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From Shreelancer to Dear Friend: Arjun Radhakrishnan in conversation- Cinema express

From Shreelancer to Dear Friend: Arjun Radhakrishnan in conversation

Ahead of the release of his new Malayalam film, Dear Friend, actor Arjun Radhakrishnan talks about his indie film roots, the state of indie cinema today, his roles in Pada and Rocket Boys, and more

Published: 08th June 2022
Arjun Radhakrishnan

Anyone who had seen Arjun Radhakrishnan in the excellent Hindi indie feature Shreelancer (2017) and recognised the immense potential in the Mumbai-based Malayali actor would wonder why it took such a long time for him to get noticed. Well, as they say, better late than never because three high profile projects that Arjun appeared in -- Pada (Malayalam), Rocket Boys (Hindi), and Jhund (Hindi) -- came out in quick succession. Ahead of the release of his new Malayalam film, Dear Friend (alongside Tovino Thomas, Darshana Rajendran, Sanchana Natarajan, Basil Joseph and Arjun Lal), Arjun talks about his indie roots, upbringing, the state of indie cinema today, his portrayal of APJ Abdul Kalam in Rocket Boys, the collector in Pada, and more.

In Shreelancer, a low-budget feature, Arjun played a copywriter struggling to make ends meet while inadvertently caught on a life-changing road trip. Those who once bore the brunt of unemployment would find much to relate to in Shreelancer, particularly in the film's father-son interactions. Arjun underwent a rough phase like its protagonist, Shreepad Naik, too. "I remember when my father saw the film, he asked me why I put our conversations in the film, and I said it's not me, it's the director Sandeep Mohan's work," he laughs. "I think all of us who go off the beaten track would've experienced the same issue."

Arjun Radhakrishnan in Shreelancer

A self-described introvert, Arjun tells me it's the world of theatre -- which he forayed into when he was around 26-27 -- that brought him out of his comfort zone. "The world of theatre is so diverse. You are bound to find someone who will take care of you or is similar to you. There are no rules as such. You naturally associate with people whose personalities are compatible with yours. Because we are not working in an organisation or a set-up, the freedom allows your personality to change too," notes the actor who was born to a Malayali father and Tamilian mother.

After moving to Mumbai in 2011, Arjun's path was fraught with struggles, but he doesn't like to throw that word around loosely. "I think Mumbai is the best place for anyone to work because it's so work-focused. Everybody who comes to Mumbai to make a living says 'struggle', and rightly so. But I'd rather go with 'adventure' instead. The 'struggles' come from the fact that expenses are high and opportunities are few in a city teeming with plenty of people. Maybe, now I can use 'struggle' because it doesn't weigh me down as much."
Before getting cast in Shreelancer, Arjun was without work for the first four years since relocating to Mumbai. He began getting theatre work in 2015. In the meantime, he managed to find acting gigs in the student films of many FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) students from the directing and cinematography departments.

Interestingly, Arjun is not an FTII alumnus. "I had failed the FTII acting exam twice, despite going through the final round," he says. "At the time, I didn't have the experience that others brought to the table, but since FTII has a great open-door policy, I got opportunities to appear in their student films. So, I always joke that I'm an FTII Canteen pass out," he laughs.

Then Shreelancer, his debut acting gig, happened in 2016. Arjun had met director Sandeep Mohan during the screening of his previous film Hola Venky! (2015). Later, when Sandeep put out an audition call for Shreelancer, Arjun promptly responded. He remembers being relieved to see the process being "very unconventional" in a city where one usually sees "100 people queueing up for an audition, with 20 people in the room." Sandeep just asked him to meet at a coffee shop. "He switched on the camera and told me he had no scenes to give me, only the story outline. That's just Sandeep being Sandeep. He is the purest indie filmmaker we have right now."

There was a time when we celebrated the rebellious streak of then-indie filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Amit Masurkar. However, Arjun feels the state of the indie film scene in India has undergone a drastic change. "That sector is virtually nonexistent now," he laments. "Shreelancer was, I think, the last indie film that got a theatrical release. No indie film made since then had enjoyed a theatrical release opportunity as that one did. Even OTT platforms today are wary of pure indie films. Where is the avenue now for them now? The game has completely changed. That said, one advantage of OTT is that so many people -- actors especially -- got work because long-form content means more characters. But the pure indie filmmaker doesn't have an outlet to release their films. It has become essential for the film to do well in the festival circuit and get picked up based on that notice. If you look at the originals or acquired content now, they all have known faces. Many of my Mumbai friends in the indie film arena find it difficult to function today. I don't think even a film like Shreelancer can get made today unless a known face is in it. No chance otherwise to get an independent producer."

However, he is also glad to see indie filmmakers who later found success in mainstream Indian cinema backing the films of up and comers with their newfound clout. "There is this film called Zollywood of which nobody has heard. It's nice to see Amit Masurkar (Newton, Sherni) attaching his name to it as a producer because he understands the struggles of an indie filmmaker very well. We need to see more such initiatives."

Post-Shreelancer, one would assume that it would've fetched Arjun big offers from all corners. He did get some, but strangely enough, these took a while to come out. A week after the release of Shreelancer, he was offered Nagraj Manjule's Jhund, opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Though the film went into production at the end of 2018 and finished in early 2019, certain hurdles delayed its progress. A month later, he got offered the role of the collector held hostage in Kamal KM's Pada. Both came out this year.

Arjun Radhakrishnan in Jhund

It was a "strange" five-year waiting period for Arjun because, although he was delighted to be in such "important" films, "sustaining oneself for five years without earning money and work" was a huge challenge. "You know, I have been auditioning for so long in Mumbai that all the casting directors know me. But the thing is, after a point, your casting also depends on your face value, no? Thankfully, I was auditioning for good roles. I took comfort in the knowledge that at least somebody was calling me, and maybe someday I'll get my big break. But you still wake up every morning thinking you are not getting any work," he chuckles.

In the positively received SonyLIV series, Rocket Boys, Arjun played APJ Abdul Kalam. The role, he says, was liberating and challenging at the same time. Since the show depicted three legendary figures — Kalam, Homi J Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai — during their pre-success phase, Arjun didn't have the pressure of imitating the ex-President. Arjun removed the bass from his voice and toned down his accent to risk losing Hindi audiences. "The goal was to get at least the essence of the man right. Remember that aside from a couple of photographs, we had no visual references of him from the 50s or 60s."

Arjun Radhakrishnan in Rocket Boys

For another nearly unrecognisable role, that of the collector in Pada, director Kamal KM suggested making him a Marathi considering Arjun's Pune background rather than asking him to learn Telugu (the character's real-life inspiration hailed from Andhra Pradesh).

Arjun Radhakrishnan in Pada

Has he anything to say about Dear Friends (a film he got via cinematographer Sameer Thahir, who had lensed Pada too)? "Well, it is difficult to answer any question about Dear Friends because it could be a potential spoiler. However, I can say it's a story of a group of friends with all the principal actors getting equal space."

Dear Friend hits theatres June 10

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