Sometime in November 2018, when news filtered in about the much-awaited Gypsy’s release, I spoke to Jiiva. There was much excitement in his voice; the kind that actors, despite being good at their craft, cannot hide, because they love what they were made to do in a particular project. He spoke about the politics in the film, the anti-establishment tone, and how it was a mirror to society, as it were. The film never released that year or the next.
It is now March 2020, the film is finally releasing, after a prolonged battle with the censors, and the timing could not have been better. (The initial reviews are good too). The Delhi riots and the brutality that ensued are still fresh in our minds, and the country has reached a stage where religious divide is the new normal.
In such a situation releases a film where the lead, who goes by the name of Gypsy, does not know caste or religion, and who celebrates only life and living.
From the beginning of his career, Jiiva has opted for the mixed bag model, with a Raam and Katradhu Tamizh for every Thenavattu and Kacheri Arambam. Who can forget his class act in Neethane En Ponvasantham, Gautham Vasudev Menon’s lovely ode to love? Gypsy, will hopefully break the lean patch Jiiva has had since 2018 (nothing really clicked after the hit Kalakalappu 2. Kee, Gorilla, and Seeru opened to not-so-positive reviews), and headlines a year that’s full of hope. He has the Hindi 83 coming up later this year, based on India’s audacious triumph at the 1983 Cricket World Cup. He plays Kris Srikkanth in that film. But, for now, Gypsy rules his mind, and he’s able to summon the same enthusiasm as in 2018 when speaking about it.
Excerpts from an interview:
Usually, when we watch films that speak of people’s rights, there’s a deep sense of catharsis in the audience. You feel the hero is fighting your battle, and you feel like you’ve got justice. You’ve done quite a few of these roles. How do you relate to them as an individual?
After all these years, when you watch Katradhu Tamizh, you feel the anger against the system, a sense of injustice. Similarly, here, a carefree person lands in trouble due to circumstances and finds the odds stacked against him. Will we not get upset when someone takes over our private space? When our individual freedom is disturbed due to internal strife? That’s what I felt when Raju Murugan Sir narrated the script to me.
In real life, you love humour and like to be carefree. And then, you are part of films that showcase white-hot fury. How difficult is it to cross over to that space?
I am someone who is rooted, and someone who tries to lead as non-starry a life as possible. My fans were telling me that I’m no longer doing these realistic characters and that I should, but no one was bringing those subjects to me. I know I do well in these films because I like roles with some meat, characters with some detailing. I liked Raju Murugan’s Cuckoo and Joker and thought we could do something nice together.
Comedy sells, and I know that. In a year, if 200 films release, almost 150 have a comic angle to them. I could do more of those films, be treated like a king on the sets, and take home a hefty packet knowing the film will do well commercially. But I crave challenges. And, Gypsy grew on me. I travelled across the country for six months with this film, and it was transformational. I got a new soft-rugged look, I learned the guitar, everything worked out well. It helped that Raju Murugan had his facts in hand. So, all emotion was backed by data. It was easier to build on a statistics-based framework. He had a logical explanation for every scene, and, despite the delay, the film is as current as it can be. As we say, it will appeal even to those who read newspapers.
You’re one of those actors with a body of work that won critical acclaim and even cult status, but which fared badly at the box office. And you mentioned the innumerable release delays too. How do you make peace with that?
Even today, when Neethaane plays on television, I get calls and tweets and messages telling me how much they loved Varun and Nithya’s story. Raam suffered from a lack of audience love, as did Katradhu. You cannot predict the fate of films at the box office. Neethaane’s loss hurt a lot, because it was a film that should have worked. Many, I think I’d like to call them chauvinists, did not know how to deal with a girl/woman who was vocal about her choices, and a boy who was soft. Youth, fed on a diet of fairy-tale stories, did not like to see that realistic side of love, which is about squabbling over nothing, coming together over a simple thing.
When a film does not release, you need to back-up your confidence, convince yourself that your craft is not at fault. Yes, people will come by and rub salt in your wounds, but by now, I think I’ve got used to it. It helps that I come from a film family (his father is producer RB Chowdhry). I have learned to put my head down and work. Imagine the director’s plight; he cannot come out of the film until it releases. He cannot move on.
At what stage of your career did you decide you will do performance-oriented films along with commercial fare?
From the beginning, I’ve worked that way. However, with age, I think the realisation dawned that while I’m good, I should work towards excellence in my craft. I can cater to kids, young adults, older adults, but I should also cater to the audience that expects a little extra from cinema. I sound like an old guy, no? (laughs). Some years ago, we actors did not worry about anything but our performance. Now, we have a stake in every pie. We have to concern ourselves with marketing, promotions… We need to make sensible calls as actors.
Coming back to Gypsy, does the fact that the film is even more relevant today worry you as an individual?
Yes. Nothing has changed. In fact, things have gone worse. What I thought was just something in the script has played out in real life in the past two years. This film speaks about understanding and acceptance. I studied in the Punjab Association School in Chennai and never knew anything about religion or caste or lifestyle or which god who prays to. Today, that insulation has been stripped away. This is worse than Coronavirus. Everyone seems so ready to be swayed by what anyone says. Everyone is busy justifying violence. Sense has flown out of the window. So, we need a Gypsy to tell us to look within, to turn humane again.
The film really suffered at the censors, did it not?
Yes, they wanted 45 cuts. We now have 25. Some deleted scenes are on YouTube.
Let’s talk about something that gave you great joy, being part of 83…
Oh yes, it made 2019 worthwhile. The team worked with a vision and total conviction. Everything is planned to the last minute, and I think we need to learn that here. We also need to respect the medium called cinema better as also everyone’s time. When you’re part of a disorganised set, your craft gets diluted. You are fighting other fires. In fact, I call 83, an Indian film — the cast came from all over the country, the film is about unity, about achieving the impossible, together.
I’ve also learned the art of promoting a film. Promotions run on a parallel scale and come with their own planning and budget. Everything, including the supposedly spontaneous crazy stuff, is planned and executed well.
You’ve also started playing the guitar?
Yes. After photography, this is a passion now. I started learning it for Gypsy, and I really like the process of learning. For someone who grew up to be a shy kid who was afraid to speak on stage, I’ve not fared badly, no?
You could not have escaped the gush of fanmail for your look in this film, and the prefix of ‘eternally youthful’ that has been following you for more than a decade now. In our conversation, you referred to 18-year-olds as chinna pasanga…
(Laughs) I thought I was a young guy, and then I realised my son is going to be 10. They call me to cookery competitions, and there I see other fathers my age. Their hairline is receding, they’ve started colouring their hair, fitness levels are not great… and then it struck me that “Cha, naanum ivanga category than. Vayasaachu”. In my case, it has meant more family time, and using every opportunity to bond with them. There’s father-son time, father-mother time, father-mother-son time… I’ve realised I can’t talk anything in my films without thinking it through. My son will be judged, trolled. My SMS (Siva Manasula Sakthi) days have long gone.
That said, I do agree I don’t look my age. I’ve stayed healthy, happy and taken care of how I look. But I also understand that I can play certain roles only in this phase.
Gypsy is releasing today, March 6, 2020.