Bombay Showcase

The return journey

It seems like eons ago that Arvind Swamy set many hearts aflutter in Bollywood with his suave and sophisticated persona. Perhaps it was Mani Ratnam’s dubbed-in-Hindi Bombay (1995), that came after Roja (1992), that was his second and last memorable outing in the North. There was also Priyadarshan’s Saat Rang Ke Sapne (1998) and T.K. Rajeev Kumar’s Raja Ko Rani Se Pyaar Ho Gaya (2000) as well, but does anyone remember them beyond their titles?

So it’s been a “long time no see” of almost 15 years. “Longer. Eighteen years,” he tells you. “I finished shooting for Raja Ko Rani Se … in 1998.” But the film, featuring a baby elephant, got stuck over some animal rights issue. Even in Tamil cinema, after Alaipayuthey(2000) he took a long break only to return with Mani Ratnam’s Kadal (2013) with a long-in-the-cans film Sasanam releasing in the middle in 2006. Kadal was followed by Swamy doing a much-celebrated negative turn in Mohan Raja’s Thani Oruvan (2015), which caught many viewers by surprise. Coming up next is a Hindi film, debutant Tanuj Bhramar's Dear Dad, about a father and his teenaged son on a road trip to discoveries and revelations.

On top form with no sign of weariness on his face, as Swamy sits across the table to give one of his many back-to-back interviews, it feels like he may have never left the arc lights at all. Why the long sabbatical then? He tells you that it was nothing conscious or planned: “I started out very early; was 20 when I did Thalapathy, 21 when I did Roja. I got into it by chance, got an opportunity, which I took and learnt a lot from it. The films became such mega, national hits that suddenly I realised what stardom meant. For someone not prepared for it, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been a recluse, a solitary person and at 21 was not prepared for what came my way. It wasn’t about expecting success but I didn’t know how it would impact my life.”

He also didn’t want his life to become unidimensional: just movies and nothing else. Swamy had other ideas also, which he wanted to implement. He wanted time off to engage with other things rather than get insular as a star. “The only way to do it was to take a clean cut from movies,” he says. At that time he didn’t know how long the break would be but was certain it would be “till he could resolve the confusion in his mind.”

So, a Masters in International Business himself, he decided to focus on businesses — software engineering, construction, international trade and global outsourcing — in the US and Europe. He enjoyed working in relative anonymity in these countries (though Indians would recognise him), even shaving his head to give himself a different look and identity. He also took time out parenting, being single dad to his two growing kids. “It was important to me. I was doing it for myself. I believe in doing well in whatever I decide to opt for,” he says. Be it business, acting, full-time parenting or playing video games for 22 hours at a stretch. “I don’t like investing myself into anything moderately.”

In the middle, there were health issues as well. He injured his spine in an accident, was paralysed in one leg, bed-ridden for a while, couldn’t exercise and put on a lot of weight. Mani Ratnam pulled him out again and he is reported to have shed 15 kg before starting Kadal.

In retrospect, he has no regrets about shunning the world of glamour: “I wanted to run away from it,” he laughs. For him, doing a film, reaching an audience, getting them to respond, getting feedback, is one aspect of cinema; getting undue attention is another, one which he couldn’t deal with easily.

But at 46, he is more sorted and at peace with himself and can understand the love and adulation people have for a star. “The part that I wanted to run away from didn’t quite leave me,” he says. Now he feels that he can enjoy what he chooses to do, be it creating technology applications, interacting with his kids or acting in movies: “I am doing it with so much joy and fun. I feel I am in a good space.”

Dear Dad, by a newcomer, has been an unusual choice to come back with. He almost said no to it because he was shocked by the complexity of his character’s situation: “It startled me. I was oblivious to the possibility of people who could be in such a situation. There was a huge discomfort in playing the role but I realised it was personal and unwarranted and that it cannot come in the way of a decision. If people are in such situations in real life, and if someone is willing to make a movie on it, then I’d be running away if I didn’t pick it up. I felt obligated to be a part of this story-telling.”

The fact that it made him uncomfortable as a person, in turn, made it compelling for him as an actor. “These people need to be understood, including by me.” It is about a father at a certain point in his life, who needs to make a confession, seek understanding, and resolve an issue: “It is about his freedom and liberation.”

After the years away from cinema, did he see any radical changes when he came back? He feels the biggest change is in the audience that is open to seeing different kinds of films. There’s also a drastic change in technology, not just in the use of VFX in cinema, but in the way it is making the filmmaking process accessible to all. “Earlier it was considered some sort of rocket science where you had to go through a drill, training and education.” Now you can even download tutorials from the Internet. It is also leading to a more aware audience. “Better access to world cinema on Netflix, YouTube, means a more discerning and educated audience that is aware of the visuals, genres from different parts of the world. So our films also have to match up to that. You have to deliver to a standard they would expect. You can’t show them the same, old story 20-30 times, in different ways with different songs,” he says.

Swamy finds this great as an actor because even in his earlier innings he used to search for unconventional scripts. “My acting style also goes better with a cinema that is relaxed, easy, and identifiable.”

So, after Dear Dad, Swamy will be seen in the Telugu remake of Thani Oruvan, followed by a Prabhu Deva production — a Tamil action film Bogan — and then director Bala’s next. He also has two of his own scripts ready, which will have him launch into direction soon, perhaps this year itself. “I am embracing everything that’s coming my way now.”

That’s Swamy coming full circle.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 6:28:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/the-return-journey/article8518600.ece

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