1. Please tell us about your growing up days. What was your dream career in your childhood days?
I grew up in the 90s, and come to think of it, I’m still growing up. I am a true-blue Bangalorean, although my roots are in Kerala. I studied in one of the city’s oldest institutions – St. Joseph’s Indian High School, which opened my young mind to the most diverse group of kids from varying ethnicities and lifestyles. I was a quiet, timid child and I was really, really good at blending into a crowd. And as contrary as it may seem, in hindsight, it takes a lot of creative acting to blend in. I studied to be an engineer, but never felt like I was meant to work a desk job as an engineer. Thankfully, my parents and my sibling, rock-solidly middle-class in their worldview, taught me the value of pragmatism pretty early on. The flipside to that though was their insistence in dreaming within one’s means – which always struck me as a difficult thing to do. I was quite a flippant dreamer – one day dreaming of being a bestselling author, and on another being a bonafide actor-director working with my absolute idol Shahrukh Khan (My mom and I were his OG fans, deeply following his work right from his TV stints with Dil Darya and Fauji). See, that’s the best thing about childhood dreams, they are untainted by shame or limits or that dreaded word ‘logic’. Because lo and behold, my first little step into films had Shahrukh Khan guest appearance in the Hindi version. Kid Prashanth would be dancing in joy if I could tell him this.
2. When and how did the journey towards movies happen?
I think the magical aura of cinema sometimes tends to blur the focus on the hard work that goes into it. And having 12 years of experience as a theatre actor and playwright definitely helped me be objective about this fact. The theatre is an actor’s playground and a lab, in the true sense – in how it allows for constant finetuning of the craft show after show. My foray into films happened due to equal parts luck and preparation. My co-collaborator, friend and actor I admire, Rajeev Ravindranathan who had already bagged an important role in Rocketry, mentioned that R Madhavan was on the lookout for actors from theatre, for the supporting cast. And the role I auditioned for was the role I ended up filming for.
3. How was your experience in Rocketry?
Anyone who has worked on Rocketry will tell you – it was Maddy’s baby through and through. He knew exactly what he wanted the world to see and feel, and it came from a tender, truthful experience of his own. He still is moved to tears each time he recounts Nambi Narayanan’s story of pain and hope. It was that unflinching conviction that made me want to be part of this film, come what may. My personal experience was a crash-course in acting, filmmaking and following your vision to completion, all thanks to Madhavan and the wonderful people he chose. I guess that’s the thing about art – when it comes from an honest place, it will always cut through barriers like even the grandest gestures never can.
4. How challenging was it initially and how did you overcome the challenges?
Not many people know this but the film was shot in three languages simultaneously – Hindi, Tamizh and English – no dubbing, completely with live sync sound.
That meant that:
1) The cast had to be proficient in all three languages equally
2) We had to be consistent, yet know the nuances of each language and how it plays differently
3) We had to be precise with our craft to be able to pack three times the performance into each schedule – a mammoth task by any standard
It helped that this epic project was being helmed by a man who embodies all these qualities almost effortlessly. And in stark contrast to the norm, Madhavan was meticulous in the pre-production stage – which meant that there were extensive look-tests and rehearsals to ensure that we used shoot days to shoot, not to find our groove. Because I come from theatre, I value rehearsals immensely and it clearly helped. I remember my first table reads with the man himself. He made me feel so much at ease that finding new ways to play a particularly intense scene became instantly exciting and focused. And in any case, I think the idea of actors delivering perfect takes purely by instinct is over-romanticized. An actor is only as good as their preparation. So, for me, staying focused and intentional even in between takes and during long periods of setup is what kept me going.
5. Also share your experience working with Madhavan?
I run the risk of making this an ode to R Madhavan, because I don’t think he knows how much I learnt watching him at work and at rest. He is a very demanding director, because he is only chasing his vision. And in an industry where it can become about pandering to egos, that’s a refreshing difference. He wanted to present a truth that India needed to own up to, and he carried that in every aspect of the film – sans make up, prosthetics or masala. The way he switched between director mode, to actor mode and back to director mode in a snap still makes me wonder how he did it.
There is this one incident that’s etched in my mind – we were on a three-day schedule for a particularly violent and intense scene in the film. The air on set was tense and dense throughout, and I couldn’t fathom why. At the end of that schedule, after packup, he called me up to tell me he loved working with me and that he made the right decision to cast me. And it all made sense – he knew that the atmosphere in the set needed to be tense for us to channel that into our scenes. Months later, when we saw the first cut, I realised why that made all the difference.
6. What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
I am a sensitive, introverted person by heart. And the character I was playing was an aggressive ruthless cop unmoved by pain or emotion. So obviously, playing the character took a lot of work. And apart from the validation from moviegoers who constantly claim that they can’t even identify me as the character I played, there are 2 highpoints that I hold close to my heart:
1) Watching my name appear in the same cast credits with legends such as Shah Rukh Khan, R Madhavan and Surya.
