Pasupathy, who played the pivotal character Rangan Vaathiyar in Pa. Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai (starring Arya), talks about his definition of a good performance, how he interpreted his role in Asuran, and why he loves Sivaji Ganesan and Jack Nicholson, in this masterclass with Baradwaj Rangan. Edited Excerpts…
How would you define acting? How do you judge a good performance?
The actor should disappear. In the beginning of his career, the audience relates to the character more than the actor. But for a professional and established actor, the challenge is greater. It gets tougher with each film. Essentially, Pasupathy shouldn't be visible in the performance. I should just be the character. If the audience forgets Pasupathy, it's a good performance.
You played Kothala Thevar in Virumaandi. It was a superb performance and I didn't know if there was a difference between the actor Pasupathy and the character. But as you become established, you might repeat yourself. How do you do something new in spite of expectations?
The difference between the first and tenth films is a lot. The tenth film is more challenging because the audience can predict the performance. We have to do something beyond that. I have to analyze my physique, eyes, and face; I should know how my dialogue is going to come out in the film. In general, the audience knows how I'm going to appear in a film, but in each film I try something that's very specific to the character. It comes out of the relationship between me and the director.
Though it's me, the same person, who appears on screen every time, I try to project the character from within and create something new. That one moment will justify the entire character. For example, in Asuran, Murugesan [Pasupathy's character in the film] is neither active nor passive, he follows the protagonist. Ninety percent of people are like that, adjusting and balancing various things.
Murugesan thinks more than the others but he cannot express himself. That's why he always looks like he's trying to say something. In my family, everyone used to bring their problems to my father as he was an elder, but no one thought of his own feelings. He never expressed his desires; Murugesan is like that. Even when his face is blank, it looks like he's trying to say something and withholding it.
When you saw the monitor or the entire film, did you feel like you accomplished what you set out to?
I can feel it when I perform and don't analyze beyond that. I don't check the monitor as that will make me the director. If I observe myself, I will become critical and act for the monitor instead of being in the present. If I get busy correcting frames, I won't be able to get to the essence of the character. I use the monitor only for technical reasons, like to check positioning.
We see memes trolling Sivaji-era acting style. This generation thinks it's a bit funny. Does it mean that the audience decides the acting style?
We have too much Western influence even in our genes, because it's not just the last hundred years; for a thousand years we've lived depending on others. It might sound like a political statement, that's okay. The old will come back as the new with a changing perspective; so we cannot just label it as bad.
The same Sivaji would have killed it now because he would have adapted very easily. Even in Muthal Mariyathai, he would have given a small look in a scene and it goes beyond so-called realistic acting. It's just a small moment; just a look. It was so refreshing but we didn't appreciate it back then. Sivaji had realism, a director had conceived it, a cameraman caught it but we failed to notice it. We're in times where everything is criticized.
People talk to me about 'comedy acting' and I ask them where such a syllabus exists: comedy acting, villain acting… acting is acting. The magic depends on the person doing it.
Why do we then say some people are good at comedy?
I'm saying that's wrong. A professional actor should do anything. Doesn't everyone joke in real life? Should a villain always be serious? An actor should be prepared for anything. People are stereotyped in commercial cinema. Vadivelu is a great character artiste, even Kamal said that. He's spontaneous, a born actor who developed the talent in him. He can play the hero, comedian, or anything.
Can you name one actor whose style you really like?
Beyond barriers, I like good actors from around the world. I love Sivaji sir. I wanted to direct him, a film that would stop people from trolling his style. If a few directors had tried a bit harder, he would have been at a different level.
I also love Jack Nicholson. He always has a smile, it doesn't matter what he's doing. And his eyes. He knows that they are both his plus and minus. He gives slight changes for each role. He's a great actor. I've seen 'The Witches Of Eastwick' countless times. It was a very subtle performance. He didn't get a lot of scope but he's very close to me, like Sivaji sir or Kamal sir.
Let's say a character is very static like Murugesan in Asuran. Kothala Thevar from Virumaandi is a fiery character. Do you stand in front of a mirror or camera to work on your body language?
I don't do that, for the same reason I don't see the monitor. If I see what I do, I'll start correcting myself and lose spontaneity. It's not my job to fine tune my work. My job is to deliver, to express the character's soul. The director must fine tune. Instead of doing ten takes, I prefer to discuss everything and try to get it right in a couple of takes. That will be fresh.
Otherwise, the last take will be the yardstick for the next one and I won't know where I stand. The first take is natural. Sometimes, if you think of correcting the previous day's mistake, your entire focus becomes that. But when I start from zero, I will be conscious of every corner of the stage and anxious to do well. My consciousness heightens. I might be blank but have done a good job at the end of a performance.