Detached. That is the word. Or it could be gravitas. Both define Prithviraj, the young Indian actor who has straddled the worlds of Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi cinema (alias Bollywood) with effortless ease. With four hits, three of them top money-spinners, Prithviraj is also described as the first actor in Malayalam cinema to enter the INR100 crore club in one year, albeit with three films. But he is not a number cruncher. In fact, he cringed when the INR100 crore was brought up in our talk.
Now 33 years old, Prithviraj has been in cinema since he was 17. But his film credentials run deeper. It is a legacy – inherited from his father Sukumaran, an English lecturer turned actor, who brought a new idiom of acting and dialogue delivery to Malayalam cinema, and his mother Mallika. His brother Indrajith is also a successful actor, and a talent powerhouse at that.
No other Malayalam actor might have walked the path that Prithviraj did, despite his entry to film being relatively a breeze with ace-director Renjith. In the early years, not too discriminative about his roles – or perhaps because the times were such – he acted in a mixed bag of films, some super-hits, some duds, some also-rans.
But removed from the box office outcome of his movies, the young man received perhaps the severest of taunts on the then emerging social media. Australia-educated, Prithviraj’s direct, no-nonsensical approach gave him the tag of being outspoken and irreverent. He stood for what he thought was right, even going against conventions and the muscle power of the industry.
He traversed to Tamil, met with success; crossed over to Hindi, found acceptance even with the top Yash Rash Films banner; and focused on films with a vengeance – turning producer, and being extremely choosy about his roles. Prithviraj’s reinvention as an actor, matching commercial success with critical acclaim, can only be described as a dream-run. Only, it was the result of the actor’s diligence.
Now he is being part of what is billed as the biggest film in Malayalam cinema, an independent adaptation of the story of Karna, from the epic Mahabharata. Prithviraj says more than the budget of the film, he believes it could herald the arrival of an era of cinema, not defined by its vernacular language but stamped with pride as a ‘Made in Kerala’ product for the world. Excerpts from the interview:
You have just announced what is arguably the most ambitious film in your career, at least in terms of its budget. How do you feel?
I would like to believe that all my films are ambitious. I don’t think a film being ambitious has anything to do with the amount of money being spent. And even for this film, that is not what we want to pitch up. I would ideally like not the expense of the film as its USP. Yes, how much money you spent is decided by what is written on paper. Although we do not have a lot draft of the script at this moment but judging by our initial discussions and what we want to do with the subject, it is safe to say it will be a very big film. I am pretty sure it will be most expensive film made in Malayalam. But that is not what it is about. Let us hope we make a good film. The subject and character, over the years, have thousands of interpretations and manifestations, so any point of view you take, there will be difference of opinion. That is what happens when you make films on mythology. What I am hoping is that we do justice to our perspective of it.
Why choose Karna?
I didn’t choose. Vimal (director) did. It was his dream to do this project. And I don’t think there is a more complex, perennial underdog hero ever written. He is the quintessential hero to whom destiny has been continuously unfair.
Have you been a fan of Karna?
I would like to think that my knowledge of mythological works that originated from our country is decent. So from whatever little I know, he is by far the most interesting character. There is no two ways about it. If i had to pick one character from Mahabharata to make a film on, definitely it would be Karnan.
When it comes to mythological interpretations in film, perhaps with the popularity of our epics through TV series, there is a set of prejudices already in the minds of audience. Are you going to look at the film from a very different perspective, maybe more earthy… ?
If you ask me about the specifics of the film, its look and design, right now we are far, far away from all that. Essentially in films about mythical characters, we see them as often much more than humans. Where Vimal and I have agreed upon is that the challenge would be to make the story more humane. Only then do I think that the film will connect emotionally. More than the film being about the son of the sun-god, it should be about a man discarded by his mother at birth… one who was befriended by the worst enemy of his brethren… one who had a constant conflict of loyalties within him, … and about a man who perennially questioned the essence of his existence. That kind of humane conflicts should come through. That is what we will strive to achieve. Vimal has done a whole-India tour and visited the current geographical areas where Mahabharata is supposed to have happened. In terms of putting pen to paper, we are hoping to start by end of this month.