2) Vijay Sethupathi who had watched the film spoke to me at the success party and said he noticed some very distinct things I did in my portrayal of the character that struck him.
7. What does family mean to you?
My family are my roots, my wings, my stable earth, my unbounded skies. My parents built a family that is extremely grounded and like most south Indian families, they don’t express emotion all that well. But they’re proud of me. And my partner and the love of my life Shalini inspires me to love beyond measure and dream without pauses.
8. What are your other passions and hobbies?
Theatre and writing. In fact I’m a multi-award-winning playwright and I co-run one of Bangalore’s most well-known and prolific theatre companies – Tahatto Theatre.
9. What is your vision and dream in this field now?
I am extremely drawn to the idea of essaying grey characters because there is no other kind. Whites and blacks are way too boring and are the stuff of fairy tales. The greys are where all the excitement happens. Greys are human. My vision for my career is to embody roles that are driven by beautifully flawed values and decisions.
10. How has life changed after entering the film industry?
Life has hardly changed. I’m still doing what I love, craving the little joys in life – like quiet evenings and dreaming (not so impossible) fantasies.
11. What kind of a person are you in your personal space? How do you like to spend your me-time?
I am a deeply quiet and introspective person, funny, caring and invested. And the closest people in my life love me the way I am. When I am performing (on stage or in front of the camera) is when I transform into a whole other livewire. Outside of that I love to write stories – that’s what I am, a storyteller. There are so many stories within me that I can only hope to pass on a few of them in this lifetime, in an attempt to reach out and connect with someone in ways that I otherwise may not be able to.
12. How often do you take holidays and travel? What are your preferred holiday destinations?
I am not a frenetic traveler. Travel for me is an opportunity to connect with the inherent quietness of a space. I’m not too fond of cities or tourist destinations. I’d rather visit the same destination a dozen times than a dozen destinations on a timebound schedule. I love Hampi in Karnataka, San Francisco and the Andaman islands.
13. How do you maintain a work life balance?
When I started off as an adult, doubling between acting and advertising, I had no semblance of a work-life balance. But as one gets older, I think the manic energy wears off and you realise that you only have a limited store of energy to work with. I’ve realised that I need quiet downtime every day to be able to show up in full. Through the years, I’ve learnt to listen to my body, because there’s no better measure to balance.
14. What is that one favourite role that you would like to play?
My closest family and friends know this – my dream is to play a whole spectrum of antagonists, villains. And if it comes with juicy origin stories, even better. And to tell you the truth, I’ve known this even as a child – I’d make a pretty layered villain!
15. What are the projects you’re working on currently? Please share about all of them in detail.
I’m actively auditioning for roles. So when any of them come through, you can be sure you’d be the first to know! But this year is especially packed for me as I’m headlining 2-3 theatre pieces which will, if all goes well, premiere this year and travel across south India, in its initial run.
16. What is your view about films in the OTT world of today? Also your views on social media and how much time do you spend on it?
I think OTT has opened the canvas up for every conceivable genre and sub-genre of stories to be told, that otherwise wouldn’t find takers because of the economics. OTT and digital rights aren’t trying to compete with theatres, they’re just expanding the horizon. Which means even the most experimental subjects or envelope pushing stories cannot just get made but also find an audience that’s pining for it. Prithviraj Sukumaran in his astute observation has said this in multiple interviews – OTT is not a detour, it’s another parallelly running medium to make our work more accessible.
Oh boy, social media is a whole other ballgame altogether. In the last decade, we’ve seen it be many things – a way to connect, a place to find kinship, a battlefield, a distraction, a channel to fame. It definitely is all those things, and also devious in how it is meant to keep us hooked. But I think the fault lies less in social media platforms, and more in how painful and disconnected real life can be for a lot of us that we’d rather find an escape in social media than in the real world. Social media for me (luckily) is more transactional than something I hold on to possessively. And I’ll take that discretion any day.
17. Please share some of the most romantic things anyone has done for you? And your views on love?
Oh I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by people who are romantic and know how to express it. My idea of love is not the Hallmark variety, it is a lot more rooted and earthy. We live in times where there just isn’t enough love to go by. It is vitally important to disrupt the profit-loss ratio with tons of love. We can only love another individual when we have the capacity to love oneself. Love, to me, isn’t a gesture, it’s a practice. So I wish you a lifetime of being surrounded by love, both yours and of the people who lift you up.
18. Two of the most romantic gestures that I will always cherish are:
– My partner Shalini making the decision to move back to India, from the US, just to be with me. It’s not easy moving worlds to be with the one you love, and for that I’m grateful everyday.
– My friends and closest theatre folks created a handmade diorama for my birthday with models signifying all the things that embody me – acting, writing, Tahatto my theatre company, music as a child, and I can’t even describe the way it made me feel.
19. What are your future plans?
I’m not a planner. I am instinctive and follow my heart. But I can tell you my wishlist. In this coming decade, I want to act more, I want to tell more stories, I want to love more, I want to be driven by ideas more, I want to learn more about acting and directing and everything in between.