Vijayaraghavan: I believe I was born to act

The veteran actor speaks about playing a centenarian in Pookkaalam, and all that it entails

For anyone who grew up in the 90s, actor Vijayaraghavan was an unmissable presence in Malayalam cinema. In fact, he was so at home playing the everyman that one might even see him as an extended family member. He was equally at ease playing a doting dad, a vile villain, a trusted aide, and even a goofball. It is almost impossible to name a role that he might not have done in his stellar career. "Well, I haven't played a 100-year-old man, have I?" asks Vijayaraghavan, who does just that in his upcoming film, Pookkaalam, directed by Ganesh Raj. Over a telephone conversation, we discuss why it is the most challenging role of his career, along with an exploration of his illustrious journey.

It's not often that an actor gets a role like that in Pookkaalam. Was it an instant decision to take up the project?

No, I was initially hesitant when director Ganesh and producer Vinod Shoranur approached me. I knew it was going to be a challenge. But they insisted saying, 'Kuttetta, we'll have to drop this project if you aren't doing it'. I could see their trust in me, and it soon became a commitment. It was like being thrown into the sea... there's no option... so you'll swim somehow. As you said, it is also a rare opportunity. I think there have only been very few instances where an actor has played a 100-year-old character in Malayalam cinema. Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair played a 90-year-old in Ara Nazhika Neram (1970), and I still remember it as one of the most striking performances I've ever seen. It was also my longtime dream to do something like that. That desire stems from my penchant for doing characters that are starkly in contrast to my real persona. I get some kind of cathartic experience while playing such roles. Athoru prathyeka tharam anubhoothiya. I felt that when I did similar roles like Cheradi Skariah in Ekalavyan (1993), Appichayi in Roudram (2008), Chungathara Raghavan in Venicile Vyapari (2011) and Pillechan in Leela (2016). 

When the promos of Pookakalam came out, many were surprised to see your stunning transformation...

It's not often that actors my age get such unique characters. So I decided to devote my complete focus to it. I didn't do any other film for 3-4 months. I couldn't afford to because I had to reduce some 8-10 kgs of body weight along with growing my nails, and facial hair—including the tiny hair strands on my nose—to make everything look as original as possible. It's the first time in my 40-year-long career that I took such extensive preps for a role. But I have no complaints. I enjoyed the process. The makeup alone would take a minimum of four hours every day, and I am not someone who sits idle for hours together. But I definitely enjoyed that process. I would patiently sit and observe how the transformation is perfected by adding stretch marks, wrinkles, and moles. It was a fascinating experience. A lot of credit should go to makeup artist Ronex Xavier.

How did you go about the performance? Were there any inspirations?

I believe in letting the character gradually get into me. But for this particular role, I wanted to meet a 100-year-old person and have a casual conversation. Many suggested visiting old-age homes, but I didn't want to go there because there's a sense of depression there. The inhabitants there feel orphaned, and naturally, the mood there will be dull. Then a friend told me about an advocate in Kanjirappally who's over 100. When I met him, I was surprised to see him so active and sharp. He looked not a day older than 80. We interacted for a while, but I don't really know what I imbibed from him. Maybe I got influenced by his thought process and attitude toward life, but I never tried to imitate him. Acting is not about imitating. That's mimicry.

Can you walk us through your acting process?

I've heard many saying, "Njan kathapathramayi theernu" (I became the character). But in my case, it's not like that. I'm like an open canvas, and one can draw anything on it. I should just be prepared to embrace it and shapeshift into any given character. The performance that I deliver as a 100-year-old won't be similar to someone else who plays the same role. It is completely my interpretation. In that sense, I'm the creator, creation, and its critic. I can't claim that I became that character. My job is to perform and 'convince' the viewers that I'm that character. 

I'll tell you an example. I knew someone during my college days who was like the typical rich, spoiled brat. He used to walk around with a certain pomposity, holding his mundu in a particular way. 20 years later, when I did Ekalavyan, some of his mannerisms unknowingly seeped in for the character Cheradi Skariah. It's something that happened subconsciously. I didn't observe him with the mindset of imitating him when I become an actor. It just occurred organically.

But for an actor to interpret a character in his own way, the makers also have to be receptive. How was it with the Pookkaalam team?

Director Ganesh and cinematographer Anend (Chandran) used to constantly interact with me during the shoot. They would regularly come up and ask, "Kuttetta, how'll this old man walk... how'll he move around this space.., how'll he react here?" Unlike youngsters, old people can't manoeuvre a space easily. If you've noticed in houses with old people, there'll be stain marks on the walls. It's because they hold these walls as support while walking. It's a tiny observation I shared with them, but they maintained those marks right through the shoot. Pookkaalam also had a lot of talented actors, so I could also improvise a lot during takes.

Why would you rate this your most challenging role yet?

There are a lot of reasons. Though I've done a few similar roles, those were all supporting characters. Here, I had to maintain the continuity in performance for a longer period. It included consistency in getting the looks, body language, and my voice. The one area I struggled a lot in this film was dubbing. I had to strain a lot, and it resulted in my throat getting affected. But again, I enjoyed that challenge. My only aim was to ensure people don't recognise the Vijayaraghavan within.

Even after all these years, how do you find the drive to keep forging ahead?

Without that drive, I can't exist. I'm at my happiest while performing. It all started from my theatre days. While doing theatre, there's sort of a circular response between us—the performers, and the audience. We can sense the audience going through all the emotions right before us. It's a surreal feeling. We usually don't get to experience that in cinema. But occasionally while doing roles like that in Pookkaalam, we feel it when those on sets clap and encourage. They do that because the performance moves them in some way or the other. That's what I've always strived for. That's what keeps pushing me.

Do you get inspired by other actors?

I'm someone who doesn't watch a lot of films, but it's not because I don't like other actors. I'm a huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Mammootty, Om Puri, and Nedumudi Venu. I love their work a lot, but I don't blindly follow them because I'm afraid of imitating them. It has happened to me in the past. During my theatre days, I used to imitate actors like Dharmendra, Dev Anand, and Kamal Haasan only to get a mouthful from my father. So I prefer to stay detached.

During your prime days, you rubbed shoulders with some of the best actors Malayalam cinema has ever seen. Do you miss them?

Definitely. I've still not been able to come to terms with Nedumudi Venu's death. I still like to believe he is alive. We had so many fabulous actors like (Kuthiravattam) Pappu chettan, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Sankaradi chettan... These are people who could do any given role. I've great respect for them, but as I said, I tend not to get too much into their performances to avoid imitation. 

Is there any kind of a character/genre that you aren't comfortable doing?

As an artist, I'm up for any character regardless of its shades or complexities. But I'm also aware that I'm not very good at romance and dance. During those times, filmmakers resorted to cheesy and amateurish romance—what we then called the maram chutti premam. I wasn't very comfortable doing that because my idea of romance is completely different. I'm still not sure if I can do it.

Do you have any regrets in life or your career?

No, why would I have regrets? I was born to the legendary NN Pillai. I actually feel I'm the luckiest person in the world! I also consider myself fortunate because I'm in a profession that I'm passionate about. Not many get to do that. I firmly believe I was born to act. Otherwise, I don't see why I should be born as NN Pillai's son. I'm also showered with love from Malayalis across the world. What else can someone ask for?

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