In the novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, protagonist Moraes Zogoiby scoffs at naming a period in history “discovery-of-India” and goes on to ask “how could we be discovered when we were not covered before?” One could say the same about Malayalam actor Prithviraj Sukumaran. He may only be coming to the attention of millions of Hindi cinema fans now - thanks to Aiyyaa - but for those millions of Malayali, Tamil and Telugu moviegoers in India and worldwide, Prithvi has been part of their cinematic consciousness for over a decade. To them, it’s the rest of India that’s only now catching up to what they've known for quite a while.
Not only is Prithviraj making his Bollywood debut with Aiyyaa; his director, National Award-winning Marathi filmmaker Sachin Kundalkar, has also branched out. If the enduring Yash Raj Films is recognized as shorthand for big budget, glossy movies, then Anurag Kashyap Films telegraphs a newer, edgier brand, and it was Anurag Kashyap who nudged Kundalkar to make Aiyyaa in the first place.
Once the story line had been fleshed out, the director was at a loss as to whom to cast in the South Indian role. Kundalkar’s good friend, Bina Venugopal, director of the Kerala Film Festival, told him “We have this young, charming actor - Prithviraj. He’s a big star in Kerala. Please look at Prithviraj’s photographs and films.” After following her advice, the Aiyyaa director was sold.
In the time from 2009 to Aiyyaa’s release today, Kundalkar has come to two conclusions about his male lead: “Prithviraj is well educated, well traveled, he’s completely sophisticated and cosmopolitan and that’s what attracted me to him as an actor and as a director. He’s the most relaxed, composed and corporeal actor that I have met and very, very intelligent. And after all those cerebral qualities, let me tell you, he’s H-O-T. Right now the promos have Indian women going mad after him.”
Anurag Kashyap - who served as producer for Aiyyaa (“I prefer to think of myself as an enabler”) – credits Tamil filmmakers for inspiring his Gangs of Wasseypur. He says “South Indian cinema is much more liberated than us.” Of Aiyyaa, he says: “It’s subversive and playful and it laughs at everything. It looks at the very clichéd way we look at South Indians and their cinema and it makes fun of that. Also, here, the man has been objectified, not the woman, unlike all the other Hindi films.”
Prithviraj, a Thiruvananthapuram native whose parents were both actors (and whose older brother Indrajit is also in films), was at university in Tasmania, Australia when the offer came to act in the Malayalam film Nandanam. Soon after, he left his studies to act full time. Only four years later, Prithviraj had already won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actor and had debuted in a Tamil movie.
In the decade since his first film released, the 29-year-old-actor likes to joke that he “has another launch every few years or so”, and as his career has soared, Prithviraj has used his money and clout to occasionally step aside from blockbuster mainstream movies and lend his fame to smaller indie films. One such movie is the Malayalam Veetillekkulla Vazhi (The Way Home), a story of a doctor (Prithviraj), who has lost his wife and son to a terrorist bomb, traveling from Kerala to Rajasthan and Ladakh to fulfill a promise and deliver a young boy (played by the director’s son, Govardhan) to the child’s only surviving parent. It’s a remarkable, moving performance and you would never guess the then-27-year-old Prithviraj was not a father offscreen.
For Prithviraj, after hearing the script narrated by Dr. Biju Kumar, a homeopathic doctor-turned-director, “I told him ‘I will not take money for the film but you will have to give me the rights to the film,’ so now the other language rights belong to me, because I truly believe the film needs to be made some other day on a much bigger scale, in Hindi perhaps.”
Of the 25 days on location, Dr. Biju recalls: “Shooting was very difficult. In Ladakh the temperature was minus 18 degrees. One of the crew members fainted and went to rest, and Prithvi picked up the equipment and assisted with the camera. When we shot in Rajasthan, we had to walk one kilometer in the desert, without camels, and all the crew were carrying equipment by hand. Prithviraj took my son on his shoulders. Watching him with my son was very touching. He participated not like an actor, but like a crew member.”
Veetillekkulla Vazhi won the 2010 National Award for the Best Malayalam Feature Film, and Prithvi worked again with Dr. Biju the following year on Aakashathinte Niram (Colour of Sky), filmed on the remote Neil Island in the Andamans, but this time in a smaller role. Dr. Biju says “He told me ‘Ok, I will do this role, and you don’t need to pay me any remuneration. I am part of this for the good movie, not for the money.’”
Other southern producers and directors were taking note. Prakash Raj, the Kannada actor who has conquered all four southern film markets and also carved a noticeable space for himself in Hindi movies in recent years, first played Prithviraj’s father on screen, and then decided, when producing three Tamil movies, to put Prithvi in them. Or rather, as he clarifies: “He (Prithvi) got the roles. He’s a guy who’s constantly evolving and trying to learn and grow and communicate. There was this actor whom I trusted could deliver and I put my money on him."
In 2009, Mani Ratnam offered Prithviraj a lead role in his Tamil Raavanan, the more successful of the director’s two simultaneous releases, and Santosh Sivan cast him in the lead of his historical tale Urumi. Sivan says: “I had worked with him previously in Ananda Bhadram, and he suited the role of a young warrior. He’s passionate and talented with an appetite for doing different roles.
When asked if he recalls any particularly funny or difficult episode from shooting Urumi, Sivan recalls: “Yes, it was funny because he said ‘Santosh chetta, let’s all produce the film too!’” And so, Prithviraj formed the production company, August Cinema, together with Sivan.
Today Prithviraj has his launch in Hindi movies. “I’ve done more than 80 films and it’s not every day that you get to listen to a script like this. It was very refreshing, the premise is very original. I would have said ‘yes’ regardless of what language, even if Sachin had wanted to make the film in Tamil or Malayalam. The fact that it’s in Hindi led to it being my Bollywood debut. An actor’s a performer and as a performer you want to be seen by the maximum number of people, you can’t neglect the fact that Bollywood is the biggest stage for a film actor in India right now.”
When watching the outsize and colorful song picturisation of Dreamum Wakeupum, one might wonder where Aiyyaa is headed in its portrayal of Tamil culture. Prithviraj is quick to allay any doubts: “As a south Indian you should be flattered when you watch Aiyyaa, because this whole concept of south Indianness is portrayed as very sexy and cool, unlike the caricature that south Indianness is in most Bollywood films.”
And yes, if you listen carefully to the song, the lyrics do, in fact, say “Thighsum thunderum downum underum, Sizeum matterum thinkum wonderum” which Sachin Kundalkar explains: “The girl is fantasizing about a South Indian man but she can’t speak Tamil so she gives a tone of Tamil words to her English words. What happens in Indian cinema when a woman talks about love, she seeks protection, security and commitment; we never understand that women also want sexual pleasure. They want good-looking men, they can’t tolerate bad odours. So I’ve just made my character more open about the man’s body.”
For Prithviraj, now shooting in Delhi for his next Hindi role in YashRaj Films Aurangzeb, finding himself here has been less strategic than some might imagine: “I’m not somebody who designs my career around what I want to do at a given point in time. I’ve really always been searching for good cinema - not that my preference has always been right - but at least that’s what I always yearn to do. Where that search takes me and where that journey takes me, is where I will be.”