Sathyaraj has once again wowed audiences with his performance in Shankar's Nanban. But what made the veteran veer towards character roles?

For Sathyaraj, Coonoor symbolises tranquillity, and at the slightest excuse he's off to the hill station. But when I call him up he's in Coimbatore. “I halted here because my sister in the U.S. has come down. Anyway I'm on my way to my favourite spot,” says Sathyaraj, whose performance in the recent Nanban has garnered plaudits from several quarters. Casual, friendly and diplomatic at once, the versatile actor is interesting to talk to.

“Neither Boman Irani, who played the role in Three Idiots, nor Sathyaraj, the actor whom we've seen on screen till now, should come to viewers' minds when they watch you in Nanban,” had been Shankar's brief to the actor. “But for the lisp, the authoritarian in Nanban is different from his counterpart in Three Idiots,” says Sathyaraj.

Nanban is Sathyaraj's first film with Shankar. Why did it take them so long to get together? “Frankly, I was waiting for the right opportunity. Nanban was irresistible,” he smiles. But why did he refuse Shankar's Sivaji and Endhiran? “After a film of the calibre of Mr. Bharath with Rajnikanth, I couldn't settle for anything less. So I didn't accept Sivaji. Similarly, Danny Denzongpa's character in Endhiran couldn't lure me. Come on, you do agree, don't you,” he argues. But finally when he did team up with Shankar, he has seen to it that it is much-talked about.

“Working under Shankar's direction is a cakewalk, because he's a brilliant actor himself. He acted out every shot, and all I had to do was ape him,” laughs Sathyaraj. “And you have to see his commitment to believe it! He made me try out 10 different wigs, and an equal number of moustaches before he selected one. And for all that, I wasn't the hero,” Sathyaraj sounds genuinely impressed.

Shankar's enthusiasm rubbed off on Sathyaraj, who suggested that the character could walk with a slight limp. “But Shankar felt that it could become a distraction and we gave up the idea,” he says.

Storehouse of talent

A storehouse of talent who has proved himself in myriad roles from the despicably negative to the admirably heroic, from the complete romantic to the respected dodderer, it's rather surprising that he had veered towards character roles when some of his colleagues are still heroes! “The problem is I don't set concrete goals for myself, and even when I did I kept changing them,” he smiles. “Also some of my calculations misfired. Projects which I turned down became super hits and some that I plumped for let me down.” His matter-of-fact analyses reveal no regret.

“When people first began to applaud me for my dialogue delivery as a villain, I was taken aback. But I realised that innovations attract. My kind of villainy was very different from the evil incarnates that stomped the screen till then. And later, it was dearth of heroes that fetched me lead roles,” he pauses. Then what made him give up running around trees and singing duets?

“Ha! Ha! There's a wide gap between talent and intelligence. I didn't market my success as well as I should have,” he sounds far from despondent. Probably being an avid reader of Osho's texts has helped him gain equanimity. “Probably,” he agrees.

After that unforgettable role in Pagal Nilavu, Sathyaraj hasn't been seen in a Mani Ratnam film. “I was to do Iruvar and more recently Ponniyin Selvan. Unfortunately, they didn't fructify.” Ponniyin Selvan seems to have been shelved, at least for now.

Earlier, while discussing Nanban with Vijay, he had told me that all heroes today love to work with Sathyaraj. “I'm glad I got a chance,” he had said. I mention it to the actor and he smiles. “It's mutual. I've known Vijay since he was a kid. From my childhood, I've enjoyed watching MGR prancing around on screen for the song sequences. I feel equally energetic and happy when I see Vijay dance. It revs me up for a whole day.”

His character in Nanban has streaks of grey. So can we expect to see Sathyaraj in negative roles in future? After all, messages can be imparted both through the hero and the villain. “Exactly, if MGR imparted it in a positive manner, M. R. Radha as an antithesis did it effectively too,” he guffaws. But, what about my question? “Yeah, if the role is as challenging as the shrewd and conniving protagonist of Amaidhi Padai,” he fields. The cantankerousness of the character so well essayed in Amaidhi Padai is among Sathyaraj's bests.

“If you aren't driven by necessity, you can wait for the right roles to come your way. I'm doing just that. I need to derive satisfaction from my job. Don't misconstrue my words and conclude that I'm arrogant, but I've refused at least 10 offers after Nanban. Anyway I may be signing up for a project soon.” The tone is that of a veteran who's seen it all.

Meanwhile, he's relaxing at his favourite haunt. “My home here is secluded, far away from the din of the city. I go for long walks, listen to music, read a lot, catch up with DVDs of world cinema and generally chill out. I don't hear the grating noise of cars and buses racing past. Only the sweet sound of birds! Bliss it is,” he laughs.