His smouldering looks make girls giggly and coy. With his string of rumoured romances, arrogance and phenomenal success at just 27, Malayalam actor Prithviraj has the making of a Mills-and-Boons cliché. Except, he's real.
Barely eight years into his movie career, he has over 50 films to his name, making him one of the most bankable stars of Kerala. “It's an enviable position to be in, at my age,” he says in a phone interview from Kannur where he's shooting for Malayalam film “Anwar”. “I never took a break; I just hopped from one project to the next.”
His most highly anticipated project yet, however, is Mani Ratnam's Tamil film “Raavanan”. “I feel sorry for the actors who haven't had the opportunity to act in a Mani Ratnam film,” he states, smugly. He describes the experience as a journey of self-discovery as an actor. “Mani sir puts his actors in places and sequences that make them uncomfortable; it pushes them to discover new aspects of themselves,” observes Prithvi.
Ratnam, he claims, is the reason he got into cinema. After a short stint at an Australian University, he returned, hoping to land a gig as Ratnam's assistant director. “But, as luck would have it, I landed in front of the camera.” Prithvi's swift ride to stardom, or “fame and fortune” as he modestly describes his situation, put his director dreams on hold.
He's been working on another dream, though; a way to elevate Malayalam cinema to the glory it enjoyed in the early 80s. Prithvi's articulate views on the issues plaguing his home industry has lost him some fans over the years, but gained him others, who think he may be just what the doctor ordered to revive Malayalam films from slow death.
The actor has frequently expressed his desire to become an ambassador for the industry. He lists budgets 1/20th the size of the Tamil industry, formula films, and a lack of serious young scriptwriters as the main problems. “The under-30s are the audience segment that ultimately decides whether a film is a hit. And, we have nobody catering to this audience. To survive, Malayalam cinema needs to tackle modern subjects, to cross over from its regional specificity. As it is, there are only about 100 screens for Malayalam films,” he says, going on to discuss how Malayalam is spoken by a very limited section of the population, further whittling down the audience potential.
He confesses he does not know a solution to these problems, other than the need to incorporate more universal themes. “Films such as ‘Taare Zameen Par' and ‘Kannathil Muthamittal' are not limited by their language, any audience would be able to relate to them,” says Prithvi. He says he never liked the idea of formula films, as he thought they could not work. “But ‘Puthiya Mugam' (his recent release) proved me wrong,” says Prithvi, explaining that every aspect of “Puthiya Mugam” was done keeping in mind the ‘Prithviraj formula'. “The director made the film using all the elements the audience want in a Prithviraj film — action, song and dance. And, me as the underdog, winning in the end.”
The film was a resounding success, and according to Prithvi, made its money from theatre collections. “That film sold very early, a year before the shoot began, as the producer had to generate the money for the production. So, it was actually undersold.”
Another revelation, courtesy “Puthiya Mugam”, is that Prithviraj is quite the singer. He laughs politely, when asked about the title song of the film, which he sang. (Incidentally, it is his caller tune too!). “I'm not a trained singer. The reason I did it was because the producer said he'll have more leverage with the audio rights if I sang a song.”
This proved to be so successful, Prithvi says, that now, it is customary for him to sing a song in every Malayalam film he does.
“Raavanan”, scheduled for a June release, could be the turning point in Prithvi's career, and, perhaps, the gateway to a full-time career in Tamil cinema, where the pay cheques are fatter, and stars, worshipped. However, he says: “I didn't do the film because of the possibilities it presented… but, because of Mani Ratnam.”
He adds that his connection with Malayalam cinema will not change. “I am Malayali, and was discovered as an actor through Malayalam cinema.”