Shabeer Kallarakkal has had a busy few days. Ever since his latest film Sarpatta Parambarai released on Amazon Prime Video on July 22, his phone has been flooded with congratulatory messages and calls for interviews. He plays Dancing Rose, a boxer in 1970s Madras, whose mannerisms are hard to ignore.
Sporting a distinct curl on his forehead, his moves are lighter than air. He breaks into dance while giving his opponent a run for his money. Dancing Rose is a character like no other: his unique footwork, unbreakable confidence, and honourable sportsmanship make him stand out in a film that is already packed with strong performances.
Sharing fan-made title posters of the character, some social media users are even calling for an origin story. “I am so overwhelmed; things are happening too fast,” says Kallarakkal.
Kallarakkal’s tryst with acting started as early as 2004 when he appeared as a student in the Mani Ratnam film Aayutha Ezhuthu. “People started to recognise me in that five or ten-second role. That’s where the spark happened,” he recalls.
He went on to star as the male lead in Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s road film Nerungi Vaa Muthamidathe in 2014 and also worked as an assistant director in her critically-acclaimed film Ammani. Cut to 2016 where he played a psychopathic killer in the antagonist-centric Tamil psychological thriller film 54321. He also bagged supporting roles in big-budget films like Petta (2019) and Teddy (2021), in which he portrayed an organ trafficker in Azerbaijan.
Kallarakkal has a diverse portfolio. He is a theatre artist who has worked with organisations like The Little Theatre and Koothupattarai. He is also a former cricketer, a dancer, and a fitness enthusiast who has experience in parkour and martial arts.
An experience-driven actor, he believes that everything that he has worked on so far has had an impact on his acting process. He also credits actor Krishna Kumar (Soorarai Pottru) of The Little Theatre for this. “If I have done some justice to Dancing Rose, a lot of the credit goes to KK and the hospital clowning programme,” he says.
In this interview with Silverscreen India, Kallarakkal gets candid about the compliments he has received for his character, his training for the film, and his acting aspirations.
What is the most memorable compliment you received after people watched the film?
One thing that most of my friends said to me was that it felt like they had achieved something. That was beautiful. I also got a call from a close friend who wants to get into movies. He told me that he was in tears because it felt like his own success.
How did you prepare for the role?
I was already into parkour, Silamabam, Kalari, Kaaladi kuthu, and I also took up boxing for this film. I like being fit. Luckily, when I met Ranjith sir, I was already in the shape that was required for the character. During the lockdown, I continued my routine. I would work out for four hours every day. This continued until I got Covid in July 2020 and lost 5 kilograms. I had to put the weight back on but when one does that, they do not just put on muscle, they also put on fat. That was tricky. It was a challenge, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
After Teddy, how was it to work with Arya for the second time?
In Teddy, everything happened so fast and it was in a foreign country, so we did not interact much. Here (Sarpatta Parambarai), we became good friends. I understood what people mean when they say that he is a gem of a person. He wants his co-actors to do well. Arya was open to other characters being dominant in the film. That is the success of the movie.
Teddy and Sarpatta Parambarai are very different films. What was that experience like?
I did Teddy because at that time I was only doing plays and I wanted to do some film work. I met (the movie’s) director Shakthi Soundar Rajan and he said that it is a small role. I took it up because I got a chance to act. It was only a few days of work. Sarpatta Parambarai was totally different. It was a lot of work — both physically and emotionally.
Did you have any inputs for your character Dancing Rose or was it based solely on the director’s vision?
Ranjith sir gave me inputs but he wouldn’t say act like this or act like that. On set, if he was not happy with what I was doing, he would say, “Idhu vendham.” But most of the time, he was happy with what I was doing. I had understood the character and his backstory itself was strong enough.
I used boxer Naseem Hamed’s style as a reference. We were all given references; It was Muhammed Ali for Kabilan (Arya’s character) and Mike Tyson for Vembuli (John Kokken’s role). But it was not an exact copy. I studied Naseem and after two or three weeks, I never went back to those videos because I knew what the director wanted. For Dancing Rose, I did my own thing and whatever you see on-screen is what happened on that day of shooting. We did not rehearse it.
You are a theatre artist, hospital clown, and fitness enthusiast. Are there any other interests that people do not know about?
I am also into trekking. In fact, I am planning to do a one-month basic mountaineering course in the Himalayas. I was actually supposed to go in May but I couldn’t because of the lockdown. When I get a break, I want to go finish that because I like adventure. I also started surfing and I want to travel a lot.
Do you apply your experiences from these areas to acting?
I always felt that an actor is stronger with his experiences. It is your experiences that teach you various emotions. So, all these experiences are going to teach me a lot of things. If I do this one-month mountaineering course, it will make me tougher as a person and the experience will give me a lot of perspective. The more you experience as a person, the stronger your acting becomes. As they grow older and mature, all actors become better because of the experiences that they bring to their films.
From your first film to now, which character do you identify with the most?
All of them. From Chandru in Nerengi Vaa to Vikram in 54321, all the characters had some part of me in them. Otherwise, you will not relate to the character and it will seem artificial. This is the only way I know to act. There is a part of me in Dancing Rose and in Bhuvanesh (Adangu Maru). That is what makes each character unique. There is no other you, so what you bring to the table is going to make the character special.
Do you still find time to play cricket?
I have not touched the bat in the last four years because I have been busy with other things like parkour. But I do go to the ground and cheer. My day is full because I train for almost six days a week. I want to play cricket at a recreational level. Kalai (co-actor Kalaiyarsan) has been calling me to play, so I may take it up for fun.
Are there any actors or directors that you want to work with?
I have not thought about that. When I work with someone, I feel proud to have been a part of the project. That’s how I am. Now, I am at a place where I know what I can bring to the table as an actor. So, if I like an opportunity, I will take it up and if I do not like it, I may voice that out. I do look up to directors though.
You have been an assistant director in Ammani. Do you identify more as an actor or director?
I want to be an actor. I don’t know if I will be a good director. Initially, I was supposed to play the lead in that film but when the discussion progressed, the character became small and the limelight went to the female character. Lakshmy ma’am said, “It is too small and you have played the lead in my other film; I do not want you to do this.” That is when I decided to work as an assistant director because I had worked that far on the project. The experience helped me because performance-wise, it made me realise that you can take care of certain things in post-production also.
Is there a specific role that you would like to do in the future?
I would like to do all types of roles. Anything you do will be unique because you are doing it. For instance, if I do Dancing Rose tomorrow, it will be different for me. It has been 6 months since it got over and, in these months, I have gained some experience and exposure from life. So, that will change the way I present my emotions for the character.
I want to be an actor like Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Even if it’s a ten-minute role, I want it to have an impact. My role should help take the movie forward. I would also really like to play a negative role.