It was with the Tamil film Vaaranam Aayiram (2008), which I saw in April sometime last year, that I discovered Suriya. Actually, three years before that I had seen a song, Ennai Konjam Matre, which I was told was from a film called Kaakha Kaakha (2003) and that the actors were Suriya and Jyothika. I thought the song was nicely picturised even if a trifle overcut and left it at that. Anyway, back to Vaaranam Aayiram. Though I had enough issues with the film and found it very so-so and overloooong, I was totally taken in by Suriya’s performance, actually performances. He truly excelled in the film in the dual role of father and son. I watched, simply amazed, as he played the father from his college days in the 1960s to an old man in his 60s and the son from 17 to his 30s capturing every shade and emotion his characters go through at different times in their lives, perfectly. It was not just his different looks (I still can’t believe how he managed to pull off looking 17!); it was how he worked on his mind-set and his body language to go in sync with his characters and their various ages. To me, it was one of the finest performances seen in an Indian mainstream film in recent times.
I had to see more of Suriya’s work. Though being in Mumbai and largely dependent on having to acquire DVDs of his Tamil films and that too preferably sub-titled ones (I did get to see Ayan (2009) on screen though), I got each and every one of his films I could lay my hands on. And apart from his early films, where he clearly appears reluctant to even be in front of the camera and you cannot help but feel sorry for him as you see him go through the grind, I admired him more and more as an actor as I watched his subsequent films, looking at him shed his inhibitions and begin opening up in front of the camera as the hunger to prove himself a good actor hit him. Suriya is one of those rare actors who is understated and know exactly how to emote with their eyes (Hitchcock and Guru Dutt always said 80% of acting is in the eyes) and he works extremely hard to give his various characters as realistic a treatment as he can within the terribly rigid parameters of Tamil commercial cinema. He is able to convey much more with just a look or a gesture rather than be dependent on dialogue and there are many of his performances I rate very high – the brooding youngster craving for his mother’s love in Nandhaa (2001), the loveable extroverted conman in Pithamagan (2003), the loner, simmering-with-anger-below-the-surface cop in Kaakha Kaakha, the polio-affected buck-toothed hunchback in Perazhagan (2004), the idealistic yet angry student leader in Ayutha Ezhuthu (2004), the short term memory loss patient in Gajini (2005) (his act was notches above Aamir Khan’s interpretation of the role in Hindi) and even his incredible rising-above-the-script act in a double role in the crassly commercial pot-boiler, Vel (2007).
Wanting to go beyond profiles and reviews on Upperstall, we decided to do feature pieces on eminent personalities from the Film Industry just talking about their craft and their approach to their work. Being a filmmaker myself, the tendency was to go more towards filmmakers and technicians rather than actors and stars but I was sure of one thing. I had to do a feature piece with Suriya and discuss his work with him. It took time to get in touch with him. Initially, our Tamil film reviewer, Daya Kingston, kept pursuing his manager day in and day out for 3 months trying to get the meeting but we were getting nowhere. Thankfully, I had a trip to Chennai scheduled and shortly before that, I managed to get hold of Suriya’s email id by sheer accident and emailed him introducing myself and that I was eager to chat with him for Upperstall about his work and though it was very last minute, could I meet him there? Actually, I’ll admit it – the reason to meet him was twofold. One obviously was for the site but the second was also to interact a little with him as I cannot see anyone else but him playing the lead in a feature film script I have just begun to work on.
Suriya responded promptly to the mail asking me to call him once in Chennai and that he would fix up our meeting. He dealt with me directly and once I reached Chennai and called him, he assured me he would meet me either at his shooting location or somewhere in Chennai after his shoot at the end of the day. I was a bit apprehensive of meeting him on the sets as being from the line, I know how distracting and irritating it can be to have to talk to someone between shots and told him I’d rather meet him post shoot given the choice but then he told me it would be better to meet on sets. He was shooting a not very complicated action scene for his 25th film, Singam, and so could manage to talk between shots and it was safer just in case his shooting got extended at the end of the day, which in the film line is highly likely to happen. I saw the logical sense in that and we agreed to meet on location the following day (7th January, 2010) at 7.30 am.
Knowing that I was by and large a stranger to Chennai, Suriya went out of his way to make it as easy and comfortable as possible for me. He arranged a pick up for me to meet him at his shooting location, which was a good hour and a half outside Chennai and he spent about 6-7 hours with me as we chatted ever so informally in his make up van between shots on various issues before ensuring I was dropped back. Though we were actually meeting for the first time, he opened up, made me feel ‘normal’, and was extremely honest as we discussed his work, his reluctance to being an actor and getting into it initially just for the money before beginning to like his work, his then subsequent sharpening up of his acting and dancing skills, his admitting that sometime market pressures do dictate a film he signs on as his superstardom has to ensure that not just his producers but even his distributors make money to continue having faith in him, him actually confessing that he does feel he is stagnating at times and needs to think afresh about the kind of work he wants to do, him talking about the directors who have brought the best out of him as an actor, him patiently listening to me discussing his films with him in true FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune) filmmaker style going on about what I felt worked and what did not work in his films, script wise and making wise. We discussed other issues on current Indian cinema, he kept me abreast of happenings in Tamil cinema and how it works and we spoke of many other cinema related topics.
Actually, I’m glad in retrospect that I met him on the sets. For one, I got to see Suriya at work. The transformation was extreme right there in front of me. Here was this gentle, soft spoken, sensitive and extremely down-to-earth person talking candidly to me and on the call of action, he transforms himself into this aggressive supercop jumping down from a height and then proceeding to beat up the baddies in front of the camera! Also, it was fun for me to see the sequence being shot as one input, I think, we missed terribly in my FTII days was a workshop on how to conceive and execute action scenes in mainstream Indian cinema.
I admired Suriya the actor earlier but after meeting him, I’m even more convinced that he is the actor I want to work with someday. He may or may not do my script, he may not even like it (after all, aren’t we FTIIans considered arty?!), it may not be what he is looking for at that moment and I’m sure he would have enough doubts with me not having made a film yet, but even as I continue writing my screenplay keeping him in mind, it would be most unfair to myself as a filmmaker and total dishonesty towards the project if I don’t get it through to him once it’s ready. That is my duty, which I must fulfil. Beyond that, Que Sera Sera – Whatever will be will be…
And oh yes, do look out for the Upperstall piece with Suriya once it’s uploaded!