It is quite hard to meet actor Sudeep. It took me two months of non-stop calls with his assistant, his manager and his PRO to finally schedule an interview with the actor.
When D-day finally arrives, I wake up to frantic calls from Sudeep’s manager.
“Sir will be a little late today. Is that fine?” he asks me.
I agree, sounding as if I have a choice.
Exactly six hours later, I walk into a quaint little cafe off MG Road. And I wait. A while later, the waiter asks me (for what feels like the tenth time) if I’d like to order. His tone is faintly pitying. Perhaps he thought I’d been stood up. Before I get around to replying, there’s a sudden change in the atmosphere. A luxury car slowly glides down the street and people gawk as it stops just short of the cafe I’m in. It all seems surreally cinematic. “That’s a Jaguar, ma’m” the waiter adds helpfully. A tall, rangy man walks out of the car and into the cafe. A low-slung cap covers most of his face and what it does not cover, his shaggy hair does.
It’s another twenty minutes before I can speak to Sudeep. His time is never his alone. There are calls with his manager over some minor scheduling conflicts. One with the producer of his next film discussing a recent meeting. And finally, a cute phone conversation with his daughter; one that brings a smile to his world-weary face.
He begins the conversation by speaking about his daughter.
“My daughter is my whole life. She’s like a ray of sunshine in my life. Pure, dazzling and so very important to my being.”
Sudeep makes it a point to spend as much time as he can with Saanvi. A difficult task, but one that the actor finds very rewarding. “Earlier, I would try to be around for her as much as I could, but I still missed out on the important moments of her life. Now that she is not with me anymore, I try twice, thrice as hard because I know how losing such precious time feels like. It hurts not to be around her, but (I suppose) it’s all for the best.”
Sudeep announced his separation from his wife, Priya, in 2015 citing ‘irreconcilable differences’. Priya lives with their daughter Saanvi while Sudeep maintains a separate residence. Interestingly, the couple made an appearance together at the audio launch of Jigarthanda, that led many to speculate that the separation had been put on hold.
“I’m not sure I can divulge anything on this matter. It is very personal to me, and whatever it is, I don’t feel comfortable sharing details about it with everybody. Priya’s been there for me so long, since the very beginning of my career. She’s been my rock. She has centered me. She gave me Saanvi. So yes, I’ll try to keep her in my life as much as possible.”
The breakdown of his 14-year-old marriage was a troubling time for the actor. It came at a time when Sudeep was establishing his career in Tamil and Telugu. “It was a stressful time. On the career front, there were so many commitments. On the personal front, there were so many issues. It felt like there was no escape. I didn’t have a place to be away from all this. Usually, they say, go to work to escape problems at home. Or go home to get away from work. For me, both these places were troublesome,” he grins.
“I frowned a lot, I think. I am an easygoing guy. I like to chill with people. But during this time, the people around me told me that I frowned a lot.”
“I even have the grooves on my face to prove it,” he laughs.
Sudeep is easygoing alright: the actor famously delayed his Tamil hero debut project so that Lingaa could happen. “As eager as I was to begin work on Kottigobba 2 (Mudinja Ivana Pudi in Tamil), I just had to do what I could for Ravikumar sir (director KS Ravikumar). I have the greatest of respect and admiration for Rajini sir, and so the answer was easy.”
Sudeep’s glowing account of his many conversations with Superstar Rajinikanth is interrupted by the overeager waiter. He is extremely solicitous now, even going so far as to lay a snowy white napkin on Sudeep’s lap. Sudeep is used to this behaviour by now. He waits quietly and has words of praise for the waiter. The other man stammers a reply and walks away. “I try to be their friend, you know. Funny thing about the screen, the more you appear on it, the less human you seem to other people. After my first few films, the people I was close to changed somehow. The onus is on me to figure out a way to keep things real in all my relationships.”
Since his debut in 2001, Sudeep has done a film a year on average. It’s not a conscious decision, he insists. “Life unfolds the way God wants it to. I did not design my career in such a way. Ultimately, all we can do is sit back and look forward to what he has planned for us next.”
His Hindi career too was by God’s design, Sudeep tells me. “Ram Gopal Varma is a Telugu director working in the Hindi industry. Why would he need to come to a Kannada actor for his film? He cast me in Rann much against the advice of the actors in the movie. It was a risk he took. There are so many other talented people around. Why should he come here? These can only be explained away as the work of a higher power.”
And so when he got a chance to play at being the higher power himself, Sudeep gladly took it. In Mukunda Murari, Sudeep plays Lord Krishna, complete with flowy white garments and the iconic flute. From what I’ve seen of the trailer, the film is a near-perfect remake of the Hindi film Oh My God with Paresh Rawal and Akshay Kumar. The plot follows an atheist who sues God after losing his shop in an earthquake. In the Kannada version, actor Upendra, a successful star in his own right, plays the atheist. Sudeep uses his gravelly voice to advantage here, doling out advice as the earthbound form of Krishna.