It will of course be a multi-lingual…
Definitely, it will have multiple linguistic versions. For the kind of film we are making, it won’t make sense to just do a Malayalam version. That is also part of the exercise. What we want to make is a product that we can export from Kerala. Even when you talk big numbers that are currently doing the rounds about the film, it would only be a fraction of what Hollywood spends on a big budget film. I am not trying to come up with that as an excuse. We are really going to try and do the best version possible.
Let us talk about your most under-performed film of last year, Double Barrel. That is a movie where you put your money in. It broke the mould in many ways but wasn’t appreciated. Were you disappointed?
From the very first sitting, when Lijo (Jose Pellisseri, the director), shared the thought of that movie, I knew it was going to be one big experiment. There was a good chance that it would not work at the box office. That is one of the reasons why I decided to produce it too so that I would be answerable only to myself. Of course, I am disappointed it did not work. I am not trying to justify the film. We know it was a failed experiment but I don’t regret doing it. I would have regretted if I had not shown the guts to attempt it.
Why do you think it did not work, at a time when we talk about Malayalam cinema being on a new high?
I think we tried to create a new genre that does not exist and people could not relate it. I see that as a failure on our side, not the audience’s side. Maybe we needed to communicate better, which we did not.
Last year was a dream run for you. You are reportedly the first actor to enter the INR100 crore club… How do you see this success?
To me, these numbers do not make much difference at all. It is only about how good your film and how sincere your effort is.
You had a varied portfolio of films last year…
Yes, that is something I am proud of. Last year has been when the maximum number of films released. That was not according to one big design but by accident. There were six films (three of them were delayed due to reasons that were under anybody’s control) but I don’t think you can find similarities in my characters or films…. that was a great learning curve for me as an actor.
What prompts you to sign up for a film?
The script… I don’t really over-analyse it. I listen to a script and if I like it, I do it. I don’t choose the character, I choose the film.
That takes us to Pavada your new film… where you play an alcoholic…
Yes, again it is the script. For me it is another character, the exercise remains with the same. I discuss with my director and writer, and we arrive at a mutual consensus. I am guided by the director.
Are you a director’s actor?
Completely! I believe that me as an actor is just an instrument in the director’s hand.
Are you consciously staying away from Bollywood?
I have listened to a number of scripts after Aurangzeb. But I am going through a very exciting phase in Malayalam, and Malayalam cinema too is going through a very creative phase. It will take something that exciting to pull away from Malayalam and invest my time somewhere else. Nothing that exciting has come by me.
I was a bit taken aback by what the film eventually became… I never went in to the film thinking that it would be this big Bollywood production. It was based on a Marathi short film and that is what attracted me to it. Like any film that doesn’t work, yes I was disappointed but I guess it was a bit like Double Barrel. It had a brand of humour and satire that was far ahead. But subsequently signing up for Aurangzeb, under a big banner such as Yash Raj Films, was a big confidence booster for me at the stage of my career.
Do you think there is a pan-India sensibility taking shape in cinema? We have Dhanush effortlessly breaking into Bollywood, Akshay Kumar now being part of Tamil…
I don’t think we have reached there yet; we are on the way and I would ideally want to see it happen much faster. That is surely where we are headed…
Bollywood has talked about crossing over to the West, whereby its films are being appreciated by non-Hindi speaking audiences. Do you think Malayalam film can make a cross-over across India?
The thing is we need to look beyond the language that the film speaks. A Malayalam film must graduate to a place where it is just a film made in Kerala. Don’t look at it as a film that will speak only Malayalam. Tomorrow when Karnan happens, we will have a same version of the film speaking four different languages. But it will still be a film that is ‘Made in Kerala.’ That is the kind of sensibility we must strive to achieve in cinema in general; rather than call it a Malayalam cinema, it must be seen as a film from Kerala.
