Neeraj Madhav: Working with AR Rahman sir is a big validation for my craft
The actor, rapper & dancer speaks about his Tamil debut Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, collaboration with AR Rahman, his love for rap and more
The old saying, Jack all trades, master of none", has often been used as an insult, but in fact, it goes on to be a compliment: "Oftentimes better than a master of one." This idea resonates with those people who attempt to excel in multiple fields, those we call 'The Renaissance Men'. An actor, a rapper, a dancer... Neeraj Madhav aspires to be a Renaissance Man of his time. The Malayali actor, who rose to fame with his performance in the Hindi web series, The Family Man, made his Tamil debut with Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (VTK). Apart from playing the role of Sreedharan, he also collaborated with AR Rahman for a rap song that gets utilised in the interval.
Beginning the conversation by dropping a couple of bars from that rap, Neeraj says, "Usually when an artist excels in more than one field, naysayers try to bring them down. I faced many of them when I started rapping. This collaboration with AR Rahman sir is a big validation for my craft." A go-getter by nature, it was Neeraj's performance at the film's audio launch that made Rahman take notice of his rapping talent. The call from the composer about a collaboration for VTK just days ahead of the release came out of nowhere. "Rahman sir wanted to try something new in the interval portions and decided to go for a Malayalam rap to add colour to the scene. I wrote the song, with the lines conveying the struggle and emotions of Muthu. The idea was to express Muthu's thoughts in the language of his attackers. This track titled Porattam will be released soon," says Neeraj.
Though VTK is about the journey of Muthu—played by Silambarasan—the importance of Sreedharan never gets lost, with the character drawing a subtle, yet compelling parallel to Muthu’s life. Fate brings both to Mumbai, but destiny has different plans. One picks up the gun to survive, while the other struggles to create a different path. "I aspire to operate outside of my comfort zone. The writing ensured that Sreedharan had the necessary impact. Having grown up watching Gautham sir's films, it feels like life has come full circle. Also, you will definitely get to see more of me in the sequel," says Neeraj, who reveals that it was The Family Man that introduced him to Gautam.
Apart from being an actor, and a singer, Neeraj is also a trained dancer, and this facet of his laid the foundation for him to explore his artistic side. Naming AR Rahman and Prabhudheva as role models, Neeraj says, "Exposure to classical dance and hip-hop fuelled my interest in acting. Unlike in Malayalam, separate dance tracks are still relevant in Tamil films, and I would love for the audience here to see this side of me too."
During the pandemic, the hunger to put himself out there motivated Neeraj to produce mix tapes that were received so well that he went on to make more than ten rap tracks, including Netflix's South Anthem. "Creating music is liberating. As an artist, I get the space to express my thoughts through rap. However, I have to constantly push myself to break out of typecasting. I am an artist and I want to perform everything that I am capable of," says Neeraj, who also states that this conscious effort to be distinctive reflects in his film choices too.
After the success of The Family Man, Neeraj recalls getting many offers to play the villain. But his desire to play distinctive roles made him opt for light-hearted characters like in Netflix's Feel like Ishq in Hindi, and Sundari Gardens in Malayalam. "If my character creates some impact, I will take it up," says Neeraj, who is now in talks for a couple of Tamil films, the Ayushmann Khurrana-fronted An Action Hero, and the Malayalam multi-starrer RDX. Neeraj is also co-writing scripts with his friends and harbours directorial aspirations as well.
From being unceremoniously edited out of films to missing out on opportunities due to the lack of an industry godfather, Neeraj, who first stepped in front of the camera in 2013, continues to push forward to create a place for himself. "I have faced many disheartening moments in my professional life. I have openly discussed them, but never wanted to use it as a victim card. Instead, I have invested my energy into creating art, and my art has kept me going."