Prithviraj Sukumaran talks about navigating Malayalam cinema as an actor, director and producer
'Nine is uncharted territory for Malayalam cinema. As an actor who stands for novelty, it seemed fitting that my debut production also subscribe to a similar perspective,' says Prithviraj.
His trajectory as an actor has been a roller-coaster ride. Ridiculed for his candour, the actor had to wade through a lot of hatred and like any newcomer, he took some time finding his footing in Malayalam cinema, often ending up doing roles that belied his age. In due course, he won over his haters, figured out his route and expanded his horizon in Malayalam cinema. He was one of the first young actors in Malayalam to branch out into Bollywood, judiciously picking roles and striving to be part of films that pushed the envelope in terms of content and technology. Today, Prithviraj Sukumaran has built himself into a complete brand. This year is particularly momentous for the actor as he shifts gears between acting, directing and producing — Nine, the first film from his production house, Prithviraj Productions, is weeks away from release and Lucifer, his directorial debut starring Mohanlal, is slated for a March release. Excerpts from a long chat with Prithviraj below.
Why did you decide on Nine as your first solo production venture?
As an actor, I have always tried to be part of films that push the envelope. The ultimate purpose of a film is to serve, engage and entertain the audience. Nine is uncharted territory for Malayalam cinema. Be it the way the film is shot or the way the narrative is structured, it all seems very new. As an actor who stands for novelty, it seemed fitting that my debut production also subscribe to a similar perspective.
Can we call it science fiction?
That would be unfair. It’s got elements of science fiction, layers of horror, and it’s also a psychological thriller. But the ultimate takeaway, I believe, is an emotional father-son bond. It’s difficult to put it in one line.
You have been part of August Cinema and now there is Prithviraj Productions. Will there be a change in the way films are chosen now?
It would seem inevitable that my production banner will only associate with the kind of cinema that I would like to be associated with as an actor. It was always about making cinema that is new and entertaining. That was the case with August Cinema and I will continue to take that forward.
What makes a great producer?
I think the skills needed for a great producer are hugely underestimated in the industry. Being a good producer has nothing to do with bringing in money. You can have all the money in the world and still not be a good producer. It requires an understanding of the fine art of making cinema and realising what needs to be done for that vision to be executed. It requires a lot of field work. The more streamlined you are in these processes, the better your production will be. In that sense I am really blessed as all the field work was done by Supriya (wife) and line producer Harris Jason, and the film was wrapped up well within the actual budget.
How did that play out with Jenuse Mohammed?
As a producer, I was involved in the creative process, but I used to be involved even as an actor. I knew Jenuse from before, as he had assisted Kamal sir in Celluloid. It’s been a long process, he brought the script to me in 2016, from then to now it has been a journey. Ultimately, we have executed his vision — he has written and directed it.
It has been 17 years since you have come to the industry. How would you describe the journey? How much has it changed you as a human being, an actor, as a creative person?
I don’t know how much it has changed me as a person, I think someone from the outside has to tell me that. But about the journey, I really don’t have any regrets. I have done 100 plus films, produced 36, directed my first film, and turned singer. I am just 36, and I already have a wealth of experience having been part of such vastly different films. I am excited about the future, about understanding cinema more and taking my craft and the industry forward as I go along.
Do you lend an ear to what fans want?
It will be confusing if I go by what they want all the time. Different people want different things but I can only do the cinema that I am convinced about. It will always have to be my decision. It might work, it might not work. But if I lose conviction in my decisions, then I am really in a bad space. I like all kinds of cinema. I am doing Aadu Jeevitham, and a popcorn entertainer called Brothers Day, directed by Kalabhavan Shajon. And then there is Lucifer, which is unlike any of these films. I operate in a versatile space, but I can only speak for myself. How people perceive it, I don’t know.
In popular social media films groups, you are this trusted brand, someone who can seldom go wrong with his film choices.
I disagree. If that is the case, all my films will be hits. When I listen to an exciting script, I put my heart and soul into it. Sometimes, the films that you make don’t live up to the vision you have; sometimes, it does, but they don’t share the same excitement as you. And sometimes, everything clicks and falls in place. There is no foolproof method.
Have you objectively tried to analyse what makes you click?
I haven’t actually and I am not sure I will be able to do it. I don’t know what makes me work or what people like in me. I really do think that with me people do expect to see something new. And they will be disappointed if I came up with a stale, old-fashioned film. Having said that, I like to let my hair loose, occasionally.
Our actors have a bad track record in Bollywood. Now, Dulquer Salmaan is concentrating more there, and it is considered an unwise move. You have been there, done that. How do you see that phase in your career?
