Ramesh Thilak, much like his whisky-swigging everyman in his introductory scene from Nalan Kumarasamy’s 2013 caper comedy Soodhu Kavvum, launches into a hilarious monologue in the middle of our conversation about his latest Tamil movie Good Night.
Speaking about the different kinds of movie watchers today, he begins half-laughingly, “Naa padam paathuten, ennodu medhavithanatha kaatrathukukaagave padam paakura group onnu (There is a group of people who watch a film just to express their intellect), indha aal padam ipdi dhan nu thitrathukune pora group onnu (there is a group that goes just to troll a film), but there is also a group that enjoys such small human dramas.”
The actor plays Ramesh (the similarity doesn’t stop just with the name), a loving machan (brother-in-law) to Manikandan in Good Night. But unlike many other titles in his filmography, Good Night doesn’t limit his identity to a “friendly neighbourhood pal”. The Kumbalangi Nights and Orange Mittai actor is a thriving part of a warm dysfunctional family that makes up much of director Vinayak’s film. It took him 12 years to say no to big films with forgettable roles. But the actor isn’t bitter. “Ella padathilayum thalaya kaatrom, and even if I do one or two scenes in such films, I get some form of appreciation. But I’ve been wanting to do something beyond that for some time,” says the radio jockey-turned-actor, as he looks back at his ups, downs and everything he would’ve done differently in his ten-year career with comedy and cinema. “Beyond everything, I just want to be known as a performer.”
You have such a well-etched role in Good Night, a film that sees you balance heavy-duty emotions and comedy…
I've known Vinayak for some time now. Three years back, he pitched a short film to me. At that time I was not taking up short films, but I loved the film so much. It had the same vibe as Good Night, but it was about the relationship between a brother and a sister. When Vinayak saw me, he was thinking "En ya indha aala summa vechitrikinga. Yaarume yenda risk eduka bayapadringa? (Why isn’t anyone willing to take a risk with Ramesh?)." He was looking at me through this perspective. I loved that he had so much belief in me. He later told me he was going to make the short into a film and I was immediately on board. He then asked me to request Manikandan, as he is an actor who will not do a film easily. I've known Manikandan for around 10-15 years, ever since my short film days. He heard the story and loved it. He then worked on the story a little more along with Vinayak and that is how Good Night happened.
You also play a veetodu maapila in a film that chooses to treat the subject very naturally. Did that stand out for you when you read the film?
I live with my wife's mom and my sister-in-law. Never have my parents questioned me as to why we don't stay alone. I love staying with all of them. So, when I read the script, I asked Vinayak how he nailed it exactly like that. Vinayak's family is straight out of a Vikraman movie family (think Suryavamsam). I found that he had treated this really well in the film's writing too. Irundha vishayatha namba tholachitu namba pudhusa paakumbothu, we look at it like something amazing. But family setups like these were normal back in the day.
Ramesh is also a very interesting character. He sweeps the house, runs errands for his wife, but at the same time, takes some time to tell his toxic family off. How did you look at his graph?
In real life, I sweep the floors, wash our bathrooms, buy vegetables and everything. I do all of this not just because it is my responsibility, but because I enjoy doing this. I might have been different before marriage, but I am not the same person now. It took some time, but we began splitting our household chores. Manikandan also has a similar lifestyle. Since we do this in real life, it was easy to reflect these things in the film.
So, the Ramesh from Good Night is not far off from the Ramesh in real life?
The Ramesh in the film is exactly who I am (smiles).
The intimate dysfunctional family drama has been the core of the New Wave in Malayalam cinema for sometime now. Do you think Tamil audiences are increasingly becoming accepting of this too
Definitely. Take this one-liner for instance. “Someone has hit me, so until I hit him back, I'll not wear my slippers" is what Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016) is about. Is this even a line? But still, they made a beautiful film out of it. And then there is Home (2021), which details the fights between a father and his son, who thinks the dad is full of lies. Once he realises that his father has been truthful, his life changes and he sees beauty in his father.
