Kay Kay Menon never really went away – we saw him as recently as 2017 in the wartime drama The Ghazi Attack, but the big meaty role that lets him dominate the screen rather than exhibit his talent from the sidelines has evaded the actor of late.

Might Vodka Diaries be that movie? In Kushal Srivastava’s murder mystery, Kay Kay Menon plays Assistant Commissioner of Police Ashwini Dixit, who is in charge of cracking the whodunit.

“Vodka Diaries is the name of a club around which strange things begin to happen,” Menon said about the January 19 release. “The film is unique in the way that it is not just a whodunit but a human story. Unlike other murder mysteries, where if you know the plot you know the film, in this, you’ll be carrying the film home because it is also a human story.”

This is not the first time that Menon has been an investigating officer in a career that has spanned over two decades. He played Mumbai police officer Rakesh Maria in Black Friday, an inspector in Tera Kya Hoga Johnny, a Central Board of Investigation officer in Rahasya and an investigator in Bombay Velvet.

All these characters are different from one another, the 51-year-old actor explained. “I always tell people that I perform people, not roles,” he said. “For me, the fact that a character is an ACP or a DCP or a professor is purely incidental. If I’m playing Mahesh the cop and Suresh the cop, I’m actually playing Mahesh and Suresh the individuals. When people ask me if I’m playing the role of an ACP in Vodka Diaries, I say no. I’m actually playing Ashwini Dixit, the man.”

Vodka Diaries has the potential to charm audiences, Menon added. “If a story is well told and if a director’s intentions are noble and have integrity – and you can immediately make that out – then that’s enough for me to proceed,” he said. “For me, these criteria were met in Srivastava’s film. I’m not going to talk about whether the film will be a part of the different box-office clubs of 100 and 200 crores and all that. All I know is that Vodka Diaries is a club, which is fantastic.”

Vodka Diaries (2018).

Krishnakumar Menon alias Kay Kay Menon quietly entered the film industry in 1995 with Saeed Mirza’s Naseem, which is set in Mumbai during the lead-up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Menon plays a Muslim fundamentalist.

Four years later, Menon was the lead in Mahesh Mathai’s Bhopal Express, a drama set against the backdrop of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Anurag Kashyap’s searing debut Paanch in 2003 could have transformed Menon’s fortunes, but it faced problems first from the censor board and then from its producer, Menon plays the dangerously charismatic and murderous lead singer of a rock band.

Paanch has been privately circulated and pirated enough to seal Menon’s reputation for delivering barnstorming performances. “Paanch is a film that had raised the expectations I had from my career,” Menon recalled. “And it is a good thing that I learnt a lesson from the entire experience. I learnt that things can go completely haywire. A film may not even get released. I also realised that the film industry does not consider performances in films that do not get released. Paanch was the most seen despite its status as an unreleased film. It was supposed to give me recognition but it didn’t really provoke any substantial work for me. That’s when I realised that only when your film is released can you expect work to come to you.”

Paanch (2003).

It was Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar (2005), Menon believes, that finally changed things for him. Varma’s tribute to The Godfather sees Menon as the psychotic son of Amitabh Bachchan’s Don Corleone-meets-Bal Thackeray character.

“After Sarkar, I didn’t have to introduce myself as an actor,” Menon said. “But that didn’t mean that my career took off after that either. There were lots of misses alongside the few successes. The patronage I’ve received as an actor has not been consistent, even after films like Gulaal and Black Friday. My career is peppered with a lot of performances that end up being lauded some five years after my films come out. They are then appreciated as god’s work. Barring Sarkar, which was appreciated when it was released – also because (Amitabh) Bachchan Saab was there – my other films, whether it is Shaurya, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd or Sankat City, didn’t find much backing when they were released. Recently, of course films like Haider and The Ghazi Attack did find some support. But it has been a mixture.”

Menon says that he has not allowed the tumult in his career to affect him. Had he done so, he says, he would have been in a “mad house” by now.

“I really believed that my performance alone was enough to blow everyone’s mind and transform my destiny,” Menon said. “But that doesn’t necessarily happen. Today, I value an actor’s ability to perform consistently well. I’d like to live my entire life doing that. Then I’ll feel that I’ve been a decent actor. It cannot be just one or two good films. I want my work to outlive me.”

Gulaal (2009).

Menon describes his process of preparing for a role as “boring and elaborate”. He voraciously reads and re-reads the script to the point of exhaustion – a process he compared to Aladdin and his magic lamp.

“Alladin has to keep on rubbing the lamp and slowly, a form comes out of it,” Menon said. “That’s how I prepare. I work with a script until all of a sudden, when you don’t expect it, a form of the character begins to emerge. That’s what I wait for. It requires a lot of boring hard work.”

On the sets, he trusts his instincts to know if he has given a good take or not. He never looks at the camera monitor. “An actor’s eyes reveal how steeped he is in the character,” Menon said. “A monitor cannot tell you. Also, I’m what I term an impressionist actor. Not a dialogue baazi actor. I always feel that posthumously, I will not be known for the lines I have said in a film but for my overall performances. For instance, my goal is that by the time you exit the cinema hall, you would have met Ashwini Dixit in flesh and blood.”

Good roles are hard to come by, admits Menon, since the tendency is to stereotype actors. “The fact still remains that most of the time scripts are governed by the marketing department of the production,” the actor said. “That’s where the problem lies, because you are being disloyal to storytelling. Both marketing and storytelling are departments that need to be separate. I try to pick from the specific pool of interesting roles, though I’d like more of it.”

Menon has many projects in the pipeline, some of which have been struggling to see the light of day. One such film is Navneet Behal’s San 75 (Pachattar), which is set in 1975 and talks about the arrival of the first mobile phone in the country. The makers released a trailer in June 2016, but there has been no announcement since about the film’s release date.

“I’m as intrigued as you are about when it will be out,” Menon said. “That is also a movie that is well done. It is just that the producers are still finding space and the money to release the film.”

San 75 (Pachattar).