Arvind Swami explains why he decided to face the camera again after more than a decade, battling a near-fatal spinal injury and upheavals in his personal life
Four months ago, Arvind Swami tweeted a picture of himself flaunting his big, bulging biceps that went viral. He feels compelled to make a clarification. “I did not do it to show off. It was never like that,” he says in a disarming tone, as we settle down in a spacious room at his tastefully done-up house that could be mistaken for an art gallery.
Arvind intended the tweet as a message: that the impossible was well within reach. If anyone had the right to deliver such a message, it would be him. Behind the big bulging biceps lie years of struggle — when he battled the effects of a near-fatal spinal injury.
And Arvind has every right to congratulate himself for the way he coped with the difficult times: ignoring the pain, he brought up his two children as a single parent for 10 years and successfully managed his two ‘payroll processing’ companies.
And now, in his forties, the heartthrob of Tamil Cinema of the 1990s, who disappeared suddenly from the scene, is making a comeback to the silver screen. He has four movies in his bag — two in Tamil and two in Hindi but he would not talk of any of them in detail.
On the whys of his return, he says, “I wanted to see if I can face the camera again. When Mani Ratnam asked me to do Kadal, I wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable on a film set. A few years ago, I couldn’t get out of my bed. To even sit up straight would have been considered an achievement. I just took it up as a challenge,” he says.
Not only has he returned, he looks better than before — well, almost.
He tells me how he had come across several ‘before and after’ pictures of himself on the Internet and how that made him think if he would ever act again. “These things did not hurt me. But, when people say I can’t do it, I always like to do it.”
So, if Kadal is confirmation that he can act again, his next film, for which he is working twice as hard on his body, will be a test of his endurance. “I have started taking lessons in martial arts, after a long time,” he says.
Behind the slow-talking, Zen-like figure, one sees a man who is restless and relentlessly pursues excellence. Born to wealthy parents, Arvind wanted to become a doctor. But things did not go as planned, and he selected films and did fairly well.
Did he enjoy his first stint as an actor?
“I found it very uncomfortable to be a star. I enjoyed my work immensely, not my stardom. I didn’t know how to handle it. After a point, I was feeling a little stifled. I was meeting the same kind of people and I wanted a change. When a new challenge presented itself, I just took it,” he says.
At an age when most actors peak and consolidate their position, he quit films for business. “It was a different realm altogether. I learnt so much regarding global markets, outsourcing and so on. I decided to expand my horizons,” he says.
Having made this choice, he even stopped watching Tamil movies except when he had agreed to be on the jury for a popular film award programme. “I am the sort of person who likes to pay complete attention to what I am doing. For instance, when I was bringing up my kids, I re-structured my business in such a way that I didn’t have to spend even a single night away from them.”
But life does not always fit into personal plans. Arvind found this out the hard way, when a spinal injury took a big slice of five years from him. After this, a return to films seemed a far-fetched idea.
“I didn’t even think of returning to movies. I returned because I had a doubt if I could do it — I didn’t like that feeling and I wanted to find out,” he says.
Besides his own ambition to get into shape, Mani’s offer has encouraged Arvind to return. And, he is happy with what he is stepping into. He thinks Tamil cinema has changed for the better.
“I recently saw Soodhu Kavvum and I thought it was one of the best Tamil films in recent times. I want to be a part of such ventures. When we did Roja, it was a small film. It didn’t have a ready-made audience. I want to do such films. I am glad there is space for making such films today.”
Arvind is as restless as ever, and beyond films, he wants to do a hundred different things.
“One doesn’t need to be socially structured like that — having to do only one thing in life. There is only one life and I want to learn a hundred different things. This is a family thing. My dad did a hundred things: he worked as an accountant, drove a truck and taught in a girls’ school.”
Given this, Arvind surely has many surprises in store.
Making a mark as a young collector
Arvind’s confident debut as the young, upright district collector in Thalapathy helped him emerge as one of the promising young talent of Tamil Cinema at that time.
Three consecutive hits and good bye
While Roja and Bombay resonated with audiences across India, Minsara Kanavu was embraced by the urban audiences in Tamil Nadu. Soon after, Arvind tried many genres — larger than life (En Swasa Kaatre, Pudhayal) before quitting movies. He was last seen in a guest role in Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey.
Arvind is a big gaming online enthusiast. “I play the MMORPG strategy games even today. I have even played 18 hours on the trot.”