Shanthnu Bhagyaraj: We had to unlearn all the cricket we already knew 

The actor speaks along with Ashok Selvan, about Blue Star, filming in Arakkonam, and more
Shanthnu Bhagyaraj: We had to unlearn all the cricket we already knew 

When actors complete ten-plus years in the industry, they usually don't spend extensive time promoting their films. However, Ashok Selvan and Shathnu Bhagyaraj, who have seen the ups and downs in the industry for a decade now, are a different breed. Even though their faces reflected fatigue and this was the last conversation of the day, they still managed to wear warm smiles on their face, which is in stark contrast to the hot-headed youngsters they play in the film, Blue Star.

Ashok begins by saying that he could relate to Ranjith when he read the script. "When I first entered the industry, I was as hot-headed as Ranjith.  I would get furious when denied opportunities," the actor recalls. For Shanthnu, it was Rajesh's character arc that attracted him. "Yes, Rajesh is hot-blooded and selfish too but he transforms after realising the realities of life, and according to me, both characters are good people," he says.

The release of Blue Star marks the first of several sports dramas coming this year. On what differentiates this from other cricket-based films, Shanthnu says, "Arakkonam is an unexplored and novel setting." Ashok adds, "Tamil cinema seldom explores the life in small towns. Usually, our films are set in villages or cities."  Shanthnu steps in: "Blue Star not only explores the cricketers of the town but also the geography, livelihood and the people in general."

While Arakkonam stood out in the film, no doubt, another point that became infamously striking was Ashok's 'brownface',  with many calling out the film for stereotyping. However, Ashok has a different explanation. "Arakkonam is one of the hottest towns in India, not just Tamil Nadu. During my school days, I used to play cricket for six hours a day, and when we looked at my childhood pictures for reference, I was rather dark due to the tan. We matched the skin colour in the film. In fact, when we had finished the first schedule, our faces got naturally tanned," he explains. "I am happy that people are pointing out this aspect, and that they are thinking from that angle."

Even as the conversation begins to heat up, so do our camera lights, resulting in a small break. The actors however don't mind and share a joke or two—which made me ask them about their camaraderie and whether they found it difficult to maintain their enmity onscreen. "During the first photo shoot, in which we had to look daggers at each other, we had a very tough time controlling our laughter. But eventually, we started fitting perfectly well into the sleeves of our characters, so much so that we started calling each other Ranjith and Rajesh and glaring at each other, even when we were taking a break on sets," Shanthnu says.

One might think that for cricket players Ashok and Shanthnu, the preparation for Blue Star might have been easy. But they reveal it was quite the contrary. "We had to unlearn the cricket we knew to match the style of cricket played by the local boys of Arakkonam. The cricket they play is unlike the professional cricket you see. For example, the basics of cricket are that there should be no gap between the bat and pad, but we were asked to spread our legs and play defence. Probably for someone who didn't know cricket, this film would have been easier to perform," says Shanthnu, as he adds that the director additionally taught them how to play cricket for the camera. "Be it the way he wanted us to play the sport for the right angles, or our weights, Jayakumar was very clear about what he wanted. He made us lose weight because he wanted it to suit our onscreen age and physique."

For Ashok, this film is all the more special because it marks his first on-screen appearance with his wife, Keerthi Pandian, who plays a cricket-loving loud-mouthed, supportive girlfriend in the film. When asked about their chemistry, Ashok reveals, "I agree that our onscreen chemistry was quite different from what we have offscreen. Ranjith and Anandhi are different from Ashok and Keerthi, and a unique flavour was added to the romance."

With Blue Star coming out to appreciation, Ashok and Shanthnu are looking forward to other projects in their lineup. Ashok has completed a rom-com helmed by V Priya and is filming for a web series titled Gangs. "Gangs is the working title for my web series; this could change. It is a gangster drama set in the 60s-70s, and it is made on a massive scale," he says adding that his current look is for that series. Shanthnu too has a web series and a film in his kitty. "I am close to completing shooting for a web series co-starring Nazriya and produced by AL Vijay. I have also completed a multi-starrer -- a rom-com with a very strong message, directed by Thiru. The film stars Jai, Vani Bhojan, Santosh Pratap, Varalakshmi Sarathkumar, and Shilpa Manjunath."

Having each completed 20 odd films, both Shanthnu and Ashok have new dreams for their careers ahead. "I dream of doing roles that force me to step out of my comfort zone, like Blue Star. Also, I would like to work with directors like Jayakumar, who write scripts for characters and not actors," Shanthnu discloses. For Ashok, the dream is to make a historical film. " I would like the film to talk about Indian history and if it goes international, then people worldwide will get to know our story," he shares.

We wrapped this interview an hour before midnight, after which the duo had to play a cricket match for film promotions. Both actors were sweet to double-check if I would get home safely. Their easy kindness and generosity made me realise that the same qualities that fuel Ranjith and Rajesh exist within Ashok and Shanthnu as well.

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