Arvind Swami: I didn’t want to mimic MGR sir
In conversation with Arvind Swami, whose performance as the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in the recently released Thalaivii has won him a lot of accolades
The jury may be out on Thalaivii, specifically concerning the romanticisation of the protagonist, Jaya (Kangana Ranaut), but everyone has been unanimous and effusive in their appreciation for Arvind Swami’s performance as MJR (the film’s version of the legendary MG Ramachandran). The actor has risen to the challenge of playing a powerful personality fondly remembered by the Tamil Nadu population, for being a legendary actor and later, a successful politician. Here’s Arvind himself speaking of his part in Thalaivii, and his acting process:
After Pudhayal (1997), it feels like with Thalaivii, you have really stepped out of your comfort zone once more.
I had never done a biopic and Thalaivii gave me a great opportunity to learn and get involved in that process. I knew that people would not be forgiving if I didn’t bring my best. The preparation to play MGR sir was enormous. I knew I had to put in a lot of work, and so, unless the script had enough for my character, I didn't want to get involved. We worked on the script for more than six months and only when I was satisfied, did I say yes.
Were you a fan of MGR films while growing up?
Absolutely. I grew up watching his films and those that featured Sivaji sir, Gemini Ganesan sir and Jaishankar sir. As a performer, Sivaji sir has always astounded me. MGR sir is remembered as an actor for his fights and his style, and the ease with which he acted. People liked him as a star for all these reasons, and of course, for his off-screen persona. I admired how he interacted with the public. There was love and warmth in his interactions. You could see that in his films too. His love for the people came from a true place, and so did people's love for him. As part of the preparation, I had to internalise these qualities that I truly admire.
Talk to us about your preparation to play this character.
I knew that I should do as much research as possible. This is a bit of an emotional film as well but there is no footage to guide us on how these people might have reacted during the emotional moments, as they are personal situations. I don't really want to get into the specifics as I don't want to glorify the work I have done. My work here was about the looks, physicality, and all the internalised emotion. I can safely say that I didn't lose a single opportunity to learn and understand about this character. I was not lazy about watching all the footage and I had access to content that people didn't. Director Vijay gave me 100 per cent freedom on how I could interpret all the information.
Biopics are often about personalities people may not know a lot of, but Thalaivii was about several people from our times that we have a lot of knowledge about.
That adds another layer of responsibility. I wanted people to see MGR sir in every frame, not me—at least more him than me. This balance was important and was tricky to achieve too. Playing characters from a time long gone by is easier as you only have to worry about being factually correct. Here though, when recreating a scene from his film or capturing him in a private moment, it was important for me to make sure that people believed that both are the same person. I didn't want to mimic him, no; I wanted to interpret the character in a way where you can see glimpses of him, his body language, his manner of dialogue delivery... I was careful that it not become over-the-top.
You are a veteran actor yourself. What are your thoughts on where the industry is today?
The audience keeps evolving and the industry has to catch up with them. If they prefer a certain type of content, that's what they will get. Very few go against the tide and make something that's revolutionary to set a new trend.
Do you think South cinema is ready for a film like Dear Dad in which you played a homosexual character?
It all comes down to whether it can be an interesting film. As a filmmaker, it's not enough to just pick a topic. At that time, it was only one person who came up with that topic and came to me with it. I was apprehensive, and as I was in doubt, I wanted to do it. I approach work like that. It all comes down to whether the process is interesting, and whether I can learn something about myself, the character and the art… It was a small film we completed in 17 days, but somebody was brave enough to do it and I wanted to be a part of it. I think our audience is ready for anything. Films of Balachander sir were ahead of their times but were still hits. People are open to watching any story, as long as the film is good.
Despite being introduced in a film by Mani Ratnam, you have gone on to work with many debutant filmmakers.
Even Mani sir changes with every film and I don't think there is a single director in India who has done films across as many genres as he has. The way he executes the idea, the plan of execution… His style changes from film to film. With him, you learn something new every time. That's the same with other directors too. I have worked with Balu Mahendra sir, Bharathan, Priyadarshan, Vijay, Mohan Raja, and newcomers too, and there's so much to learn from each of them. Unless you expand your horizons, you can never learn.
Now that you are a filmmaker yourself, do you find yourself examining stories and films differently?
Earlier, during narrations, I remember really analysing the film... but over the last seven years, I have started to visualise the film. I try to get an idea of how they are planning to shoot it. I think this probably comes from working during a time when we didn’t have monitors on the sets. Even today, I see the monitor only when I have a doubt. Every film I see, every book I read, changes me. There's evolution all the time.
You mentioned recently that your curiosity made you a filmmaker. What were you more curious about—the creative side or the craft?
It's always the creative process for me, as the technical process can only aid it. All advancements, innovations and inventions are to make creativity better. I was speaking to Rajiv Menon recently about Bombay. There are so many things in that film that you can't imagine shooting today. There’s a scene in that film of people praying, and we show it from a top angle before the camera launches itself into the crowd. Those days, we didn't have a jimmy jib, and so, we tied Rajiv to the top of a crane. We brought the crane down from the top and then unstrapped him, so the shot could continue into the crowd. Mani sir conceived this shot in his mind and executed it with what was available. Those days, we didn’t have drones, so we were forced to use a helicopter which would shoot up the budget.
Another example of craft excellence is the song, ‘Uyire’, from the same film, which we shot in 48 frames and so, the sound had to be sped up at 2x. The final output has me singing the song slowly, but on the sets, the track was playing twice as fast. I had to get the emotions right and rise to the challenge of syncing with a song that was being played that fast. There was no room for error, and I had to make it look like I was singing slowly with passion while what was happening on the sets was the exact opposite (laughs). I found all this process to be fascinating.
En Swasa Kaatre was the closest you came to playing a mass avatar. Any reason you stopped doing such roles?
I don't even like watching formula films; how can I do them? I have nothing against such cinema because most people seem to enjoy them and I'm not judgemental about them either. But personally, I don't enjoy them. If I had done more of those roles, I don't think people would have seen Siddharth Abhimanyu (character in Thani Oruvan) or this role in Thalaivii. I cannot imagine spending my life doing something I don't like.
Despite being a much-admired personality, you have largely managed to stay away from the glare of the media and the glow of fame.
Everyone does what they are comfortable doing. I believe that what I wear and what I drive don't define me. Having five people around me doesn't make me stronger. I like to dress in my own way, but I stick to the etiquette of the place I am going to. I may wear an expensive suit for an appropriate meeting, but I know that it doesn’t necessarily make me feel better. The things we own must not become crutches. I don’t want to be the source of any disturbance, anywhere. I prefer it when people see a film, hopefully enjoy my work in it, and leave it at that.