Arvind Swami, who plays MGR in the soon-to-release Thalaivii, talks about his directorial debut with Roudhram from Navarasa, the curious reason why he chose the emotion of anger for his short film, his comeback as an actor with Kadal, and whether he feels he has become a better actor with time, in this interview with Baradwaj Rangan. Edited Excerpts…
When you started acting, people called you a 'chocolate boy' with hardly any credit given for the performance. But when I saw you in Project Agni of Navarasa, I couldn't imagine any other actor who could have sold those lines with conviction. Do you think you've become a better actor?
Yeah, for sure. In the sense that, when I came into the films, I didn't know anything about acting. I didn't have any experience prior to that. What you say is true, everyone attributed it to my looks. I did get good reviews for Roja and Bombay. For instance, Sai Paranjpye who was in the National Awards committee that year wrote me a letter. Balu Mahendra sir appreciated me too. But I knew that it wasn't like popular acting, in a sense.
I just did what I knew. It wasn't something I was trying to be structured about. Today, obviously with life experiences and learning the craft, it's been different post-Kadal. Also, probably because the looks have changed (laughs). So, people can't give credit to that and they have to look for something else.
As a filmmaker today, when you look back at Kadal which was one of the biggest profile flops that happened at that time, are you able to say why the film didn't work for the audience?
I haven't been thinking about the film a lot recently, and so I'll probably have to go back and look at it. But there was a lot of difference between Mani Ratnam's original idea and what eventually came out on screen. I didn't do Kadal because I was excited about the script; not that I wasn't excited. But the first thing was: can I do it? I wasn't feeling well, put on weight and didn't look at the part. Mani Ratnam's faith motivated me. As for the filmmaking, I wasn't in touch for a long time, and I didn't want to make a judgement call on what he was doing. It was too early for me to start contributing something.
When I look back today, I remember feeling after the release that this wasn't what we had in mind. A lot of things change in the edit, whatever the reasons for it. I liked what was in the original version and like most people, the film didn't hold me as much as I thought it would.
For Roudhram from Navarasa, did Mani Ratnam and Jayendra ask you to pick an emotion?
They told me about Navarasa which was being done as a great cause. I was already at home for a few months because of the lockdown and unaware of what was going to happen. But I knew that I had to go out and do something. The timing of it was very important because everyone was suffering monetarily and I had to do the film now, not later. I'm not exactly sure, but I think he asked me to direct a short.
He asked me to decide which rasa I wanted. I told him that I wanted roudhram — anger. I'll make a confession, I picked it because my son's name is Rudhra. Once I picked the emotion, I asked myself what I was going to communicate through it. At first I thought I'd do something with a traffic accident and rage, etc. but I felt it was already done before.
I thought the best place to start would be the emotion itself: the kinds of anger. Before I wrote the story, I wanted to deal with two types of anger that are contradictory: impulsive anger which you see in an accident, for example, and then the kind of anger that's internalized and you don't know what to do about it — it eats you up and makes you someone else. I wanted to bring out those two things and then started writing the story.