Tovino Thomas: I've reclaimed my unpredictability
The actor reflects on his ten-year journey, the success of Minnal Murali, pan-Indian attention, and his new film with Aashiq Abu
After Minnal Murali, even the relatively small-scale Tovino Thomas films can no longer be looked at as 'small' films. It's the reason why the actor's latest film, Naradan, which reunites him with director Aashiq Abu for the third time after Mayaanadhi and Virus, is being treated as a big release. And judging by the promos, the film, which takes on ethics in journalism and centers on a supposedly unscrupulous journalist, could become a talking point in the coming weeks. No matter the film's scale, Tovino doesn't intend to repeat what happened with his 2016 film Guppy, which had fewer takers in theatres but became a hit after its home video release. Tovino sees it as his responsibility, especially in the age of the OTT boom, even if it means losing his sleep.
Tovino looks back in awe at the mammoth marketing strategy of Minnal Murali and remarks that even the entire budget of the film wouldn't have been close to the amount spent by streaming giant Netflix to ensure maximum exposure. "They did it in grand fashion," he recalls. "They treated it as an 'Indian' Christmas special release. It's not a small thing. We may not be able to do a promotion on that level back home, but at least we can try to do the best with what we have got. Bearing in mind the overwhelming response to Minnal Murali from foreign corners, we need to create the kind of exposure that we most of the time can't accomplish. But we should endeavour to put in place a strong distribution system to make it possible."
After Minnal Murali, Tovino is sure that at least a significant percentage of audiences outside Kerala or India who have seen the superhero blockbuster will look forward to what he is doing next. He has sensed this while bringing out the promo materials of Naradan. It is one of the reasons for Naradan, despite being a Malayalam-only release, having a premiere in Mumbai, where Tovino was at the time of this conversation. He also conveys that since Naradan is a news-centric story, the team wasn't keen about releasing a dubbed version.
This is also the year that Tovino completes a decade in the industry. His beginnings as an actor without a godfather to his present position in the industry inspires many. Tovino can now choose to be extremely selective, something he couldn't in his early days. "I tried," he says. Some of those choices worked, some didn't. But Tovino understands it's all part of the process in a profession that demands tremendous patience. "How many actors have had continuously successful films at the start of their career? It's a gamble. Besides, back then, where was the demand for guys like me?" he laughs. "We can only pick from the projects that came to us or those which we somehow managed to get on. There was no one to guide me. If I need any legal guidance, I can ask my dad (a lawyer), but that's not the case with cinema. I look at it like this: We played with mud in our kindergarten days, but we don't do that in our 10th grade, do we?"
But Tovino was clear about one thing from the beginning: Do different characters and be a good actor. "I've said in a few interviews before that success is a trap. It comes with an added responsibility. There is a tendency for people to expect you to repeat the same thing, which has been happening a lot lately. When you follow a certain template, you get trapped in that. When something is successful, some people want more of the same instead of trying something new. And an actor can't grow if he doesn't try something new."
When Mayaanadhi came out, screenwriter Syam Pushkaran told Tovino that the latter's unpredictability is his plus point. It's this quality that makes Tovino approachable for some out-of-the-box ideas, like the recent Kala or Kaanekkaane. Tovino sees it as a loop. "You become unpredictable because you do different characters, and it's because you're unpredictable that different characters come to you," he reflects. "I had to play some predictable characters because of success, but we do every film with the intention of doing a good one. We don't wake up one day and say, 'Let's do a bad film for a change now'. No. It happens. Sometimes your vision and the director's don't match. It can happen due to my misunderstanding. And you only realise it's not working out a few days into the shoot or when the film is done."
In a recent interview, Tovino expressed his urge to be cautious after a few setbacks in the last few years. Has the positive reception to films like Kala and Minnal Murali made him even more so? "Look, I can't say with 100 per cent certainty that mistakes won't happen again. We can't predict that, can we? What has changed, though, is now my decision isn't based on the script alone. The director and the rest of the crew are also of utmost importance. And now that our audience has grown beyond Kerala, we have to keep in mind that it's not just the business that's growing but the criticisms as well."
Tovino is reluctant to talk about his character in Naradan, and understandably so. However, he guarantees that it will be another performance that presents the unpredictable side of him. "I reclaimed my unpredictability with my recent films. The character in Naradan, too, is someone with many layers," he says. "It's also about his relationships, how he sees his profession and a lot of important characters that revolve around him. It's a composite of different individuals. Some aspects of this character or the situations might seem familiar, but it's a wholly fictional character. It's not about one particular person or organisation."
Naradan comes out in Indian theatres Friday.