It has been 15 years since Tamil actor Shanthnu made his debut as a lead in Sakkarakatti and 25 years since his big screen debut as a child artist in his actor-filmmaker father Bhagyaraj’s Vettiya Madichu Kattu. He did find it easier to enter the film industry, but the actor’s career in cinema has been anything but easy. Shanthnu has been fighting many battles off the screen to stay afloat on the screen, and this was the case with his upcoming film Raavana Kottam, in which he was pushed to despair due to financial issues. “I learnt a lot about how people change and behave when money comes into the picture,” he notes.
Raavana Kottam, which releases on May 12, is Madha Yaanai Koottam director Vikram Sugumaran’s second film. Shanthnu says that he wanted to submit himself to a creator like Vikram, who could bring a rural man out of a city-born such as himself. “It did demand a lot. He wanted me to wear a lungi often because someone who doesn’t wear a lungi or veshti often will look uncomfortable while walking. Similarly, people in Ramanthapuram are used to the sun, so even when they stand under the scorching heat, they won’t have a frown on their faces. I had to stand in the sun to get used to it as well,” he says.
It’s clear from the raw and rustic trailer that Raavana Kottam touches upon a sensitive social issue that has been a subject of discussion in Tamil Nadu for decades: Prosopis juliflora (Seema Karuvelam), the infamous invasive weed that damages the environment and inhibits the growth of indigenous plants. But don’t mistake it as a social drama. “It’s an action film; the story also takes inspiration from a real-life incident that happened in 1957 when five innocent people were killed due to caste politics.” The film speaks of how a few people use politics to cause a rift between communities, he adds.
Shanthnu has pinned a lot of hope on Raavana Kottam. Until a few years ago, things weren’t rosy for the actor; his career graph was quite erratic, and as he looks back on his career, we see that it all started when a young and innocent Shanthnu was blindly thrown into the limelight during the release of Sakkarakatti. “I was used to the ambience of cinema, thanks to my father, but now, the limelight was on me.” Apart from having music by AR Rahman, the film was produced by Kalaipuli S Thanu, directed by Thanu’s son Kala Prabhu, and marked the debut of Bhagyaraj’s son; the hype was natural. “It’s a hype that we, the industry, create on our own. I was just a young boy and this got into my head, which was also one of the reasons for the slump that followed. In cinema, your attitude matters.”
Soon, there were rumours that his father was the reason for the slump and for him missing out on projects. “That wasn’t the case. There were many valid reasons why I lost projects. All my dad said then was, ‘Whether it’s right or wrong, all decisions about your career should be yours from now onwards. Success or failure, it should be because of you.’”
With new responsibility on his shoulders, Shanthnu had to move cautiously; he says he used to blindly accept films if they had a different thought. “But I didn’t see all the factors that are necessary to make a film good. Be it Vaaimai, Ammavin Kaipesi, Koditta Idangalai Nirappuga, or Mupparimanam, the scripts were interesting, but they didn’t translate all that well on screen.”
The missing piece that he later found was the importance of good characterisation. “How the character sits in the film, how it would be translated to screen, and then perceived by the audience are important as well.”
This changed the game for the actor. In films like the Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal and the Sony LIV hyperlink film Kasada Thapara, we saw Shanthnu playing roles that are intense, real, and even grey at times. “It was only when I started working with these directors did I realise what an actor has to look for in a film.” But even when he gets good characters, not all of them end up successful, like the Sony LIV anthology Story of Things, in which Shanthnu was impressive as Britto, a character dealing with layers of pain. But the actor isn’t all result-oriented. “Like in the case of theatrical releases, many factors determine the success of OTT projects as well. You can only concentrate on giving your hundred percent, and I believe you will somehow reap the benefits, and that applies to Story of Things as well,” he says.
Shanthnu says that there’s something else that has changed post-Paava Kadhaigal; while earlier he didn’t have a picture of the actor he wanted to be and was more focused on the project in hand, he now has an eye on what’s coming up next. “After Paava Kadhaigal, I wanted to do a rural film with a character that is deep-rooted culturally — which was Raavana Kottam. After this, I wanted to do something different, and my upcoming cricket-based film for Neelam Productions, co-starring Ashok Selvan, is that film. My next after that, yet to be announced, is also in a different shade.”
Shanthnu has always been vocal about wanting to have a name of his own and not be known as wanting to be Shanthnu Bhagyaraj. Thanks to his course correction in script selection, Shanthnu is no longer chased by his father’s stardom. In fact, he says that he purposely chooses characters that don’t share any resemblance to what his father has done previously, at least until he has proven himself. “I’ve been rectifying the mistakes of my past and I can promise that henceforth, every film of mine will be good.”