Suriya Sivakumar’s eyes say it all.
Take for instance, the climax of Soorarai Pottru , when they tear up with a mixture of battle-worn victory and unbridled joy at the culmination of his life-long vision. Or, the submissive, yet deeply manic look he sports through most of NGK. Or better yet, remember how he smiled with his eyes throughout the romantic interludes in Vaaranam Aayiram ?
Heck, they are quite something, even when he’s roaring angry monologues at the villain in popcorn entertainers, or selling the corniest of one-liners in projects like recent short Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru .
The fact of the matter is, in recent times, Suriya seems to have reached the echelon of actors, who are capable of captivating their audience’s attention without dialogue or action, but by virtue of simply being present and looking into the camera.
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But this level of authority on-screen has not come easily, nor has it come quickly. Few would relate the precocious, yet nervy talent who debuted in 1997’s Nerrukku Ner to the all-round performer he is today. There has been a relentless drive to improve and reinvigorate; the actor even revealed in a 2020 interview that he spent the initial lockdown watching acting masterclasses on YouTube, to fine-tune his craft.
Over two decades, Saravanan (his birth name) has seen heady blockbuster success along with his fair share of misfires, all of which have contributed towards making him one of the most important film personalities in the country today. Why? Outspoken as he always has been, you sense that there has been a shift in Suriya’s paradigm of late; his choice of upcoming films being more mature, more judicious, more... meaningful.
There also seems to be a new-found motive — a self-anointed responsibility even — as an star hailing from one of Tamil cinema’s major film families, to support indie projects that may not garner deserving attention otherwise, and while possible, (like in the case of Jai Bhim ) even take centre-stage in them.
“ Vidhai podalaina, marama valarndhu enna prayojanam? ” (What is the point of a tree that does not spread its seeds?) Surya answers spiritedly when I ask him this, adding that it is one of his favourite quotes. He’s busy too, both in the capacity of an actor and as founder of 2D Entertainment, poring over scripts every other day, in pursuit of the next big-something.
It was one such script — that of screenwriter-filmmaker TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim — which caught Suriya’s eye in late 2019.
“He’s someone I have been associated with for 20 years, from when I met him as a student journalist decades ago. Even back then, his writing instantly captivated me, and our friendship and professional relationship has only grown with time.”
The duo constantly spend time discussing and debating everything under the sun, and Suriya even admits that his acquaintance with Gnanavel is what expands his world view constantly. “I always learn something new when I’m with him. I have an incredible amount of respect for how aware he is of everything going on in our society; he keeps giving me information and a deeper knowledge of the world around us.”
It’s also what motivated the actor to convince Gnanavel to join him in starting Agaram Foundation nearly 15 years ago, a gesture for which, Suriya says, he will always be indebted to the former journalist. Their educational initiative has gone from strength to strength since, but now, the two friends join hands for what is, unequivocally, their first love: cinema.
Based on true events that happened in 1990s Tamil Nadu, Jai Bhim follows the harrowing circumstances a tribal couple faces when the husband is arrested on false charges, and later goes missing from police custody. Against the odds, his wife turns to a senior advocate named Chandru who takes it upon himself to fight for their cause. Along with Suriya, the film also stars Prakash Raj, Rao Ramesh, Rajisha Vijayan, Manikandan and Lijo Mol Jose.
When films meet social justice
The role of the advocate that Suriya essays is inspired from real-life Justice K. Chandru, a Judge of the Madras High Court , who delivered several judgments that had a social impact, before his retirement in 2013.
“The script immediately fascinated me, and I was sold after hearing the narration. Gnanavel spent several weeks interacting with Chandru sir, making him relive his memories of this particular case, the controversy it caused, and figuring out how to adapt it into a feature. He really did change history, you know. We watch films and wonder if such events could transpire in reality, but Jai Bhim is the other way round. The actual incident is so intense… so dramatic, that we couldn’t do justice to it in the film,” says Suriya.
His admiration for Justice Chandru’s legacy is obvious when he goes on about the importance of the latter’s achievements: “Isn’t it motivating to come across someone who never compromises on their ideals? Chandru sir never charged a single paisa for any human rights case, he stood for workers’ unions and ensured thousands of them got jobs, and even paved the way for women priests to be appointed.”
Jai Bhim also joins a burgeoning list of star-fronted courtroom dramas, a genre that has seen a welcome revival in Tamil cinema in recent years, with the likes of Nerkonda Paarvai and 2D’s own production Ponmagal Vandhal , that starred Jyotika. It is also, quite surprisingly perhaps, Suriya’s first stab at playing a lawyer after 25 years in the industry, something he terms, as an “overwhelming experience.”
