Ashwin Kumar Lakshmikanthan left his hometown Coimbatore for Kodambakkam, the once-hub of Tamil cinema and a microcosm for film aspirants in the city’s ever-changing landscape, carrying big city dreams in his eyes. He had a crippling sense of fear when he landed in Chennai for an audition, having no prior experience nor influential people in his phonebook. He played a small part alongside actor Arya, who himself played a guest role in Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam in 2014. The scene was eventually trimmed from the film, but it gave Ashwin the confidence of making it in the industry, until he was called for an audition for Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015).
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Ashwin had always looked up to three filmmakers: AR Murugadoss, Mani Ratnam and Gautham Menon, and the offer to be part of a Madras Talkies production [Ratnam’s banner] was just the icing on the cake. But the only thing is, it was not. When he arrived for the audition, the set was crowded with over 70 well-groomed models, both male and female, who too were squeezing for space to register their presence on screen. It was only then that it dawned on Ashwin that the dream — of becoming an actor — was a shared one with perhaps hundreds. He could not make a first impression with Mani Ratnam, though he had a photo opportunity and a blink-and-miss role as a background artiste in OK Kanmani .
The second bout of disappointment hit closer when Ashwin approached Gautham Menon for an acting gig, which left the filmmaker a little miffed — especially in the manner in which he landed up at his office. Having been fooled once for a fake audition call, Ashwin says it was actor Sivakarthikeyan who advised him to look up online for director’s offices and audition calls.
Later, Ashwin was called for an audition and was eventually selected to play the hero’s friend in a film Gautham was making at that point. As fate would have it, two days before the shoot, Ashwin was informed of Gautham’s decision to cast a familiar actor in his place. Somewhere along, that is when Ashwin says he took the call: if he were to act, it would be as hero.
Last year, Ashwin acted in a short-film called Kadhal Ondru Kanden , for which he received praise on social media. It got him the attention he longed for and a well-known filmmaker was ready to cast him in his film — but, as a supporting actor. The director apparently told Ashwin that he could not afford to cast him as the lead, unless he doubles up as a co-producer or has some sort of fame.
“That really broke me. At the end of the day, I realised I cannot make it on my own, even if I have the talent. I kept thinking, what more should I prove to this industry? How much more should I sacrifice?” says Ashwin, over a phone call, just a week after the finale of Cook with Comali , the reality television show that put him on the map.
Ashwin turned to cooking purely for survival reasons, when he had no money and was living under the shelter of his friend, while trying auditions and facing rejections. “I took the responsibility to cook while my friend used to do the dishes. You can even cook but dish-washing is the most difficult part,” he says with a laugh. Little did he know then that what started as a basic survival skill would one day fetch him the second runner-up on a cookery show.
In this interview, Ashwin discusses his long-short journey from Coimbatore, the success of Cook with Comali , and how the industry sees him, now that the spotlight shines brightly on him.
It has been over a week since Cook with Comali ended. What is your headspace like?
It was initially hard to adjust to the routine. I went off social media and isolated myself in a room. Then, a week later, I slowly got back to my senses and started accepting things.
Was it a transformative experience for you?
I didn’t change much, as a person. What you saw on TV is who I am in real life. Having said that, it takes time for me to open up...I’m not that fluid, despite having done other shows for Vijay TV. In fact, the camera never used to linger on me because they always thought I was this quiet, shy person. People have ignored me in the past, thinking that I probably had an attitude. And I couldn’t break that perception.
Even on Cook with Comali , I took my own time to warm up. But there were people like Rakshan, Shivaangi, Pugazh and Sharath, who made me feel inclusive. I have to credit Shivaangi for helping me loosen up. They showed a positive vibe and the show’s format itself is light-hearted. Now, I come up with my own set of counters (punchlines), thanks to them.
Let us take you back in time, when you left your hometown to get into films. Being an outsider, was there a sense of insecurity?
