Narain has impressed with small but impactful roles in Malayalam films. He is the only Malayali actor with a fans association in Tamil Nadu

As a school student in Dubai, actor Narain aka Sunil Kumar was known as the Malabari because he was one of the very few Malayalis in school. The only actor he knew was Amitabh Bachchan. Mammootty and Mohanlal happened much later. Later, he shifted to a school where “99 per cent of the kids were Malayalis” and he was initiated into world of Malayalam cinema, ‘introduced’ to Mohanlal and Mammootty. By the time he was in Class VIII, his mind was made. He wanted to be an actor.

Narain is one of those actors in Malayalam films who have made an impact on audiences with small but impressive roles. Be it the IPS officer Rajan Mathew in 4 The People, the struggling lawyer Immanuel John in Achuvinte Amma, the college student Murali in Classmates (and that super romantic ‘Ente Khalbile…’), Dr. Jeevan in Sheelabathi, Alexander Felix in Robin Hood, Vivek in Ayalum Nanjanum Thammil…these are just a few from a long roster of films in which he has impressed audiences.

However, when it comes to Tamil films the script is different. In Tamil, unlike in Malayalam where he has mostly been a secondary character, he has been the lead in several single hero projects and worked with reputed directors such as Mysskin, a close friend. He has acted in Mysskin’s films - Chithiram Pesuthadi, Anjaathe and Mugamoodi. The last one was a sci-fi film with Jeeva as hero and Narain as Dragon, the villain.

Fans aplenty

He is probably the only Malayali actor, who works in Malayalam and Tamil films, to have a fan’s association in Tamil Nadu. Point out the irony and he disagrees. “I need to do more work here to warrant a fan’s association in Malayalam. I am trying to be in both places at the same time and it is difficult. I have to choose and it is a difficult choice.” The Malayalam film industry is more comfortable, he agrees.

This is the year, he says, which will decide where he will be. He attributes his missing important roles in Malayalam to this ‘being in two places at the same time’. With a film like Veeraputhran he has proven his histrionic skills and that he can carry a film on his shoulders. According to him that alone is not enough. It goes back to being here more. The gaps in his career are the result of committing bulk dates to films which would get inevitably delayed and he would miss out on work.

Being in two places and then having to choose between them is not new to him. He joined the Adayar Film Institute to learn cinematography as suggested by ‘friend of a family friend’ director Fazil. All the time itching to be in front of it, as actor, “I would peep into the acting classes and I would be shooed away.”

“Fazil sir suggested that instead of ‘learning to act’, I ought to learn cinematography. The idea of me cranking the camera appealed more to my parents than my becoming an actor,” says the Chennai-based actor.

Best years

When an only son says he wants to become an actor while in Class X, his parents did what most parents would do on such occasions. They told him “we will think about it”. The meeting with Fazil came after he had graduated in Statistics from Kerala Varma College in Thrissur. He had started with BSc Maths, shifted to Actuarial Science before, eventually graduating in Statistics.

And this was not the original plan. The plan was “I would get a degree in engineering, I would hand over the certificate to my parents and off I would go and become an actor.”

Those were the three ‘best’ years in college, where he found out that he could act. In his first ever outing as actor in a play for a university-level competition he won the best actor’s award. “That proved to me that I could act. It wasn’t an impossible dream I was clinging on to.”

After his course, he joined Rajiv Menon as an associate and went about being an assistant cameraman. It was while he was working with Rajiv Menon that he did Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkoothu in 2002. It should have been a lucky break but not for Narain. He went back to the camera, quitting a couple of times only to return. He assisted Rajiv for two-and-a-half years. Then in 2004, while work was beginning on Rajiv Menon’s Morning Raaga, Narain left, “with Shabana Azmi’s blessings” to do 4 The People with Jayaraj. After the hugely successful 4 The People there was nothing, again.

It was a struggle he had to hide from his parents. “I would come to Kerala from Chennai for auditions and not tell my parents…they would be aghast if they knew about my struggle.” While waiting for offers to materialise he would go back to cranking the camera for documentaries and ad-films. Being a cameraman came in the way of getting roles, he says. “For some reason, when I would say I am a cameraman, it would put people off. So I stopped telling people.”

A break

Roles offered were the kind which would have typecast him and he turned them down. Then in 2005 Achuvinte Amma with Sathyan Anthikkad came along. It didn’t change much but he did get Mysskin’s Chithiram Pesuthadi, for which he got ‘great feedback’. “When a friend told me a person called Mysskin wants to meet me…I asked ‘in what language is he planning to make the film in?’” And that meeting led to Narain’s first hit in Tamil. It was one of those rare occasions when a film was re-released and went on to become a hit. That opened the door to Tamil films and coinciding with it he started getting offers in Malayalam too. And that brings us to today.

His kitty of Malayalam films is full and he admits he is in a good place and that he can afford to look at the past with self-deprecating humour. But there is still plenty to do, he believes.