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Ponniyin Selvan's Ashwin Kakumanu: ‘Tamil cinema is family-owned’

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As he gears up to play a historical character in Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, the actor discusses the momentous journey that has brought him thus far

One of the finest filmmakers in Tamil cinema, Mani Ratnam knows how to draw out the best of transformations from his actors — performance and appearance-wise.

Ashwin Kakumanu, near unrecognisable from the clean-shaven police officer we knew in Venkat Prabhu’s Mankatha (2011), and who recently confirmed his participation in Ratnam’s upcoming period film — Ponniyin Selvan, knows what the implication is.

“I look like a ruffian” is what he told filmmaker Nandini Reddy when she brought him on board for a Telugu-language Netflix film, starring Amala Paul and Jagapathi Babu — shot on a premise similar to the Lust Stories anthology.

“It is a cameo role, but Nandini ma’am told me that my character was pivotal, and that she only needed my eyes,” he laughs.

Breaking convention

While it is incredibly nice to have reputed filmmakers make their casting call based on one’s physical features, Ashwin knows that it can also be a “double-edged sword”.

Ponniyin Selvan's Ashwin Kakumanu: ‘Tamil cinema is family-owned’

“I have been approached by people who wanted me to represent a stereotype. You know what I’m talking about... the fair-skinned, good-looking guy who gives the hero a complex?” he says.

Is he referring to the ‘American Maapillai’ stereotype? “Yeah, that! It has always been a fear right from the beginning [for me]. It is that thankless character where there is nothing you bring. That is why I’m wary, when people say they want me for a particular role. I start to ask more questions on what I get to do with it,” he adds.

One can assume that Ashwin would not have thought that he would be pigeon-holed at any point in his career, considering his launch in Tamil cinema — a meaty role as part of an ensemble cast in Mankatha (his début was in a small role in a Gautham Menon film).

Ponniyin Selvan's Ashwin Kakumanu: ‘Tamil cinema is family-owned’

Besides a distaste for “ultra commercial” films — “I like things which engage me mentally as an audience, and that’s when I have fun as an actor,” he says — the walls around Tamil cinema (not so dissimilar to other language film industries) can be insurmountable for someone deemed an outsider.

“It is largely family-owned,” says Ashwin, referring to the Tamil film industry. “...and when you’re coming at it as an outsider, and you don’t have the connections or people giving you advice... when you are figuring it out on your own, it takes time. The odds [of survival] for such a person are extremely low. I think the fact that I have been around for this long means something,” he adds.

Leaving a trail

Through the testing times, what came in handy for Ashwin were opportunities from the digital sphere.

He tested waters with Nila Nila Odi Vaa (a horror-romcom for Viu) in 2018, and has since been a part of shows like Fingertip (for Zee5); he reveals that he is in the middle of filming another one for SonyLIV.

Silver screen comeback
  • The next eight months, Ashwin says, is about fitting in projects that goes along with his Ponniyin Selvan look. The list also includes a two-film deal with producer-director CV Kumar, one of which is confirmed to go on floors before Ashwin starts filming Ponniyin Selvan. “It is a rom-com. I play this protagonist whose idea of romance is very filming, the sort of what we have seen in a Gautham Menon or Mani Ratnam film. He gets called out for these stereotypes like when he falls in love because he finds the girl pretty. It is not a conventional hero glorification script. We start shooting in mid-November,” he says.
  • While the rom-com will be directed by a debutant, the second film (for which the script is still under discussion) will be directed by Kumar. “I’ve been a huge fan of his. A lot of the talent that he (Kumar) has introduced has gone on to very good things. So, you can’t deny that the man has an eye for talent, and an eye for making these interesting scripts profitable as well,” Ashwin adds.

“It is called Ivar. It is a political investigation thriller, and I play a wealthy Tamil guy from Delhi who is kind of in depression, and is an alcoholic. He returns to find his roots in Puducherry. He takes over an old printing press and revamps it to cast a spotlight on crimes that are not being highlighted in newspapers,” he says.

Besides, he will also play a cameo role in Venkat Prabhu’s digital series début with Hotstar that has Vaibhav Reddy and Kajal Aggarwal in the lead.

Although digital platforms present an alternative to mainstream content, there is a prevalent misconception about actors who take up offers in this space, especially among Tamil film producers who deem them to have dropped down a level.

Ponniyin Selvan's Ashwin Kakumanu: ‘Tamil cinema is family-owned’

“Those people are hypocrites. There will be some who say, ‘Oh, he is now a web series actor’, yet the same guy will finance a web series himself. So, what are they... ‘web series producers’?” he says, adding, with a nod to the inevitable growth of digital platforms, “But the perception is changing. You now have Kajal [Aggarwal] and Amala [Paul] doing it. And the theatrical business... in the next 5-10 years, it is going to shrink even more. It will really only be the big star films that would work theatrically.”

The actor also became a father in July of this year, and is committed to ensuring he has a ring side view to watch his daughter grow up.

“My father died when I was 10. If I try to psycho-analyse one of the reasons why I got into movies, it was because of that loss. The desire to escape from reality was strong. So, I want to be there for my child as much as possible... to just be there and enjoy that part of watching her grow up.”

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 11:24:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/ponniyin-selvans-ashwin-kakumanu-tamil-cinema-is-family-owned/article29879777.ece

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