Napoleon: The actor who almost quit
The quintessential villain in rural cinema, talks about getting to make his Hollywood debut and what it was like to roll the 'r's on the sets
It's unimaginable to think about Ejamaan without Napoleon's Vallavaraayan. But Napolean says it almost happened when he contemplated quitting cinema after his first five films. "I was grateful to be launched by Bharathiraaja sir in Pudhu Nellu Pudhu Naathu but I was a 27 year old playing a 60 year old. My acting was praised and I got good reviews but I ended up getting similar roles. My fourth film, Naadodi Thendral, directed by Bharathiraaja again, had me playing Karthik's (who incidentally is 3 years older to me) father. My fifth film, with P. Vasu, had me playing the villain's father. Everyone was showing me as an old person, and I decided I would not act anymore. That is when RV Udayakumar came to me with Ejamaan."
After the stupendous success of Ejamaan, Napolean went on to play the villain to great effect in Malayalam and Telugu cinema too. "I was the top villain across three languages and was happy about being recognised. Even today, when I go to Kerala, youngsters recognise me and ask for selfies." But wasn't he again getting stereotyped? "Not really. A villain is what I call an edhir-naayagan. There is a certain gravitas to the character. The only real problem is, when you are really good, the audience gets angry at you off-screen and sees you as a villain in real life too." Sounds like there is a personal story here? "(laughs) After the success of Ejamaan, when I went to see my wife-to-be, she wanted nothing to do with me because she was convinced I would be the sort to poison children. It took me sometime to convince her that I was a villain on-screen and that off it, I'd really wanted to be her hero."
Eventually, of course, Napolean turned hero on-screen too. "The spark was first lit with Kizhakku Cheemaiyile in which I played an anti-hero. After that film, Pratap Pothen gave me Seevalaperi Pandi. He said that I looked exactly like the character he envisioned and that he wanted me as the lead. That film turned out to be a mega hit and the rest as they say is history," he says. Napoleon says it wasn't really up to him to decide if he was going to play a hero or villain. "When I was continuously doing films as a hero, they didn't want me to do a villain because the producers felt that if I got beaten up as a villain, the audience wouldn't believe me as a hero." He asks, "Even today, is there anyone who see-saws between villain and hero roles? If a hero wants to be a villain, the easiest way is for him to play a double role where he is both."
Does he regret getting typecast as an actor who could play only rural roles? "Not really. The characterisation was always what I focussed on. But yes, it was only rarely that I got urban roles. That's why when Saran approached me with one for Vattaram, I said okay without even asking for the story. I then did Pokkiri, Dasavatharam and Ponnar Shankar, each in a different genre." And then, there was a break. "I got elected to Parliament as an MP and there is a rule that prohibits ministers from taking up activities which will net them an income. I had committed to Ponnar Shankar before the elections and so could finish it after asking special permission from the Prime Minister." Now, he's back again. "The producer of Kidaari was also the producer of my first film (Vaduganathan). So out of respect to him, I took up a small role. After that came Muthuramalingam where I played father to Gautham Karthik, 25 years after I played his father's father (smiles)."
And now, the big news is he's been signed for a Hollywood film! "The producer of the film (Devil's Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge) is Tel Ganesh, a long-time friend. He always wanted to make films but as he lives in America, it's turned out to be a Hollywood film. I was surprised when he wanted me to act in it." What was it like to talk English? "To be fair, I treated it just as another language. But the accent was difficult and what made it even more difficult was that it's all live recording there and the dialogues are given on the spot. I didn't even have the luxury of a dubbing artiste to cover my accent up."
Napoleon found the going hard on the first day. "I play a museum curator and the film is about a missing knife that goes on a revenge spree. I had to say 'carved knife' for one line, and kept saying 'curved'. So I had to roll the 'r' to get the sound right." He's in awe of some of the technology employed there. "They work with a significantly smaller crew but with far more advanced equipments. But the most beautiful aspect is when the director says, "Silence please", there is pindrop silence. You can never get that here."
The actor has next got Iyyapan da Magan Nachiappan in Malayalam, a village subject based on a true story. "The story required someone popular in both Malayalam and Tamil as it takes place on the border. So they chose me to play the hero. I am also part of the next Ponram-Sivakarthikeyan project, Seemai Raja. Also, in Telugu/Tamil bilingual Saraba/Yaagam, I'll be acting with Jayaprada for the first time." It's fair to say that the days when Napoleon considered quitting cinema are long behind him.