Arjun Radhakrishnan: ‘Playing Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in Rocket Boys was a huge challenge’

In addition to the second season of ‘Rocket Boys’, Arjun has projects in Hindi, Malayalam and Marathi lined up for release

February 15, 2022 04:52 pm | Updated February 18, 2022 05:24 pm IST

Actor Arjun Radhakrishnan

Actor Arjun Radhakrishnan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Arjun Radhakrishnan’s big-screen debut was in 2017 with Shreelancer. He breezed through the role of Shreepad Naik, a freelance copywriter, in the Hindi film directed by Sandeep Mohan. In spite of the acclaim he received, Arjun did not have a single release for the next five years.

The wait eventually ended with Rocket Boys, the much-lauded web series on the life and times of India’s space and nuclear scientists, currently streaming on SonyLIV. In the series directed by Abhay Pannu, Arjun plays former President and India’s Missile Man, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

All of a sudden, the actor is on a roll with four films lined up for release, starting with the Hindi film Jhund, in which he has acted with Amitabh Bachchan. It releases on March 4. On March 10, his first Malayalam film, Kamal KM’s  Pada, will reach theatres. Then comes the Malayalam film, Dear Friend, directed by Vineeth Kumar and starring Tovino Thomas and Darshana Rajendran. The actor also has a Marathi movie,  Vaat (The Path), directed by Miransha Naik, ready to travel the film festival circuit. And, of course, there is the second season of Rocket Boys, which will be streamed later this year.

Arjun Radhakrishnan as Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series ‘Rocket Boys’

Arjun Radhakrishnan as Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series ‘Rocket Boys’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“It looks like the wait was worth it. I was frustrated when nothing happened after Shreelancer. I got Jhund soon after the trailer of Shreelancer came out. However, the film took its own time to begin. Even though the shoot got over in 2019, the pandemic delayed the release. Also, I was not getting any new projects because no one had seen my work,” says Arjun, over a video call from his home in Pune.

Rocket Boys came out of the blue; the audition happened online during the first lockdown. “This is the first audition I have cracked with a casting director [Kavish Sinha] in the last 10 years! In Pada and Jhund, the directors themselves had done my audition,” he says.

If the first season of Rocket Boys had more of Dr Homi J Bhaba (Jim Sarbh) and Dr Vikram Sarabhai (Ishwak Singh), pioneers of India’s nuclear and space programmes, the second will have more of Dr Kalam, as it touches upon India’s missile programme and Pokhran-II nuclear tests. “Nearly 80% of the filming has been completed as both seasons were shot simultaneously,” says Arjun.

Playing Kalam

Arjun Radhakrishnan plays Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series 'Rocket Boys'

Arjun Radhakrishnan plays Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series 'Rocket Boys' | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Arjun admits that he was surprised when he was chosen to play Dr Kalam and the role had its challenges. “We didn’t know much about the early years of Dr Kalam. Having little or no visual references about the key characters was tough for the entire team. We had to imagine how they talked or walked. As for Kalam, we had just three photographs of his younger days. I play him till his early 40s in the second season. I had no clue how it was going to be done. But then I was at a stage of my career where I had no choice but to do it. Thankfully, the reading and research helped.”

He adds that the director allowed him to speak a mix of “broken Hindi and English” even though the script had only Hindi dialogues. “Abhay and Kausar Munir had written all my dialogues in Hindi. I told them that it would look odd because Dr Kalam would not nspeak like that and they agreed to my suggestion.” Arjun makes special note of Shoma Goswami, who designed the look of the character.

Calling it his “first experience in a mainstream Bollywood set up”, Arjun points out that he had expected several challenges. “But I never felt out of place, thanks to Abhay, Nikkhil Advani [one of the producers], the cast and the crew. I was amazed at how sorted Abhay was about the whole project. We all were like a bunch of kids on the set. I will have more combination scenes with both Jim and Ishwak in the second season,” Arjun adds.

In Jhund, Arjun plays Amitabh Bachchan’s son. Based on the life of Vijay Barse, founder of the NGO Slum Soccer, it is Nagraj Manjule’s first Hindi project. The Marathi filmmaker had earlier directed critically-acclaimed Sairat. Big B plays a professor who inspires children from the slum to take up football. “That was a great set to be on. It was like a community making a film,” says Arjun. As someone who grew up idolising the veteran, Arjun says, “It is not a big role but most of my scenes are with him. That was quite an experience.”

Although he has his roots in Kerala and Tamil Nadu — his father, S Radhakrishnan is from Aluva in Kerala and mother, Lata, from Nagercoil — Arjun has grown up in Pune, the city that moulded him as an actor. A fan of Mammootty and Amitabh Bachchan as a kid, Arjun says he owes his acting career to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), even though he did not study there! “I applied twice, but couldn’t secure an admission. But I worked in some 20-30 films made by students of FTII and that was a learning ground for me. I even sat with my friends in some of the classes. I call myself an FTII canteen pass-out! Alongside I did some theatre as well,” says the 35-year-old, who gave up his job to become a full-time actor.

When Malayalam beckoned

Pada happened because of one of his friends from FTII. “He was an assistant director to Kamal ettan. I was called to play a police officer and my friend had told him that I am not fluent in Malayalam. During the audition, however, he was pleased with my Malayalam and I was eventually cast as the District Collector Ajay Sripad Dange, a Maharashtrian ,” says Arjun. Pada is based on the real incident that took place in Kerala in 1996 when four members of Ayyankali Pada took the then District Collector of Palakkad hostage, demanding withdrawal of the Bill that deprived tribal community of their forest rights.

“I was scared to take up the role because acting with such terrific actors (Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Vinayakan and Dileesh Pothan) was like being thrown into the deep end. All the action happens in this room where my character is held hostage. I couldn’t afford to disappoint such amazing performers. I put on 10 kg for the role to look slightly older than my age.”

Actor Arjun Radhakrishnan

Actor Arjun Radhakrishnan | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It was Sameer Thahir, cinematographer of Pada, who had asked him to audition for his next project, Dear Friend. “It is a movie about friendship. Acting in Malayalam had its challenges because I didn’t ggrow up in Kerala and therefore my thought process was different. BI became a lot more comfortable in D ear Friend,” says Arjun. The film also has Basil Joseph, Arjun Lal (T hanmatra-fame) and Sanchana Natrajan, last seen in critically-acclaimed S arpatta Parambarai.

Arjun considers himself lucky that he did not end up as many wannabe actors who come to Mumbai with big dreams. “It is a sea out there and all actors have had their own struggles. I am fortunate to have been associated with such prestigious projects.”

A dream fulfilled

Arjun Radhakrishnan plays Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series 'Rocket Boys'

Arjun Radhakrishnan plays Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in the web series 'Rocket Boys' | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

For him, the journey is also about living his father’s dream. “I lost him in the second wave of the pandemic. He was my biggest cheerleader and an avid movie buff. He had told me that director John Abraham had offered him a role once. He couldn’t take it up because of his family background and as it came at a time when he had just got his first job.”

A big fan of Irrfan Khan and Fahadh Faasil, Arjun is now all ears to hear the feedback for his performances. “An actor should be technically judged after 10 to 15 films. Having done a bunch of projects, I can’t wait to hear the reviews from the audience.”

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