If Soodhu Kavvum fetched him recognition, Yaamirukka Bayamey brought fame; but Karunakaran makes light of it all. He’s still discovering his niche, he says; and is trying to pinch himself awake from the dream that is Lingaa. Chintadripetla thoongindu irundhavana Switzerland la erakivtta epdi irukum? He asks rhetorically. The Actor Karunakaran interview.
Otherwise, Karunakaran is quite airy about everything else, choosing to not dwell on his successes, or harp on his failures. He has no qualms about declaring one of his movies, Malai Pozhudhin Mayakkathile, “a big flop”, while laughing at his own popularity. “When I was travelling last week, a child pointed at me and said ‘panni moonji vaaya’ – (a reference to his recent hit, Yaamirukka Bayamey, where he played Sharath, the hilarious resort manager). I had to grin and bear it,” he smiles. Stamps and coins interest him; and so does AR Rahman. But mention his ring back tone – Endhan Nenjil Neengadha Thendral Needhana – and he grins bashfully.
Karunakaran also identifies with Soodhu Kavvum’s Arumai Prakasam a lot. He might not have held himself to ransom to extort money from his father, or written “cinema kisukisu” (with relevant photographs to boot) on his Thermodynamics answer sheet. Or organized laughter clubs for fellow poor performers in college (“I cleared 21 arrears in one attempt.”) But he’s come quite close indeed. Veetla padicha thittuvanga, he says hesitantly before continuing on a fond note; with the air of of someone savouring a favourite memory. “I sold my father’s bike. For Rs 22,000, and went on a pleasure trip to Bangkok.” His father had just been transferred to the Andamans for year. “But my family found out about it the same evening,” he declares. Karunakaran’s father was with the RAW, thank you very much. And the bike was a Hero Honda Splendor. His mother, he says, stood by him during this hour of crisis. “She was a huge support. She told my father that I would earn that money back and some more. That did happen you know.”
He recently bought a Skoda Rapid.
[quote align=’left’]Several times, though, he would change in the cab back to work. “They were mostly Maruti Omnis. That helped.”[/quote]So the name, Karunakaran says, was quite apt. He was Arumai Prakasam in Nalan Kumarasamy’s short film, Nadanthadhu Ennana; and Arumai Prakasam in his debut movie, Soodhu Kavvum. “I was told that the name suited me quite well. If some other actor had done my role, he wouldn’t have been called Arumai Prakasam.”
Karunakaran is currently in Hyderabad, having just wrapped up his third day of shoot on the sets of Lingaa. He talks to us in a feverish pace about the day’s events; tripping over words as he describes the experience of sharing screen-space with Rajinikanth. Karunakaran hasn’t met him before. And the last time he found himself in close quarters with the Superstar, he was one among the crowd; having just caught a fleeting glimpse of him disappearing through the doors at Sathyam Cinemas. It was during the premiere of Enthiran; and he remembers calling home then, to tell his folks that he has finally had a glimpse of Rajini. From afar. “It still feels surreal,” Karunakaran continues, “you know, the first time I saw him on screen was at a theatre in Trichy. I was watching Basha along with my father.”
That’s actually saying something, he adds, because his father disapproved of cinema. When he was filming Nenjukku Needhi – a short film with Nalan, his father told him to “wrap it up soon and get back to work”. But it was when the actor quit his full-time job at Accenture that he had to contend with some strong words. “My father said, ‘ippo thaan ozhunga irukken nu nenachen’.” Karunakaran had just received a promotion at work. “But he eventually came around after watching Pizza. In fact, a while ago, he wanted to know about my next release. I couldn’t believe my ears,” smiles the actor.
It was a dull, sleepy afternoon when Lingaa happened. Karunakaran was fast asleep; nalla thoongituirundhen, he says, “and there were four missed calls on my phone. A guy introduced himself as KS Ravikumar’s associate, and quickly asked me to check if I had the following dates. I thought my friends were playing a prank on me,” he still sounds bewildered. “A few weeks later, I was signed on. I asked them whether I have to act beside Rajinikanth. They said yes. What more do I need? I got to know my role only when I landed here.”
