A freelancer for real

Arjun Radhakrishnan, the debutant in Shreelancer, on being a non-trained actor in the indie world

September 13, 2017 08:35 pm | Updated 08:35 pm IST

Mumbai 24-08-2017 :Profile Shoot of Arjun Radhakrishnan.
Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

Mumbai 24-08-2017 :Profile Shoot of Arjun Radhakrishnan. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

When a quote by renowned French director Oliver Assayas in a recent IndieWire article by David Ehrlich, is pointed out to actor Arjun Radhakrishnan, he gets pleasantly surprised. He can relate to every word of it. “Cinema is about resurrection. Cinema is about dealing with your own ghosts and bringing them to life. Cinema can explore your subconscious and your memories, but mostly it allows what is lost to come back,” says Assayas in the article. “It’s so true!” exclaims Radhakrishnan, “For both [filmmaker] Sandeep [Mohan] and for me.”

In many ways Mohan’s third feature film Shreelancer has been self-referential for both him and his debutant lead actor, especially its awkward father-son bonding moments. There are other similarities between the real and the reel. The 31-year-old Goregaon-based actor is as adventurous as his character—freelancer Shreepad Naik aka Shree—in terms of the choices he has made in life. “I am a failed engineer,” he winks. After leaving engineering midway Radhakrishnan went on to pursue B.Sc (Statistics) from Fergusson College, Pune. In 2011, two years into his job at KPMG, he decided to quit and take up acting.

“It’s like jumping into the pool,” he looks back. The desire to become an actor was always there but Radhakrishnan finally took the plunge when he was around 25-years-old, which is relatively late for an average lead actor in the film industry. He took a shot at getting into Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) twice and it was the rejection twice over that made him get even more serious about acting.

But the similarities with Shree seem to end there. Unlike his on-screen avatar, who is a slave to the virtual world, Radhakrishnan is quite a traveller. His Instagram account is a giveaway. But despite travelling far and wide, he always wants to go back to his resting ground and home: Pune. Even though Radhakrishnan was born in Nagarcoil, near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and has both Malayali and Tamil roots, he is a Punekar for all practical purposes. He has grown up there since his family moved to the city in 1990.

Even though he could not get into the formal acting course, FTII became Radhakrishnan’s training ground. He participated in a number of FTII student exercises, was part of a few short films by FTII graduates like Weather Report by Ravi Davala and Saruku Veli ( A White Feather ), an Indo-Sri Lankan co-production in Tamil by Pratheepan Selvaratnam. “It was a camera exercise for Pratheepan. He managed to make a film out of it. We kept shooting for Weather Report for two-three years inside the campus,” he recollects. At one point, Radhakrishnan even went to Chennai to audition for the lead role in Jacques Audiard’s Palme d'Or winner Dheepan .

So can acting be taught? “Whatever I have learnt [so far] has been on the job,” he says. Although he does consider certain theater workshops to have been helpful, he feels it is mostly about observing life and learning. “What I am beginning to realise is that because I am not a formally trained actor, I listen to the director. That is the best thing you can do. I just sit with the director for a long, long time and have conversations. Maybe I ask too many questions but I just feel that the more the director talks to me, the more I get it.”

Radhakrishnan first met Mohan in 2014 at a screening of Hola Venky , which was held at a rooftop restro-bar in Pune called Lost the Plot. They added each other on Facebook right after. Almost a year later, he got tagged on a casting call posted by Mohan on his Facebook wall. Mohan has his unique style of casting his actors. He said in a social media post: “I prefer to meet, talk and take a call…I never auditioned him [Radhakrishnan ]. Now he plays Shree in Shreelancer .”

Director Ashutosh Pathak has seen Radhakrishnan from close quarters since he was the first assistant director/executive producer of Shreelancer . However, it was only after watching Orphans , a play directed by Shivam Sharma and Rahul Rai that he got startled by what he could do as an actor. He recollects that the xenophobic character on stage was poles apart from the happy-go-lucky nature of Radhakrishnan. “He was relentless on stage,” says Pathak. It was after seeing this performance that he decided to cast him in his short film, Shut Up . “He has no pretense about his inexperience and always asks way too many questions,” says Pathak. But, according to him, it is on the edit table that one can discover his subtlety. “Unlike other actors he is not trying too hard to sell himself, which is refreshing. He is destined for big things,” he adds.

Cinematographer Pooja Gupte echoes the thought, “An actor needs to understand and respect the indie-space and its struggles. Arjun totally gets that. He truly believed in his character in Shut Up (also named Arjun) which made his performance look credible.” In fact, Radhakrishnan wanted to participate in the process of filmmaking and even offered to carry Gupte’s camera tripods.

Radhakrishnan doesn’t fall into the conventional hero slot and thinks that mainstream films are under pressure to conform to a norm. He also believes that films tend to propagate how we define beauty in this country. He agrees that the collective obsession with fair skin trickles down to offensive casting calls looking only for fair, ‘upmarket’ actors. But then he remains unfazed by the pressure to look a certain way. “Ravi [Davala] told me while doing Weather Report : ‘If you want to become an actor, don’t build a physique’. I haven’t gone to a gym in five years. But I do exercise a lot.” While munching on crispy Calcutta club fish fry and Rajputana murg kebabs at Worli’s Bombay Brasserie, he admits that he is a foodie. Even though it is difficult to believe looking at his enviable, lean figure. “I do not have much knowledge of food but I eat whatever is kept in front of me. Then I go and run. I don’t have a dietician saying, ‘Baba ko juice pilao’. I get sugar cravings too,” jests Radhakrishnan .

After chatting for almost an hour over delicious food, when it is finally time to pay, he sweetly offers to split the bill: “Because we are both freelancers!” No way! This has to be my treat to him for portraying a part of me—a freelancer—so truthfully on-screen.

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