'Ajith sir is my life vaathiyaar'
...says John Kokken, who played Vembuli in Sarpatta Parambarai, as he talks about working in the film, responses to his character, the influence of Ajith, and more
Mike Tyson once famously said, “I fight for perfection... no one achieves it... but we aim for it.” It was this Mike Tyson that director Pa Ranjith asked John Kokken to take inspiration from for the role of Vembuli in Sarpatta Parambarai. “I needed to look like a monster in the ring. I tried to replicate his body language, the aggression, and the ferocity,” says John, who argues that Vembuli is not a bad guy. “Briefing the role to me, Ranjith sir was very clear that I was not the villain of Sarpatta. I am just a champion boxer who shows all his aggression inside the ring.”
And this is something that sets apart Sarpatta Parambarai from many of its peers in the sports genre in Indian cinema where the opponent of the hero is always painted as a despicable villain. “When you are a champion boxer like Vembuli who takes boxing seriously and fights only professional bouts, he is bound to be cross with fighting a newbie like Kabilan. Apart from that displeasure, there isn’t anything to suggest that I am a villain of the story.” When pointed out that sections of the audience do believe that he threw that interval fight sequence, which leads to the subsequent humiliation of Kabilan, John clarifies that there was no chance Vembuli would resort to such tactics. “Vembuli would never do that. For him, the second fight with Kabilan was more for redemption. He wanted to prove to the world that he is a champion boxer, who plays by the rules and would never shy away from a good fight,” argues John with a sense of earnestness that we don’t often see when actors defend their character choices. “There is more to Vembuli than what was shown in the film. In fact, there was a little bit of backstory to my character. There was so much content and potential that Sarpatta Parambarai could have been released, like KGF, in two parts,” says John, who incidentally, is part of KGF 2, and is also working on another pan-Indian film based out of Kannada cinema, Kabzaa, starring Upendra.
This level of belonging to the world of Sarpatta Parambarai and Vembuli is natural for someone who, in this interview, repeated multiple times that it was Pa Ranjith who brought out the actor in him. “We had workshops before Sarpatta, and even during the shoot, I was working with some amazingly talented people like John Vijay, Kalaiyarasan, Pasupathy, Shabeer, GM Sundar, Muthukumar... When you act with them, you understand the craft better. I’m still in the process of learning but the way I see my profession is completely different after Sarpatta. For someone like me, it is a really big deal. The response to my role makes me feel content and overwhelmed at the same time. I'm really grateful to Ranjith sir for bringing the actor out in me,” says John, who, in a sweet way, takes out time to express his gratitude for many of the unseen faces behind the screen that moulded Vembuli.
“Vembuli is not just the result of my work. My wife (and actor) Pooja Ramachandran ensured I was bang on target with my diet plans and routines. My boxing trainer Logesh Moh and physical trainer Rakesh Anandam were instrumental in shaping Vembuli. Be it my friend Fazil’s cryo-wellness clinic or my chiropractor Dr Pratap, who helped me in the recovery from a serious knee and back injury, there was an army of people who stood by me as I transformed into the Vembuli of Sarpatta. How can I take full credit?”
John, who took to social media to share pictures of them with a 'thank you' note, says, “Being an assistant director is a thankless job. The tattoo artists, the fighters, the stunt team, the camera team, and a lot of others too wouldn’t easily be known to the public. We must be humble enough to give them the credit they truly deserve.” He went on to give the credit for this humility to someone who he constantly refers to in his interviews as one of the "humblest people I've met."
“The credit for this act should go to Ajith sir. The way he treated me during the shooting of Veeram. The respect he gave me, and the way he shared his life experiences to make sure I felt motivated taught me that the higher we go in life, the humbler we should become. To use what has now become the iconic word from Sarpatta, he is my Vaathiyaar… my life Vaathiyaar,” signs off John.