When filmmaker Ramkumar narrated the story of his serial killer thriller Ratsasan (Demon) to Vishnu Vishal, the actor, like other A-listers who had been approached before him, was initially hesitant. Vishal was apprehensive about carrying off a heavy role that needed him to play a swaggering police officer hunting a serial killer on the loose.

“But the director came back with one change in the film and it caught my interest,” Vishal, who is better known as Vishnu, told Scroll.in over the phone from Chennai. “The character was turned into a cop who never actually wanted to become a police officer. So the body language is very subtle and there is no swagger at all.”

On the strength of favourable reviews and swelling audiences, Ratsasan has picked up pace since its release on October 5 and has now opened to more screens in different parts of the country. The film’s cast includes Amala Paul, Kaali Venkat and Ramdoss.

“It is good to know that audiences are willing to watch anybody on the screen provided the acting and content are good,” Vishnu said. “There are no particular prerequisites for a film to do well anymore.”

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Ratsasan (2018).

Ratsasan revolves around the cat-and-mouse game between Arun (Vishnu) and a serial killer on the prowl. While the serial killer genre is anything but new to Tamil cinema, Ratsasan stood out for its realistic and grounded character sketches, Vishnu observed.

“When we usually talk about psychopaths in films, they are loud,” the actor said. “But this character really interested me as he does not even speak in the film. How somebody who does not want to be a cop and who barely speaks is behind a serial killer seemed like a very powerful story to me.”

Vishnu’s preparation involved spending his spare hours in a deserted room in an effort to internalise a feeling of discomfort. “We started off the shoot in this particularly small room, which is my character’s room in the movie,” he said. “All the four walls in the room had photos and details of all the psychopaths from the world. I used to sit in the room for hours even during break time to experience that discomfort.”

Ratsasan. Courtesy Axess Film Factory.
Ratsasan. Courtesy Axess Film Factory.

Like Arun in the film, Vishnu’s career choice was accidental. The 34-year-old actor was once a professional cricketer playing for Tamil Nadu with dreams of joining the national team. However, Vishnu’s dream was cut short by an injury, after which he found his calling in acting after some persuasion from his family.

“I am not from a film background, so I never knew I was going to end up in films,” Vishnu said. “You give me a cricket bat and I will play anywhere in the world. But in those few months I was bedridden, I took an interest in cinema as I spent my time watching a lot of movies.”

The actor rose to fame with his debut in Suseenthiran’s Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu (2009), in which he played Marimuthu, a spirited kabbadi player in a small town in Tamil Nadu. After a few box office duds, more roles in multi-starrers followed, including Ramkumar’s Mundasupatti (2014) and Indru Netru Naalai (2015).

This was when the actor realised that it was time to pick more character-heavy roles. “It was time to change gears,” Vishnu said. “If I was going to continue the same pattern, I was going to be stuck. So I took my first step with Kathanayagan [the 2017 film]. Even though it did not work, that was my first film in a lead role and it gave me confidence. Ratsasan too was a conscious decision to take up films that let me perform more.”

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Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu (2009).

Vishnu’s journey in a film industry that has its fair share of second-generation actors hasn’t been without struggle and years of rejection.

“There was a time when I was about to quit cinema, and on one such day I went to watch a cricket match at Chepauk stadium,” he recalled. “The moment I entered, this player, who was my junior, scored a six. And suddenly there was a cheer behind me. Rajinikanth sir had come. At that moment, I felt that I was in neither place and felt like a loser in both cricket and cinema.” A few months after that day, Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu came his way.

The key to surviving in a competitive industry is in taking criticism constructively, Vishnu observed. “I have always tried to do better when people put me down,” he said. “I always look out for criticism so that I understand what to do better.”

After having bagged the production rights to the Hindi remake of Ratsasan, the actor will be seen in Prabhu Solomon’s wildlife drama Kaadan alongside Rana Daggubati and the police comedy Silukkuvarupatti Singam. “It has been a great journey,” he said.