After a sabbatical from Malayalam films Pratap Pothen is back with a bang. He talks to Esther Elias about his career and his hundredth film

Kerala first saw Pratap Pothen in 1979 as Thakara, a lean young man in bedraggled clothes streaking across a railway track, ‘choo-choo’-ing like a train would. In 2014, stills from his hundredth film, Once Upon a Time There was a Kallan, show a diametrically different Pratap, considerably bigger, rigged in prosthetics, scowling at the camera as the grumpy old miser, Ouseph.

The decades in between have seen him act with, and direct, the best in South Indian cinema, rise in stardom, fall from fame for years together and make a remarkable comeback. “What hasn’t changed all along,” says Pratap, “is my love for films.”

His story opens in Lawrence, an Ooty boarding school he joined at five and left at 17. In a dim-lit room, he remembers watching Bicycle Thieves once unspool from the school’s projector. “It touched me profoundly. I knew then that I wanted to be in films.” Lawrence’s library also nourished in him a love for stories. “It was a period of voracious reading—everything from Enid Blyton to James Hadley Chase—because there was nothing else to do! I slowly began to see things visually.” The “naughtiest boy in class” grew up to graduate in economics from Madras Christian College, nurtured his acting talent at the college’s Dramatics Club, but went on to become a copywriter in Mumbai because “cinema wasn’t considered a viable day job” then.

The stage lured him back though. He returned to Chennai and joined the Madras Players where director Bharathan watched him perform Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion. Bharathan first cast Pratap in Aaravam and then as Thakara. “He would introduce me to producers as the lead actor and they would run away. I was convent educated, had long hippie-like hair, spoke English, wore jeans and wouldn’t do the fighting-dancing ‘hero routine’. I didn’t fit in but Bharathan believed in me.” Pratap’s quaint walk, voice, gestures and the innocence he created for Thakara won him his first award, and the film, numerous accolades. Opportunity’s doors swung open and memorable roles came his way—Vinod, the boy who falls for his college lecturer, in Bharathan’s Chamaram, Chandru, the serial murderer of prostitutes, in Balu Mahendra’s Tamil film Moodu Pani, and Mr. Ridley in K. Balachandar’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu with Kamal Hassan, among many others.

Directing debut

“I did film after film in both Tamil and Malayalam, was perceived as doing only ‘eccentric roles’ and finally reached a point where I was sick of acting and itched to direct,” says Pratap. Still preoccupied by the mentally-challenged Thakara, Pratap wrote Meendum Oru Kadhal Kathai about two mentally-challenged people in love. “I could find no lead actor for it, so I did it myself. The film was shot over a year for funds were few. I jumped to Telugu films, played villains beaten up by Krishna, wore disco pants and danced with Jayamalini, all to raise funds for Meendum.” The film went on to win him the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director.

It was two years later that writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair gave Pratap the story of Rithubhedam, set in a Nair household. “I was challenged by that story which was so far removed from anything I knew. But by then, filmmaking came easily to me and we shot in 18 days.” Daisy, Pratap’s love tribute to Lawrence, then became a cult film, followed by the Bourne Identity-inspired Tamil flick with Kamal, Vetri Vizha. “The film has a great premise with the amnesiac hero, but turning it commercial with five songs and dances was quite an experience!” As Pratap’s directorial repertoire grew, his acting assignments dwindled. “I was still doing the occasional Tamil role, but in Malayalam it was rumoured that I was ‘too anglicised for the language’. I was dubbed in Thanmatra and Calendar, both of which I was upset by because it kills the character.” In 1996, Pratap directed Oru Yathramozhi about a father-son relationship, featuring the stellar cast of Sivaji Ganesan, Mohanlal, Nedumudi Venu and Thilakan. He then left cinema for a career in advertising films.

Return to films

In 2012, Pratap returned to Malayalam cinema, as Hegde—a two-time rapist—in Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam. When producer O.G. Sunil approached him, Pratap reluctantly agreed, expecting to be typecast again. At the unit though, he found a young film community he vibed with instantly. “I relate to this generation so much. We were once rebels like them. What they’re doing now, we tried a long time ago,” he says. Pratap’s Hegde struck a chord with audiences—“I guess the minimalism creeped them out!”—and he was invited to Lal Jose’s Ayalum Njanum Thammil as the wise and endearing Dr. Samuel. 3 Dots, Aaru Sundarikalude Katha, Idukki Gold, London Bridge have all happened since. In the last 15 months, he recalls doing as many films. “If five years ago, someone had said I would be busy in Malayalam films, I’d have never believed them but you can never predict these things.”

With Faasil Mohamad’s Once Upon a Time… Pratap says he’s essayed the toughest role of his career. His eyes are now set on direction, with two projects in the works. After all these years in cinema, what’s changed in the way he would tell stories? “I’m more mature now and that comes from the experience of ups and downs. In my time I’ve seen cinema evolve from the Mitchell camera to the cell phone camera. My creative thinking is different now,” he says. With direction though, content is king; style and all else is secondary, says Pratap. “In our world, all stories have been told, all plots have been written. We play now with permutations and combinations. When I find a story that strikes me deep, it will be one worth telling.”

100th film

“An actor is only as good as the role written for him,” says Pratap Pothen. And his role as Ouseph in the forthcoming film ‘Once Upon a Time there was a Kallan’, with Sreenath Bhasi, was the most challenging in his career, he says. The role called for a prosthetic face meant to be worn for just four hours at a time, but shoots went on for even eight hours. “Ouseph is a lonely miser. I could identify with his loneliness but he required me to visit places of deep anger and betrayal which I had to pump from within me. Add the boiling heat of the prosthetics, and the experience was draining. I’ve given my heart and soul for this role. I left satisfied that I did it justice.”