Neeraj Madhav, the breakout star of Prime Video’s series The Family Man, is a popular face in Kerala. The 29-year-old dancer-actor, who made his screen debut in 2003, has worked in over 23 mainstream Malayalam films, and tried his hand at choreography and screenwriting. In The Family Man, directed by Raj and DK, he plays Moosa Rahman, one of the central characters, and the most complex character Neeraj has ever portrayed on screen.
A chemical engineer from IIT, Moosa travels to Syria to join the ISIS, and, on return, lands in the hands of a team of Indian intelligence officers, led by Srikant Tiwari, played by Manoj Bajpayee. In the series spanning over 10 episodes, Neeraj delineates Moosa’s nearly impenetrable personality and deceptive body language.
Neeraj is the first Malayali actor to make a foray into the OTT space. “The audience in Kerala is yet to warm up to digital platforms. Barring a few short series on YouTube, there is absolutely no Malayalam original content on streaming websites. Most of the responses I’m getting on my performance are from strangers from different parts of the country. This has never happened to me before,”he beams.
“Web shows have a distinct appeal,” says Neeraj, who has always been an avid follower of OTT platforms. “I am a fan of long-format shows such as Mindhunter and The Expanse. You easily get hooked to them, especially since they let can be watched anywhere and anytime, on your phone screen or laptops.”
The audition call came a year ago, from a casting agency in Mumbai. “I was told that it was for an upcoming web series. At that time, web series were still in the nascent stage in India. I sought a briefing on my character, and, to my surprise, DK, one of the show creators, gave me a call. He said they had already done basic research on my work, and asked if I could do an audition in Hindi.”
Raj and DK were particular that a South Indian actor should play Moosa Rahman, who is from Kerala’s Kasaragod district. “They have made a genuine effort to have a pan-Indian cast. One of the characters who is Tamil is played by Priyamani, and a Kashmiri militant is played by an actor from Kashmir.”
There were some initial jitters and apprehensions, but Neeraj, finally, went into the project with an open mind. “The film explores the emotional side of a terrorist, who is usually depicted in media and elsewhere as a uni-dimensional killing machine. Raj and DK wanted to go through Moosa’s past and his thought process. Since he isn’t a ‘usual’ character, I didn’t have any reference. I decided to trust my instinct, and focus on the emotional side of the scenes.”
The production of The Family Man was a long and gruelling process that went on for over eight months, in various locations in and outside the country. During this period, Neeraj took a break from the Malayalam film industry. He was finalised for a role in Nitesh Tiwari’s recently-released Chhichhore, which he had to let go of. He has no regrets, for the new medium has opened up to him a whole different and exciting world. “A web series offers an actor a great opportunity to be the character for a longer period of time. You can delve into every minute detail. You get more screen-space than what you get in a feature film…” he says.
The shooting was largely script-bound. “The makers had a brilliant vision on how the show should unfurl. Everything you needed to know was in there.” His brilliant co-actor Manoj Bajpayee is fond of improvising. “In our first scene together, where he talks about his mother to convince Moosa to surrender, Manoj sir added a lot of details to what was there on the script. I had to play along. Sometimes, in the retake, he would do a completely new thing and surprise everyone. It is challenging to match up to what he does, but that exercise enriches your performance,” says Neeraj.
Improvising dialogues in Hindi was, initially, a matter of concern, the actor admits. “I am not someone who mugs up dialogues. When I work in Malayalam films, I usually improvise. Being a non-Hindi actor, I was at a disadvantage, especially since everything was shot in sync sound.” But gradually, he smoothed it out.
One of the highpoints of the series is an edgy one-take sequence shot inside a hospital where a series of killings take place. The camera relentlessly tracks the characters as a hell breaks loose. “The chase scene in the first episode too had some interesting long single-takes. There was an action choreographer, but the actors had to improvise and follow their instincts in these scenes. I appear only in the tail end of the hospital scene, so, for the first two days of the shoot, I had nothing to do but wait behind that door for the camera to reach my part (Laughs).”
After completing The Family Man early this year, Neeraj worked in two Malayalam films – Gauthamante Radham, in which he and a car are the central characters, and Ka, a thriller. “I started out as a supporting actor. My journey has been focussed on improving as an actor and being part of films that give me more space to perform. I moved from comic roles to grey-shaded characters in films such as Oru Mexican Apaaratha, and to playing the lead role in a romantic drama, Paipin Chuvattile Pranayam. My role in The Family Man is unlike any character I have played before. I consider this transition as an accomplishment.”
Neeraj entered the film industry as an aspiring writer-director. In 2017, he wrote Lavakusha, a Malayalam comedy, and starred as one of the protagonists alongside his friend and colleague Aju Varghese. “I always wanted to write. Lavakusha was an experiment in mainstream entertainer space. I will continue to write,” he says.