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“I always put a bit of myself into all the characters I play”

Leading man of Tanu Weds Manu ReturnsR Madhavan, in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): You’re all set with Tanu Weds Manu Returns. What was it like to revisit the character and the film?

R Madhavan (RM): When Aanand (L Rai) came to me with the script of Tanu Weds Manu, I was doing 3 Idiots. Raju (Rajkumar Hirani) wanted to know what I was doing next. So I told him about Tanu Weds Manu. He asked me if I was sure about my decision as he had never really heard of Aanand and about his first film Strangers. I told him I was very sure. The reason I am telling you this is because it takes me back to why I did the film and where it all started.

The fact that no one else wanted to do it but I did was because the kind of love stories being made at the time were either shot at locations overseas or had all these smooches and stuff. Growing up in a small town, I knew this was not how romance is in India. This is not how common people romanced in our cities. So I had told my manager to get me a realistic love story which people could relate to. She told me about Aanand L Rai, and I met him and heard the story. I thought it was mind-blowing. My first thought was, where was this guy all this time? So I got up and hugged him. And this was after I had heard only the first half of the film. I told him the first half was brilliant so please make the second half equally brilliant and narrate it to me. But, of course, the second half was not as great.

Still, it was very exciting for me. He had already signed somebody else for the female lead. I told him it would not work with that lady because the character required a very desi kind of girl. At the time, Kangana (Ranaut) and I were to do a film together in the US. However, that film didn’t materialise. But I had met Kangana a few times and I told her about Aanand and that she should meet him for a narration. She heard the story on her way to the airport, after which she called me and said the film was awesome. That’s how we got on board.

I did the film then because it had just what I wanted from a character that was realistic. I see my dad as a very romantic person; actually he is a Manu kind of guy. He is not the kind to hug his wife or show how much he cares for her. But I realised how much he loved my mother when he was unwell and was admitted in the hospital. I told him I needed all the passwords of all his accounts etc. All his passwords were connected to my mother, whether her name or her birthday etc. I thought that was very romantic. So I was very keen to play this kind of guy. In fact, Aanand asked me if I was sure about the way I approached my character as I didn’t want him to have too many lines.

A sequel was not on the cards when we did the first film. It was to be a one-off film. We went through hell and humiliated ourselves many times to get the film released. We are very glad the audience liked it. When the sequel happened, and I knew Aanand wouldn’t go ahead with a script until he was truly motivated.

When he completed the script, I had just finished Saala Khadoos, where I was all bulked up. Aanand told me this look wouldn’t work for the film and we had just two weeks. He said, ‘You can’t look like someone who would pick up Tanu and throw her on the ground!’ But it wasn’t as tough physically as much as it was to try and project yourself four years into the past… four years ago when the two characters got married.

My wife accompanied me to the dubbing and she said I used our conversations as lines in the film. She said these were all our lines and the film shows all sorts of problems that common people experience. Like there is this one line which is about thyroid and my wife turned to me and said it was ‘suspected thyroid’. It’s something that happens in so many people’s lives. So it was tough and extremely challenging.

BOI: Contrary to expectations, Tanu Weds Manu was a massive hit. Do you think expectations with Tanu Weds Manu Returns are now a liability?

RM: Yes, absolutely! I think it is a liability is because everyone in the industry, including the trade, has assumed it is going to be a successful film because of the trailers. So even if we deliver a successful film that would earn, say, Rs 80 crore, they would say ‘this was expected’. But, for us, that would be a big deal as the first instalment earned Rs 40 crore and this would be double that. But if it doesn’t reel in Rs 80 crore and it earns Rs 77 crore, there is a chance they would say it was a great trailer, that’s all. But having said that, it is a good thing that they have expectations and that the trailer did that for us. I don’t think they will be disappointed.

BOI: When you began working on the sequel, were you as excited as you were while working on the first instalment?

RM: (Laughs) No because it looked like Kangana had all the best lines and all the laddoos. I was very upset. But Aanand said, ‘Trust me.’ I said, ‘Yeh hero hai and you have lines like 'adrak ke jaise har taraf se badh raha hai.’

BOI: But that line is famous now.

RM: Which is why I thought it was brilliantly done. Aanand and Himanshu (Sharma) are really squeamish as there are so many humiliating lines for a middle-class and middle-aged man. As any hero, you would not feel excited about a role like this. But, in the long run, I am very glad I did it. I love the way Aanand talks to you and makes you come up with expressions. He never acts or specifically says what he wants; he makes you think. And I know that it is an author back role for Kangana. That’s very obvious. But I shall find my space in between. I was a little nervous as well as excited and I think it will all turn out for the best.

BOI: South actors have always worked in favour of Aanand, whether you or Dhanush…

RM: (Cuts in) Yes, but we still have Jimmy (Sheirgill) in all his films.

BOI: He was not in Raanjhanaa.

RM: His name was. Abhay Deol’s character was called Jasjit. I know we are very quick to categorise and analyse why a film became a hit. But, at the end of the day, we all know that if the film doesn’t click with the audience on that first Friday, it doesn’t matter which part of India you come from. For me, every director whose last film didn’t work well at the box office have made super-duper blockbusters for me.

