Mani Ratnam’s Kadal brings Arvind Swami back to the screen after a gap of 12 years. The actor talks about his chequered film career

He's not used to this. Thirty interviews from morning through night. Mostly TV. Luckily for us, that was the previous day. Today, Arvind Swami is more relaxed. “Only you stand between me and sleep,” he says on a Saturday afternoon, still exhausted after the non-stop interviews he has been giving to promote Kadal. His return to cinema after 12 long years.

Why is he such a reluctant actor?

“As a kid, I never wanted to become an actor. I wanted to be a doctor. Dad had industries and wanted me to join his business. I used to walk the ramp for pocket money and, in college, you have some expenses you need to account for... like, partying with friends,” Arvind starts his story.

His only association with acting until then was joining the Loyola Theatre Society for attendance. “I tried auditioning but was among the first to be asked to get off stage,” he laughs.

Mani Ratnam happened to see one of the ads he did and called him. “I was very open to trying out things. I thought I could do anything. So I went to meet him and was asked to do some dialogues. I said I hadn't even asked my Dad. So I made Mani come home and speak to my Dad. I wasn't reluctant. I just never thought it would happen.”

“Mani was the one who taught me. And, of course, Santosh Sivan. They taught me the basics. Also, at that time, realistic films didn’t have the acceptance that they enjoy today. Maybe because the revenue model was different. People were also risk averse,” he explains the limited choice of roles that went with his sensibility.

He tried to break the mould as much as he could. “Mani told me, ‘Don't be scared to fail. So I took whatever opportunities I got. I did a Malayalam film with Bharathan called Devaragam.’”

But after a while, with the lack of interesting projects and commercial success, he decided to take a break and focus on his business. “It was an exciting time to set up my Global Process Outsourcing business. I thought I would take a 4-5 year break and come back to films but then, in 2005-2006, I met with an accident that injured my spine. My leg was paralysed. It took four-five years of treatment to get back on my feet. I couldn't exercise. I put on a lot of weight.”

“I guess I kind of figured myself out. I couldn't do just one thing. I wanted to do different things. I read five books at a time. But I finish all of them,” he says.

He then set up Talent Maximum, which he says, is the “largest payroll processor” in the country right now with 5,000 people working there. Mani Ratnam would occasionally call to check if he was doing okay.

As he was getting back on his feet, Mani Ratnam called him again. “But this time, he said, ‘Let's meet.’ I had a hunch because it sounded just like the old times. So I said, ‘Look at me, I am not in good shape.’ I had put on so much weight. I was scared of the pain I had gone through. So I told him let's see if I can actually lose weight and then discuss the film. I hired a trainer the very next day. Mani messaged the next day too: Have you started? Everyday, Mani would text: How much weight have you lost? He kept the momentum going. I was feeling good. The doctor said I can do stuff. So I told Mani: I am not going to see you for a month.”

“After a month, I went to see him,” Arvind continues. “I was nervous whether I had lost enough weight. So I sent him a message: Don't expect miracles. He replied: I am. That's Mani for you. But then, he was surprised that I lost 15 kilos.”

They discussed the role in detail for about two weeks, all the different looks he had to sport since it was a character spanning almost two decades.

It's not a “character-role,” he laughs. “I didn't come up to be a character artiste. Mani Ratnam got me into movies. I can trust him to do something special. I obviously want to play only main leads. Look at Django Unchained. Leo plays a bad guy. You can only get good films if you have good people playing important roles. Here, Arjun plays one. I play another. From a selfish standpoint, I was wondering if I could still do it... small things like remembering my lines. But I also knew Mani was there, Rajiv was there. And soon, it was almost like the last 12 years hadn't happened.”

‘Not playing myself’

How much does he relate to the character he plays? “I have it in me to love somebody, to be extremely patriotic, to be defiant... but I am not trying to play myself. I am agnostic but here, I need to be able to love God. I have no disrespect at all. I have read the Vedas and the scriptures. I have gone to temples and churches, growing up. It brings a sense of calm. I don't know why that happens. If I knew it was because of God or childhood memories, I would be religious or an atheist. But I don't have the answers. That’s why I am agnostic.”

Arvind is looking to do another film maybe around June this year. “Everybody knows I won't be doing four films a year. It's a comfortable space to be in. The audience has matured so much. There are a lot of good movies coming up. For me, it used to be a struggle to get scripts like this. Nowadays, there are many and I hope some of them can think of me as an option.”