Suriya: Working with director Hari sir has given me a stiff body language
The actor gets candid about trying to reinvent himself
Over the last 25 years, actor Suriya has proved to be among the most versatile actors in the country. His films continue to challenge the status quo; the recent Jai Bhim was an example. Now, after two digital releases, he evinces excitement about getting back to a theatre release with his new film, Etharkkum Thunindhavan (Evvaraki Thalavanchadu in Telugu) and is confident of its success.
Here’s the actor speaking about various topics, including his objective of creating an impact across regions and his desire for experimentation:
You have experimented with OTT releases, and now, after a small gap, you are back to a theatre release in ET. How do you see the industry evolving?
My last two digital releases -- Soorarai Pottru and Jai Bhim -- earned me a lot of love and respect among the audience. A person from Kolkata, who travelled with me, said they watched all my films on OTT. While the Baahubali franchise blurred cinematic boundaries, Pushpa: The Rise proved that a theatre release is viable even during the pandemic and changed the business dynamics of a film. Our films are opening up new avenues and business models across the country. I think Sivakarthikeyan's Doctor did well in the Telugu states and a few Malayalam films like Home and The Great Indian Kitchen created audiences in local and non-local territories. Director TJ Gnanavel (Jai Bhim-fame) is in demand across languages, and I know that he’s being chased with good offers. All of this shows that films have no limit.
Jai Bhim had a strong impact across the country. How has this changed what you look for in a film?
As an actor, Soorarai Pottru (Aakaasam Nee Haddura in Telugu) and Jai Bhim have increased my confidence to work in different films. Soorarai Pottru didn't have an action sequence and Jai Bhim didn't have romance or a love story. Jai Bhim has become an eye-opener for people in Tamil Nadu because we didn't know that there existed a native tribe without access to basic amenities like a ration card or a community certificate. I understood that not all films need to have over-the-top sequences or commercial elements. I believe movies can and do have a tremendous influence on our lives. Only through movies can we translate one human emotion to another. Director Vetrimaaran once said he quit smoking after watching Vaaranam Aayiram (Surya S/O Krishnan in Telugu).
The Oscar buzz around Jai Bhim must have been a new experience for you.
Truth be told, I wasn’t surprised that Jai Bhim didn’t make it to the final cut at the Oscars. Somebody asked for the film, and we sent it. Due to the pandemic, the Oscars organisers allowed OTT films to compete for the honours. Otherwise, the process is quite laborious. We didn’t go to the USA and promote our film; those in the screening room watch thousands of films, I think, for them to even have a conversation about our film, gives us a great high.
What can we expect from ET?
ET is written and directed by National-award winning director Pandiraj. Our association dates back to Pasanga 2 days. His other film Kadaikutty Singam (Chinna Babu), bankrolled by my home production, won laurels from the Vice President of India. ET is made for the theatres, and it has all the moments you would expect from a commercial entertainer. The film also conveys a social message that we have not discussed before, one that we hesitate to speak about even at home, even if we are liberals. It is about the marginalisation of women and how the status of women in our society is inferior to men. It's an important film for me, and I hope that the media digs deep into it, discusses it, and makes people talk about it.
What about ET convinced you that it is suitable for the big-screen experience?
After a hiatus, we are excited about returning to theatres and celebrating cinematic moments made for the big screen: action sequences, slow-motion shots, larger-than-life moments... We have made sure that we don't miss them this time around. However, it is not done at the cost of a unique film or a strong message. At the same time, we want to entertain all sections of the audience and also make them ponder over a point when they walk out of theatres.
You got to work with actor Sathyaraj who you share a personal connection with.
ET is my first film with Sathyaraj mama, who is like a family member. From my first birthday, I remember him; he used to carry me around when I was an infant. He always says that he came to the industry because of my father. Sathyaraj mama hails from a zamindar family in Coimbatore. He started as a stage actor and used to earn Rs10 as remuneration. One day, he took me on his Yezdi bike to a corner shop, bought me chocolates for Rs6, and with the balance, he bought himself cigarettes. That’s how I know mama, and I have all these vivid memories with him. He is an example for me because he has portrayed a variety of roles from villains to heroes to character roles. He wanted to become a villain only because he wants to prove to this generation that he is a powerful villain.
You have fulfilled a longstanding dream by dubbing for yourself in Telugu!
I really enjoyed the process; I have been waiting to dub for myself, but somehow, it didn’t work out. I wanted to dub for Aakaasam Nee Haddura, but Sudha (Kongara), being a Telugu-speaking person herself, sought a particular accent. She didn’t want to compromise on that, and I had to let go. As for ET, I took the liberty, and in fact, I have finished Telugu dubbing earlier than I did Tamil. Pandiraj sir told me, “Sir, you didn’t dub like this in Tamil sir.” He even said he likes the Telugu version better than the Tamil one because of my energy.
After decades in the industry and so many versatile performances, what do you look for in a film now? Where do you go from here?
I am wary of remaining in my comfort zone. I try not to follow a pattern; I try to strike a balance between content-driven films and crowd-pleasers. My director (Pandiraj) asked me to laugh more and said I did not really look pleasant in my recent films. I have learned to do certain scenes and believe in my director's vision. I have started thinking, “I have not done this before, and this actually looks good.” Working with director Hari sir has given me stiff, serious body language. Pandiraj was able to break this and make me at ease. Also, my next project with Bala sir is a challenging film and what I am doing with Vetrimaaran is equally challenging. I am even a bit scared of Bala sir's film, and I am equally scared of Vetrimaaran's film. After that, I have Siva's film, and I am even more worried about that. I am happy with a film like ET, and I understand that the next three-four films are not an easy ride for me.
Is there a conscious decision to pick films with a message?
I don't feel obligated to choose scripts that address issues. I see it, in fact, as a responsibility and the need to repay the love people have shown me for 25 years now. I try to think about what new things I can bring to a film.
You spoke about your upcoming projects being difficult. Tell us a bit more about these films.
Vaadivaasal (directed by Vetrimaaran) is not an easy film to work in because once we got closer to shooting, we understood that we needed immense knowledge to do justice. For every shot, we need thousands of people in a frame. Now that the pandemic has eased out, we are planning to begin shooting either in June or July. At the moment, some pre-visualisation work is happening in Mumbai. I am also starting Bala anna’s film by the end of this month. I have also been planning to do a straight Telugu film for a long time and I hope that will happen soon.