After a brief lull, actor Kalidas Jayaram, who won a National Award as a child actor, stars in two anthologies, for OTT majors Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. Incidentally, he's been directed by Sudha Kongara in both. He speaks to Vishal Menon about his changed priorities when it comes to choosing scripts, his love for farming — he harvests 1.5 kg of okra every day — and more. Excerpts
In the beginning of the year, what did you think this year was going to be like, and what has it turned into?
The beginning was pretty good, because I had just finished a project for Sudha (Kongara) ma'am for another OTT. And then, everything got messed up. But I can't say I went through a hard time because I know a lot of other people who are going through a harder time. Staying at home is really frustrating for a person like me who loves to travel, but we shot Putham Pudhu Kaalai during the peak of lockdown, so I can't say I missed work.
Were you expecting any kind of work at that time, when you were called for the film?
To be honest, I was not getting a lot of work even before Covid-19 struck. I was going through a very rough patch, work-wise, and I was declining work I was getting. It felt like a good time to sit and analyze what I had done, if this is what I really want to do and if this is the type of cinema I want to do. Everything else just happened — meeting Sudha ma'am at the right time, collaborating and working with her.
What were your thoughts like? Did you sense this confusion building up even before lockdown?
Yes. When I started out, everything was quick, because even though I'm familiar with the industry, I was a beginner. So even after one film and then another, I didn't have time to sit and analyse what was actually going on. And, when I got the time, I realised quality rules over quantity anyday. Even if it is just five to 10 films in my lifetime, I wanted them to be remembered.
When I think of you, I don't see someone who did too many films quickly. For instance, the amount of time it took for Poomaram… You did take time for movies. So, why did you feel the quantity issue coming up?
With all due respect to the movies I have done, I don't think I should not have done those movies because I stand by what I did, but somewhere I felt that I want to do characters that stand close to me that I'll be able to pull off. I don't want to pull a big load that is not possible for a beginner like me — that's what I learnt. All actors learn through experience, so I need time.
So, isn't this film a great way to come back? From what I understood, isn't this like going back to the drawing board because it's six or seven people on the sets, right? Do you feel like you've got a film school kind of an experience?
The feeling was like going back to my college days in Loyola, because we shot with around five to six people, including the cast, focus pullers, light and sound people. It got pretty crazy…I felt you actually just need that many people to make a movie, because we pulled it out very well. Sudha ma'am had a perfect vision and plan, and I think if everyone can plan and execute a film like she did, you need just about six to 10 people on set.
What else did you do on set apart from acting and learning your lines?
I had to take care of the costumes and props. I had to do the lighting, sometimes, be the assistant director, assistant choreographer… a lot of things. It felt like the perfect place for a person like me, because I always wished for a set like this and I finally got it. We shot for three days, because that was the timeline given by Amazon. Kalyani and I had to shoot for two days and my dad and Urvashi ma'am had to shoot for a day.
So, it's practically more like an ad shoot than a proper short film shoot?
(Smiles) Yeah, like a proper short film shoot. Maybe, some ads take longer than that.
Once you've gotten used to all the good and bad things of a big production, when you go back to basics like this, what's your experience apart from learning? This is an impossible experience, and wouldn't have happened without the lockdown.
I was in love with the whole experience, because you just have a lot of peace, silence and you have time to think about what you're going to do. Usually, you're told at the last minute that you're going to be doing this, we are losing time, and so on. Here, we were very relaxed even though we had a time constraint of three days. We were not rushing through scenes. A lot of planning went into them, and I loved it.
Do you see yourself going back to doing this with an exciting director once in a while, whenever you get the time?
Absolutely, without a doubt. Some of these characters that I got to play, even if it's this one or the other OTT I did with Sudha ma'am, I can't even dream of getting such characters in a feature film. I'm being a little selfish as an actor, I can tell you I'm happy doing these characters. A lot of people told me that acting in OTT is a step down, but I really don't think like that. I think it's a wonderful platform and is yet to be fully explored.
So, for instance, in your regular feature film career if somebody pitches a script where you have to play a serial killer, it might be more complicated than choosing to do that in OTT. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah, there are certain limitations when it comes to the big screen I'm sure, the public is watching and you'll have to bring in certain restrictions. But, as actors, when you see international work, you want to do that kind of work… In that context, what I got to do is different.
Could you tell what you watched during the lockdown that you never watched before?
I'm a huge fan of old Malayalam and Tamil movies. I started watching my dad's movies, Mohanlal and Mammootty sir's films, I started binge watching a lot of funny Tamil movies, international movies, series and other content on OTT. Apart from watching movies I started farming. I'm a farmer too, and I do home farming.
How is that going?
We harvest about 1.5 kg of okra (vendakkai) every day. It's my hard work!
Which one of Jayaram Sir's movies are you guilty of not watching before?
I haven't missed much of dad's movies, but the movie I watched again during lockdown was Panchatanthiram. How many ever times you watch that movie, you don't get tired.
When I interviewed Dulquer Salmaan, he said that he sat down one day calculating his age and the movies Mammukka did when he was that age. Do you compare yourself to your father, and has that stressed you out?
I don't do that, because it's just going to be stressful. They have already set a standard, so it's better to not go through the route they've already gone, and take a route of your own. That's what I'm trying to do. What they have done is impossible to recreate.
In Malayalam, an anthology is not very rare, it's happened and gotten those theatrical releases and they have been successful. Is there some kind of regret that this film will not be watched in theatres?
I would definitely like it to be released in theatres, but it's not possible because of the situation that we are in. So, the next best thing is to give the product to the people to be watched at their own comfort, and that is what the OTTs are doing, and I think they're doing a pretty good job.
What is the future looking like, for you?
Putham Pudhu Kaalai is coming out, and I've also got another anthology on OTT that is coming up soon. The feature films that I'd already planned… It's not a good time to start shooting, because it's not responsible to do that now. Also, what's the point of shooting a movie if there is no theatre to show it in… let people come back to the theatres, and we can think about it.