Prashanth was the quintessential laid-back guy on the 90s screen. He could beat up a few thugs if the need ever arose, but more often than not, he was seen resisting the romantic efforts of his best friend, or playing the charmer who could conduct an entire relationship over the phone. His luck waned over the years though, and the actor has tried to reinvent himself with time – but in vain. With Johnny, a remake of the Bollywood film Johnny Gaddar, Prashanth says he’s well into the ‘third act’ of his career – something which he hopes will silence his critics
In the mid and late 90s, when actors Vijay and Ajith were mere whispers in the wind, alternatively nursing love and heartbreak, Prashanth was already a household name. He had worked with Mani Ratnam on Thiruda Thiruda in 1994, and, a couple of years later, was approached by director Shankar who was flush with success of his Indian (1996) with Kamal Haasan. It was for a script – the first in the series of Shankar’s flirtations with CGI – in which an engineer would fashion a woman, a twin of the heroine, from code. Shankar had his female lead ready – Aishwarya Rai who was earlier supposed to work with him on Indian, but couldn’t. It was then that Prashanth landed a coup; it would be the biggest film of his career – and the most expensive one to be made in Indian cinema during the time. It cost about Rs 20 crores. Prashanth had to reportedly forego half a dozen projects for Shankar’s Jeans, but it did not seem to matter at the moment. When the film released in the summer of 1998 – theatres ran houseful for several weeks. With Prashanth in a dual role, as the sons of an Indian restaurateur in the USA, even its album, composed by AR Rahman, became a hit. Incidentally, the film also launched Nithyasree Mahadevan, who was until then a Carnatic vocalist, as a playback singer.
But none of Prashanth’s films that released afterward could replicate the success of Jeans.
A few years later, following a series of personal and professional disappointments, the actor was nowhere to be seen. Many of his movies were launched with much fanfare, only to be dropped later. Successes were few and far between. A film that he did manage to finish, Pulan Visaranai 2, was in limbo for a good five years. It finally released in 2015. And by the time, both the movie and its content had become too dated to inspire the audience.
Now, at 45, Prashanth is giving stardom yet another shot. While his Saahasam (2016) was panned by everyone, with its lead named an example of an artiste who was out of touch with his audience and the industry, Prashanth wants to shake things up a little with Johnny – a remake of Sriram Raghavan’s neo noir film Johnny Gaddar. “Sometimes, we just have to remind people that we still have something up our sleeve. Artistes are the only ones who can reinvent themselves over and over again. I don’t think of this as my last shot. It’s my third act. And it’s going to be good,” he promises.
Some of Prashanth’s movies over the last few years have happened under the careful supervision of his father, Thiagarajan. “Some whisper that it is because I can’t find another producer to take me on. I know all this. After everything that I have experienced, I just want to have someone I trust managing my movies. They need to release. Period. And my father, my mentor and the most trusted person in the world, can make sure that happens.”
The films he picked in his ‘third act’ haven’t struck a chord with the audience. Ponnar Shankar, despite being written by Kalaignar Karunanidhi and directed by Thiagarajan, was panned. “You have to understand. I did not do it for fame. I did not do it because I thought it would be a hit. I did it because I was chosen for a Karunanidhi film. Whether it worked at the box office or not is another story altogether. But, I was chosen among all my peers to headline a film written by the legend. How many of those commercial stars these days can say with pride that they have delivered dialogues written by Karunanidhi? None. I am in a different league now. I am among the chosen few. And that is enough.”
A remake of his father’s greatest hit, Malayoor Mambattiyan, did not work in Prashanth’s favour either. “You can ask me a dozen times why my movies don’t work and I could tell you a dozen different reasons. I guess we all try different ways to get to the top. And these are just my attempts. But being an artist, all my failures are there for everybody to see. We need a tough heart and stomach to watch a parade of all our mistakes and missteps. Mine have become hard as a diamond now.”
The actor is now hard at work on Johnny, and Prashanth says that it is a new experience for him to be a part of ‘these stylised movies’. “Watching them is one thing. Doing them is another. It’s difficult to step into the shoes of a man such as Johnny. He is not exactly evil, and he is not pure of heart either. But with the current trend of anti-heroes being celebrated, I guess this film would fit right in.”
For the actor, it’s yet another guess in a career filled with them. For every Chembaruthi, Prashanth has done a Thiruda Thiruda. There’s a Virumbigaren and Thamizh jostling for space in a filmography that also has Winner and London. “I like to mix it up, yes. I like to startle and shock. I have even done a movie called Shock. Still waters are boring. I like to surf heavy tides,” he laughs.
Johnny, then, would be his highest tide ever. According to Thiagarajan, the film has been altered a little to make it palatable to the Tamil audience. Johnny won’t be entirely evil, for one thing. “Nobody can take a complete villain. He has to have a soft spot somewhere,” Prashanth reasons. The team behind the remake has adapted the original story into the Tamil commercial film format. “There will be songs. There will be dances. There will be romance. I was trained to do all of this. It went out of fashion at some point. But it will come back. No trend is a sure thing. They don’t last forever,” he says.
Sanchita Shetty is the other lead in the film. The actress has faced some difficult times recently. Prashanth believes strongly that her talent will take her places. “She has suffered a lot but I know for sure that Sanchita’s eventual success will silence everyone once and forever.” Prashanth believes the same of his Johnny. His critics are many. “But my fans outnumber them. I like to keep in touch with them and according to them, I have not gone anywhere. I was there all along. Waiting and watching.”
The actor’s social media interactions are delightful. For one, he never forgets to wish a follower on his birthday. He also never forgets to attach a photo of himself for good measure. “Don’t Hollywood actors do that? Sign photos of themselves? I am just following in their footsteps. I want to be there for everybody who likes me and who watches my films. They can criticise my work. They can enjoy it. It all matters. At the end of the day, they sustain me. An artiste can never have enough fans. Same way, I can never have enough critics. They push me to the top.”
The actor says he is always prepared for the worst. Success is not a sure thing, he declares. “And I know it better than anyone else. I have hit rock bottom many times, and now, there’s no way to go but up.”
Watch the teaser of Johnny here:
The Prashanth interview is a Silverscreen exclusive: