In Zee5’s latest Tamil series Thiravam, Ravi Prakasam claims to have invented a herbal alternative to petrol, a discovery that makes him the target of the fossil fuel lobby. Ravi is played by 36-year-old Tamil actor Prasanna, who is almost unrecognisable as a middle-aged scientist with grey hair and a pot belly.

Released on May 21, Thiravam has been directed by cinematographer Arvind Krishna and is loosely based on Ramar Pillai, the scientist from Tamil Nadu whose claims of having invented a herbal fuel in 1996 were exposed as a hoax.

Prasanna made his acting debut in Susi Ganeshan’s friendship drama Five Star (2002). In Azhagiye Theeye (2004), Prasanna played Chandran, a struggling filmmaker who shares an apartment with three friends. In Achchamundu! Achchamundu! (2009), he is a father whose suburban American life is disrupted when a paedophile enters his house. In Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013), he plays a groom-to-be with erectile dysfunction (the film was remade in Hindi in 2017 as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan).

Prasanna’s performances won him critical acclaim, but box-office success has been mixed. He took a break from acting in 2014, and returned three years later with Nibunan (2017), Thupparivaalan (2017) and Thiruttu Payale 2 (2017). “I love what I am getting and where I am today,” Prasanna said over the phone from Chennai. Excerpts from an interview.

What is the story behind ‘Thiravam’?
Arvind [Krishna] sir and I have come a long way. We recently worked together in Nibunan. When things got confirmed for the series, Arvind sir called me. When you speak about herbal petrol, Ramar Pillai is the first name that pops up. But this is not a biopic on him. We have taken his story as an inspiration and made a fictional series around it.

Your character is a scientist with some tricks up his sleeve. How did you approach the role?
This character posed a lot of challenges. I had to look older. But I enjoyed this transformation.

He is a very simple man and his world is very small, it revolves around his daughter. He is someone who does not aspire to become a millionaire. There is a constant threat to his life, and he is worried for the people around him. In the middle of all this, he somehow wants to achieve everything he wants to. He concentrates more on his work than his appearance. He does not care if he is well-dressed or has a pot belly.

Thiravam (2019).

You took a break from acting after 2014.
I am happy I took that break. I focussed on my fitness. I am thankful to my trainer, who inspired me to go through that transformation. People had not seen me like that before. That really made me believe in myself more. Getting back to a completely opposite, out-of-shape role for Thiravam was very difficult.

But I am really enjoying this process of getting ready for roles and changing my lifestyle and routines. I am happy and content. I definitely wanted to introspect and rethink about what I have to do in terms of films. I hope exciting scripts keep coming to me.

You began your career with such offbeat films as ‘Azhagiya Theeye’ and ‘Kanda Naal Mudhal’. How do you look back on these films today?
You feel like they could have done better. But there is no point thinking about that. I enjoyed making these films. They might have not had a good run, but they have a good shelf life. People are still talking about them.

I am not drawn to the run-of-the mill films where the hero keeps stalking the girl and makes her fall in love with him. That is not something I ever want to do. The choices that I got were very limited, but these were the films that excited me and made me take the leap.

Kanda Naal Mudhal (2005).

Your choices were different from most of your peers. What were you looking for?
I was never sure about what I was doing. I was doing those films only because they excited me. A lot of people told me if I did Anjathey [Mysskin’s 2008 thriller], where I had a villain role, people might just stop calling me for lead roles. But that did not stop me or make me worry about my choices. I loved being Daya in Anjathey.

There are very few films I was unhappy with. I was definitely unsure of what I was doing. Even now, I would love to do a commercial film. But I want to do believable, enjoyable and sensible commercial films.

How do you cope with the highs of the hits and the lows of the flops?
I had the dream of becoming an actor right from my school days. So I had never thought of myself in any other profession. If not for acting, I don’t know what else I would do. That is the scariest thought I can ever have.

So I don’t let success or failure affect me. I have done my job and I am doing my job with utmost sincerity. Whatever the result, I have to take it. I am trying to make myself better with every film and every choice I make.

Was ‘Kalyana Samayal Saadham’ ahead of its time? Its remake, ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’, was a hit in Hindi.
Maybe it was, but we knew our target audience when we made the film. We were making it for an elite segment. A film also needs strong backing to hold until audiences come to the theatres. Maybe in that way, the film could have had better support.

Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013).

You made your debut with the Mani Ratnam production ‘Five Star’ in 2002. How difficult was it to break into the industry without any connections?
I was in the second year of my engineering course when I saw an advertisement on Vijay TV that Madras Talkies was looking for new faces for their next film. I sent some pictures and did a few interviews. Out of 8,000 applicants, they filtered it down to two, and fortunately, I was one of the two people. I am happy Five Star happened. It changed my life.

But yes, it was difficult. Entering the industry was a difficult choice because I had two years of my degree to be completed after Five Star. I did not know if people would remember me if I took a two-year break. I am happy I pursued my dream.

It took me almost six to seven years to get accustomed to things. I was an introvert, and did not know how to approach people. Luckily, Azhagiye Theeye happened. That film opened a lot of doors for me. I was introduced to Prakash Raj, and he gave me the direction I needed.

Five Star (2002).

Which films stand out for you among your earlier credits?
I was very lucky to have the best technicians for Kanda Naal Mudhal. We had PC Sreeram, Sreekar Prasad, Thota Tharani, Yuvan Shankar Raja and Priya [the director] from Mani sir’s stable. At that stage of my career, I could not have asked for a better team.

Anjathey was also special because I had to become someone completely different from my own personality. We did a lot of rehearsals, but nothing worked until we went on the shoot. The first shot changed everything.

What kind of offers are you getting these days?
I still want to go by the spontaneity and trust I had with my earlier films. It’s okay to be unsure. Having come across so many disappointing results for all the hard work I put in, I do not expect anything. I love my work, and want to keep working. I love what I am getting and where I am today.

Nibunan (2017).