At one point, I was told to move my base to Bombay. They couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out why I was not concentrating full time there. But then, I always considered myself an actor from the South. I am a Malayali actor. If I get to do a Hindi film, great, but I never envisioned being an actor in Bombay who does the occasional Malayalam film. That’s not who I am and that’s not who I want to be.
But do you think that stereotype of male actors from South being unable to make it big in Bollywood is still there?
I think it’s unfair to say that. I don’t think any big A-list actor from the South has committed himself to that level, except for leading heroines. They have not taken an effort to uproot themselves from their home turf and settle there. So how can you complain that they haven’t really given us an opportunity?
Is there a more democratic scene in Malayalam cinema now?
It has always been in my world of Malayalam cinema. I can’t comment about other worlds.
Superstardom has turned irrelevant now. Does that sound good?
Yes, I have always advocated that superstardom should not govern the way cinema functions. It’s fantastic that a Sudani from Nigeria made so much money. The healthiest thing a film industry can claim to be is content-driven, and I think Malayalam cinema is now well and truly there. Actors might not realise it now, but it augurs well with them too if the industry is not driven by stardom or numbers.
Is there something called marketing overkill when it comes to Malayalam cinema?
Make it the wrong kind of marketing. Marketing is about how you lead audience perception to where you want it to be. If your claims disillusion them, then it’s a wrong marketing strategy. With the right marketing, there is no overkill. The more people you reach, the better.
With Nine, you have opted for a very ingenious way of marketing.
Yes, because I am convinced about my product. I have put my money and effort into it. Now, it’s also my responsibility to give it my best chance. I am very confident that our marketing strategy is spot on. The impression you get about the film is exactly what the film is. That’s how a well-thought out marketing strategy should be.
How did being an actor help in the process of direction?
All my directorial skills, if at all I have any, come from being an actor, watching directors and actors at close quarters, and being involved in the process of making films for so many years. I think as an actor, when you direct, you strike a chord with your actors because you can understand what is happening in their personal space. When a very emotionally challenging scene is shot, you know what the ideal setup for an actor would be. There are times you have been in front of the camera and thought, I wish this were not happening right now. Lucifer is a film which is primarily about performances, and I would like to believe that it has great performances.
Have there been instances when your own self-belief has shaken at some point?
For all my faults, I would never come across as someone whose self-belief has been shaken. It is about finding a place where you are comfortable being who you are. And where I am right now is where I would want to be, even 25 years hence. I am not competing with anybody, not trying to prove anything to anyone. If I am content in doing what I want, I don’t see a reason for my belief or my craft to be shaken.
Actors are said to live in a bubble. How do you maintain normalcy in relationships?
I am going to be frank and say it’s not easy. Sometimes you crave anonymity, being able to do normal things without being noticed by people. You are mature enough to understand that it is part of the job. The perks are so many that if this is what being someone with a social profile means I can live with it.
Has fatherhood changed you?
People say I have calmed down, but I can’t say that for myself. But parenthood teaches you patience and I am somebody who needs a lot of it.
Do you agree that actors are expected to take a political and social stand?
No, I don’t think that as an actor, you should have a social stand on everything. But if you feel strongly about something, being an actor shouldn’t stop you from speaking about it.
What inspires you as a creative individual?
For me, it's people. My wife keeps telling me that whenever we are at a roadside café, I keep staring at people.
Do you enjoy being on social media?
I won’t say I enjoy it. But I am grateful that I have this interface to connect with people. Of course, there is a line beyond which my life is my own.
Have you had a change of opinion about your film after you have heard the reactions to it?
My opinion on a film is solely based on my own assumptions about it. I have disliked very popular films and I don’t understand why some films are disliked because I have loved them. It’s very subjective.
Does every character have to be likeable or just relatable?
I don’t think either is a criterion. Just that the film must be engaging.
I think your statement that you will not be part of films that glorify misogyny has been taken out of context.
I am glad you said it’s been taken out of context. I don’t think 90 percent of the people understood what I said. I stick to my stand. But let me clarify once again — I have no problems with misogynistic dialogues or misogynistic characters in a film. I will not think twice about doing a misogynist character that has been presented to me as an actor. My problem is about these traits and characters being glorified in a film, and the film taking a stand that it is right. Unfortunately, I cannot relate to that anymore. And I would like to repeat that this is strictly my personal view. I am not asking or urging anyone to subscribe to my views. This is my decision, and you live and let live.
Are you nervous about Lucifer?
Strangely, I am not nervous about it at all. Should I be?
I have been hearing good things about it though.
Yes. There are strict instructions that all such reports be put out there (laughs).
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