BOI: Aanand’s last film was a hit.

RM: Now I am worried. (Laughs)

BOI: You have always worked with the best directors in the business. How critical is a good director for you as an actor?

RM: I think I am a very limited actor. There are a lot of actors who can build a commercial angle to every character. Some have six-pack abs, some have great dancing ability, some have heritage and so on. For me, I think I have the ability to be a blank slate for a director. I never wanted to be an actor in the first place. I came to Mumbai not to be an actor and then I did 1,800 episodes on television. Everybody said I was overexposed and that I wouldn’t be able to do television again. I didn’t come to Mumbai to do television in the first place and then I got Mani (Ratnam) sir’s film. That’s when I realised that the best thing for me to do was to put a bit of myself into all the characters I play. That’s why I cannot do too many films.

Like the character I played in Alai Payuthey, which was later remade in Hindi as Saathiya, was the lover-boy aspect of me. Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein was my college avatar because that’s what I was like in college. 3 Idiots reflects my adolescent stage, where I actually talked to my father like I did in the film. I put my life’s experiences into the characters I play. So it is extremely critical that I get a great director. If left to my own devices, I am sure I will ruin things.

BOI: Were you happy with the way your character progressed with the story from the first part to the sequel of this film?

RM: Extremely! If you thought Manu was a soft-spoken guy, you would almost think he is dumb here because he has hardly anything to say. Actually, he is romancing both the ladies so he is as much in the scenes as both of Kangana’s characters. But it is an internalised character and I think I needed to have 45 years of experience along with 15 years of marriage experience to be able to portray the character.

As a guy, you have to know when to shut up, especially when you know this is the pre-menopause stage or it’s one of those days of the month when you don’t want to mess with your wife and agree to everything she says. You can see all this in this character and you have to be married to go through that. The character is beautifully etched, it is really smart writing. I wonder how Himanshu wrote it as he is not married. (Laughs)

BOI: You are one of those few actors who have managed to survive both in the South and in the Hindi film industry. How different are they and, as an actor, does your approach change?

RM: Perhaps just the language and the food. I think maybe if you do commercial films and you do specific kinds of films, you see a difference in the set-up, in the way things are done. Mine are very niche films even in the South. They are very limited, character-driven films. So my set-up is mostly the same. Barring the language, there is barely any difference. So there is no difference between a Rajkumar Hirani set and a Mani Ratnam set. Mani Ratnam’s sets are very loud and everybody is running around but when the work happens, it happens with the same intensity as that of a Raju or a Aanand set.

BOI: There is a perception that in the South, everyone is very efficient and…

RM: (Cuts in) That’s not true. I think with Hindi films, budgets and professionalism have become dramatically important whereas in Tamil, they are still very forgiving. I could still do three years of bad films and the audience would still come and watch my fourth film. They idolise their actors. In Tamil, they call their actors ‘thalai’, which means ‘chief’. Everybody has a synonym before their name. Like Vijay is ‘Ilaya Thalapathy’, which means ‘young leader’. Ajith is ‘Ultimate Star’ Ajith. Kamal Haasan is the ‘Ulaganayagan’, which means the ‘Universal Star’, and Rajini sir is called ‘Super Star’ Rajinikanth. So when their films release, you need to use those names otherwise the fan clubs are offended. Even in Telugu, they follow this practice but this is unheard of in Hindi films.

Take the way they address the actors and technicians in Tamil… I would be called Alai Payuthey Madhavan because ‘Alai Payuthey’ was my first film. My identity is the name of my first film and then my name, even the cameraman, the technician and the director. So you find someone named ‘Guru’ Siva because he made a film called ‘Guru’. Everyone who has managed to make a bouquet of films has that one film that was the biggest success and is identified with that film’s title. Like Shankar is still called ‘Jeans Shankar’.

BOI: Since this is a trade magazine, how clued in are you to the business aspect of cinema?

RM: Since I am turning producer with my next, I am pretty much clued in. I can’t say I have a temperament for it but I am learning. My next film is produced by me and Raju and is called Saala Khadoos. But I think being an actor you are always at the top of the food chain as you don’t have to worry too much after the film is shot. But I do think it is an extremely critical line, so yes Box Office India is a regular feature at home.

BOI: When you are green-lighting a project as an actor, are you subconsciously thinking about the commercial aspects of the film or it is an instinctive call?

RM: I know that statistically 93 per cent of films flop and only seven per cent become hits. So there is no logic there. I know if you take a big star and make a film on a reasonable budget, you know that during the next phase of his career he will make a safe film. So if you take a Salman Khan and make the film with Rs 25 crore, you are super-safe. You don’t need science for that. But if you take a Madhavan and you make a film for Rs 7.5 crore, it is a gamble.

