With just a day to go for the release of Echarikkai Idhu Manidhargal Nadamadum Idam, in which Sathyaraj plays a role with grey shades, the actor is eager to see how the film will be received. After all, he’s not just acted in it, but also lent it a name
At 63, actor Sathyaraj is playing the best role of his life – that of a grandfather to boys aged five years and 10 months. His most entertaining moments are car rides to school with the elder one and the story sessions that follow. “He tells me a story, and I tell him one. The base story never changes. He traps me with the dinosaurs and I have to find a way to escape, always. Every ride, we do this,” he smiles.
The actor, known for his ability to genre hop even in his heydays, has hit a purple patch now. He’s the go-to person for a character with machismo, sensitivity, and that unique thing called ‘nakkal’ (sarcasm). If Baahubali saw him lend life to Kattappa, the slave-general who exemplifies affection, dignity and honour, the recent Kadaikutty Singam saw him as the family patriarch, torn among his children. KM Sarjun’s Echarikkai: Idhu Manidhargal Nadamaadum Idam (Beware: Humans Walk Here), releasing tomorrow, sees him play a retired cop – Sathyaraj is possibly one of those actors who’s worn khakhi innumerable times on screen. Then, there’s Kanaa, actor Sivakarthikeyan’s production, Venkat Prabhu’s Party, shot in Fiji, and NOTA with Vijay Devarakonda, the Telugu hit machine.
This ability to be happy in every phase of life is something that is second nature to the actor. “I have no hang-ups. I’m someone prone to self-analysis. I don’t allow myself to develop an ego. One way I do that is by listening to every person who comes by to narrate a script. If 10 mokkai (pedestrian) scripts come my way, I know what the present crop of directors thinks of me; but if I get 10 extraordinary scripts, I know they think I’m capable,” he laughs.
In a Tamizh scented with the inflections of his hometown Coimbatore, the actor says he enjoys working with the current crop of directors. “There’s new thought in the technical and creative side. And, it’s nice to be a part of this change. Of course, the mind does not always listen. Once in a while, you do consider saying the much-feared word, ‘Enga kaalathula’ (during our days), but you must resist the temptation. That said, even now, I get offered the chance to play a ‘good father’, in a role that has no layers. I usually reject them. Usually, I choose roles that offer me the opportunity to explore different shades of my ability. Echarikkai offered me all that and more. Ideally, I should have been offended they met me for a narration after they started shooting,” he laughs, “but, when director Sarjun narrated the story to me, and the climax, I had to take it up. I’ve spoken a lot about the climax of the film. In my 40 years and 200-odd films, the character I play has never been part of something so unique. I believe this film will help me reach the spot I’ve been longing to reach.”
That spot is something the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Denzel Washington occupy – a stage where scripts are written for them. “I’ve hugely admired Piku, Black, Cheeni Kum…If I have to go there, my films with those kind of characters have to do well financially; then, directors will write for actors. That way, my hopes from Echarikkai are immense.”
In many interviews, the actor has been raving about Sarjun. “He made me feel very comfortable. After agreeing to do the film, I watched his short films Lakshmi and Maa. Life itself is a debate and he’s dealt with issues so well in those films. There’s no ‘this is right or that is wrong’ argument. He’s already working with Nayanthara, who is known to choose her films with care, before the release of his first feature. That should tell you how far he will go.”
Echarikkai Idhu Manidhargal Nadamadum Idam (his company had registered the title some years ago – “It’s apt for the film. In the jungle, there is a circle of life, unlike the human species”) also allowed him to work in a space he’s loved for long — the grey area. “When I was in my prime, heroes were either white or black; there was nothing in between. Despite that, I managed to act in quite a few roles that had hints of grey, because they were remakes of Malayalam movies. Kadamai Kanniyam Kattupaadu, Makkal En Pakkam… the list is long. I also managed to do soft roles in the midst of a career speckled with action films such as Walter Vetrivel. There was Nadigan, a laugh riot with Goundamani, and I teamed up with Fazil for Poovizhi Vaasalile and En Bommukutty Ammavukku. And yes, Bharathiraaja’s Vedham Pudhidhu. I cannot complain about being slotted.”
Sathyaraj has always acted older than his age; in fact, his look in Echarikkai is a glorious departure from his usual onscreen avatars. “When I was hardly 30, I played a grandfather on screen [Pagal Nilavu, Mani Ratnam’s first Tamizh film]. I played Rajini Sir’s father in Mr Bharath at 31– I am four years younger than him,” he breaks into his trademark laughter.
Sathyaraj has another specialty: films that feature him with children (En Bommukutty Ammavukku, Poovizhi Vaasalile, Rickshaw Mama…) end up doing very well. He works with a child actor in Echarikkai too. How does he bond with them? “That’s a special technique I’ve picked up watching MGR Sir’s films. He does it best – so many of his hit songs feature children. I become like a child in front of them. I play with them and don’t have an intimidating body language with kids. I’m my grandchildren’s best friend. In fact, the family fears that they will get spoilt in my company. I can be a total brat.”
Over the years, some films have stayed close to the actor’s heart. “Take, for instance, Periyar. It’s a role I cherish because it was a privilege to play someone who brought in so much societal change, but it was also difficult to play someone who was still alive in people’s minds and whose contemporaries were still around,” he says.
In the run-up to the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), pro-Kannada groups protested the release of the film in Karnataka because of anti-Kannada statements issued by Sathyaraj nearly a decade ago when the Cauvery issue was raging. The actor issued an apology for the hurt he might have caused, but also said that he would never mince words and requested that if producers felt his actions might harm their films, they need not approach him. “I take more pride in being a Tamilian than an actor,” he was quoted as saying.
The actor says frankspeak comes easily to him as he has nothing to lose. “I don’t have a lavish lifestyle. I still don’t know what car I own. I need an a/c car with an audio system, the brand does not matter. So, I don’t fear consequences. In fact, a two-wheeler is best suited for today’s traffic,” he smiles, and travels back in time to his initial days in Madras when he travelled across the city by bus. “I was jolly even then. Sivakumar anna (the actor) is proof of how happy I can be in any circumstance.”
And this, Sathyaraj concludes, is possible because “I am my best friend. I’m my teddy bear. I self-criticise, self-motivate, comfort… I’m happy.”
The Sathyaraj interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.