Prithviraj: The director's actor
Prithviraj, star of Karnan, talks extensively on why he gives a script first priority, and his vision for a 'Made in Kerala' brand of cinema.
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 effortlessly. With four hits, three of them top money-spinners, Prithviraj is also described as the first actor in Malayalam cinema to enter the Rs100 crore club in one year, albeit with three films. But he is not a number cruncher. In fact, he cringed when the Rs100 crore issue was brought up in our talk.
Now 33 years old, Prithviraj has been a part of 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 films being relatively a breeze with ace director Renjith. 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-nonsense approach gave him the tag of being outspoken and irreverent.
He traversed to Tamil films, met with success, crossed over to Hindi, found acceptance even with the top Yash Rash Films banner; he focused on films with a vengeance, turning producer, and being extremely choosy about his roles.
Now he is part of what is billed as the biggest film in Malayalam cinema, an independent adaptation of the story of Karnan, from the epic Mahabharata. Excerpts from an 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. I would ideally like not the expense of the film as its USP. Although we do not have a draft of the script at this moment, judging by our initial discussions and what we want to do with the subject, I am pretty sure it will be the most expensive film made in Malayalam. But that is not what it is about. Let us hope we make a good film.
Why choose Karnan?
I didn't choose. Vimal (the 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 Karnan?
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. If I had to pick one character from Mahabharata to make a film on, definitely it would be Karnan.
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. 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 deity, 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. Those kind of humane conflicts should come through. That is what we will strive to achieve.
It will of course be 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. It broke the mold 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. 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.
Last year was a dream run for you. You are reportedly the first Malayalam actor to enter the Rs100 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 not 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 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 as an actor I'm 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, which 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.
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 crossover?
We need to look beyond the language that the film speaks. Don't look at it as a film that will speak only Malayalam. Tomorrow when Karnan happens, we will have the 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.
Ennu Ninte Moideen is a milestone in 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...
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. I know a lot of things what happened. I also know Moideen's family very closely. It is not easy for me to one day stand up and say 'I will do this or that.' 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.
You have also apparently learnt to control your urge to react instantly. 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.
Do you take a conscious decision not to repeat yourself?
For me, it is the film. I would rather do an unremarkable role in a great movie than 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 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 in a place where I can choose which film I want to do and do it the way I want to.
Do you try to deliberately keep an arm's length away from all?
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.
What did you learn from your father?
Lots actually.... 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 under-utilised. But when we sit together we have much better things to talk about than cinema.
What is one thing you learnt from films?
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 I 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.