Madhavan’s last outing was the gripping Tamil neo-noir Vikram Vedha (2017), directors Gayathri and Pushkar’s modern adaptation of the Vikram-Betaal stories.
Madhavan plays Vikram, a corrupt encounter cop forced into a moral conundrum by an intelligent gangster, Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi). Like in the folk tales, Vikram is constantly asked to choose between two, often difficult, choices, and choose he must.
In more ways than one, Vikram seems to be the perfect culmination of a phase that Madhavan has been in for the past seven years. He has been researching audience tastes, keeping track of upcoming directors and films, and making calculated choices. The question that he has been asking himself ever since he went on a self-imposed sabbatical in 2011 was this: “Adutha katthathukku yaaru kootindu povanga (Who is going to take me to the next big thing)?”
The stakes are high. “My judgments or my decisions shouldn’t cost anyone money,” the actor told Scroll.in. “My producer should be able to make money, even if it is a little money, because of a decision I have made.”
The decision to pick his next role, in the Amazon Prime Video web series Breathe, was made after careful deliberation and initial reluctance. “For about five years now, I have been toying with the idea of starring in a web series,” Madhavan said. “But the content that was being streamed on platforms from India was not very encouraging. Our audiences are already conditioned to a certain quality thanks to the international exposure they’ve had with Game of Thrones or House of Cards. I wanted to enter the web with a series that competes with these international players.”
Breathe, directed by Mayank Sharma and also starring Amit Sadh, Neena Kulkarni and Sapna Pabbi, will be premiered on January 26 on Amazon Prime Video.
The fact that experienced Bollywood producer Vikram Malhotra was producing the series for Amazon pushed Madhavan to sign up. “I’d already worked with Vikram, and it had been a rewarding experience,” he said. “So with an open mind, I decided to listen to the story, and thank god I did. This was an entry that nobody could have designed for me.”
Madhavan plays Danny Mascarenhas, a father who is pushed into extraordinary circumstances by his son’s illness. The character has grey shades. “Danny is someone who has to make a moral choice of sticking to the law or doing what it takes to protect a loved one,” Madhavan explained. “It’s a role I’ve never done before. So, in terms of preparation too, I’ve never been in such a situation, and I hope to god no one ever has to be. All I could do was draw from my life experiences about how to deal with a child. But the rest of it was prompted by the script. The challenge was too tempting to pass up.”
Madhavan burst onto the scene with Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000), a romantic drama and a runaway hit. He had already appeared in the Hindi television shows Banegi Apni Baat, Ghar Jamai and Saaya. His first role in a feature film was as a singer in a bar in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi in 1996. This was followed by the Kannada film Shanti Shanti Shanti.
“I entered the film industry with absolutely nothing,” Madhavan said. “I felt extremely privileged. Everyone had told me that I had done so many television series that I’d never become a film actor. Since I didn’t want to be an actor in the first place, I thought the fact that I was getting roles was a bonus, and I was happy with it. I was wondering when all of it would end. The plan was to go back to another job which would keep my lifestyle alive.”
Then Mani Ratnam called him.
“It was amusing,” he recalled. “Really? It was such an out of body experience. But yes, to my credit, when the crew said action, I was completely there as an actor. When the film became immensely successful, I was again really surprised. Am I getting credit for this? Really?”
What followed was a combination of hits and misses. “Various films followed, some of which were mistakes,” he said. “It was only around Run and Anbe Sivam that things really changed. Kamal [Haasan] sir called me and said he wanted to do a film with me and said both of us would be parallel leads. Everybody in the industry said, don’t do it. He is a superstar and you’ll hardly have anything to do. Again, I was like, really? I felt it was a chance for me to share the frame with a legend. And I won the best actor award. It was only then that I realised that people were taking me very seriously as an actor.”
Madhavan’s career can be clearly divided into the phase before and after Anbe Sivam. Loosely inspired by Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), the drama follows two contrasting fellow travellers, one a union leader (Haasan) and the other an advertising filmmaker (Madhavan) on his way to his wedding. “I realised that it was no longer enough to do films that were as good as others,” Madhavan said about the movie’s impact. “I had to develop my own style and niche. That’s when I decided to take a sabbatical. It lasted up to 2015. During that time, I put in a lot of work in understanding the audience, the medium, looking around the corner to see what’s coming up – probably the reason why I decided to do a web series today.”
Breathe is not the first time that Madhavan is playing a father. In Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), Madhavan plays a writer who is the father of three children, included the adopted Amudha. “There is a huge difference in the two father roles,” the 47-year-old actor explained. “When I played Thiruchelvan in Kannathil Muthamittal, I hadn’t become a father yet. This time, with Danny, I know what it feels like to be a father. The body language, therefore, automatically changed. The way you hug a child changes, for instance. Also, when I was doing Kannathil Muthamittal and such similar films, I was in the hands of very competent directors. So I would leave it entirely to their discretion about whether a shot was okay or not. I was just happy to follow. Now, I feel I’m at a stage where I have to lead. So, I draw from my real-life experiences and make it as real as I can.”
The stakes may be high, but success or failure doesn’t linger for too long, the actor pointed out. “Once the film is over, while I wait for the results, I take a holiday and forget about it,” he said. “If it is a success, I celebrate for a day and if it is failure, I mope around for a day. And then move on.”
The characters he has played, including Farhan in 3 Idiots (2009) and Manu in the blockbusters Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and the 2015 sequel Tanu Weds Manu Returns, stay with him only during the shoot.
“I retained a boy-like quality during 3 Idiots, a maniacal, physically angry guy when I was doing Ayudha Ezhuthu, a submissive husband when I was shooting Tanu Weds Manu and so on,” he said. “But I’m not one of those method actors who have to do things to get out of a role and all.”
How does he prepare?
“When I accept a role, I’ve already started thinking about which aspect of my life I can draw from,” Madhavan said. “I make mental notes and keep it there. But there is no intense research or acting in front of a mirror to see how it looks. I like to go to the set, figure out the reality of the moment, and be tuned to how everyone else is performing. I’m not the only one. The overall content should ring and resonate as one homogeneous organism and so you have to match energy levels with others and perform together.”