Ennu Ninte Moideen has a milestone film and yet there are a lot of controversies that refuse to die down… In fact, there have been comments about how you have not gone in with a helping hand for Kanchanamala’s trust while other actors did…
For me, I liked the script, did it, it did well…. and I have moved on. Yes, I see where you are coming from. For somebody who was not involved in the film nor was part of what happened in the making of the film, it is easy for them to take a stand and decide what they want to do. For me, I know a lot of things what happened. I also know Moideen’s family very closely. I know what they feel about it all. It is not easy for me to one day stand up and say ‘I will do this or that.’ I am not going to take names. Let me just say that I have my own reasons, and I owe it to a lot of people to keep it to myself.
Have you mellowed down now?
I just think you are just used to me now.
When you came in, there has been a sort of hostility, as if there was something in the Malayali psyche that made them dislike you …. say a sort of love to hate relationship (as this blog observed). Have you felt that sort of hostility?
I have always tried to be detached from my failures and successes. Neither affects me a lot. If a film fails, I try to analyse why it didn’t and move on. If it is a success too, yes, we will have a party, shake hands and move on. That is the way I deal with work.
You have also learnt to control your urge to react instantly. Apparently one of your first tags was that you are outspoken…
I have always given honest replies to the questions I have been asked. I still do. I don’t know if I have changed. I like to think that at first people found me incorrigible and now they got used to me. Maybe you are right, maybe I changed. I am 33 years old now; I came to cinema when I was 17. Nobody remains constant for 15 years.
Has the arrival of your daughter influenced you? Do you find time to be with her?
I definitely try to…. but I don’t get anywhere near in terms of the time I would like to spend with her. I know that I am not a great dad in terms of being there and doing stuff for her. Unfortunately that comes with the job. I am doing the best I can.
Are you excited with the current state of Malayalam cinema?
Yes, I think we are going through a very nice phase where things are constantly changing. A lot of people think this phase will eventually pave way to how Malayalam cinema is going to be in the next 10 -15 years. But what I hope for is that the current phase sustains. I want our cinema to be in a place of constant unpredictability and people constantly trying new things. All I hope for is that we do not fall into a rut. We were there, and I too was a part of that.
Do you therefore take a conscious decision not to repeat yourself?
For me, it is not me; it is the film. I would rather do an unremarkable role in a great movie that a fantastic character in an unremarkable film. I select films, not my characters. If I see three interesting films tomorrow and I play a cop in all three, I would do all three.
Do you go by the director?
The script. I feel that essentially a film is made on paper and then the director executes it.
That takes us to a statement of Maniyanpillai Raju being misconstrued that you correct the script of Pavada…
No, I did not. The movie you see now is the fourth script that was landed on. They brought three other scripts that the producer and director liked. Just because I did not like them, they decided not to go ahead with it. They understood where I came from.
Are you a method actor? Are you very involved with the character you do? Do you close yourself from the character right after the ‘cut?’
I go by my instinct. When the director says action, what happens is what you see. If it is not right, the director must tell me. I am not somebody who can play each moment and execute it. I don’t have that faculty.
Are you a happy person?
Yes, I think so. I have a great home, a great family and… I am at a place where I can choose which film I want to do and do it the way I want to. I don’t know what more an actor ask for.
Do you try to deliberately keep an arm’s length away from all?
It is not deliberate. That is the way I am. I am sure you will find people by the dozens who are like me. But because I am an actor you will find it discussed more.
Do you regret any movie you did earlier? Or was it all a learning curve?
Success or failure is part of a learning experience. It will be a little foolish to turn back and say that film did not work and I regret it. There are a couple of films in my career that I had to be part of for reasons other than cinema. That won’t happen again.
What did you learn from your father?
Lots actually…. I believe he has told my mother that he was pretty sure both his sons would be actors… But I didn’t really learn much about acting from him. I am a very different kind of actor than him but as a person pretty much everything I have learnt is from him. But more than anything, it is that, it is a lot of work being yourself in this field. It will tire you out. But you sleep better when you are tired.
I truly believe he is a fantastic actor. He is very, very underutilised. But when we sit together we have much better things to talk about than cinema.
What is one thing you learnt from film?
If there is an easy way and a tough way to do things, go for the tough way.
Is that your philosophy in life too?
Like a said, a lot of things in society today will cajole you, provoke you to not be yourself. If you hold on to your integrity it will take effort. It will tire you but you will sleep better.