Tovino Thomas is one of Malayalam cinema’s most bankable stars. For someone who was until recently playing supporting roles – most notably alongside Mohanlal in Koothara (2014) and Prithviraj in Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015) – Thomas’s rise as a leading man is nothing short of phenomenal. In 2017 alone, the 29-year-old actor had three hits: Oru Mexican Apartha, Godha and Mayaanadhi.
A software engineer by profession, Thomas gave it up for modeling. Films followed in 2012 with his debut in Prabhuvinte Makkal. Thomas has two releases this year, including the bilingual Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum in Malayalam (and Abhiyum Anuvum in Tamil) alongside Pia Bajpai on May 25, and Theevandi and the Dhanush-led Tamil movie Maari 2 in October. Excerpts from an interview.
You star opposite Dhanush in ‘Maari 2’. ‘Maari’ is one of the biggest hits in Dhanush’s career. How’s it been working on the sequel?
Dhanush is someone I look up to and admire. He’s the youngest actor to win a National Film Award [for Aadukalam]. He’s also going to make a mark internationally with The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir.
I play the villain. I have a meaty role and you will see me in two get-ups. Whenever we were doing our scenes together, I’d always apologise and ask for a retake. But Dhanush would understand that I was working in a different language and he told me he’d do the same when he did Bollywood films. He taught me that the only thing that matters on screen is the output.
I studied in Coimbatore for four years and then worked in Chennai for two. So I’m okay speaking Tamil. I don’t have enough command over it where I can improvise. But I’m a director’s actor and I turn to them for improvisation. Every day, I talk to the director, be it the Tamil or Malayalam film that I’m working on, just so I know what they want from me.
Maari 2 is also being released in Telugu. I don’t speak a word of that. But I’m told it’s easier than both Malayalam and Tamil.
Are you considering doing more Tamil movies?
For me, Malayalam films remain the most important. I don’t want to do more Tamil films just for the sake of it. My fan base is in Malayalam cinema, and that’s where I want it to be. There are many offers of Tamil films, but nothing that I’ve said yes to as of now.
Your director in ‘Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum’ is cinematographer BR Vijayalakshmi. You’ve only ever worked with male directors. Did you respond to her differently?
I don’t judge people on the basis of gender. I’m a director’s actor, and I surrender completely to them.
Vijayalakshmi led with experience. She knew how to get work done and to get the best out of people. Most of my other directors have been pretty new guys. So it was great to work with someone who has done 22 films and is an experienced hand.
In Malayalam cinema, however, there are accusations of misogyny. Actresses have come out to criticise the industry, especially after an attack on an actress in 2017.
Let’s talk about the film Devasuram. In it, Mohanlal’s character insults Bhanumathi, played by Revathy. But as the film progresses, he repents and apologises to her. The film’s script demands it but later redeems itself.
I have a wife, a sister, mother and a daughter. As an actor, I do what is expected of me, but I am conscious that the script should be balanced out.
Eight films as a lead actor and most of them hits – what are your considerations before agreeing to a project?
As an actor, I want critical acclaim and yet, I want the film to be entertaining and make money for everyone. I want the film to work on three levels – for me as an artist, for the audience and for those who put money into it.
So the script is my very first consideration. If I feel that I’d like to go and watch this film when I read the script, I say yes to it. Then of course, what’s my character. I don’t worry if it’s a supporting role. I like variety in my on-screen persona. You see this in all my roles, be it Ennu Ninte Moideen or Guppy or ABCD.
You’re known for constantly changing your look. In ‘Godha’, you bulked up like a wrestler; in ‘Guppy’, you had unkempt hair; in ‘Ezra’, you were every inch a police officer.
For me, my look is the first step in the role I’m going to play. When I put on the make-up, I stop being Tovino and I become that character. I believe that if I change my look, I also change my behaviour.
Also, I feel that if I change one thing, I look different. For example, I finished playing a chain smoker in Maradona, which is out in June 22, at 2.30am. The next day, I shaved and was on the sets of Aami, playing Krishnan.
You’re a fashion icon. Young people in Kerala religiously copy your hair, your look.
I don’t actually have much hair! On a serious note, my fashion statement is simple: I wear whatever’s comfortable. When young men watch me, they feel my look is comfortable enough for them to copy it.
And to women, you’re a desirable man.
That’s a compliment. I move between being a fitness freak to a couch potato and then back again to fitness. I’m not one of those genetically blessed people with high metabolism, but I have worked hard for a good body.
You’re one of the most famous faces in Kerala. But fame has a price. What has it been for you?
There are privacy issues. When I go out with my family, people take pictures. But when people push my wife and my child out of the way, that’s when a line is crossed.
Crowds have a different character; they can be cruel. They treat actors like elephants. Everybody wants to look at an elephant and pull at it. What they don’t realise is that elephants feel the pain too.
You’re one of the busiest actors in Malayalam cinema at the moment. Do you ever stop working?
I work every day. People are waiting for my dates and I hate to keep them waiting. And so I can’t rest. Abhiyude Kadha Anuvinteyum is out this week; Maradona and Theevandi in June; Maari 2 in October.
You’ve said that you want to make your presence felt in Hollywood.
I want international acclaim. I can do good work and compete on an international scale. My work standards are high.