“Things are monotonous,” the multi-hyphenate talent Prakash Raj jokes, with a deadpan expression, as he settles down, in Hyderabad, to discuss his new project, Hindi web series Mukhbir - The Story of a Spy, which will soon stream on Zee5. For this actor-director-producer who takes up projects across languages and formats, life is far from monotonous. He will acknowledge and discuss this later, but first, Mukhbir has his attention.
The web series is set in an India emerging from the Indo-China war of 1962. An adaptation of Maloy Krishna Dhar’s book Mission to Kashmir: An Intelligence Agent in Pakistan, the spy drama is Prakash Raj’s third web series to stream on Zee5, following Anantham (Tamil) and Shootout at Alair (Telugu).
“I find it beautiful to go back in time, to a period before I was born, and be a part of a story that reveals what my country went through. It is more than an espionage or war drama; it is also about the war within every person fighting for the country,” he says, adding “A spy is an unsung hero.”
Long format stories
When he read the script of the series, directed by Shivam Nair and Jayprad Desai, Prakash Raj says he liked what was said between the lines, as much as the big picture. The actor plays officer SKS Murthy who identifies and mentors a man (Zain Khan Durrani) who will become a spy. “Murthy is an officer who has risen from a low rank and has the ability to think out of the box. He is simple, humorous, practical and always mentally awake. He can make things happen,” he says.
He mentions how it was filmed in Mumbai, Kullu-Manali and Punjab and the efforts that went into depicting the skylines that would look appropriate for the 1960s and the 70s. “An officer of that era communicated differently and had different vehicles and gadgets at his disposal... all this shapes the storytelling,” says Prakash Raj, adding that he enjoyed “the long format storytelling, which allows us to depict the journey of a character in detail.”
Even as he discusses Mukhbir and the freedom of storytelling in a web series, Prakash Raj is reminded of his mentor K Balachander’s Tamil television series Kaialavu Manasu in the 1990s. “KB sir used to say that for a television project, he was free to film whatever he had written. It is liberating to not think of a beginning, middle and end within 2.5 hours. Certain stories need longer time to unfold and the audiences are now willing to watch 12-13 hours of a well narrated story.”
Prakash Raj has no qualms about viewers who may pause, walk away and return to watch the digital series at will, as opposed to watching with undivided attention in movie halls. “One might put down a book, do other things, and return if the story holds interest. I look at a web series in a similar manner.”
When he acted in an episode of the anthology film Pava Kathaigal directed by Vetrimaaran, which began streaming during the pandemic, he says the response from viewers was “brilliant.” “That story affected me a lot. I broke into tears after the third day of filming. That (father) character is not the person I am in reality; and Sai Pallavi is a brilliant actress. Stories such as Pava Kathaigal or Kanchivaram (Tamil, 2008, which won Prakash Raj a National Award for Best Actor) are harsh truths that need to be told.”
“The life of an actor is beautiful and I have been blessed. In the last couple of years, I was a part of 12 to 15 varied projects,” says Prakash Raj, adding that he has been basking in the warm reception to his work across languages — as Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s father in Major (Telugu-Hindi), as a cop and disturbed father in Thiruchitrambalam (Tamil) and as emperor Sundara Chozhar in Ponniyin Selvan (Tamil), among several other projects.
He adds, “I have written a story that I intend to direct soon. I have also directed the Hindi adaptation of Un Samayal Arayil (Tadka starring Nana Patekar and Taapsee Pannu).” Post Mukhbir season one, there will be Ponniyin Selvan-2, the Vijay film Varisu, two Malayalam films and a Hindi film as well.
Investing in art
In the past, direction and production may have strained his finances. “I am, thankfully, rich enough to reinvest in my craft and art. Serthu vaikira alavukku pichaikaran kidayadhu, konjam selavu panra alavuku panakaran (I am not too poor to only keep saving, I am rich enough to spend a little),” he says.
Prakash Raj asserts that cinema is a small part of his life. Family, farming, theatre, books and music take up the rest of his time. “I am Sundara Chozhar one day and the next day, I might be inaugurating a seed festival and talking to scientists about farming and food. I am also proofreading my second book, which will be published soon. Life is richer by all these experiences.” The truth, he emphasizes, is that “life is is never monotonous. And I am never tired or bored.”
(Mukhbir will stream on Zee5 from November 11)