Guru Somasundaram is an actor who predominantly works in Tamil and Malayalam cinema. He is famously known for his performances in Joker (2016) and Minnal Murali (2021). In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, he talks about his journey. Edited excerpts:
You have been in the cinema industry for almost ten years and you have done a lot of theatre before that. Now, you have got recognition through a commercial film. Do you feel happy or sad about this?
Right now, I feel very responsible. Earlier, I used to choose stories casually. I am still the same but there is also more responsibility now.
In a film like Minnal Murali, there is a big hero and people usually try to cast a known name for a villain. Did the director tell you why they approached you?
I used to ask him often but he didn't tell me for a long time. In the film Pistha, Karthik keeps saying "do you know why I lost my job?" Similarly, I used to ask the director, "Why did you choose me?" and he'd just smile. Later, after the premiere in Bombay, I asked him again. He explained it to me then.
He said if he had cast a familiar face from Kerala, people would have guessed the character was the villain immediately. They didn't want the people to know that and it was their main intention. So he needed a person with the capacity to pull off the character. They had seen Joker and Vanjagar Ulagam and chose me.
What was the first instance you saw something on-screen and realised that this is what acting is?
I grew up in Madurai and there are many theatres there. So I watched a lot of films. I have also heard people say that places with the most number of cinema theatres in Asia are Madurai, Chengalpet, Kanchipuram, etc. When I was studying in Madurai, there were around 80 theatres, within a 3 km circle. So I watched a lot of films then. I remember seeing many Sivaji Ganesan films. I think maybe because I watched so many films, I was inspired to act.
There is a film called Nammavar. A girl dies by suicide. Then, Kamal and Nagesh start speaking. Kamal knows about her death and he knows it was by suicide. But he will hesitate to bring the topic up. When Nagesh hears about it, he rushes to see her and then he keeps a pillow under the dead body's head. So they give him an injection to sedate him. The way he acts when the injection is given was brilliant. Only a person with great knowledge and control can do that. It is a very pathetic situation, he's asking the person to give him the injection after it's already been done. He says it comically. That scene has stayed with me.
Some directors have a very specific vision. But when you work with some directors, maybe some new directors, they might not want more from the actors. They might be successful commercial directors and require only a generic portrayal of emotions. What would you do in such a situation?
Whether directors know what they are doing or not is never a problem. I start with the script, so when the character definition and arc is clean, I will do the homework. I just need someone to say 'action-cut'. I don't ask people how to perform.
I have a work process. I just make sure I am comfortable on location and with co-artists. Since all these are there, I would not focus on if someone is thinking it is enough or other things. I talk with the co-artistes. If there are any new artists, they would not have received the dialogue. So I give them the dialogues and rehearse them. This happened in Vanjagar Ulagam also. I use my process everywhere, so I can work with any director.
On what basis do you accept a film? Do you look for a good role or do you pick ordinary roles that you feel you can elevate?
I accept both kinds of roles. But I need the script, either a bound script or at least my portion. I work on the lines and then work on subtext. However, I don't have to consciously write subtext for each film. Like how you memorise tables until they become second nature, I can now do it quickly and automatically.
I wrote the subtext for Joker and a couple of theatre plays. Now through practice, it comes to me when I read the script itself. I read the script of Minnal Murali at least 10 times in Malayalam. Earlier when I worked for other languages, I used to ask for audio files of each scene and dialogue. Every time I hear it, the image of my character changes in my mind. Typically, I read the script thoroughly around 60 times. I believe that we rehearse not to memorise dialogues but to forget them, only then will you get that flow. Sometimes, I don't think of the dialogues and it's almost as if I have forgotten them. So it feels like the dialogue occurred to me on the spot.
In Minnal Murali, there is this one line emotion – The girl I loved has eloped with someone else. But as people comment and raise different doubts, your reaction keeps changing. I could get the point just from your reactions. You get this from the screenplay after discussing it with the director. Also, there are many such specifications, like, you should stand at a particular spot to get the right light. These are not there in theatre plays. So how do you adjust to that?
When theatre actors try to adapt to the cinema, that is the challenge they face. In theatre, once you are out of the wings, it's done. But in cinema, there is a rapid off-on. So I have to learn that off-on but I do not know how. I collect a lot of information to do that.
For instance, in Minnal Murali, my anger is not towards Usha, but her brother. I followed her from childhood, but he kept pushing me and now she has eloped. I keep looking at him. I think that he is the reason why the situation has occurred and not the girl. I don't care about what otherssay. That is the thought process in that scene.
In this — to stand in the right position, to not move beyond the frame — I found these difficult initially. If you want to learn these, you just have to take help from a director who is already familiar with it. You can't be haughty thinking you already know how to act.
It's a field and there are other people in the field. So I need to take their help. Only as I acted in more and more films, I began to realise it. I used to be annoyed when people asked me to stay in the frame. Later, I started learning about lenses and understood how it works.