Tovino Thomas: I have become more cautious
The actor-producer reflects on his choices so far, the Kala experience, his hopes for Minnal Murali, and more in this candid chat
(The following interview contains some spoilers from Kala.)
Like many of us compelled to undergo a deep introspection process during the pandemic, Tovino Thomas, too, had much time to think long and hard about his journey so far, the mistakes he made, and the steps to correct them. There was talk in the industry that audiences will be witnessing a revamped version of the actor after the pandemic. I ask him if it's true. "I have tried to be," he replies.
Kala, out recently on Amazon Prime Video in Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu, seems to mark the first step in a new direction for the actor. It is the first of his films, as a leading man, to kickstart discussions on social media since it began streaming. He found many of the responses satisfactory and some baffling. He thinks some viewers have misinterpreted the whole film. "They expected it to be just another action movie, which it's not. They ask, 'What kind of script is this? Where is the story?' They expected my character Shaji to overpower Sumesh Moor's character and emerge victorious in the end, like some mass hero. It makes me laugh," he shares.
For Tovino, Kala is a very political film that "reflects the politics of the entire crew". It was also born out of a desire to keep breaking stereotypes usually associated with a star of his stature. He also finds the comparison to John Wick unreasonable. "Both are two different films. If Kala ended with Moor getting defeated, the film's politics would've gone out the window," he adds. "I used my stardom to mislead people into thinking that Shaji is the hero. He is the villain here. Moor is not there to destroy the person that is Shaji, but the ego inside him. If he wanted to destroy him, he would've killed him and his dog in the end. I would request those who didn't get the film to give it another go if they can."
He also finds another criticism—how the characters have the stamina to keep going despite putting themselves through some discomfitingly violent and nail-biting brawls—unfair. "Let me ask this: Why is something similar acceptable in foreign films like, say, The Raid, but not in a Malayalam cinema? It's pure cinematic liberty. If Kala chose to be 100% realistic, it wouldn't have been a two-hour film; it would've been over in five minutes, and these two characters would've been dead." Tovino also points out the unnecessary attention given to the intimate scenes in his films. "I happened to see someone's social media post which said everything in the film is awesome, but they could've omitted the love scenes — that it's difficult to watch such scenes with a family. So, 45 mins of intense violence — in an 'A' certified film, that too — is okay for you, but not a two-min love scene? Where is the logic in that?" (laughs)
The gruelling 45-day shoot required the actors to be bathed in fake blood and mud (not chocolate powder, he reminds me) for a long, gruelling shoot that sometimes lasted an entire day and spilt over to the next. "We are showing two individuals with two different fighting styles — one civilised; the other, animalistic. But, after a point, even Shaji goes wild. Some portions required overnight shoots. There was not much time for food breaks. We survived on chapati rolls," he recalls.
Interestingly, Kala had some of its crew members involved in multi-tasking. Tovino reveals that its cinematographer, Akhil George, was instrumental in putting the project together, working as a production controller of sorts. (Akhil co-produced it alongside Tovino, director Rohith VS, Siju Mathew and Navis Xaviour). Editor Chaman Chacko also undertook spot-editing duties. Associate director Basidh Al Gazzali also did double duty as the action choreographer along with Irfan Ameer and Phoenix Prabhu. "I believe if one is passionate about cinema, they can do any filmmaking-related task," says Tovino, who briefly worked as an assistant director in the early stage of his career.
I bring up the fact that the transformation of the Shaji character in the film reminded me of Prithviraj's character transformation in Mumbai Police. "Yes, what he did in that film was so inspiring," Tovino concurs. "I mean, Prithviraj is someone I always look up to. A lot of things he did in his career are awe-inspiring. He taught me that if we are very confident in ourselves, we have no reason to be insecure. But it's not just him; even our superstars have done unconventional roles before. They all inspire me. You can only play heroes for so long."
There have also been occasions where Tovino's calculations went wrong. Does he regret some of his film choices in the last few years? "I'm not someone with a lot of regrets, but, yes, I have made some mistakes. They were all conscious decisions. But here's the thing. I can't tell a filmmaker to make the film he wants to make first and then say yes to him, can I? If someone pitches me a story, I'll have a film in mind, and I go with the belief that the writer or director is thinking of the same film. You only realise your mistake when you see the final output on the first day of release. But I can no longer take that kind of risk because not only I would be putting my bankability at risk, but the efforts to get where I am now would also go in vain. I have become more cautious."
The impetus to be more cautious with his career and health also came from another factor: an internal injury he got while filming Kala. "A lot of people depend on us—family members, film professionals, friends, and so on. When something happens to us, we don't have to worry, but what about those close to us? We are irreplaceable to them, no?" (Moor, too, suffered a severe leg injury after a wild fight scene involving a smashed window and its broken frame.)
While recuperating, Tovino shot Uyare-director Manu Ashokan's much-anticipated Kaanekkaane (with his Mayanadhi co-star Aishwarya Lekshmi).
Among the other unconventional choices made by Tovino during the pandemic was signing Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Vazhakku, which he is also co-producing. This decision, too, was driven by the need for satisfaction rather than financial gains. "At this point in my life, I don't need to go after money. Vazhakku is a film that exists on a whole different plane. It has a lot of impressive single takes that last around 15-20 mins. There are moments where I'm required to stay in character for much longer than necessary. Sanal is happy with how it has turned out. But, I don't think it would appeal to the group who expected Kala to be a regular action film."
Naturally, I had to ask Tovino about Minnal Murali, actor-director Basil Joseph's third feature after Kunjiramayanam and Godha. Tovino has high hopes for the film because he has immense faith in Basil's capabilities. "Basil is someone with a 100% success rate. I'm very confident about the film. Minnal Murali is something that, I believe, has both regional and universal appeal. The characters are grounded and relatable," he assures.
Last year, a group of extremists vandalised one of Minnal Murali's sets—an incident that brought pain and heavy losses for the producer and everyone involved in the film. The team was forced to shift this particular set-piece to Karnataka, which, according to Tovino, turned out way better than what they initially planned. He also shares that the film belongs to the same universe—he calls it Basil Cinematic Universe—as Kunjiramayanam and Godha. "You would find references to those two films in Minnal Murali," he says.
Given that Minnal Murali is being planned as a pan-Indian release, I ask Tovino if he has plans to do more non-Malayalam films after Maari 2. He evokes Heath Ledger's Joker when he says he doesn't work according to a particular plan. "Corona has shown us who makes the real plans around here," he laughs, adding that he wants to make use of opportunities in Malayalam cinema for the time being. "I have received offers from other languages, and I'm open to it, but I'd rather do a film in Malayalam and get noticed on a pan-Indian level instead. People are now talking about Kala. I'm sure they would talk about Minnal Murali too."