Bobby Simha: Kollywood’s own raging tiger

Bobby Simha, 35, could easily be Tamil cinema’s most loved gangster. An actor who has proved his mettle time and again, Bobby has changed tracks and yearns to be the hero we have all been waiting for.

Once in a while, a social media challenge throws up rare gems. Yes, we are talking about the Facebook #10yearchallenge and a recent picture posted by director/ producer Prathap Pothen from the sets of Naalaya Iyakunar, a show for budding filmmakers on Kalaignar TV. Seated all in a row are Bobby Simha, Vijay Sethupathi, Rajesh Murugesan and Alphonse Puthren. While Sethupathi and Simha recently appeared in the Rajinikanth-starrer Petta and are among two of the most dependable actors in Tamil cinema today, Murugesan and Puthren went on to have successful careers in the Malayalam industry.

The journey wasn’t easy and continues to be one filled with hurdles. Back in 2014, when director Karthik Subbaraj’s runaway hit Jigarthanda opened and Bobby Simha set the screen ablaze as the lovable gangster Assault Sethu, little did he know that it would be reflective of his journey as an actor in the future.  “I film, I hero,” he says in a dialogue with conviction as Sethu in the movie, who insists on playing hero in a film based on his rise in the Madurai mafia.

It was the beginning of many such roles- a kidnapper in Soodhu Kavum (2012), a villain in Saamy 2 (2018) and more recently, a truant college-student antagonist in Petta.

The beginning

In the hill-town of Kodaikanal, born Jayasimha, Bobby had silver screen dreams early on. For the sake of a safety net, he completed his degree in Coimbatore and moved to Chennai, hoping to get started on his ‘real career’. “Opportunities weren’t easy, and I took up many jobs initially. I would work night-shifts at a BPO for three months to help earn enough to survive for six in the city,” he says. This was when somebody suggested he train with Koothu-p-pattarai, the well-known Tamil theatre group. He completed a three-month course there and waited for more opportunities. “I wanted that one chance to be able to prove myself,” he says.

Through friends in the field, he was introduced to director Manikandan (of Kaaka Muttai fame), whom he offered to assist on a short film. The latter realised he was an actor and introduced him to Karthik Subbaraj who was also working on a short film, an association that was to change his life.

After a debut in Balaji Mohan’s Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi in 2012 and a small role in Subburaj’s Pizza, his first real break came as a comic villain in Alphonse Puthren’s Neram in Malayalam and Tamil.

The turning point

“Even now, when I walk on the road, people remember me as Assault Sethu and ask me when the sequel is coming. They like me as a gangster,” says Simha about Jigarthanda, a film that was instrumental in shaping his career.

However, in an industry that slots its villains and heroes into separate categories, it also resulted in stereotyping him as an actor. “It’s a problem with the industry. You get slotted and only get such scripts,” he says. “Thought the problem isn’t one of the audiences, they are ready for more experiments,” he adds.

After a slew of films as antagonist and a year (2015) where he signed 14 films (in both Tamil and Malayalam), Simha decided it was time to change tracks.

“Some of the films went wrong and it was a bit of a downfall. I would say yes to everyone,” he says.

While he decided he wouldn’t play negative roles after Saamy 2, Simha still speaks of them with glee. “Negative roles have a larger playing field and more scope for experimentation. With heroes, there are several boundaries,” he says.

A year of firsts

The last year was one of many firsts for Bobby Simha, who was by then a force to reckon with in Kollywood. He made his web series debut as Deva, a drug kingpin with Vella Raja, also Amazon Prime’s first Tamil series.

“It was like an epiphany. I was hooked to Narcos and Sacred Games and always wondered why there wasn’t such a series in Tamil. It was right when producer SR Prabhu called me about Vella Raja and told me it was a gangster story,” he says.

One of the most memorable scenes from the series features Simha watching an episode of Narcos and wondering aloud, ‘“Pablo (Escobar). If only I could live a single day of my life like him”.’

The year was also when Simha shared screen space with superstar Rajinikanth for the first time in Petta. “I grew up watching his films and he has always been an inspiration. When I knew Karthik (Subbaraj) was working with him, I requested him to cast me in just one shot with the star. I literally heard the script narration on the floor before shooting began,” he says, adding that it was a film he did only for the superstar.

Despite many firsts, Simha again played a gangster/ antagonist, a mould he still struggles to break.

Heroic dreams

While Simha is open to doing web series, he claims he is a cinema guy at the end of the day and is up for more challenges on the big screen. In the latest, he essays the role of LTTE chief Vellupilai Prabhakaran in the upcoming biopic Raging Tiger by director Venkatesh Kumar which goes on floors this May.

“When playing a fictitious character people usually believe your version. But when it is someone everybody has seen, it can go very wrong,” he says about his first real-to-reel experience. “I have been watching videos, reading and talking to people to replicate his mannerisms and understand his reactions,” he adds.  This is in addition to painstaking bodywork that will enable him to play the character from the age of 15 upwards.

Simha is also set to make his debut in Telugu cinema later this year, an easy guess, as an antagonist. “I am a newcomer there and this is one way to prove myself,” he explains.

Another Telugu film and three Tamil films as a lead, Simha is as unstoppable as a hero as he was a gangster. Language is no barrier, and he also dreams of Bollywood. “I would love to work with the likes of Anurag Kashyap and Kabir Khan, but my favourite director is Sanjay Leela Bhansali,” he says in a surprise twist, much like the on-screen ones he is privy to.

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Bobby Simha: Kollywood’s own raging tiger

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