Parthiban: I want to live like a king
The actor-filmmaker, whose latest film, Oththa Seruppu Size 7, has released to critical acclaim, opens up about his need to experiment, living a debt-free life, and more
Parthiban feels a profound love for cinema. In his characteristic way, he jokes, “It’s that love that has me living in a rented place.” For a successful actor and a director who’s been making films for 30 years now, it’s an unusual admission. “Other actors have plenty of houses and plenty of loans, but I have neither.” He hates being in debt. “I don’t like owing even 10 paise to another person. If I had houses and loans, I would, without hesitation, sell the houses to pay the loans.” It’s to secure freedom—that which an artist dearly loves… the freedom of not being answerable to a stranger. “I want to live like a king,” he says, but he’s not interested in riches or a throne. It’s the independence he cherishes, the independence to make art the way he likes.
As any person with a family knows though, love can be restrictive, practically speaking. Parthiban is cognisant of the financial impact of his creative choices, and what it means for his children. “The sofa I’m sitting in is a big deal for me, given the childhood I had,” he says. “I tried to raise my children in a golden cradle. Suffering is harder for them.” Happily for him though, they are supportive of the ‘Parthiban kanavu’. “If they frowned at projects like Oththa Seruppu, I’d have to question my selfishness. They are proud of me and understand my passion. They permit me to dream.”
Oththa Seruppu Size 7 is Parthiban’s latest dream, though the idea is almost ten years old in his head. “The courage to make this film took a while coming,” he says. Once he had decided, the first step was to see if the conceit of making a film with a single actor had already been realised in the world, and how many times. “There was Sunil Dutt’s Yaadein in 1964. And there were about a dozen films in total, but none in which the director and the actor were the same person.” At the outset, he knew this was going to be a tall order, but that’s what filled him with feverish excitement. In his words, “Vidhyasama panradhu, enakku athyavasya thevai.” He knows that people expect nothing less from him as a filmmaker. “They can be easily persuaded to come to films with stars like Ajith, Vijay, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. But I know I have to give them a reason, something that convinces them to part with Rs 150.” He is grateful that crew members like Santhosh Narayanan, cinematographer Ramji, and sound designer Resul Pookutty didn’t need any persuasion—the idea of the project was enough. “They didn’t even quote a salary,” he says. And yet, five days into shooting for this film, he almost considered calling it curtains.
He became filled with uncertainty, and the prospect of inflicting financial setbacks on his family began weighing him down. However, he began gaining clarity over how to approach this film. “We understood the process more with each day. For instance, we realised how we could take advantage of the 180 degree space behind the lead character, Masilamani.” His vision of the film, in a sense, was reborn. “I’m not sure if someone has said this before, but I think that when a baby is born, so is the mother. This happened to me while I was making Oththa Seruppu.”
The reactions of those who saw the initial footage filled him with optimism. “I think the film may have a real shot at winning awards.” You could say that awards have always been the central treasure of his cinematic quest. His debut film, Puthiya Pathai, won him a National Award, and had the effect of making him believe it was all quite easy. “But I struggled for years to win the next one.” Exactly ten years after his debut, Housefull in 1999 won him the National Award again. “Manasu awards ku yengudhu. Ultimately, cars and houses are for future generations, but awards truly are just for me, right?” he asks, betraying almost childish excitement at the prospect of winning another one. This is why he was heartbroken when Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam stumbled at the last hurdle of the National Awards. “I wasn’t angry. I just got up, dusted myself, and decided to go at it again.”
He doesn’t think Oththa Seruppu is just for the awards though, although he does acknowledge it’s the central target. “If awards were the only objective, I would have made this film for 15 lakhs. However, I have spent crores on the project.” He thinks that the audience’s ‘avanambikkai’ of this film will come in handy in making it an enjoyable experience. “They will come into the theatre with uncertainty, and leave pleasantly surprised, I hope.”
He considered no other actor for this project, though it seemed daunting at first that a single actor had to exude such charisma that could hold audiences captive for two hours. “At the cost of sounding immodest, I know I have that ability as an actor. I have done that in films like Naanum Rowdy Thaan and Aayirathil Oruvan.” Oththa Seruppu was harder for director Parthiban than it was for actor Parthiban. It’s been weeks since he had a good night’s sleep. “I have slept only between 12 am and 3 am for weeks now. I have put in 300 per cent work into this film. I have risked avoiding what are thought to be saleable ideas,” he says. It all seemed to come to fruition when a female viewer touched his feet at the end of a screening. “If women throng theatres for this film, I think it would really confuse distributors and challenge their notions on what people like and dislike.”
The central character in Oththa Seruppu Size 7—and the only one you see in the film—is a security guard named Masilamani. Like in many of Parthiban’s directorial efforts, he’s a grey character. “I have to write characters that suit how I look. More importantly, I like realistic portrayals. I remember a film called Vandichakkaram (1980) in which Sivakumar plays a rowdy, but you notice that he pretends to be drinking, and when Silk Smitha begins dancing, he doesn’t even look in her direction. This was because he had an image. In real life though, you see that everyone has darkness inside them. I like to show that in films. In Puthiya Paathai, the protagonist sees a burning hut and proceeds to light his beedi there. He goes to a funeral later and steals money. I like the transformation of a Ravana into a Rama.”
Parthiban is also among the few filmmakers in our cinema to resist overt vilification of slum dwellers. However, he has never delved too deep into, say, caste or class issues, like a Vetri Maaran or a Ranjith. “When I wrote Puthiya Paathai, I had little awareness about such problems, though I was born in Royapuram. When I see films by directors like Vetri Maaran, I feel like I can do better. I have generally remained focussed on my characters and written only what I think they absolutely need in the story.”
The actor-director says he has never really encountered caste issues in his life. “I read about them in newspapers, and when I watch a film like Pariyerum Perumal, I’m shocked to see such tragedies happening even today. But truly, I have remained oblivious to them in my life.” Perhaps he hasn’t looked close enough, I offer. “I will tell you a story. There was a boatman who never had accidents though he rowed his boat through a rocky lake. When asked how he knew the placement of all the rocks in the lake, he said he only knew the route which had no rocks. My life has been a bit like that. I was raised as a protected child in a cocoon. Any exposure I got, I got only after I left my poor household, in search of a job in cinema. When I do a film about caste issues, I promise to be more aware of it.”
With this year, Parthiban completes 30 years old in the film industry. He notes that the fire to create unique films is very much burning within him. “I guess if I had become a star who could command a 10 crore salary, this fire may have been extinguished. But I have fallen down, scraped my knees, broken bones, and realised that there’s nothing permanent about life—nothing except the desire to make a difference.” His children, he says, adore this about him. “They know awards make me happy. They know I’m not using up my money on vices like gambling or drinking. They are happy for me and I am fortunate to have such children. This is why I have a dedication at the beginning of Oththa Seruppu for them: Padaippil Keerthana, Pangalippil Raakhi.”