I'd rather do a new experimental film than compromised, formulaic ones: Tovino Thomas
Tovino Thomas, who is awaiting the release of Malayalam film Kala, talks to Firstpost about the pandemic and its aftermath, his evolution as an actor, the most difficult character he has played and nepotism in Mollywood.
The cocky, muscle-flexing, flamboyant SI Vyshakan in Kalki has swag, unlimited courage, and a sense of justice. In an otherwise distasteful formulaic film, that was also the lone takeaway—the unmistakable star quality of Tovino Thomas, who offers a semblance of sanity to the proceedings.
Tovino’s growth as an actor in the last few years have been impressively consistent (navigating a gamut of roles from an unpleasant Engineer in Guppy, the crook who loved like Romeo in Mayaanadhi, the slacker in Godha to the political scion in Lucifer) and today, he has carved a remarkably independent space for himself in an industry which is spilling over with talent.
As he awaits the release of Kala (where he was brutally injured during a fight scene), directed by Rohit VS, he ponders on the pandemic and its aftermath, which has put the actor in a self-reflective mood— “From now on I will only do films I like and be more prudent. Success is a trap and if we fall into it, we do things to retain that. I want to do films on intuition, not just grab every formulaic film that comes my way. Someone else’s success is not my benchmark. I want to be the best version of myself. Going against the tide is my new mantra.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
Is it upsetting that Kala got an A Certificate?
Not at all. The adult certificate is for a 25-minute-long fight scene. There is as much violence in it as you will see in a Bollywood or Hollywood film. I think people have this misconception that A Certificate is only for sexually explicit content. Besides, we wanted this film to release without any cuts or beeps as the genre demanded it, anything else would have been a compromise.
The teaser was quite stunning...
It was not a film we quickly rustled up during the pandemic time. Rohit, Akhil George (who is the cinematographer of Kala), and me, we go a long way back. I have acted in a short film of George’s. This film, set in the 90s, has a universal theme and talks about a kind of politics that will work for a lot of people. I have full faith in Rohit and think he will be an asset to Malayalam cinema in the future.
Would you say is the toughest character you have ever done?
Every character I have done has come up with a lot of effort. As an actor, I give my 100 percent to every film. The physical strain was there in Kala, but in Kane Kane, there was mental stress. Yes, maybe you can say that I have not done so many fight scenes in a film before. And they are all impromptu, raw fights, which have a story of their own. This is not a binge-watch film.
Does the suggestion of a physical transformation always come from you?
I throw various options to them and make it clear as to how much I can push myself. For Kala, I was asked to retain the long beard and hair. This guy is narcissistic and egoistic with grey shades. I think going forward most of my characters will be various shades of grey. Black and white is anyway a fantasy. When such roles come, I will obviously switch. Shaji’s villainy or heroism is left to the audience's discretion. He can be relatable.
Are you still anxious before the first shot?
Of course. If I do not get that anxiety I should not be there. I am anxious before every shot and discuss in detail with the director/writer. After 2-3 days, I get a feel of the character. I like improvisations and Rohit has agreed to my crazy suggestions. During a violent action scene, I asked him if I could eat a banana and he said okay.
While doing emotional scenes, how do you reach that point? Does it all have to be on paper?
We do not go according to a written rule—sometimes during a highly emotional scene, all we feel might be to give a particular smile. In real life, we do not really break down the way it is shown in the cinema. We might even smile awkwardly to get out of a situation. Scratching your head while in doubt is a cinematic cliché. So I would rather get inspired by real-life people while doing a performance. Sometimes the script might have drama, but the character must be underplayed or vice versa. For And the Oscar Goes To..., my reference was in front of me, director Salim Ahamed and his thing was that there will always be a constant smile on his face during any adversity—each smile had a meaning. So I imbibed that.
9 years, over 30 films. How do you see your evolution as an actor?
It is the same as transitioning from LKG to 10th. It happens in every film. We change over time, watching films, more experiences, books, and it all adds to your evolution as an actor and as a human being. Experience has helped in sharpening my craft. I’m still learning.
The rampant social media film critics are the new normal. Have you finally taken it all in your stride?
Cinema is not something to be marked. It's an entertainment medium and should be seen that way. Maybe you can see a film more clearly during the second viewing and then perhaps analyse it in detail as you see it more clearly. And you cannot force your opinions on others. Good cinema also deserves a good critic. Otherwise, it becomes destructive.
Right. Let us talk about Minnal Murali, Malayalam cinema’s first local superhero film…
Minnal Murali is not your usual superhero film. The Malayali audience looks at cinema realistically. When we have set a logic, we can’t mess with it. We think superheroes only exist in America. Minnal Murali is made keeping all that in mind. But even if you leave aside the superhero element there is a solid story in there. And of course, it all happens inside Basil’s cinematic universe—his imaginary village and quirky characters and all. Basil is the kind of director who can make even a bad script work. This has the potential to be a franchise.
Does the politics of the character bother you?
I should feel a greed to do the character. I cannot possibly accept or decline a film based on its politics. If I am a hero, then his actions should be politically correct. I would rather leave such details to the director/writer. Since it’s an influential medium, I would rather they don’t end on a misleading note. Otherwise, it's free for all.
Am guessing you prefer theatre over OTT. What’s the gripe with the latter?
We make a cinema for the theatre, the big screen. We can’t enjoy those extreme wide shots on a small screen. It’s the same difference between theatre and stage. I don’t know how one can enjoy a film on a mobile. Minnal Murali for instance has those wide shots and has also used balloon lights to light up and all that showcases the scale of the film.
How do you keep yourself updated as an actor?
I keep observing and learning, following the changes in my craft keenly. For instance earlier Sir Michael Caine’s acting classes would say “never blink, never shift your eyeballs” but that technique has also evolved. I also learn a lot from senior actors. Acting, like painting, cannot be taught unless you have a basic talent for it. You can perhaps enhance your skill in an acting school. I think workshops are great. Very often I have wished I had a consultant. For Aashiq Abu’s Naradan, which required a certain kind of acting, there was a grooming session by Deepan Sivaraman (theatre director and academic) who gave certain exercises and by the end you learn something about yourself.
I know it’s a cliched question but considering you are an actor who has worked your way up without the help of godfathers, how do you view the nepotism scene in your industry?
I think there is an audience who are keen to watch an actor’s son or daughter’s films. The system cannot be faulted. The day films get accepted for their quality and not their star value, nepotism will cease to exist. What they get is only a head start, their survival depends entirely on their talent. But then for them, the expectation of the legacy can be daunting. I can probably get away with it but not for them.
Is there more space for a behavioural style of acting now?
As an actor, I feel we should learn both. Behavioural style won’t work in a period film, you might require stylised acting for that.
Going with the flow or going forward with a definite game plan in mind?
Going with the flow but more cautiously. I will rather do a new experimental film than compromised formulaic ones. But there is a limit to being cautious too in cinema. Sometimes what wowed us during a narration might flounder at the execution. So it is a gamble based on trust. I can only give my best shot. The rest is not in my hands.
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