Prithviraj Sukumaran: Giving Jana Gana Mana political colour is a form of escapism
Post the release of his much-appreciated Jana Gana Mana, the actor-filmmaker gets candid about the intentions of the film, what lies ahead in his career, and more.
Turning 40 is an important milestone in any actor’s career. Some of our biggest stars have done most of their stellar work before becoming quadragenarians. Take, for instance, actor-filmmaker Kamal Haasan, who won a National Award for Moondram Pirai in his 20s, and went on to do films like Aboorva Sagodharargal, Nayakan, Pushpak, Michael Madana Kamarajan, Mahanadhi, and Gunaa, all before he turned 40. Come October, another actor-filmmaker Prithviraj Sukumaran will leave his 30s behind after a stellar two-decade career. In this span, he has won a National Award (Indian Rupee), multiple State awards, directed one of Malayalam cinema's biggest blockbusters (Lucifer) and backed some of the most important films of Indian cinema. “Firstly, Kamal sir, as an actor and a filmmaker, is an all-time hero. I don’t even have half the lifespan to achieve half of what he has done in Indian cinema,” says a humble Prithviraj, who ascribes his long career to having simply started way before his contemporaries like Dulquer Salmaan and Fahadh Faasil. During this conversation, which happened during the lunch break of the Aadujeevitham shoot, currently underway in Algeria, he admits to barely having spent time savouring the success of his recent film, Jana Gana Mana. “The vindication for my experiments is their success. Of course, I try a lot with each film, and thanks to the infrastructure I have built for myself, I can afford to make tough decisions. I will fall once in a while, and I will be part of some films people don't like. But my intention will always be to make a remarkable film.”
It is in this pursuit of a remarkable film that Prithviraj met with writer Sharis Mohammed and director Dijo Jose Antony. Their collaborative effort, Jana Gana Mana, is not only making heads turn for its content but also for the experimentation in the form. It is not often that we have characters randomly switch languages while delivering dialogues. It is not often that scenes from the teasers and trailers are nowhere to be seen in the actual film. It is not often that the promise of a sequel is not just to cash in on prospective success but already planned, regardless of the film’s result. “Even the first draft of Jana Gana Mana had sequences that formed the narrative of the second part,” says Prithviraj. “The sequel was never an afterthought. About the trailers, we couldn’t go for a conventional edit pattern because we wanted to keep a lot of things a secret, and those who watched Jana Gana Mana will know why we chose to take this risk,” says the actor, who plays a hot-headed lawyer Aravind Swaminathan, who takes on the system. “The film raises questions against the system, which includes all political parties, every media house, and each and every citizen of the country. So, if there is somebody labelling the film as being representative of any one political party, I see that as escapism.”
It is this unapologetic demeanour that has made Prithviraj both appealing and controversial. With every other release of his films, Prithviraj is painted with a particular political colour, and he does agree that there is no way around such labels. “I know deep down that I was being objective. When I do a Kuruthi, one political voice is assigned, and now with Jana Gana Mana, there is one other voice. I am an artist and I make honest films with the best of intentions.” These honest intentions are the bedrock of Prithviraj’s Aravind Swaminathan in Jana Gana Mana, which many hail as one of the actor’s finest performances to date. “Full credit to the writer. Actors can seldom produce magic from nothing. Aravind Swaminathan is the tool to gauge the audience’s conscience. In fact, as the scenes progressed, the performance had to change. Initially, you’d see Aravind as a cold-blooded lawyer with neither vulnerability nor earnestness. Then, I had to break that shell and express my emotional core. All that became possible because of the written material.”
The writing of Jana Gana Mana has garnered a lot of praise because the narrative choices pull the rug right from under the audience and make them almost feel guilty about whistling and hooting at some of the mass moments. Imagine watching a film where the goalposts are constantly shifting, and we are caught inadvertently clapping for own goals hit by our favourite team. “Jana Gana Mana makes you question the idea of perception. In fact, we wanted to catch the audience off guard. The idea was to get our audience to feel they were also part of the problem we were exploring in the film. Yes, I play a character that gets to say heroic lines and applause-worthy dialogues. However, Jana Gana Mana is not about rooting for any particular character. And isn’t that a wonderful conundrum?” asks Prithviraj.
While Prithviraj does have the nicest of things to discuss about the writing of Jana Gana Mana, he does acknowledge the criticisms that came their way, especially the ones about its overtly loud nature. “I never claimed any of my films to be perfect. I wholeheartedly accept the criticisms about them. If it didn’t appeal to you, I will try harder to make a film that appeals to you too. With Jana Gana Mana being a very topical film, it was very important to adopt the language that would appeal to the widest audience. I’m pretty sure there can be a version of Jana Gana Mana that is subtle and intellectualised. However, that won't bring in so many people. I can’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” says the actor, who was one of the earliest voices that rallied behind the need for the blurring of lines between the various cinema industries in India. In fact, his own Urumi can be listed as a frontrunner in the pan-Indian trend. “My aim is to make the films I am involved with reach the maximum number of people. I will use the current instruments available at my disposal. It all starts with having a great film in our hands. We are blessed to be working in this time and age where we can dream big. We have reached a point where if a content is making noise in one part of the country, everyone is aware of it and want to see it too. A nationwide film, like Baahubali, could now happen from anywhere in the country, and it is a fascinating prospect. This trend reiterates the age-old cliche of content being king.”
While the actor, the director, the singer, and even the distributor in Prithviraj have been lauded, there is one aspect of his career that is often overlooked. Having started so young, Prithviraj’s career choices were a bridge of sorts for a generation of Malayalam film audience to transition from the days of the Mammootty-Mohanlal supremacy to an almost even playing field with the superstars still in the running along with new-gen superstars. When pointed out that it was his trailblazing that opened new vistas for Malayalam cinema, Prithvi quickly says that he wants no credit for it. “I did the white pant-white shirts brand of cinema too. I danced in front of 30 dancers too. In fact, it is that generation of movie-goers who had a major impact on me. They wanted to see something different and allowed me to experiment with different kinds of cinema. It was the audience that pushed me to keep away from conventions and break them while I was at it. They were ready to be surprised and walk on a new path as long as the film was good,” says a pensive Prithviraj, who is ready to return to his lunch and the rest of the day’s shoot in the gruelling temperatures of Algeria. “At the end of the day, looking back at my 20-year career, and looking forward to what’s next, I just want to do one thing for sure… I want to be part of Indian cinema for as long as I can.”
Well, if the first twenty years of this stellar career are anything to go by, then it is safe to say that whatever he does next, which includes projects like Aadujeevitham, Gold, and Salaar, might change the landscape of not just Malayalam cinema, but Indian cinema itself.