Dulquer Salmaan: I genuinely, passionately love cinema; I've not chased box-office
Ahead of Chup, the actor talks about his peculiar relationship with Hindi cinema, processing bad reviews, his expanding fanbase and why terms like 'Pan India' don't carry much weight for him
Hindi audiences are in a Dulquer Salmaan state of mind. Sita Ramam, his sprawling 1960s-set period romance co-starring Mrunal Thakur, has worked exceedingly well, despite the unusual decision to release the Hindi version a month after its initial run. Meanwhile, the same Dulquer cuts a lean and unglamourous figure in the trailer for Chup. Also featuring Sunny Deol and Shreya Dhanwanthary and directed by R Balki, the film concerns a serial killer on the hunt for—god save us!—film critics.
Dulquer spoke about his peculiar relationship with Bollywood, processing bad reviews, his expanding fanbase and why terms like 'Pan India' don't carry much weight for him. Excerpts from a chat...
Your Hindi choices have been enjoyably eccentric: Karwaan (2018), The Zoya Factor (2019) and now Chup.
This is a delightful problem I have and I love that people are asking why I am not doing more films in each language. As opposed to, 'We are seeing too much of you'. In Malayalam I have the most pressure to have a big opening, a big final number. All this numbers talk. So some of my decisions have to be based on that. But if I'm doing Hindi, Telugu or Tamil, I can do anything. I can do any kind of cinema and I would like to be known as an actor and not as a star. This is a weird journey I’m on but I’m loving every minute of it.
How do you feel when critics pan your films?
I am happy to see what they didn’t like. I’m quite open to reviews. I think it helps me choose better films, different roles. I read everything. Definitely, it bothers me. But I'm also that person who would ignore 100 good things that have been said about me and focus on those three bad things. My whole family knows this about me. After a release, if I’m walking around the house with a small face, they are like, "What did you read? Stop reading."
But do you agree with the assessments?
I'm not sure if I'm blanking out but I don't think critics have been very off about my films. I mean, they can do personal attacks, they can have some agenda and insult you personally. But I don’t think they can tell us something about our films that we don’t already know (laughs). All of us go in with a particular film in our head. And you hope that the filmmaker is also watching the same film in his head. If there’s a mismatch, then there’s something wrong.
Sita Ramam has been loved across quarters. It's also your highest-grossing film at the box-office.
I am delighted. When I first heard the script, it sounded like a classic epic love saga. But I was also scared if it will become what we wanted it to become. We shot in Kashmir and Spiti in the worst of times. It was terrifyingly cold, at -22 C. No running water, everything was frozen. People were dropping (sick) in our unit, there were ambulances on standby. We shot the film like that. But I think the reason why we put so much genuine effort is because we felt we were making something special.
Do you think the film has also expanded your fanbase? After all, it's a rare Telugu hit with two non-Telugu leads.
I genuinely believe that we don’t understand the power and reach of great cinema. My second film, Ustad Hotel (2012), travelled more than I ever imagined. Before OTT and all that stuff, I went to Hyderabad for the first time and met kids who were like, 'Hey, we love Ustad Hotel’. I remember distributors telling me that Charlie (2015) had a great market in Japan. Then there was a phase when I would get constant messages from Turkey.
I definitely think Sita Ramam has opened up a whole bunch of new viewers to my filmography. They are going back and exploring. This is what I always seek. I genuinely, passionately love cinema. Even before I became an actor, I have always been seeking to be a part of great cinema. I have not chased box-office.
Your films don't carry the weighty 'Pan India' tag. At least they are not marketed like that.
I’ve never understood tags. Films, I feel, should stand on their own instead of being tagged a Pan India film, a Telugu film, a Hindi film or a Tamil film. It's just cinema that we've loved, and the ones we didn’t love, we don’t really talk about. Maybe we are trying to create different categories to simplify things. I get these inquiries often, when people say, "Sir, we have a Pan-Indian script for you'. And I’m like, 'No you don’t. You can’t decide if its Pan India or not.'
Chup is framed as a tribute to Guru Dutt. Did you watch Guru Dutt's cinema growing up?
I’ve definitely grown up on a good diet of Guru Dutt's music. My parents always listened to a lot of classic Hindi songs and Ghazals. We did a lot of road trips when I was kid. My dad loved to drive. When we shifted from Kerala to Chennai, he never, for some reason, flew us there or took trains. He was like, 'Let’s drive.' So in the car, we would always listen to the music. So I knew Guru Dutt’s songs.
For Chup, I revisted Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), because there are so many references of that film within our film. There are even shots of me watching Kaagaz Ke Phool. I genuinely loved watching it. I want to revisit his entire filmography. But once you become an actor, it’s tricky to find time to watch cinema.
What do you think of the rating system in film reviews?
I don’t understand it. If you give an exam, you have 50 questions and then you can be graded on it. Like you got 48/50 questions right. But how do you get 3.5 out of 5 stars? And what is that .5? Nowadays they get really specific, like 3.44. I’m like, 'Kya hai yeh' (what is this)?
What's your all-time favorite Sunny Deol movie?
It's funny but the two films that I remember watching of his with my school friends were Border and Dillagi. I remember liking Dillagi a lot, weirdly. Everyone expects me to say Gadar, Ghayal, Ghatak. Even Sunny sir, when I told him, was like, 'Really?'