It wasn’t smooth sailing for sure and my insecurity doubled when I came to Chennai. If not for my friend, who was motivating me and was also taking care of my expenses, I would have given up long time back.
Sometimes it’sfrustrating when people randomly call you for auditions with a callous attitude saying, “Be here tomorrow at 10.30 am.” If you don’t make it, it’s a missed opportunity and sometimes, they won’t even tell you whether you got the part or not! For instance, I waited nearly a year for this film and refrained from signing new projects. But only later did I come to know through a friend that shooting was already underway with a different actor.
It is a crushing feeling for someone starting out young…
Yes. This is something beyond depression. Not getting an opportunity is one thing, but living in denial is another. You don’t know whom you should take out all the anger...on the producer? Director? Or assistants? Ultimately, you end up taking it on yourself.
Maybe Cook with Comali happened at the right time.
True. Which is why when I got this offer, I felt it was all about food and maybe it’s best if I don’t take part. They [showrunners] told me that I can manage with the basics, but I made sure that I didn’t miss out on this opportunity to prove my salt, and put my heart into it. I was doing a web series, which I cancelled to concentrate on the show. I thought I shouldn’t look like a dummy on TV and improvised a lot, and it paid off. But to be honest, I am not a great cook…
Ashwin, let me remind you that you are the show’s second runner-up.
[ Laughs ] That is because of the efforts I put in. I say this because I know I am not an expert. Both my mom and sister are great cooks; some of the best food I have had were made by them. When I moved to Chennai, I was yearning for good food and one of my friends used to cook. That is when I realised men can cook too.
You seemed to be challenging yourself on the show. I remember one episode when Venkatesh Bhat was floored when you made Onde Onde [Malaysian snack]...
Yes, I wanted to experiment. Getting pandan leaves was a bit difficult here, but I asked the team to get them for me. All my life, I was waiting for that one chance to prove myself and I gave my 100%. My concept was: ‘If I can do it, you too can.’
I will be subjected to hate comments if I don’t ask about Shivaangi, your pair on the show.
You cannot please someone to be your well wisher. Not just Shivaangi who made me feel at ease, but also the other people I met there. They somehow wanted to uplift me and I have tried to reciprocate that love.
Have you got the chance to think about the show’s success?
What you saw was just three hours of content filtered from 300 hours of footage. We have to be grateful to the editors for bringing out the best in us. None of us were camera conscious and nothing was planned. Some of the things were a surprise for us too, when we watched the show.
Apart from this, what truly worked in the show’s favour were the tasks given to us. That played a big role. Cooking is not as easy as people think, especially not with those hindrances. If you miss adding one ingredient, it changes the texture of the food.
You featured in ‘Kutty Pattas’ which went viral and now, are acting with your fellow comali , Pugazh, in a Tamil film. Is your talent being recognised now?
Cook with Comali was a rebirth of sorts for me. I never wanted to be on television because I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t have contacts nor did I come from an affluent family. I have faced a lot of insults, rejections and have been pushed to the bottom but I didn’t give up. I was hoping for that one chance. Wherever I went, the producer said they wanted fame and the director wanted money. I had neither. I felt a sense of achievement when I was given an award recently for Most Popular Person.
Some of your fans wanted me to ask if you would open a restaurant and also want you to comment on your female fanbase...
Starting a restaurant has always been a dream. Although I won’t be the cook [ laughs ]. My goal is to start a restaurant and a sports academy.
About fans, I am here because of them. I am getting offers and opportunities because of them. And I owe everything to them. They see their success in mine.
Do you think the industry has changed its perception of you?
I don’t know if I would make it big, but this is something I have always wanted to say. There have been times when words hit me like a bullet. I have been subjected to humiliation while appearing for auditions. Self-respect is something you don’t want to lose at any cost. You don’t have to acknowledge our talent but at least treat us like humans? I don’t want to demotivate aspirants but tell them through this interview that: be prepared.