As he finds a new turf with “Aurangzeb”, Prithviraj Sukumaran talks about his struggle with Hindi and why he took the road to Bollywood
“I don’t want anybody’s charity. I am hoping that the people won’t go and watch ‘Aurangzeb’ thinking that a South Indian is playing a North Indian police officer.” That’s Prithviraj for you. Sitting at a plush Gurgaon hotel, the actor, known for his silent portrayal of anguish, is in an expressive mood. At 30, he is already a veteran in Malayalam cinema and this, he says, gives him a chance to have a shot at Bollywood. He is in no hurry. He wants to know the audience response before thinking of life after “Aurangzeb”. Is he enjoying his anonymity up North? “Malayalis are everywhere. I have already seen 10 in the hotel!”
Excerpts from an interview:
What was your motivation to try Hindi cinema?
“Aurganzeb” is a very significant film not just for me but it is being seen as an event for the actors from the South. I have been told that I am the first South Indian actor to ever feature in a Yash Raj film. And they have not cast me in a role that requires a South Indian actor. The film is breaking a notion that South Indians can only play South Indian characters. If you see the articles that are appearing in the South Indian media they are excited about what is happening through me as an actor.
You could have easily asked for one of your Malayalam hits to be remade in Hindi.
I don’t want Bollywood to adapt to me. Atul (Sabharwal) and Aditya (Chopra) have done nothing on paper to make it suitable for a South Indian actor. When I didn’t get a word right I had to rehearse it over and over again. In Malayalam every film that comes my way is because of what I have already done. In Bollywood, “Aurangzeb” was offered to me purely because of how good I am. Aditya and Atul took my audition and compared it to 100 others. To know that you are good enough on a level playing field gives a good feeling.
But in your first Hindi film “Aiyya”, you were expected to play a South Indian…
Exactly! You won’t believe, in “Aiyya” in the final scene on the scooter, I had to go back and read up a bit to make it sound more South Indian. They wanted my Hindi to be wrong. There was no such excuse here. If people watch it and say that he is not looking like a North Indian police officer, it is a failure on my part.
Still, “Aiyya” was a strange choice to test the waters…
It looks like a queer choice for a young actor but if you think it as the choice of an actor who has done 80 films and is looking for some new challenge then it makes sense. You may have hated it but it was definitely original. I never looked at it as my launch vehicle in Bollywood. I saw it as a film that deserves to be made. I was not testing the waters. It was only towards the end when my photographs were circulated and people started showing interest that I realised that I could do some films here.
In the past, South Indian actors have done Hindi films but nobody has made a serious effort.
I don’t think anybody has made a real out-and-out effort. You want to get wet, you better take a plunge. From now on I am going to do only two films a year in the South.
The usual refrain has been that they are stars in their territory and why prove oneself all over again?
I fully understand the feeling. For somebody who has done all the hard work/ dirty work it is very difficult to start afresh. It is their way of thinking and I am not refuting that, but I am not like that. I don’t really care about the stardom. I like the feeling of starting afresh without any baggage. People will go to watch “Aurangzeb” and they won’t know that it is my 17th cop film. I am excited about that part. I am just 30. I can afford to give it a shot as I am secure enough to give an honest shot and see where I reach. Also, in South India a lot of people say ‘you don’t look like a South Indian’!
Is this migration of sorts healthy for Malayalam cinema?
It is very good. Recently, one of my Malayalam films — funnily called — “Mumbai Police” released, and when I reached Yash Raj studios, 10 people enquired about it. Of course they were interested because I was doing their film, but what if 10 more actors generate such interest in Malayalam cinema? This is the only way we can grow beyond our stringent linguistic borders.
What was the challenge in playing Arya?
He is a very inexpressive sort of guy. Somebody who won’t smile even at the news of becoming a father. It is not easy for him to express himself but as a character he goes through a lot of emotional conflict in the film. The challenge was never to let go of that stoic façade and then communicate all the dilemmas that he is going through. Also, I am very excited about this journey, the way he bursts at the end.
Did you struggle with Hindi?
I worked for four months before the start of the shoot with a fantastic diction tutor, Vikas Kumar. My problem was, Hindi is a language that I can read, write and speak, but we South Indians are used to speaking Hindi in a certain way. There is a Marathi twang in the way we speak it. I would say “Aoorangzeb”. I had to unlearn all that and then start learning. It was tougher than learning a language that I didn’t know at all.
You are known to be an actor who wants to know the range of the lens that is being used to film you…
I wanted to become a director. I have an inherent interest in filmmaking and equipment. Some of my best friends are technicians. My production company is co-owned by Santosh Sivan. Obviously, I have a master to ask. I know a lot of people feel that a pure actor should not be bothered about these things, but for me it is important to know how I am being filmed. I have always said that the biggest difference between stage and cinema is that one has got close-ups. I feel you should know how you are being filmed to fully manipulate yourself as an actor.
How do you like to convey emotions?
I feel that the more you convey through internal processes, the better. If you are doing a scene and the scene is quite dramatic on paper you should realise there are other things that will kick into to accentuate the drama. For instance, the background music, the lighting…you don’t need to perform the shit out of the scene to create the drama. You just have to act it out honestly.
How do you see the state of Malayalam cinema?
Some years back we were in a pathetic state because we had started aping Bollywood but things have changed in the last few years. The kind of films that are made depends on the kind of films that are becoming hits. That’s why I always say you should be very careful about which film you decide to watch. If a film becomes a hit that paves the way for 10 more films of that kind to be made. Over the last few years people are not only backing content-rich cinema they are alslo handing out disasters to films that don’t deserve to be made.
You introduced fitness to Malayali actors and gave the audience an option apart from the two M’s.
I can very immodestly take the credit for making people believe that to be an actor you need to be fit. However, even if you have 12 packs you can’t make a cut in Malayalam cinema if you are not a decent enough actor. Such is the standard set by the likes of Mohanlal and Mammootty. Nobody can come between them. Nowhere in the world are two actors playing lead roles for 30 years. I am privileged that my name is mentioned alongside their name.
Familiarity with Gurgaon
Three of my cousins live in Gurgaon. So I am familiar with the topography for a long time. In fact my nieces are more Gurgaon than Kerala. It is a kind of place where you return after six months and find that there are two more landmarks. And that is what the film is all about. I don’t think anywhere the contest between the available real estate and the struggle to own it is as intense as in Gurgaon.