For Sudeep, this role was a chance to connect with his religious side and explore it further. “Whenever I take on a role, I take the time to reflect on the way the character has been written and try to get a feel for it. With Lord Krishna, there are so many reference points that it was all complex in the beginning. Eventually, I just tried to be in tune with my spiritual side and let it take me wherever it wanted.”
I tell him of fans using his photo from the film to celebrate Krishna Jayanthi. He smiles fondly. “My fans are my family. They look up to me in so many ways. This is troubling, I’m definitely not God, but it just goes to show how much love they have for me.”
Sudeep’s Twitter timeline is flooded with photos of fans mimicking his hairstyle and dance moves. Some send him hand-drawn portraits of him from his hit films, others compose poetry. Sudeep doesn’t let all the adulation get to his head, though he admits that it takes constant work. “I’m only human. I struggled for so long to get a foot in this industry that all the attention is like a balm to my soul. It makes me work harder to give them back what they deserve, but at times this can be like a drug. I work hard to keep myself grounded.”
Sudeep reasons away the dismal performance of Mudinja Ivana Pudi, as destiny. His first few films in Kannada were either dropped or halted production mid-way. When he did make a breakthrough with Sparsha, the film had to be pulled off from the theatres when veteran actor Rajkumar was kidnapped.
It’s fate, he tells me wearily. You just can’t win against it.
“With Kottigobba 2, I gave it my all. I played two roles, put in intense training. We had everything going for us, but it just did not get the reach we expected. The first week or so, it released in a very small number of theatres in TN. After all that hard work and waiting, that’s where it went wrong.”
Those who did make it to the theatres to watch the movie walked out entertained, he tells me. “And ultimately isn’t that what we want? We want to make people happy. If a girl or a guy laugh at least once in the film, my job is done.”
So, does he feel that box office numbers don’t hold sway over one’s career anymore? “Numbers are just numbers. While it’s true that there’s more significance attached to it now, it’s not necessarily the one thing that can make a career. Talent matters. The right people matter. Story matters. Else how would people like me and Upendra flourish here?”
Mention Rajamouli and Sudeep’s face transforms. “Eega was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I loved playing the villain in the film. I relished it. Till then, I’d been playing only the good guys and here was an opportunity to walk on the other side.”
He doesn’t feel the same way about Puli though. “I loved working with Vijay and Sridevi Ma’am. But I did not sign on for the role. I signed on because I had the impression that they (the team) wanted me so badly to act in the film. When faced with so much love, I couldn’t do anything but agree. This is different from Eega in all respects.”
Despite churning out commercial potboilers year after year, Sudeep is not content. “I’m not ambitious by any means. But I feel that the Kannada film industry is taking too long to move ahead in the way the Malayalam and Tamil film industries have. There’s a little experimentation but they’re all being done on a smaller level. It’s a good ten years since Chak De India released. But there’s nothing like that here. It’s like change is being doled out to all the other film industries except us.”
Sudeep is in the mood to experiment and is toying with the idea of directing a film soon. His last directorial project Maanikya, a remake of the Telugu Prabhas film Mirchi, was hugely successful. Sudeep hopes to recreate its success with an unconventional plot. “I have had a couple of ideas I’m itching to develop. But for that, I need to have some time on my hands.”
Nothing has been finalised on the Tamil front too, the actor’s manager tells me. Has the Cauvery issue impeded his career in any way? “No, that’s not the case,” he vehemently denies. “I have not had any offers that interested me. That’s all. Political reasons are not keeping me back.”
Sudeep has been curiously reticent throughout the Cauvery issue. With others like Shivrajkumar, Puneeth Rajkumar stepping out in support of Karnataka’s decision, Sudeep has largely stayed away from the issue. “It’s not deliberate. I was away shooting for most of the time. Anyway, my thoughts on such things nobody is interested in. So it’s really not necessary.”
It’s 6 p.m. when we wind up our interview. Sudeep’s phone has been ringing non-stop all along. A small crowd has collected outside near his car. A bigger one is currently hissing in annoyance; they are waiting for me to finish my questions so that they can take selfies with their favourite star.
The waiter approaches and asks for Sudeep’s autograph. He signs it, ‘Kichcha Sudeepa’.
Another person comes forward – and another, and another. Sudeep spends an hour patiently with his fans, signing autographs, joking about love and relationships and sharing stories about cars. He is in his element.
Minutes later, as he walks to his car, he tells me: “Isn’t this what we work hard for? For the normal man, his friends and family are his world. For an actor, the world is his family. I’ll never be alone ever.”