Actor Sathyaraj treads the evil path once again in Nagaraja Chozhan MA MLA, his 200th film

He’s been the thug in the background and the diabolical villain. He’s also essayed a range of do-gooder roles and characters of historical significance. Now, actor Sathyaraj is back doing what he does best — play the baddie — in Nagaraja Chozhan MA, MLA, the sequel to his superhit, Amaidhi Padai.

Twenty years ago, he impressed filmgoers with his twin roles of evil father and righteous son in the political satire by director Manivannan. The father’s character graph ranged from a village lout and wannabe politician to a wily leader…and he nailed them all. “You know, I almost did not sign up for Amaidhi Padai. Manivannan is a dear friend, but he’d told me it was a negative character. After years of playing the bad man, I’d finally gained some respectability with films such as Poovizhi Vaasalile, Vedham Pudhidhu and Walter Vetrivel. I thought I’d hear the story and politely refuse Manivannan. But, he is such a master storyteller that within 10 minutes, I had signed up for the film. That’s what happened with the sequel too,” says Sathyaraj. “That, it was to be my 200th film is sheer coincidence.”

The actor, on a holiday in the hills, says that once he green-lighted the project, everything fell into place. “I’ve loved characters with shades of grey. Somehow, here, we always tend to slot people as black or white. I did not want to play a typical villain again. I was really bad in Amaidhi Padai. I had to be more evil here,” he says.

The original movie is still fresh in people’s minds. “A friend recently told me that the scene where I transform from Ammavasai to Nagaraja Chozhan even as the election results trickle in, is part of the curriculum in a U.S. film institute. It is used to teach the importance of body language in acting!”

Another reason for signing up for the film was Manivannan. “Our relationship goes back to the time when we stood in a queue at the Government Arts College, Coimbatore, to apply for our PUC. I guided him wrongly and he ended up choosing history, logic and advanced English. Poor chap, struggled with Shakespeare and dropped out. But he never bore a grudge; he continues to give me good roles,” he smiles.

Sathyaraj is excited about how Nagaraja… has shaped up. “Only someone who knows world history can make a good political satire. Manivannan can discuss Marxism, Che, Castro, the Russian Revolution, the Tsars… “Working with him is a pleasure. There’s no script, no dialogue sheet. It’s all in his head. But, he extracts great performances,” he says.

So, is he back in the leading man’s seat with Nagaraja…? “No. I’m glad to be working across languages. I’ll be frank. My solo films don’t do great business. So, producers will scrimp on the budget. It’s better to play a good part in a well-made, big budget film with the current crop of actors.”

Which is why he’s a part of Thalaivaa (with Vijay); the Hindi Chennai Express (with Shah Rukh Khan), where he plays Deepika Padukone’s father; Raja Rani (with Arya and Nayantara); Varuthapadaatha Vaalibar Sangam (with Sivakarthikeyan); and S.S. Rajamouli’s big budget trilingual Bahubali in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Says the actor: “It’s a great time to be working in films. I’ve been offered roles that excite me. I’ve always waited to do roles with depth. Something like what Morgan Freeman and Amitabh Bachchan take up. Thankfully, people are writing such roles now.” Sathyaraj shares a great rapport with Gen Y actors too. He speaks fondly of Sivakarthikeyan. “He’s very spontaneous. On the sets, we behave like classmates. We work together to develop scenes well, and I am always open to ideas.” This ability to bond with people across age groups, says Sathyaraj, is courtesy late actor Jaishankar. “When I was a struggling actor and he a superstar, he would share a smoke, and remind me that we were colleagues first.”

So, how is it shooting for a Hindi film? “Director Rohit Shetty and the cast are friendly. I manage with my brand of English. You know, my first line to Shah Rukh Khan was: ‘Hello, I am Sathyaraj, and I can’t speak English fluently’. That frees me up to focus on important things, such as acting,” he laughs.

ROLE RECALL

Thirty five years. 200 movies. Sathyaraj picks his top five roles.

Periyaar It was tough to portray a legend, especially since his contemporaries are still around. I was moved when many of them said they felt like Periyaar had come alive.

Amaidhi Padai Ammavaasai/Nagaraja Chozhan is an unbeatable villain. I doubt if we can create someone like him again. As an actor, it was a challenge to portray two roles — one righteous and the other pure evil.

Vedham Pudhidhu Even today, many people remember my character of Balu Thevar. It showcased me as an actor.

Poovizhi Vaasalile It was such a different role — playing a tough man with a soft core who shared a unique bond with a child.

Kadamai Kanniyam Kattuppadu Kamal Haasan produced this film and I was touched that he chose me to essay the role of a cop. It was a realistic film and gave me a great platform when I was shifting to hero roles after 75 films as villain.