Villains, fathers, police commissioners... M Nasser has played characters of all shades and stripes. He slips into them with the smoothness of silk. Arvind Acharya — the haughty, upper-caste astronomer he played in Serious Men(2020) — felt scarily real for a caricature. No matter the language, genre or tonality of a film, Nasser is one of the handiest actors around, imbuing the slightest of roles with verismo and believability. “I am a consultant with a tribal NGO in Bhubaneshwar,” his character says, over the phone, in SonyLIV’s upcoming web series The Jengaburu Curse, and we take him at his word. Such is the magic of Nasser.
Helmed by Nila Madhab Panda and set in the director’s home state of Odisha, The Jengaburu Curse has been billed as India’s first cli-fi (climate fiction) series. The Hindi-language show is led by Faria Abdulla with Nasser, Makarand Deshpande, Sudev Nair and others in the cast. In a freewheeling chat, Nasser speaks to us on a wide range of topics, from the haunting close-ups in Oppenheimer to his likely return to direction. Excerpts...
What did you think of ‘Oppenheimer’, Christopher Nolan’s film on the Gita-quoting theoretical physicist who built the world’s first atomic bomb?
It’s one of the really great films I have seen. Leave alone the craft of Nolan; the very substance of that film is fascinating. It is more than just a biopic as it shows how politics is being played on science and scientists. A lot of friends and my colleagues who saw the film came and complained that it was too verbal, too talky. But I knew it cannot be like that so I saw it for myself. Personally, even when I watch English films, I need subtitles. I’m not too good at understanding (the accents). After some time during Oppenheimer, I gave up following the subtitles. Because something else was happening beyond the conversations.
Do you mean the internal conflict of the character?
Yes. As an individual, because he is a great scientist, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) thinks he can handle everything, even politics. He doesn’t know how politics will backstab him. The politicians have already decided that. He thought this bomb will bring something great for humankind. He is innocent in his thinking. As an actor, I was so surprised by all the performances. There were no landscapes or dramatic shots. Just huge close-ups of human faces. I kept wondering what inspired these actors to give it their all. They could not cheat in close-ups. It was like reading a holy book.
‘TheJengaburu Curse’ addresses the climate crisis and the forced displacement of tribals in Odisha. Your home state of Tamil Nadu, too, is at the forefront of climate conversations in India. How closely do you relate to this subject?
In 100 years of Indian cinema, very few films or shows have been made on the subject of climate change. I am very concerned about this issue and I have worked with organizations in Tamil Nadu for the environment. When you destroy a forest or when you destroy a hill for mining’s sake, that means you’re destroying the tribals living there as well. You don’t just uproot trees but also human lives. The question is: when will this greed end? The corporates, the business side of things, they will keep doing it for profit’s sake.
You are a polyglot now but your initial roles outside of Tamil cinema were dubbed by other actors. Your characters in your early Hindi films — ‘Angrakshak’, ‘Criminal’, ‘Chachi 420’ — sound nothing like you.
I keep doing films in Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and I have done one Bengali film (Sitara, 2019) as well. In the early days, I felt lazy and was okay with someone else dubbing for me. Then a Telugu director, Srinu Vaitla, asked me to dub for my role in the action comedy film Baadshah (2013). In his films, he expects actors to deliver lines in a pattern. There are no full stops or commas or exclamation marks. The whole thing sounded better in my voice. In Hindi, the best dubbing experience I had was with Rowdy Rathore (2012). The character, Baapji, had a funny way of thinking and speaking. It gave me the confidence to converse in other languages in films.
But you did grow up admiring Hindi movies...
Oh yes. I come from the small district of Chengalpattu, some 60 km from Chennai. In my childhood, even a major Gemini Ganesan film would release in our town three months after its initial run. Classic Hindi films like Aradhana (1969) would release in our town a year after they opened in Mumbai. We grew up singing ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’ as there was a girls’ school next to us (laughs). I loved actors like Kumar Sahani, Dilip Kumar, and Sanjeev Kumar. While in the film institute, I discovered the gritty 80s parallel cinema of Om Puri and Govind Nihalani. I admired the fact that they were called ‘parallel’ films and not ‘art’ films because they were running parallel to the mainstream. In fact, I acted in the Tamil remake of Droh Kaal called Kuruthipunal (1995) with Kamal Haasan in the lead.
Having done over 600 films in your career, do you bother with listening to entire narrations these days? One can imagine you getting a read on a character 10 pages in.
Look, I have to know the whole thing. As an actor, I am getting paid more than the top scientist in ISRO. If I don’t have the patience to listen to narration or read 100 pages, then it is not fair. I may take time but I have to do it. In the south, we sometimes go on floors without even finishing the script. So it’s important to at least hear a story so I know what material I have to work with.
There is a major labour strike happening in Hollywood. One of its key contentions has been the payment of residuals to writers and actors, besides other issues. As the President of the Nadigar Sangam (South Indian Artistes’ Association), how do you perceive these upheavals?
I am not talking in my capacity as the President of the Nadigar Sangam. Generally, as an actor, I feel Hollywood’s system of business and making films is vastly different from our industries. Of course, what the actors and writers are demanding is the right thing. In India, only music composers have achieved the right to get royalties. They fought a strong case for it and finally got it.
...In Tamil cinema, a film is bought as a whole and by law, it is to be projected as a whole. But they have a mutual (understanding) where comedy scenes can be cut and put in comedy time on television. So the same film will be shown in five different places and more than what the producer earns, the money goes to the TV channels. It is not right, actually. Leave alone the actors, in Tamil cinema a majority of the profit doesn’t go to the producers themselves.
You haven’t directed in over a decade. Is there a script or idea you have been developing?
Of late, I have some commitments so I have to keep acting continuously. But I have written a few scripts. Now OTT platforms are encouraging films on different kinds of subjects. You can experiment and try something that cannot be told in mainstream cinema. So now I’m trying to, you know, redo my script which was written 6-7 years ago. Soon this question will be erased.
...I have a magnum opus-style idea like Baahubali or Ponniyin Selvan but I want to develop it step by step. I will probably start with something smaller.
With such a vast and varied filmography, does it ever frustrate you to be defined exclusively by your popular roles? There is a Nasser beyond Bijjaladeva from ‘Baahubali’ or Baapji from ‘Rowdy Rathore’...
You go to any corner of Mumbai or Pune, or a village of Maharashtra, and people there will know Baapji. I am happy about it and I cannot discard it just because it was brightly done or overdone. It is, after all, my own efforts. Even the media tends to focus on the so-called big films or masala films. The talk is always about budgets and collections. Small, offbeat films... they get spoken of only when they run. That’s just how the system is designed.