Lal: Some films require me to overact

Actor Lal discusses what stardom means to him, his ‘starstruck’ moments, his approach to acting, working with Elan, and more
Lal: Some films require me to overact

There is a moment in the trailer for Star where Kavin, who plays an aspiring actor, poses for a picture with the cut-outs of Ajith and Vijay. The man who takes the picture is Lal, who himself has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest stars of Indian cinema. A director-turned-actor, Lal has shared screen space with Mohanlal and Mammootty in Malayalam, Ajith and Dhanush in Tamil, as well as Prabhas and Pawan Kalyan in Telugu, to name a few. 

Lal made his Tamil debut with a dual role in Vijayakanth’s Engal Anna, directed by his longtime collaborator Siddique. From his experience working with stars, Lal defines stardom as a byproduct of hard work, talent, and a constant drive to return from setbacks. “You have to work hard to earn stardom and, more importantly, retain it. If you look at stars in any industry, they all go through a phase in their career where their films do not work, but they keep fighting and eventually come out of it,” says Lal.

For someone who started as an assistant director in cinema and a co-director with his frequent collaborator Siddique, Lal has rarely felt starstruck. “I like all good actors and respect them. I do not necessarily see any of them as stars. But now that you ask me specifically about being starstruck, the first time it happened was when I saw Prem Nazir sir, at a film chamber building opposite Cochin’s Padma Theatre. Similarly, when I saw Sathyan sir at an Ernakulam bakery I frequented, I was speechless for a while,” says Lal.

The Star trailer starts with Lal’s voiceover and captures him in an emotional moment as he motivates his child to ace an acting role. Usually, actors gradually build up to such an emotional moment, but Lal has often been able to tap into this zone right at the start of his character’s journey. He has a commendable ability to cry on cue. Surprisingly, however, he cannot necessarily attribute the skill to a particular method. “I do the usual preparation before any film, which involves getting an overall understanding of my character, the situation he is in, and reading my lines. My co-actors also play a role in helping me occupy the headspace of my character. When I see them in character, I also organically tap into the intricacies of my role,” Lal explains.

Continuing on the acting process, Lal reveals, “However, I do find it challenging to emote if the scene or situation is unfamiliar to me, such as crying out loudly for help. This is when you need to tap into your imagination more and play the scene out in your mind, a process that makes me a bit anxious. But if you do it once, you get used to it, and it registers in your mind as to how to repeat it.”

The sensibilities of audiences vary from one film industry to another. On whether this pushes an actor to adopt different styles of acting for different film industries, Lal says, “As for my role in Star, it is very similar to who I am as a person—a sincere and honest man who loves his family. It is also akin to the roles I usually do in Malayalam, like in Helen and Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. Moreover, director Elan followed a natural process without making me act too theatrically. But some films require me to act a little over the top, like in Tamil and more so in Telugu. Sometimes, my directors in those languages say, “Full emotions, sir!” and thankfully I am not bad at overacting either."

The actor, himself a director, also discusses what it is like working with new-age filmmakers, such as Elan, and the difference in their filmmaking style from directors of his generation. “There is no single filmmaking process set in stone, right? You can tell the same story and shoot it in a thousand different ways. Ten directors will have ten different approaches, and there will be rights and wrongs in them. It is up to those directors to find them and refine their processes. As actors, our job is just to submit to them and help them realise their vision after committing to their project. In this regard, I am a director’s actor,” Lal says.

Continuing on his involvement in the filmmaking process, he shares, “I am very cautious about giving any suggestion to my directors because if they implement it, I become partly responsible for it as well. I find it comfortable to work with filmmakers who consider a suggestion for a while and get back to me later instead of outrightly accepting or rejecting it.”

Last seen in Mari Selvaraj's Maamannan, Lal recently opted out of a role in Mani Ratnam’s Thug Life due to a conflict in his schedule. “I was shooting for Suzhal Season 2 at the time, and my character in it required me to maintain a beard. I had committed to Thug Life with a plan to shave it off, but the floods in Tamil Nadu caused a delay in the shoot of Suzhal. So, I called Mani sir and informed him of the situation, and he understood it.” On his upcoming projects, Lal says, “I am excited to collaborate with Mari Selvaraj again for Bison Kaalamaadan.”

The actor also comments on the reception to the recent blockbuster Manjummel Boys, which also features his son Jean Paul Lal. “I am not entirely surprised by its success. It is a story of friendship and captures the spirit of friendship at its extreme level. After all, friendship is an enduring subject that cuts across demographic boundaries,” he signs off.

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