‘I always put a bit of myself into all the characters I play’

Leading man of Tanu Weds Manu Returns, R Madhavan, talks about his recently released film.

You’re all set with Tanu Weds Manu Returns. What was it like to revisit the character and the film?
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.

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

When you began working on the sequel, were you as excited as you were while working on the first instalment?
(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.

But that line is famous now.
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.

Actors of the South have always worked in favour of Aanand, whether you or Dhanush…

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

He was not in Raanjhanaa.
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.

Aanand’s last film was a hit.
Now I am worried. (Laughs)

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

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

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?
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.

There is a perception that in the South, everyone is very efficient and…
(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.

Our audience today refuses to watch masala Bollywood films but they will watch masalaHollywood films.
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.

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?
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. 

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