An actor of instinct
S Nanda Kumar speaks to Kannada actor Sudeep, who is currently taking the nation by storm with his outstanding performance in Rajamouli’s ‘Eega’, remade as ‘Naan E’ in Tamil, and ‘Makkhi’ in Hindi.
With a marvellously deep voice and an intense screen presence, the tall, lanky Sudeep is today among the top Kannada actors. He looks comfortably self-assured, after having delivered a string of successes at the box office. In recent weeks, the phenomenal response to the animated Telugu film Eega (remade as Naan E in Tamil and Makkhi in Hindi) has only cemented his position further. But the journey to the position he enjoys today was fraught with hurdles and pitfalls.
He first appeared on the big screen in 1997, playing a small part in a Kannada film called Taiyavva. The film did not do well. Sudeep took a self-imposed sabbatical for two years and returned with the lead role in Sunil Kumar Desai’s Sparsha in 1999. Even as the film released, forest brigand Veerappan kidnapped Kannada icon Dr Rajkumar. The entire film industry in Karnataka ground to a halt, and theatres stopped screening films. Sparsha, which was doing well till then, got lost in the months following the kidnap. Two years later, deciding to take one last shot, Sudeep returned with Huchcha, a remake of the Tamil blockbuster Sethu. But bad luck followed. Within days of starting to shoot, Sudeep, who was doing a fight sequence on a third floor rooftop, came crashing down when the person holding the safety rope, accidentally let go. A tree softened the fall, but the damage to Sudeep’s right leg was extensive. He had suffered a fracture, and had torn all the major ligaments on the leg.
Waiting for the leg to heal could have taken months, but the actor did not even consider that option. Determined to break the jinx that was dogging him, the actor had a brace with iron rods fitted on to his leg, and finished the film. When it was released in 2001, the film was a resounding hit. Sudeep, the star, had arrived. Huchcha got him his first Filmfare award. After this, there was no looking back. Swati Muthu (2003), directed by D Rajendra Babu, saw him essaying a role played by Kamal Hasan in the original Telugu hit, Swati Mutyam, which got him his second Filmfare award for best actor.
Sudeep says the journey began when he was an engineering student; he had discovered his love of being on the stage as a singer and guitarist then. “I loved it when the applause came — you come down from the stage and people want to come and talk to you. This gave me a high level of satisfaction — I cannot describe it. It always excited me more than money,” he says with intensity. Sudeep’s father, ‘Sarovara’ Sagar, a successful hotelier, had set everything up for him. “All I had to do was just come and take his place. I would have perhaps led my life in a different way. But I am sure that those exciting moments would not have been there. People wouldn’t have even known that I was born.
I would have been a rich man, that’s it. I didn’t want that.” he says. He had entered the Kannada film industry to pursue direction, and calls his becoming an actor “an accident.”
He attributes his success as an actor to the fact that he took each film on instinct, and never tried to analyse too much. Sudeep stresses the fact that he was not really bothered about his ‘image.’ “I don’t make all these decisions based on what will happen to me in the market tomorrow, that I should have two fights, two songs…I think cinema is beyond all that. I think it’s about listening to yourself, above all, instinct.” It was this ‘instinct’ for roles that helped him choose the wide variety of characters that came his way. He essayed roles that showcased his range as an actor. This was to pay rich dividends when director Ram Gopal Varma cast him in the horror film Phoonk (2008). “The kind of movies I did is what has made me travel. Phoonk is not the kind of film that many would connect with. But I connected with the film. So I did it. That gave me Rann. Then everything followed.”
Sudeep’s working with Ram Gopal Varma (RGV) in Phoonk, Phoonk 2 and Rann exposed the Kannada actor to a whole new world. He describes his initial reaction to RGV’s sets and crew as ‘a boys’ school student suddenly being put in a co-educational school.’
“That’s exactly what happened to me when I went there. You see a lot of other new people and you do not know how to react. And it was not my language, there were huge icons there, huge sets, huge teams, so much was happening. A lot of fear ran through me in the beginning. What did these people expect from me when they brought me here?
Then one gets used to the atmosphere and starts moving on, because one has to be very strong in the mind. And that was such an opportunity for me, because suddenly, out of nowhere came Rann, where I was cast opposite Mr Bachchan — that’s surely a dream thing for anybody,” he says with relish.
The chain of getting big breaks continued when he landed the much talked about role in Rajamouli’s Telugu film Eega. “That’s what everybody felt — that I got a big break when Rajamouli sir called me. But the tension I went through, because Rajamouli has never given a flop so far. And so, it was a huge responsibility because I did not want anybody to say later that a guy from Karnataka came and finally gave him a flop! I did not want anybody to laugh at Rajamouli for casting me. I gave it my best. I wanted people to ask, ‘Isn’t this the guy who worked in Eega?’ That is what I wanted.” He got what he wanted, and the film is a huge hit today.
Sudeep describes the pressure he went through, playing opposite an animated housefly. “I had to work without any character in front of me. There was nobody else. Just this one guy that had to emote every emotion in the film. Director Rajamouli was very sure about his script — so he took a huge risk with the casting. He had only seen me in Rann — so once again everything goes down to Ram Gopal Varma. So it was a good chain of events. And RGV initially took me because he had seen a couple of Kannada films…it’s all just a link, just a chain.”
Of aptitude, and attitude
Industry people often describe Sudeep as an actor with ‘attitude,’ somebody who asks a lot of questions when he is portraying a role. The actor cuts in. “In the beginning, people call you ‘interfering.’ Later, the same people call you ‘involved.’ When I was called interfering, I always felt that if I needed to know something, I had to ask. I did not expect the people in the industry to understand me from the very beginning. It takes time. And in this process, if you start acting to make some people happy, then throughout your life, you will need to act. I will act only when the camera is on. ‘Attitude’ by itself has no definition. An attitude is just a confident person’s body language. He stands out. I have always believed that if your presence isn’t making an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
He is not defensive about choosing ‘remakes’ to direct. He points out that it was a remake, Huchcha, which was the turning point in his life. He says he only picks films that really move him. “Take Autograph. It was a film that really touched me. I didn’t hesitate to remake that. When I made a remake of that film, I didn’t expect it to make good money. I wanted to do it, so I told my family I am investing every rupee of mine in that film. I didn’t want anybody else’s money. I didn’t even know if I would get my returns. I just trusted the film. Because, for me, the film was about the emotions that everybody goes through in life, something in it to take home with you.”
Sudeep today is basking in the success of Eega, with the Hindi version Makkhi making him a national talking point. With a string of Kannada films that are slated for release in the coming months, this actor-director, affectionately called Kichcha by his film-going public, is sure to keep everybody on their toes.