Tovino Thomas’s acting career had an unceremonious beginning. A software engineer, he quit his job to try his luck in cinema where he always wanted to be. He started off as a model in television commercials, and later, assisted Roopesh Peethambaran in his debut directorial, Theevram (2012). His first major role came in 2013, as a cunning politician in Martin Prakkat’s ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), a film that drew attention mostly for its lead actor, Dulquer Salmaan, who was just one film old then. But, Tovino sure caught the eyes of many, for his spirited performance and conventional good-looks. He played a negative role again in Prithviraj’s 7th Day, and the same year, appeared in Koothara – a dark drama woven around three young friends – directed by Sreenath Rajendran. In 2015, he played a pivotal role in RS Vimal’s Ennu Ninte Moideen.
Five years since his debut, Tovino has his hands full. This year, the actor has had three releases – Ezra, Godha and Oru Mexican Apaaratha – out of which the last two were his solo lead projects. Arun Dominic’s Tharangam (Waves), another movie in which he plays the lead, and which also marks actor Dhanush’s entry to Mollywood as a producer, is up for release tomorrow. He has finished shooting for Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum, a Tamil-Malayalam bilingual directed by BR Vijayalakshmi, and is currently filming Vishnu Narayanan’s Maradona, and Aashiq Abu’s Mayanadhi, which he describes as a ‘beautiful pure romantic drama’.
A day after our conversation, another project of his is announced – Luca, directed by Arun Bose. “I have around eight to 10 projects coming up,” he tells me, promptly adding that the films belong to many genres. “I don’t want to get trapped in a safe zone. That’s not my thing.” The example he cites is the eponymous character, Tovino, from You Too Brutus. He was a goofy gym trainer in the film that came out at a time when he was doing dark shaded roles. “I wanted to do a comedy. You Too Brutus‘s Tovino was a character entirely different from the roles I had been doing at that point of time. I spoke to Roopesh, and together, we shaped the mannerisms of the character.” The character’s forte were his chiselled body and a handsome face, always let down by a lack of intellect, almost like a spoof of macho hero roles.
In 2015, Oru Mexican Apaaratha, an action drama directed by Tom Emmatty, launched him to the top league of actors in Mollywood. He played an underdog who eventually fights back against the physical and emotional harassment he suffers on college campus. “I didn’t take up the role in OMA just because it had the capability to make me a star. It was a great team to work with,” says Tovino. “In every star’s life, it’s a Friday that stirs the change. OMA‘s release Friday gave me my due. I don’t think my stardom happened overnight. I was around for over five years, and that experience helped me play the role convincingly.”
Tovino plays a policeman in Tharangam. The trailer and a song from Tharangam (Waves) are already out on Youtube. “The response is great,” he says. “It is a very interesting comic caper. In fact, its humour reminded me of the vintage Priyadarshan films and Guy Ritchie,” says Tovino. “The slapstick comedy we have used in it is subtle, and unconventional. I found the script very intelligent. Arun’s short film, Mrithyumjayam, was a noir film. I was very impressed with it.” In Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum, Pia Bajpai is his co-star. “I loved the film’s script. It has a twist that you might not have guessed from the trailer. Moreover, it’s BR Vijayalakshmi helming it. The first woman cinematographer from Asia!”
Both Tharangam and Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum mark Tovino’s entry to Tamil cinema. This comes at a time when his contemporaries Fahadh Fazil and Nivin Pauly are also preparing for their Tamil debut. This is the right time, says Tovino. “Now, there is a huge audience for Malayalam films outside Kerala,” he says. “When I travel outside India, I notice that many people identify Indian cinema with Bollywood. Most of them aren’t aware of the fact that there is a huge regional film industry, which is making films as good as Bollywood, or even better than Bollywood. I hope in the future, language barriers will no longer decide a film industry’s fate, and pan Indian films will be possible. That’s how it should be. With subtitles, co-productions, and content that goes beyond a certain region, we will be able to overcome barriers like language and culture,” he says.
Over the years, he has faced many a setback in the form of box-office failures. Films such as Style in which he played a suave villain bit the dust without a trace. But the flop that hit him hard was Guppy – in which he played a bullet-riding engineer who touches many lives in a village. The film received a lukewarm response in theatres at the time of its release, and later, when a copy of the film landed in torrent websites, the audience in Kerala showered praises on it in social media. Tovino’s performance in the film won him a number of awards and accolades.
“I am partly glad that I have had enough flops to keep me grounded. Success can, sometimes, blind you,” he says.
“Some films work, some don’t. I can’t make sure that every decision I take is perfect,” he declares, admitting that the failure of Guppy had a deep impact on him. “I choose a script if I feel I have something good to do, and also, if I find the team interesting. For me, the process of filming is as important as how the film turns out to be. That experience is important. I have worked a lot with youngsters of my age, who are just starting out in the industry. In several films, I have been a part of the project right from the pre-production stage. I ask a lot of questions on the sets. I want to be an actor whose biggest assets are experiences, and not a star whose worth is decided by the number of hits he delivers.”
Nevertheless, Tovino is a celebrated star in the state now. There are fan associations formed in his name, and there is unprecedented hype around his new releases. “I haven’t changed. The people around me have,” says Tovino. “The way they perceive me must have changed, but I am still the person I always was.”
It’s very easy to handle stardom, declares Tovino. “The only difference is that I have become a more recognisable face, and a more bankable actor. I am unaffected by stardom. Time and again, I have been accused of being rude in the public, when I was just being honest. Those are people who don’t know me enough, but make assumptions on my character.” He isn’t very fond of social media for the negative energy that it generates. Fans associations are something he doesn’t like either.
“It is cinema that I love,” Tovino says. “I watch all kinds of films. I go to cinemas and watch even the film that has got the worst review. There is no specific genre that I like. I want to explore new experiences, new cinema, meet new people. I didn’t want fan associations in my name. But I yielded to it later on a condition that it should never become a platform for fan fights and virtual abuses. Watch my films if they are good, I have told fans. I have a long way to go. I can’t afford to get stuck in petty fan fights.”
The Tovino Thomas interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.