I have grown up watching big-ticket entertainers and will still continue doing so. I am going to watch these films in the theatre and whistle. But I also want to watch stories that might unfold right at my house. Films like Baahubali are great, but what about Balu Mahendra's movies? These two must coexist. The interest in K-Dramas have increased here because their films are packed with emotions.
Most of your roles — be it Kumabalangi or Good Night or Oh My Kadavule, have had you play that one friend who always has the best advice to give. Why do you think directors see you in such roles?
Up until one point in life, na etti etti paathikite irundhe, enna konjam paarungalen, enakku idhu varum (I kept doing films and hoped audiences would notice me). But after some time, I felt a bit upset because I was like 'What more can I do?' Around six years after Soodhu Kavvum, I worked with a big director for a film and I realised that I didn't have any dialogue in the film. I knew that in a few big films, you don't always get what you want. But I didn't get anything out of this film. After wrapping up the shoot, the director pulled me aside and was like "Neenga Soodhu Kaavum la nadichirkingala, ipo dhan kelvipatten (Did you act in Soodhu Kavvum?)' And when I went to Malayalam films, they celebrated me.
You do a few films for money and a few because you like the roles. I cannot change this system. It took me around five years to understand the industry's functioning. Namakku no solla theriyadhu (I don’t know how to say no) because I would've travelled with a few of them at the beginning of my journey. A few I would've said yes to even without hearing the script. And as I kept doing this, I stopped suddenly and understood what I was doing wrong. There was this fear of judgement from people who would think I had changed if I said no. But what can you do if you change? And then I started saying no. But what happened after that is that I had a lot of ups and downs, so a lot of directors didn't know where to position me. "Is he a comedian? Is he a character artist? Or is he a serious actor? Who is he? This was their confusion and I also got confused. But of course, now I am clear and I feel directors approach me for a proper character based role.
A huge director recently called me to act in a film. It did pay really well, but I knew what would happen to my role if I went ahead. I politely declined saying I didn't have the dates. Indha thelivu enakku ipo dhan after 12 years varudhuna na evalo periya makku irundhiruken nu paathukongalen (Imagine, I got this clarity only 12 years into the industry!).
But I think that’s completely understandable. Comedian Charlie said in an interview that it took him 40 years to say no. How did you deal with this identity crisis?
In most films, enakku solla pattadhu vera, nadanthathu vera (the things I was told about a role was different from what actually happened on set). What I can do is be careful about signing films in the future. But this is common in cinema, where you go up and down with the projects. You just have to get used to it, and cannot be too careful.
The journey hasn’t been easy, but I look at it as my destiny. I was in radio for six years and was frustrated with the monotony. I then started taking up junior artist roles, doing short films, and suddenly the directors of these films started making films. I was just a boy who wanted to see his face on the big screen, especially at Sathyam cinemas (laughs). Throughout the downs, I have always believed that enakku nu oru naal varum.
Does comedy come naturally to you?
I am not at all a funny person. You should ask this question to my wife. "Konjam siriyen yen eppome ivlo urrunu iruka (Why are you always so grumpy?)," is something she always tells me. The scenes I find funny on screen are not of actors cracking a joke, but when the actors are serious and they still evoke laughs from the audience. The films and scenes that I have been fortunate to get have also been reflective of my idea of comedy. This is probably why my time is still going on in the industry.
Soodhu Kavvum just turned 10, so I am interested to find out how you think comedy in the Tamil cinema landscape has changed since then.
Comedy is a very serious business. We should completely move past body shaming and double meaning jokes. American Pie is an amazing adult comedy, but you cannot have such jokes in family films. I tried one movie called Oh My Ghost with Sunny Leone. So, whenever it (the script) had double-meaning jokes, I tried to avoid it as much as possible. See, I am talking so much and tomorrow you might just see me do the same in a film. I am just saying that this kind of comedy doesn't suit my ideology.