So when I read a script, I say I am going to get the worst director, the worst actress, worst cinematographer, where everything is going to go wrong, but despite that if the stories have the ability to hear. People always end up taking the story back with them. I learnt this after doing 50-odd films. People always sell non-tangible films to me, like they brief me, like, ‘Pahado se… vaadiyon se ek khubsoorat si ladki zulfe udati huyi aa rahi hai,’ and you start imagining an Aishwarya Rai kind of beautiful actress and you suddenly get somebody who is not an Aishwarya Rai. Then that takes the motivation away. So, yes, the stories have to tangibly make sense.

BOI: And also relatable?

RM: The youngsters who watch our films are changing, and everyone belongs to the smart phone generation today. There’s romance happening even on Whatsapp. Everyone is changing and is ahead of the times. You really have to be ahead of them or at least at par with them. They will not come to the cinema hall to watch your film if your story is not aspirational. If you don’t give them something which makes sense, they will walk out of the auditorium. And the reason all these Hollywood franchises like Avengers and Fast & Furious 7 are becoming hits is because they are never-seen genres. Or at least with every series, they have something more entertaining to offer. Gravity did better than most Hindi films which released during that window.

BOI: Our audience today refuses to watch masala Bollywood films but they will watch masala Hollywood films.

RM: Why would they watch a masala Bollywood film that is copied and that they have already seen? If Shankar makes a film with Rajnikanth, where you have okay graphics compared to superb graphics that too in 3D in a Hollywood film, why would they watch that (Shankar-Rajnikanth’s film)? In the end, we are merely imitating them.

BOI: Despite all the complications and competitiveness, do you think this is the best time to be in the industry compared to when you started your journey?

RM: Yes, it is the most challenging time to be an actor. Also, I think you need to run very quickly or you will become complacent. You think you have everything down pat but you suddenly watch a dance show on television, where a youngster is dancing ten times better than you as an actor. Then you’re done for. You are not going to be aspirational to your audience at all. So in terms of your story, your dialogue, how you woo a woman, you have to be on the cutting edge, which is why I think it is an extraordinary time for actors. And really there is no forgiveness on what your last film was. You will still not get an opening if your trailer is not good. No matter who your father is, no matter how many films you have done, if you don’t deliver good content, they will not watch it.

BOI: A film like Mumbai Meri Jaan or even Tanu Weds Manu wouldn’t have done good business 20 years ago because it didn’t fit the commercial formula. Do you think that goes for the audience as well?

RM: First of all, it’s the new breed of distributors who are giving us a chance or say to the producers to get such films to cinemas. The guy who put his money in Tanu Weds Manu, he is a young guy who is younger than me and who believed in that film. That itself was the first victory. If I had to make a film like Tanu Weds Manu in my earlier days, I would have to invest my own money and I would have to get my own actors. I also would have to take the entire risk and then you know… Tanu Weds Manu was ready for almost a year. But, thankfully, it got a superb release. People had said it looked like an ’80s film; it features Madhavan and it will not work.

Then that song Saddi gali released and then we had a young bunch of guys from TV18 coming to meet and they were convinced that this is a rockstar film. And that changed the fate of our film. So if it was a regular, traditional, solo producer release, it might have come and gone. Like Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein was a huge flop when it released but there is not one press conference where I am not asked about that film. It is ridiculous and funny. I usually digress from that subject but they somehow go back to that film. So, yes, if you don’t get a good release, it becomes very difficult.

BOI: With corporate houses in the game, do you think things have started changing?

RM: You guys will be able to answer that better than I can as you guys have more statistical knowledge than I do. But I do believe it has made people more professional. Now everyone gets their cheques on time! Those are the great things about it. The fact that films are made on a budget, they are completed within a time frame. People have started signing spotboys also on contract; they get their money on time. Their contract also has the promotions bit. The downside is that they have also started deciding on the traders, who are again a bunch of young people who don’t have experience in deciding which film works and what creativity is. You might have a great idea but one may not know how to go about it.

BOI: You mentioned turning producer. How did that come about it and what are your plans?

RM: Like most of my films, whether Tanu Weds Manu or Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein or 13B, all of them are films that I would find really tough to get a buyer. So it will be an uphill task to get the project on the floors and to get it a release. They would say no-no forget about this story, take this story and we will make another film. But I stood by my decision. So this time, when I heard the story, I thought this time I am not going to beg anyone else. So I started developing the project on my own, I put in my own money, got the director, got the script ready, and everything was ready, from the casting to finalising the location, and we were all set to start rolling. But, one day, quite by chance, Raju was sitting in my house when his PK was postponed by six months, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was doing this film. Then he was, like, why you are doing it alone? Let’s make it together. Then we can kick ourselves if we make a mistake. But it’s a tough thing to be an actor and a producer at the same time. So I just let Raju be the producer and I focused on acting. It’s a bilingual film, so it was very tough.

BOI: Is this a one-off film or do you plan to produce films regularly?

RM: (Laughs) It all depends on whether I make money on this film or not. I am not very good with money; I know my key strengths, like I can see products that can work. And that has worked over the last 16 years. So if I am able to make money and sustain myself with the film I am making, I will surely produce films in future. I want to make a lot of money with my films and I believe that it will be an indication of my conviction.


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