By his own admission, Arvind Swamy has no reason to be an actor. He doesn’t like the attention that inevitably follows success. He doesn’t like to give interviews or pose for photo shoots. He has notched up barely 25 releases in as many years.

Swamy might prefer the cold comfort of reclusion to the warmth of the spotlight, but he is also a professional. For his upcoming Hindi movie Dear Dad, the 45-year-old Tamil actor consented to address the Mumbai entertainment media, most of whom remember him as the star of the dubbed versions of Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). Dressed in a striped grey suit with a crisp white shirt, Swamy was the epitome of accessibility. At the trailer launch of the May 6 release, the movie’s debutant director, Tanuj Bhramar, music composers and producers were present, but the obvious target of curiosity was Swamy, described as being in Mumbai for the first time since Bombay’s release (private visits are presumably excluded).
The trailer of ‘Dear Dad’.

Why had Swamy decided to headline a movie about a teenager’s relationship with his father, which takes a turn when the father decides to unburden himself of a family secret? “The script was interesting and put me out of my comfort zone, and I felt it would be challenging.”

Why did he stay away from films between 2000 and 2013? “I wanted to do other things, I didn’t want to get caught up in this one profession. I wanted to be a full-time parent and balance my time with my kids.” (Swamy has a daughter and a son from his first wife, Gayatri Ramamurthy.)

Why did he turn away from fame even when it chased him? “I wanted people to see my films, but I also wanted them to leave me alone. I am a bit of a recluse. Fame was stifling, and I didn’t want to deal with it.”

It is a standard requirement at such events to elicit comments from movie stars on the burning questions of the day, and Swamy was duly interrogated for his views on the freedom of expression. He gave an elegant and measured reply: “The Constitution gives us the right to the freedom of speech and expression, and a different point of view doesn’t make people unpatriotic. We must respect people’s views even if we don’t agree with them.”

He added for good measure, “I am apolitical.”

After the conference and the mandatory photo shoot , Swamy took questions from over a cigarette break. He looked dapper and relaxed, and an air of courtesy masked any relief that the evening was coming to an end. Memories of Swamy’s recent hair loss and weight gain are now distant. He is trim, has a fine crop of hair on his pate, and wears his good looks with the detached air that drives female fans to distraction.

One of the most reluctant pin-ups in the movie business has been slowly inching back onto the screen. Swamy has been making selective appearances in Tamil films, such as Mani Ratnam’s Kadal (2013) and Thani Oruvan (2015). He has also acted in the Telugu version of Thani Oruvan, and will appear in the upcoming Tamil movie Bogan. Acting is actually a second profession for Swamy, who runs a bunch of businesses in Chennai and was away at business school in North Carolina in America when Roja was released.

“I was doing other interesting stuff at the time,” he said.

The song ‘Yeh Haseen Vadiyan’ from ‘Roja’.

Swamy had modelled for print advertisements when he was cast in his breakout role in Ratnam’s Tamil feature Thalapathi (1991), a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata that starred Rajinikanth and Mammooty. Swamy was 20 when Ratnam approached him to play a character inspired by Arjuna. His screen test involved reciting the iconic Subramania Bharathi poem “Acham Ilai Aham Ilai”, which features in a crucial sequence in Thalapathi.

“Mani had to ask my dad for permission to let me act in Thalapathi,” Swamy said.

Swamy has been closely associated with Ratnam ever since: apart from Roja and Bombay, he has appeared as the lead in Indira (1995), the directorial debut of Ratnam’s wife, the acclaimed actress Suhasini, and in a small role in Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000). Ratnam also cast Swamy in his comeback in Kadal (2013) as a Christian priest who battles for a young man’s soul.

The song ‘Thoda Thoda’ from ‘Indira’.

Swamy’s entrepreneurial interests have given him the luxury of staying away from films, but his selectiveness has played no small part in influencing the films he chooses to headline. “I do things that make me happy – it is difficult for me to do things I don’t want to do,” he said. “If I don’t want to do something, it doesn’t come naturally to me.”

The reporters at the Dear Dad launch event were puzzled about Swamy’s failure to act in Hindi films after the success of the dubbed versions of Roja and Bombay, but it’s not hard to see why Swamy didn’t cross over or, for that matter, emerge as a mega-star back home. He didn’t fit into the mould of the earthy and massy Tamil hero, and his Hindi skills would have been too limited for Mumbai.

“I would keep searching for scripts that made sense to me, and it was difficult to get scripts that were not conventionally structured,” Swamy said. “These days, you find more of these films.”

Dear Dad is in a mixture of Hindi and English, and Swamy has spoken his own lines. The movie’s 27-year-old director, Tanuj Bhramar, is a Doon School alumnus who based the story on his experiences of regularly travelling with his father from his home in Delhi to Dehradun.

“I had seen Arvind Swamy in Roja and Bombay as a kid, and he stuck with me,” Bhramar said. “I wanted a lead who would exhume the warmth that sir [Swamy] gives. When we met him, I kept harping on the fact that the movie was about a father-son relationship, and what pulled him into the film was this certain conversation that the father needs to have with his son.”

‘Tu Hi Re’ from ‘Bombay’.

Bhramar might have something of a casting coup on his hands, but if Swamy is excited about appearing in a Hindi movie for the first time since Saat Rang Ka Sapne in 1998, it is not evident in his cool demeanour. He is likely to discover a new fan base after Dear Dad, but will he be able to handle it?

“I am not comfortable with this extreme adulation,” Swamy said. “I am a pretty solitary person, and I keep to myself. I don’t even watch too many films.”

Swamy has famously spoken out against the Tamil fan association culture, and says he was horrified by letters written in blood by female admirers. “I discouraged the fan club culture, but this is not to say that others should not do it – it’s just that it didn’t work for me,” Swamy said. “I don’t see these things as an achievement or an accomplishment. I don’t want people to be obligated to say that they like my work. Freedom is very important to me, and if you are committed to a star as a fan, you cannot say that you didn’t like a particular movie.”

His fame on the screen hasn’t hindered his business deals. “Fame can sometimes be a negative when it comes to business, because people may think that you are not serious or capable,” he said. “But nobody gives you work because of how famous you are.”

Some actors crave the limelight, and there are the rare few who are comfortable before the camera but are equally happy to stand on the sidelines once the shot is finished.

Why act at all then, since it can be deeply unsatisfying? “I am a problem solver,” Swamy replied. “I like the process and mechanics of filmmaking, the technical aspects, the options that you have to shoot and edit scenes. I have always found this process intriguing, and I like to debate or discuss whether a character should do something or not. I enjoy these creative aspects of cinema. I don’t get act in a film if I cannot be involved with its script. ”

These days, Swamy is mostly interested in the kind of roles that audiences will not expect out of him. He sounds like his character from Dear Dad, who is “on a journey that he knows he wants to be on, but he doesn’t know the final destination”. He also wants to direct movies in which he might not necessarily feature. Whether he likes it or not, fame is always going to tag along as Arvind Swamy’s travelling companion.