Rahman is of late seen only in negative roles in Tamil. The actor who has played the lead in over 150 films in various south Indian languages opens up to Malathi Rangarajan

“Where did I ever go to come back,” quips Rahman when I ask him about the short period of hibernation before he re-surfaced as a cop in Ameer’s Ram, after which he’s been seen only in negative roles, including Billa and the recent Singam 2.

“It wasn’t Ram,” he clarifies. “I was still a hero when director K.S. Ravikumar suggested I change tack and take up a villain’s role in his Edhiri.” Madhavan played the lead in the film. Earlier Rahman had been the hero of Ravikumar’s runaway hit, Puriyaadha Pudhir. “It was an excellent film and as it was the same director who wanted me to try out a negative role I went ahead.”

Sadly, only later did Rahman realise that typecasting is a bane in the Tamil industry. “Imagine my shock when filmmakers started knocking at my door, all for anti-roles. I refused to budge. ‘But you did Edhiri,’ they tried to corner me,” recalls Rahman. “In Hindi, an Aamir Khan returns to play hero after being a baddie, but here once you play a particular character you are stuck with it.” Rahman probably rues the day he made the shift. “But I didn’t make the mistake in Malayalam. I’m still a hero there,” he laughs. Lavender in Malayalam, which has him as the protagonist, is gearing up for release soon.

FB, his next in Tamil

Why did he give in? “I haven’t, completely. It’s still on my terms. I may play negative characters, but I’m not accepting any villain-bashing by the hero. And I don’t play the typical dad. The role has to have substance. I’m choosy — otherwise I’d have several films to work on.” Rahman gave in when he got an extremely meaty role in Thoothukudi as a silent, scheming villain. “The film revolved more around me. But it didn’t do too well and so my effort went unnoticed.” He is currently shooting for the Tamil film FB.

The statistics

Rahman has done more than 150 films as hero in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. “The number could be even more. I don’t keep track.” Telugu alone accounts for around 30, and that is also nearly the number of years he has been in the industry. But negative or positive, his popularity chart is impressive otherwise you wouldn’t see him regularly on television endorsing brands. “Yeah, I’ve realised that people like me,” he smiles. “But I feel bad that my second daughter has only watched me as an evil person on the Tamil screen.”

Innings and emotions

Rahman has had a successful innings as the lead player. Yet he got slightly emotional while talking about his lean phase in an interaction on TV. As he said then, his wife has been a tremendous source of support. And so has brother-in-law, A.R. Rahman. “I’ve been writing stories in my spare time. And Rahman knows my acumen for narration. He wants me to become a director. It could happen sometime,” says Rahman rather cryptically.

Publicity shy

“That’s a mistake I’m well aware of. I don’t party, nor do I make any conscious effort to promote myself. But that’s the way I am. I had pinned all my hopes on Sangamam, and when it didn’t do as well as I expected it to, I was terribly upset.”

Thoughts at the moment

“I’m still in a position to pick and choose the roles I want to play and I’m thankful for that. I believe in destiny. As you say, I’m liked despite the negative characters I portray. Wherever I go I have people crowding around me to tell me I’m a good actor and that keeps me going.”