Karunakaran was quite clear on what he was after in life. One May Day, many many years ago, he remembers being among the milling crowd visiting the Marina on a holiday. There were television cameras covering the crowd, and he remembers walking back and forth in front of the camera to get noticed. He then went back home that evening and carefully studied the news coverage to see if he could spot himself. Of course, he couldn’t.
But the tryst with Nalan Kumarasamy happened soon after, and he was quickly signed on to act in a few short films. He was working then, as an IT professional at Accenture, so weekends were all he could spare, apart from a few afternoons when he could cram in a spot of shooting. “I was working when Pizza happened. And I had to wear formals in the movie. So I would finish shoot, quickly change my shirt and run to office.” Several times, though, he would change in the cab back to work. “They were mostly Maruti Omnis. That helped.”
[quote align=’right’]“Lingaa still feels surreal,” Karunakaran continues, “you know, the first time I saw him on screen was at a theatre in Trichy. I was watching Basha along with my father.”[/quote]The film industry is like a dinosaur, Sundar C had told Karunakaran one evening when he was filming for a small role in Kalakalappu, the director’s 2012 release. “So he advised me not to quit my job before I had a foothold in the industry. But I wasn’t planning to, anyway. I had some EMIs and loans to pay off before I could get that comfortable.” He did resign before Soodhu Kavvum though, after which he received around 20 movie offers.
By then, Sundar C had also told him how to choose movies. He had to let go a few – Tenali Raman and Cuckoo – due to scheduling conflicts, but managed quite handsomely with the ones he signed on. “I still go by the script,” he says, “Na innum andha alavukku varala. I will do whatever the script wants of me.” But he makes sure the humour is toned down all the same. Yaarayum kindal panradhu illa. “I mostly opt for situational comedy.” Having said that though, Karunakaran would also love to essay negative roles. “I think that would come easily to me,” he explains, “in fact, I’m playing a role with shades of grey in the upcoming movie, Mahabalipuram. You will see. The film is in post-production now.”
For someone from a non-cinematic background, Karunakaran doesn’t find the camera daunting. What does make him nervous though, is the thought of his famous co-actors. He was extremely jittery, he says, while filming Jigarthanda with Siddharth. “Idhu varaikum I had acted only with friends, and sometimes road la pora auto driver, but not with a star. Siddharth was very cool, though. I injured my knee again while shooting for Jigarthanda. Siddharth was there in a flash, and helped me stretch my legs. He was my physio, and even offered me his knee braces.” Mention Vijay Sethupathy, and Karunakaran laughs, “he was the one who broke my leg during Pizza!”
Karunakaran has around eight upcoming movies. In Jigarthanda, he is Siddharth’s friend (“It’s a serious role as well, I can’t tell you more, Karthik Subbaraj phone panni thittuvaan”), in Ravi K Chandran’s Yaan, he plays an Indian cab driver in Morocco, and in Aindhaam Thalaimurai Siddha Vaidhya Sigamani, he’s Bharath’s friend. There’s also Kanidhan with Atharvaa where he dons the role of a lawyer, Nanbenda where he is Udhayanidhi Stalin and Santhanam’s childhood buddy, Karthi G Krish’s Kappal, the thriller-comedy Mahabalipuram and the big one, Lingaa.
The actor is on a busy schedule these days; and barely has time for anything else. “Schoolerndhe padikkaradhu illa,” he grins, “I don’t read.” He collects coins, though. And stamps. AR Rahman is a favourite; but ask him about his ring back tone – Endhan Nenjil Neengadha Thendral Needhana – and he smiles. “Oh that,” he says bashfully, “Thendral is my wife’s name. We got married last year.”