In early 2007 came a movie that showed how an engineer raised in Chennai and educated abroad could portray a son of the soil with elan. Paruthiveeran was a game-changer in many ways. A decade later, after having worked in creations cutting across genres, Karthi stars in yet another movie rooted in reality. Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (Khakhee in Telugu), said to be inspired by real incidents, has the actor play cop Theeran Thirumaran.
After a week of promotions, fielding quite a few similar questions across venues, Karthi sounds exhausted when we finally speak. And so, I mentally tick off all questions about playing cop, training for the action sequences, and dubbing in Telugu. What results is a breezy conversation, punctuated by call drops.
Ten years is a long time in the industry, and you’ve been part of projects that are long-drawn such as Aayirathil Oruvan and Kashmora. What keeps you going?
As a person, it would be the response from people, who stop and ask you when you’ll do another Siruthai, their expectation and love…Work wise, it would be the kick you get on reading a good script. You cannot say no to films such as Thozha and Madras. They are experiences you want for yourself as an artiste.
That way, Theeran… was wrapped up in less than six months, right?
Yes, despite the fact that we travelled a lot for the film. This is part of my attempt to not repeat myself on screen.
Do films such as these present huge learning opportunities?
Definitely. It’s almost like embarking on a research project. For instance, some roles are not very clear, and you can’t slot the character. You read, imbibe, and then allow the character to take over you. For instance, when I was speaking to a respected police officer for Theeran, he said the most fascinating things. But, no one had ever asked him his life story, his experiences, his thought process. It’s such a privilege to get the opportunity to learn about such people and portray them on screen.
After all this effort, does failure rankle a lot?
It’s difficult to answer. As long as a film sets out to achieve what was promised to you, you are satisfied. A script is a work-in-progress till it becomes a scene. No film is perfect. That said, no one knows how people perceive a film too. For Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Sir told me that he was experimenting and pushing the envelope when it came to portrayal of relationships. It was a difficult film to make, character-wise, location-wise; we worked from 5 degrees to -15 degrees. But, despite the criticism, some girls came up to me and said they did not see Karthi on screen but their former boyfriends. They had been in such relationships.
So, what might be exaggeration or underplaying to you might be another’s reality. Which is why in Theeran…, I’d like to believe I’ve behaved like a real cop. They are not always full of wrath. They are like regular people.
What do you do when you realise that a film has not worked the way you thought it would?
If that happens, I step in with suggestions because it is my reputation that suffers. People ask me why I signed such a script. I work with relatively new directors and don’t begin work till I’m fully convinced. When things are not on track, you step in and make last-minute changes that can turn its fortunes.
This is essential, because, these days, reviews come out immediately. As an actor, you might not have the innate ability to judge a movie correctly, because you are emotionally attached, but must develop it for the film’s betterment.
During such times, does Karthi, who once wanted to be a director, come to the fore?
Not really (laughs). I’d rather say the assistant director in me is still alive.
Theeran boasts good actors. There’s Abhimanyu Singh, known for his gritty performances in Bollywood…. How was it being part of a team of performers?
Each actor in the film brings his/her own flavour to the movie. It travels, and we needed actors who would fit into that environment. The effort during casting was to get the correct faces. We matched faces to the people in the story. I don’t use the word characters, because this is not fiction, but something that really took place. Be it Abhimanyu or Rohit Pathak, they added a flourish specific to the region they belong to in the film.
Theeran also has action set in Telugu country. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are huge markets for you, right?
Yes, the film has portions there, too. It helps that Rakul Preet Singh, who’s a known face there, is part of the cast. My tryst with Andhra Pradesh began during Aayirathil Oruvan (dubbed as Yuganiki Okkadu). We had to recover the money we’d invested, and the film worked very well there.
Then came Naan Mahaan Alla (Na Peru Shiva), which did very good business, because they were unused to a hero from a middle class family take on regular-looking villains. Thozha (Oopiri) cemented that bond; it was my first straight Telugu film too. This, I hope, will keep the affection going.
Over the years, you’ve done a happy mix of rural and urban characters. For someone raised in a metropolis, where do you seek inspiration to play rustic roles?
I’m a very rooted person, and have spent all my holidays in my mother’s and father’s villages. I returned from the US because I crave my people, and love familiarity. Chennai, Coimbatore and villages in Western Tamil Nadu are where my heart lies. So, I don’t seek inspiration; it’s within me.
Theeran, Chapter one, says the title. Will this be the film where you end up doing your maiden sequel?
(Laughs) I might consider it if we have a good script in hand. I won’t jump into a sequel just for the sake of doing one. A film I’d like to revisit again will be Siruthai. It would be nice to play a character like Rocket Raja again; it energises you while working.
You’re now shooting for Pandiraj’s film. What next?
I’m working with a newcomer for a breezy love story. Though Kaatru… was a love story, it did not fall in the traditional format.
There’s a lot of talk about how piracy is crippling the industry. What’s your take on the issue?
These days, with so many creations available on legal channels online, there’s little reason to support pirated versions. There’s Netflix, Amazon, some producers have even uploaded stuff on YouTube for free. Ultimately, people have to decide whether to press the play button or not. All I’ll say is when you choose to watch something pirated, at least feel guilty that you’re killing someone’s investment.
You’ve taken on a lot of roles in life. You’re an actor, you are involved with the Nadigar Sangam, the Makkal Nala Mandram that you run and there’s family. How do you steal time for yourself?
I manage to find time for everything and everyone except family. That gets compromised. It does not help that I’m a workaholic and tend to keep pondering about work. These days, actors can’t stop with just acting; there’s a lot of promotion work. So, even if you are at home, you’re not really there. Sometimes, when I get back after 40 days, I feel bad that I’ve missed out on that period of my daughter’s life. I console myself with the fact that we missed out on time with our father too. Luckily, there’s video calling now, and so when Umayaal lisps saying ‘video call pannunga’, I smile.
The Karthi Sivakumar interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.