Narain: My second innings begins with Kaithi
The actor, who stars in the Lokesh Kanagaraj-Karthi film, dwells on how his career has progressed, and why the Diwali release is crucial for him
When Narain entered the Tamil industry with Mysskin's debut feature, Chithiram Pesuthadi, he was hardly a couple of films old in Malayalam cinema. "Normally, you enter another industry once you create a market in one. You create a fan base, you get a name, you have a business, and then you branch out. It is like a fail-safe of sorts. But I didn't have all that. It was a dangerous space to be in," says Narain, who features in the Karthi-starrer, Kaithi.
Even though he has acted in five-six Tamil films in various genres since Anjathey (2008), he hasn't been able to shake off the tag of being an intense performer. "Even when Karthi, a very good friend of mine, spoke to me about Kaithi, we laughed because it was yet another intense cop role. A role that I wanted to break away from. But after hearing the script, there was no way I wasn't doing it," he says.
While Narain has mostly been seen playing 'intense' roles in Tamil, that is not the case in Malayalam. Even while playing a police officer in the Prithviraj-starrer Robin Hood, he played a fun-loving character. "It is thanks to Sathyan Anthikkad sir's Achuvinte Amma that I could break that image early in my career despite the huge success of 4 the People, in which I played a no-nonsense cop. I got a lot of feel-good film offers after Achuvinte Amma, and I avoided getting stereotyped," says Narain, who could not quite do the same in Tamil cinema. However, this is not for want of trying, he says. "Some of my Tamil films stopped midway, some didn't even go on floors, some had release issues. As an actor, there is only so much I can do."
While the results of his various Tamil projects might be a tad unflattering, it is the time invested in these films that was more worrying for him. The delay in his Tamil projects meant having to let go of many opportunities. "A decade back, when I was juggling both industries, the shooting of Malayalam films would finish within 30-40 days. In Tamil though, it took twice or thrice as much time. Moreover, since I acted as the lead hero here, I had to give this space my complete attention," he says. "Take, for instance, Mugamoodi, for which I invested almost two years. If you are not part of the Malayalam industry for two years, avlo dhaan, you are gone," says Narain, who believes things would have been different had he been an established star in any one language. "I had to regretfully let go of some beautiful projects because it was practically not possible to be part of them. Why would they wait for me? I was not a star. I didn't have a market. You need to invest time in an industry to develop a market and most of my time was spent on Tamil films, which faced a lot of problems."
There was a time when Tamil and Malayalam cinema were two separate industries functioning for their own set of audiences, however, the lines have now started to blur with the advent of streaming platforms. Now, even in Tamil Nadu, there is some expectation for a Malayalam film starring the likes of Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salmaan. Tamil audiences seem aware of Malayalam films and there is a following for those who are not stars too, like Soubin Shahir. Had such developments happened a decade back, Narain perhaps may have established himself as a 'multi-industry star'. "To be honest, I didn't have such examples then. Yes, there have been times when Tamil directors see my old Malayalam films and ask why I don't do those roles here. I was always open for it, and I did get certain films in that genre, but it wasn't the right kind of script. If I do a film to change my image, and it bombs, they will say, 'Narain ku set aagala'. It will worsen my image." He does not yet see himself partaking in OTT content. "I have always wanted to see myself on the big screen, and I hope Kaithi opens more doors for me."
While Narain is not exactly new to multi-starrers considering he has shared screenspace with almost every major star in Malayalam cinema, does he see such a thing happening in Tamil cinema? "Times are changing in Tamil cinema. If actors with a star value are cast in important roles, it is surely a big advantage to the producers too. Tamil cinema is still a hero-driven industry, and once the space for multi-starrers opens up, writers will begin working on such scripts. Also, multi-starrers are not easy; there are disadvantages too. What if two big stars wanted to do the same role? But these factors become irrelevant if the director is an established name. My films like Robin hood, Classmates, Minnaminni Kootam were directed by some of the stalwarts of Malayalam cinema. With them, you don't have a doubt or worry."
Isn't his Kaithi director Lokesh Kanagaraj, a relative newcomer, trying to pull off a multi-starrer in his next, starring Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi? "Lokesh is a filmmaker with a lot of clarity. He wants to make a very real film keeping in mind commercial responsibilities. Making a multi-starrer needs a lot of confidence, and he has it."
With Kaithi hitting the screens this Friday, is Narain confident about his second coming in Tamil cinema? "My take off was good, but somewhere down the line, it started to fall. Without a doubt, Kaithi commences my second innings. Let's see how luck is going to favour me this time."