As the Kannada edition of reality television series Bigg Boss returned for its fifth season on Sunday, actor Sudeep, a staple on the show since it began, was back as its host. Like his counterpart Salman Khan in the longer-running Hindi edition, Sudeep’s mandate on the reality show, in which a group of contestants stay cooped up in a house and are observed through cameras, is to act as an interface between the participants and the audience. Five seasons on, the 44-year-old actor says his involvement with the show is now more than 100%.

“When I started hosting the show, I hadn’t seen an episode of Bigg Boss,” said Sudeep, a popular name not just in Kannada cinema but in the Hindi and Telugu industries as well. “I had heard about the format though. I agreed to host it simply because I was a little free and I thought it was good money. But then, a few episodes later, I began to develop a different connection with the show. I began learning a lot about human behaviour.”

Bigg Boss, one of India’s longest running reality shows, is based on the international Big Brother franchise. Explaining the popularity of concept, Sudeep said it struck a chord because Big Boss was a bit like life itself. “Just like it is on the show, even off-screen, our lives are under scrutiny in some way or the other,” he said. “There are people who are out to get you or finish you off in life as well. The real reason why the show is this successful across languages is because we as a culture are always curious about what is happening with our neighbours.”

Based on Sudeep’s recommendation, the makers have introduced a “chat over cooking” segment this season, which will be aired along with the episodes on Sundays. “My responsibility as a host now is to make it better, especially from the point of view of entertainment,” he said. “There is very little that one can do by way of preparation because all you have to do is react to stuff. What’s beautiful about Bigg Boss is that you don’t have to plan or prepare for it to get interesting. It happens automatically.”

The actor in him, Sudeep said, was drawn to the show because of the opportunity to observe different kinds of people. “One particular situation evokes so many different reactions from so many people living temporarily under one roof,” he said. “These many different perspectives, you do not get to see in your daily life.”

When Sudeep completed his engineering degree and ventured into Kannada cinema, he had three goals: “To become an actor, have one houseful show and lastly, one blockbuster,” said Sudeep. In the 20 years since his debut in 1997, he has achieved far more than he set out for. Apart from being one of the most popular names in Kannada cinema, he is also sought after in other film industries. Ram Gopal Varma’s Phoonk in 2008 marked his Bollywood debut and he ventured into Telugu cinema in 2012 with SS Rajamouli’s Eega, which was followed by a role in the director’s 2015 blockbuster Baahubali: The Beginning. He is now all set to make his Hollywood debut with a yet to be titled sci-fi thriller. His upcoming projects in Kannada include Prem’s The Villain and Krishna’s Pailwaan.

Journey to the top

Sudeep made a quiet entry into films with V Umakanth’s Thayavva (1997). His first big hit was Huccha (2001), a remake of the Tamil film Sethu. This was followed by Valee (2001), a remake of the Tamil movie Vaali, which laid the foundation for the grey characters that were to become his trademark.

He acted in a few action and romantic dramas such as Chandu (2002), Dhumm (2002) and Nandi (2002) before bursting onto the scene with the immensely popular Kiccha (2003), a film about a college graduate’s struggle to find work.

After a steady stream of hits and misses, Sudeep decided that he needed take stock and perhaps chart the road ahead for his career. “In 2008 or 2009, I came across a film magazine that had ranked actors,” Sudeep recalled. “The first row had four heroes followed by six more in the second row. I was ranked third all the way in the third row. I spent a lot of time with that page of the magazine trying to understand how the writers had rated the actors. I felt I deserved to be somewhere at the top.”

He concluded that the rankings were based largely on box office collections, especially in the first week of the release. “I came into cinema through the commercial route with such films as My Autograph, No. 73 Shanthi Nivasa and Just Maath Maathalli,” Sudeep said. “Then why was I ranked all the way there? I felt I needed to crack the formula for the films that sell like hot cakes. I decided to change my path and gave myself five years to succeed.”

Then came Kempegowda (2011), a remake of the Tamil Singam that Sudeep directed and starred in, which became a runaway success. “If you notice, my films from Kempegowda onwards have been drastically different,” he said. “Take a film like Manikya (2014). It is commercial, yes, but the way I dress up and position myself in the film is very different. I realised that it was entertainment that people were looking for. That revelation changed my life.”

Kempegowda (2011).

Thereafter, the way Sudeep chose scripts changed. “I began listening to a script from a viewer’s perspective,” he said. “I want to know what a person who spends Rs 60 on a ticket expects. I want to know what excites him. I devoted my time to understanding my audience. Even today, when my film releases, I’m in the theatre, in the operator’s room watching all four shows. In the morning show, you can hardly hear anything, forget dialogues. It calms down by the matinee show – you get a better reading on what the audience thinks of the film. From the operator’s room, I keep watching the crowd and make a note of all their reactions.”

Sudeep is clear about two things: there is no alternative to commercial cinema and he is here in the film business to entertain. “I know that for as long as I’m here, I want to entertain,” he said. “When I cook something for myself, I needn’t care so much about how it is. But when I’m cooking for you, I need to take your tastes into account. My audiences are my clients. I need to cater to them, irrespective of my desires, ethics and logic. A film like Baahubali is nothing but a film full of commercial elements, focused on entertainment.”

But does he worry about commercial cinema becoming too formulaic? “I only believe in giving a viewer what he wants,” Sudeep said. “The minute the viewer is tired of the formula, he or she will make it clear and it will reflect in the box office report. See, I’m nothing without my audience. They have given me an identity. It is a market at the end of the day and what you’re delivering is a product.”

Kotigobba 2 (2016).

Outside Kannada cinema

Some of Sudeep’s most popular movies are remakes. “Out of say 75 films, I have probably done only 13 films that are remakes, but you remember them because they’ve all been hits,” the actor pointed out. “Why not do remakes? When I went and bought the rights of Autograph, it was the 78th day of the film’s run in Chennai and nobody had touched it. I thought I wouldn’t get it. I remade Vikramarkudu two years after it was made. I think it all boils down to judgment. And that judgment happens because of a combination of factors.”

In Sudeep’s filmography outside Kannada, one of his most memorable roles has been the villain in Rajamouli’s popular revenge thriller Eega, in which the hero turns into a housefly after his death and tries to protect his lover. Sudeep plays the antagonist in the film, and the ire of the fly is directed towards him. “What excited me about Eega was the opportunity to do mono-acting,” Sudeep said. “I realised that the film’s name [literally translating to “fly”]...means that the boy has to die really quickly for the fly to come out. That means it is a story between me and the fly. I was incredibly excited by the idea.”

Eega was a turning point in Sudeep’s career. “During Eega, I realised that I was working with one of India’s most fabulous technicians,” he said. “Rajamouli understands the pulse of the audience. He defines a fight in a different way, a song in a different way. He is not a director who sits on a chair. He wants to dabble in everything. He is clear about what he wants. Once I got the film, all I wanted to do was make sure nobody lifted a finger at Rajamouli for choosing me.”

Eega (2013).

Despite success in films outside the Kannada industry, Sudeep’s roles in Telugu, Hindi and Tamil cinema have been few and far between. “I like a trip somewhere once in a while, a fruitful one, but I’m most comfortable at home,” he said. “I don’t want to be too ambitious such that I lose a home.”

He also has not undertaken a directorial project since Manikya in 2014. “I’m catering myself to all those people who are writing for me right now,” said Sudeep. “There was a phase when hardly anyone was writing roles for me. I strongly believe that an actor doesn’t die because of a flop film. He dies the day when everybody stops writing for him. Right now, all I want to be is a shade of colour in someone else’s painting.”