my manager at that time ki "ye mitti ki khushboo wali kahaani le aaye aap" (bring me stories that are earthy and real). When Tanu Weds Manu came to me, I grabbed onto it with snake teeth. There was no way I was going to let that go. That becomes a priority. Where am I in my life right now and does the story speak to me? If it does, there's no way in hell I am letting it go.
Apart from this, I see the reason behind why the film needs to be made and how strong is the voice of that director. Being a director or a creator is one of the most difficult things to do. And if the agenda is anything but to tell a story that is coming from deep within you, you're not going to be able to stand me. I want to respect the story that needs to be told and if anything I want to blend in and be the actor where I am trying my best to portray a character. So, the intention of the director is very important.
BR: You've made a number of films where you might not be the central focus. Did you have to let that insecurity go or were you always a person like that?
Madhavan: I was always a person like that. I never looked for short term impacts in my life. For me, if the story had that impact, it was enough. Take Rang De Basanti, for instance, where I had a 9 minute role. But it was a big revelation in my life. Even today when people speak of Rang De Basanti, my name is synonymous with the film. That's when I realised that immortality as a character depends on how you play it, how it is written and presented finally. Even if it feels like an underwhelming role, I am very sure that the story has to work. It goes in the archives making it much more valuable as an asset and gives me the ability to make the kind of films I want to.