Cheran: I am not an entertainer
The actor-director reflects on his long career on the back of his recent release, Anandham Vilaiyadum Veedu
There are some actors in Tamil cinema, who don’t really change their looks dramatically for a role. They play, it seems, themselves, even in characters that have quirks and eccentricities they don’t possess. For instance, though Pokkisham is a period film, Muran is a crime drama, and Raman Thediya Seethai has his character stuttering, if you take a closer look, you see that Cheran invariably plays Cheran. It’s a pattern few actors can pull off, but Cheran continues to remain a popular face two decades after making his acting debut. "Self-awareness is the key," he says. "I was forced to take up the role of the male lead in Autograph, as the film found no takers. After a couple of films, I realised that the audience liked watching me, and I chose to give them more."
In his latest release, Anandham Vilayadum Veedu, Cheran pretty much played himself as a middle-aged character, the uncle of Gautham Karthik. "I don’t see this as a step down. My Muthupandi is as important as Gautham's Shakthi in the film. I think of my role as a lead too, and not a supporting actor," he says. He again speaks of self-awareness. "I am aware that I am not an entertainer. So, I have to be part of interesting stories to make sure that the actor in me is used right. That's why I am picky with my acting assignments."
In contrast, Cheran, the director, has always challenged the status quo. His Thavamai Thavamirundhu had a runtime of 275 minutes, his JK Enum Nanbanin Vazhkai was a direct-to-home release way back in 2015, and even his not-so-successful Thirumanam was a family drama that he treated as a musical. "People expect more from the creator in me. They would get bored if I gave them Autograph over and over again. Experimenting keeps the thinker in me awake. I knew it was a gamble to have extensive dance sequences in Thirumanam, but I did it to quench my thirst for experimentation."
Even though Cheran values and respects awards a lot, he declares that such recognition has never been his destination. "I make films for myself… and my audience. When my films win awards, I see that as an assurance that I am travelling in the right direction. I didn't do Vetri Kodi Kattu or Thavamai Thavamirundhu with the aim of bringing in a National Award. I don't think any director should make films for awards."
Cheran attributes his qualities as a director to his mentor KS Ravikumar. "Director sir (KSR) taught me to do all kinds of work on a film set. Even as an assistant director, I used to take care of production and art department work. This quality of multi-tasking and taking ownership came in handy when I started directing." He adds that even now he hates to sit idly on the sets. "Thavil adichavan kai, thaalaatta kettaa epdi summa irukkum? Even when I am acting, I begin taking care of production, when I don't have a shot. It is a practice I will never let go of."
Support from women audiences has always been a constant in his directorial career. Trade experts, in fact, believe that non-star films become profitable only when they win the support of women. "I observe and learn from the women in my life before writing my female characters. Also, in general, when women see films they relate to, they are always generous with their support."
His latest film, Anandham Vilayadum Veedu, was a theatre release, but there is increasing belief that only star vehicles and big-budget visual extravaganzas belong to the theatre. Cheran will have none of it. "The risk factor for the audience is the same with every film. Be it Master or Anandham Vilayadum Veedu, the virus is the same. I believe there is a big group of the family audience who want family dramas on the big screen. For many families, going to theatres is like a vacation—their only one. So, I think family dramas and ‘small films’ will always thrive in theatres.”
Cheran has many acting commitments coming up, including playing the lead in Esakki Karvanan's Tamil Kudimagan, for which he has undergone a special makeover. Cheran, the director, has more in the pipeline too, with at least two films signed already. "Though I won’t be acting in them, I can guarantee what I always have—that they will be different from my previous works."