Packing a punch

Packing a punch

He calls himself a “loozy” man — a blend of lazy and choosy! Saala Khadoos is his first sports film — but R Madhavan never categorises his work by labels.

“I want to make only good films. I do not decide that now I want to do a comedy or a certain genre. I want to do films for the right reasons,” he says. “I don’t sign films every other month for the sake of doing a certain number of films every year. It’s always only about the script, about taking you to another place in your career, about doing movies that will not be forgotten, and about getting the kind of response every actor wants to see,” he says passionately. “My films must go into the archives on merits, be it 3 Idiots or the Tanu Weds Manu franchise.”

Acting apart
At 45, Madhavan has made 57 films in four languages — English, Hindi, Tamil and Kannada, besides substantial work on television. Today, he is in no mood to be on the daily grind. “I enjoy my life in my spare time, otherwise what is the use of working so hard?” he asks reasonably. “I ski with my son Vedant, who thinks I am a rockstar! He’s seven years old now and it’s important to spend time with children at that age. I play golf, I travel and I grow vegetables in my terrace and research on them. I know it’s an easy way out to make masala movies and my heart tells me to do so, but my mind does not agree!” he grins.

His chequered past includes what he calls “five lifetimes lived before coming into films at the age of 30”. His television career itself began at 26, and in a unique case, Madhavan Ranganathan (that’s his full name) began on screen as an Indian police officer in the Hollywood blockbuster Inferno!

Before talking about his new film, Saala Khadoos (loosely translated as “Bloody rude snob”), he says with a smile, “I am born and have been brought up in Bihar, and even in the industry I have been considered something of a khadoos. My own staff will give testimony to that! But this is because I come from a slightly different culture.”

He explains, “One of my five lifetimes is extra-curricular military training while in college, and at 22, as one of the leading NCC cadets in Maharashtra. I even received training with the Army, Navy and the Air Force. I wanted to join the Armed Forces, but was rejected because of the cut-off age.”

Encapsulating his approach and movie choices, he says, “Life experiences always contribute to the kind of roles you can play realistically. Films like Rang De Basanti and Tanu Weds Manu Returns are not as easy to essay as something like, say, Superman, where you do not have to be authentic to your character’s background and psyche.”
A classic case is his new film, where for the first time, he has played a mentor on-screen to the character played by Ritika Singh, and also to the film’s director-writer Sudha Kongara.

“I know Sudha for years as she been assistant director to Mani Ratnam,” he says. “When she narrated this story to me, it was a surprise because I do not expect a married woman with two teenage daughters and a husband working in the defence setup to come up with a story on boxing.”

When the actor saw her prep, which included documented interviews with over 600 boxers substantiated with facts, he confesses, “It blew me away. I decided to take over the film and went on a quest to find the right producer for it — someone who recognised the merit of the film and would not compromise on what was needed for it.”

Off-beat project
Madhavan found the ideal producer in Rajkumar Hirani, and Sudha and he explained to the ace filmmaker that while it would take a good time and greater effort to train an actress in boxing, it would still not look anywhere as good as a boxer who could act.” Where will you find such a person?” asked Hirani, and Madhavan admits he had doubts too.

Madhavan and Sudha began their search and after a while, his friend Raj Kundra (actress Shilpa Shetty’s husband) took him to watch the boxers in the Super Fight League that he owned. “Here was this 18-year-old girl, Ritika Singh, knocking the hell out of the other women,” he recalls. “I decided to contact her father so that they would know we were serious. Luckily, her father, also her mentor and teacher, consented when Ritika also said that she would like to act.”

The final challenge was set by Madhavan for himself. “It was not strictly needed, as I play a coach, but I thought that the purpose of making a realistic film would be defeated if I did not look the part of a frustrated, retired boxer. There would be innumerable distractions in India, so I took off to Los Angeles and put myself under a strict regimen. It took me 18 months to get my look and physique right for the part. I refused all temptations, hated the fact that I was largely away from my wife and son, but just thought of the prize at the end — a satisfaction with my performance.”

An interesting sidelight is Madhavan doing Tanu Weds Manu Returns after completing the shoot of Saala Khadoos. “I had to lose all the muscles I had built up, and so you will find all my shirts loose in Tanu...,” he grins. “You will see a lot of me holding my arms across my chest to conceal this! I could not look like a he-man as Manu.”

Why is Saala Khadoos made as a Hindi-Tamil bilingual? “That’s simple,” he replies. “The story extended itself into two languages. Ritika is a fisherwoman fighter from Chennai, which will be a novelty for Hindi audiences, and will give the needed nativity for Tamil filmgoers. And this is not the Chennai of Chennai Express or other commercial films but the real, inner one, where the ghettoes are so menacing that you will feel you will never get out alive if you enter them.”

Promising a real yet entertaining film, Madhavan raves about his co-star as being “an even better actress than a boxer, and someone who is miles ahead of half the heroines with whom I have worked.” He recalls that as a part of her training, she sat for weeks to learn how to sell fish on Marina Beach in Chennai. When the time came to sell them herself as practice, she sold off all her stuff in 25 minutes.

“After watching her in the film, I am now convinced that actors cannot be trained! You are either a born actor, or you are not,” he raves about his co-star.

The only hitch, he again smiles ruefully, is that initially she could not delineate that fine difference between reel and real boxing. “While shooting, one of her punches landed on my front teeth and now one tooth, which has been pushed in, is shorter than the other and I have to wait for it to grow back!”

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