“We have had such wonderful depictions of courtroom dramas over the years, that have shown the other side of lawyers’ lives, beyond their white shirts and black coats. However, for Jai Bhim , I honestly needed no such reference from movies; that’s how unpredictable and riveting Chandru sir’s life is. This is a man who fought a case for the workers, as a member of the Communist party, before he even became a lawyer! His story of how an activist became a lawyer lends itself to not just a film, but even a television series,” he muses, thoughtfully.
Of crusades and connections
Though the 46-year-old has actively raised his voice over social issues in the past — most notably the discussion around NEET and the consequent student suicides — Jai Bhim is a marked departure from the actor’s recent on-screen commercial offerings, to depict a subject as serious as caste discrimination and injustice.
With his upcoming project — director Vetrimaaran’s Vaadivaasal — is also based on a novella centred on jallikattu , you get the feeling that at this stage in his career, a sense of responsibility has engulfed Suriya to take on movies that help him serve a larger purpose.
“I mean, why not? I’ve been a goodwill ambassador for several causes I believe in — the TANKER (Tamil Nadu Kidney Research) foundation was one of the first NGOs I supported — and I continue to serve them. Such associations have sensitised me largely and made me empathise with everything happening around us.”
He goes on, measured in his response, lest it may be interpreted as controversial: “Let me put it this way; there have been a lot of changes to the law. Now there are even laws that can send you to prison, based on what you like and share on social media! So it is up to people who understand what is happening, to spread awareness to everyone else. Societal conditions will not improve only through changes in the law, but also because of a change in the mindset of people. Those who possess knowledge and power, must empower those who do not.”
Suriya, however, admits that it is impossible to crusade for every cause out there. “I picked the field of education, which is closest to me, apart from movies. We have connected with over 2000 schools over the last 16 years, seen thousands of students pass out, and we want to see a good future for them. Now, I can confidently say that we know the reality of the grassroots experience, and believe that we have the fundamentals and statistics right. The idea is to connect with more change-makers going forward, share this knowledge and create an impact together.”
Heralding a new dawn
But one other crusade — in the world of cinema this time — that he did successfully champion and win over, was bringing Tamil films into the world of streaming, with the premiere of Soorarai Pottru on Amazon Prime, and later inking an exclusive deal with the platform for future releases from 2D Entertainment. It’s hard to imagine another leading actor-producer in the Tamil industry having the gumption to pull off a movie like this, at the risk of alienating a reactionary fan base and theatrical support.
“It was definitely a testing time. We have striven all these years for the cheers, the gala reactions and the celebrations our films get in theatres; it’s seeped into the very essence of our psyche as movie-goers.”
“Having said that, we started Jai Bhim just around 10 days before the first lockdown. A day after I finished shooting for the courtroom sequences, I got COVID-19. It was a terrible period, I was bedridden and it took me a good four months to heal fully,” Suriya remembers, with a grimace.
“I came out of recovery into a scary world, and one question flashed through my mind: how many jobs can I give people at a time like this? Despite the events of 2020, we (2D) managed to make six films in the last year-and-a-half, employed around 300 people on each set, and helped so many others indirectly. Isn’t that worth it all?”
Jo-Suriya: What is the secret sauce?
Staying on the topic of 2D Entertainment, Suriya’s partner in the company is of course, his wife Jyotika. The two are one of the country’s most-coveted celebrity pairings; loyal and charismatic, yet feet firmly on the ground. After 15 years of marriage — and raising their two children Diya and Dev — was it challenging to brave a pandemic together, both as a couple and business associates? There needs to be a secret sauce, surely.
“My secret sauce... is always learning! Even last night, I was learning something new,” he laughs. “You can never assume you know everything about what makes a marriage work; there are always going to be challenges to figure out. But we try to understand each other, be concerned about what’s happening in each others’ lives, and be there as a strong support source. Whenever something goes wrong, we strive to correct it immediately and not let it fester.”
“Every day won’t be perfect, but you will find the solutions eventually. With us, being in the same profession, of course there are clashes of opinions and perspectives. Lots of things happen around us that we can’t control. But the limitless, unconditional love — and equal respect — that we have for each other, always sees us through.”
With Jyotika well and truly back as an actor these days, it can’t be long until a new addition to their Maya-Anbuselvan/ Gautham-Kundavi/ Krishna-Janaki repertoire of memorable movie characters comes our way soon, yes?
Suriya answers with a twinkle in his eye, “After doing six-seven films together, we just want our next outing to be in a different space altogether. We have fallen in love, sung together, danced around each other… traveled to New York Nagaram even ( grins ). We don’t even need to be a couple or husband-wife in our next film; if something excites us and takes us outside that comfort zone, then we are ready to take that leap of faith... and jump.”
Jai Bhim premieres November 2 on Amazon Prime Video