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.”