‘Staying relevant’ are two words that kept popping up throughout the conversation with Sarathkumar at the Radaan office in Chennai. The actor had just returned from a trip to Dubai, where his latest release Por Thozhil is doing well at the box office. Even in Tamil Nadu, the film, which was released back on June 8, is still doing decently. Sarathkumar quips, “These days you come across posters that say ‘Successful second day’. I never thought such a day would come.” The actor has turned 69, and as I wished him, he quickly dismisses saying, “It’s just a number.” It is true in his case as the actor is still on the top of his game and has reinvented himself with recent films Por Thozhil, Ponniyin Selvan 1 and 2, and Custody. Settling down with two cups of sugarless black coffee at the Radaan office, we traced down his journey that’s about four decades long.
What according to you are some significant changes that Tamil cinema has gone through in the last four decades?
I would say the mindset of the people has changed. We are now not just competing with Tamil films, but even Hollywood films. The market is different. People have started watching movies more at home than coming to theatres because they know any movie would come to the OTT platform in thirty days. Also, a family has to spend close to Rs 2,000 to go and watch a film. So, filmmakers have to come up with great films that would lure them into cinemas. I can proudly say Por Thozhil did it. The ticket booking is still at 80 percent. In Dubai, they had to bring the film back to screens as people demanded it after it was taken down. So, it just proves people will watch a film if it is worth it. We have to think a bit more, work a little more, and not be in a hurry to make a film.
Let’s talk about the changes in the making. Do you think digital filmmaking has brought in a bit of lethargy as back in the day there was a concern to not waste film reels?
There’s no change when it comes to acting. You do the same irrespective of whether it’s a digital camera or film. Even today, I prepare and work on my dialogues. That’s something I am very clear about. But I personally think one should avoid looking at the monitor. If the director feels that he needs one more take or if the actor wants to do the shot again, it’s fine. But what happens now is that everyone in the shot wants to look at the monitor, which takes a lot of time. If the director is okay with it, it should be left to him. When every actor goes and starts looking at the monitor, it takes thirty to forty minutes for one shot.
Will you attribute your consistent success to your physical fitness because actors who started along with you don’t get the same roles like Por Thozhil’s Loganathan or Ponniyin Selvan’s Periya Pazhuvettarayar?
To a certain extent, yes. When a filmmaker writes a role for me, he has to believe that I am physically apt to do that. My father told me that physical fitness is more important in life–not just for acting in films. Suvar illaamal chithriam illai (There’s no painting, if there’s no wall). If you don’t have a healthy body, you don’t have a healthy mind. Even if you don’t have anything else, if you are healthy, you can bounce back. I think it should be the most important goal for anyone.
What’s your diet like?
That depends on what my target is. Right, now, I am after gaining lean muscles. For the past few days, we were in Dubai. Ashok Selvan, Nikhila, and I were having good food. So, would have gained a kilo or two. But I am working towards getting leaner, which is impossible because of my big shoulders. As far as the diet goes, I eat three idlis with two eggs in the morning. Snack on some nuts around 11 am. For lunch, it is 25o grams of chicken and two chapatis. Then poha in the evening. At 7 pm, again I have 250 grams of chicken or fish. That’s it, I am done. I drink three litres of water every day and work out daily for one and a half hours. That’s it.
We have been missing the humorous side of you that we saw in films like Mahaprabhu and Aei…
Recently, while doing an interaction, Ashok Selvan and director Vignesh said the same thing about being a jovial person in real life. I should show more of this side to the audience. Well, we will do it when it comes my way.
In the 90s, there was a significant market for you, Prabhu, Sathyaraj, and Vijayakanth, despite the existence of superstars. Do you think that brand of heroes are absent now?
Back then we had a lot of audience coming to theatres. Even now there are people out there, but I don’t know if we are still tapping that fanbase. For instance, if I do Sooriyan 2 and promote it well, I am sure people will come to theatres.
My question is whether ‘Supreme Star’ Sarathkumar of the 90s can emerge now where the fandom is extreme for a few heroes and the rest of the market is about the quality of films.
It is possible. Take Ashok Selvan for example. I have been watching him closely, and I told him that his USP is that people trust his choice of scripts. Now, if he takes that image forward and evolves as a macho hero, then he can become that. It depends on his course of action. If I start choosing scripts like Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington and make a blockbuster, I would create competition and a fanbase again. When I acted in Kanchana, I got a fanbase of kids who are fans of that franchise. With Vijay’s Varisu, many youngsters who haven’t seen me act before found me. People go, ‘You have done really well in this film.’ They wouldn’t have seen me act before. I would be like, ‘I have been acting like this since forever, what’s changed?’ So, the recent appreciation means I am slowly reaching to new set of audience. Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan took me to a whole different kind of viewer.
So, what kind of content are you consuming to stay relevant?
I watch omnivorously. I have been watching web series. Liked Modern Love Chennai, it was refreshing. Watched Sonakshi Sinha’s Dahaad. I see anything and everything. It doesn’t matter if something is good or bad. If they say it’s bad, I will watch it to know why it is bad. Four days back, I was watching Anbe Sivam to see how Kamal sir does that throat movement. With prosthetics and all, he achieves it well. I can call him and ask how he did it, but I want to watch and understand it myself.
What are the films that gave you the feel of having done something fantastic?
I don’t think that way. I usually take it as the audience has accepted me in this film. However, I usually feel that directors should have trusted me with different films and roles. Back then, four fights and five songs… that’s what we were going for. Prabhu, Sathyaraj, Vijayakanth, and I, all were working that way because that was how the industry was. So, there was no great need for experimenting, neither was there a need for doing realistic films. We were all doing the exaggerated version of a hero. I believe if directors back then had trusted me with unique roles, I believe I would be on a different level right now.
Do you have any regrets?
I wouldn’t call it regret… but it’s how we evolve. In 1996, I was churning out hit after another like Surya Vamsam. And what did I do when I was at my peak? I went and campaigned against the ruling party. Then what did I do? I joined a political party. A shift of focus. One should be clear about what he wants to do. I wasn’t then. I didn’t know whether to ace it in films or politics. That’s one decision I think I should have thought through.
At 69, now are you clear on what your goal is?
If you ask me about what I can achieve in politics now, I would say it is clear. Being relevant is what counts. But acting was my bread and butter. Taking a break of sorts for about 15 years has cost me a lot, both mentally and financially.
Have you ever felt that you should have been part of this generation so that you could have done more?
One can’t think like that as each era is different. But I see a stark change in the monetary aspects of filmmaking. When you compare the salary MGR and other icons received back then and compare it to the salary of the stars today.., you wonder how things have changed. Yes, there are factors like inflation to be considered but still… After Surya Vamsam, I was wondering if I should increase my salary by one lakh and I was silently whispering to my friend. We didn’t even have the guts to say it loud. That’s not the case now. If an actor churns out a hit, there are people ready to give a huge sum for his next film. I am not talking about the right and wrong aspects of the trend. If Surya Vamsam had come today and had become a hit, I could have asked for five crores and would have got three (laughs).
There are rumours about Surya Vamsam 2 and Nattamai 2…
A year back, I was wondering if Suriya Vamsam 2 would work out now. However, the success of Por Thozhil has given hope that if the film is done with a lot of thought and has good content, people will support it. RB Choudary is very interested in doing a sequel. I hope it might work out. Let’s see.