National Award-winning actor Suraj Venjaramoodu has yet another title bestowed on him by friends. Thanks to his willing participation in the new wave of Malayalam cinema, he’s now called ‘New Generation Suraj’. “Mammookka would say, ‘Eda how goes your new generation life,'” Suraj laughs.
Prasad is a law-abiding young man. A farmer who leads the most ordinary life. In the mornings, he works in the field or travels to the city with the farm produce. He likes to spend the evenings playing chess with his friends, or indulging in recreational activities organised by a local ‘Arts & Sports Club’. When we see him first, he is watching an old-fashioned theatre play on the village ground. He stays away from violence and alcohol, and believes in the power of the state’s police force. He is content in his quiet existence.
Prasad is one of the two protagonists in filmmaker Dileesh Pothan’s 2017 film, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Loot And The Eye Witness). He is portrayed on-screen by Suraj Venjaramoodu, the National Award-winning Malayalam actor, an inimitable comedy artiste who is a household name in Kerala.
“When Dileesh described Prasad to me, I thought we were alike in many ways,” says Suraj Venjaramoodu. The 41-year-old actor grew up in Venjaramoodu, a village in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram city. It was a hub of socio-cultural activities. “I was involved in theatre, mimics parade, indoor sports…”
We are at Suraj’s apartment in Kochi; he is on a brief break from work. A week ago, he was in Bangalore, on the sets of Aabhaasam, a political satire that unfolds over a bus journey from Bangalore to Kerala. He plays a bus conductor in the film. For three days until the previous night, he had been shooting for a television show that he anchors on Flowers TV. Shortly after we wrap up the interview, he travels to Palakkad to join Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Aana Alaralodalaral.
In a career spanning over 11 years, Suraj has rarely taken a break from work. He continues to sprint from one film location to another, one stage to another. Several times a year, he flies abroad to perform at entertainment shows organised by Malayali associations overseas. “I have been to over 40 countries,” he says, “May be, more. I love travelling.” This relentless work pattern doesn’t tire or slow him down. This is the life he always wanted. “Acting isn’t just a job for me. I will quit this profession once I start feeling so.”
Many a time during our conversation, he gets up and enacts a scene from a movie. A spontaneous actor who can get into and out of a character’s skin instantly, his eyes well up when he talks about Action Hero Biju. “I didn’t sleep the night we shot that scene in which my character walks out of the police station heartbroken. I am an artiste. It is such fantastic creative moments that help me go ahead in life.”
A look at Suraj’s filmography in the last few years reveals a striking transformation in his selection of roles and acting style. His performance has gone from loud to subtle and restrained. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum was followed by Siddharth Bharathan’s Varnyathil Aashanka, in which Suraj played a genius crook who makes a living using his ability to lie through his teeth. His characters, of late, have come out of the shadow cast by the hero, and bear a definite identity.
The change was not a planned one, he says. “Earlier, I had been doing a lot of loud slapstick comedy. That was what that period demanded. We all had to overdo every act, like in a stage skit, and the audience liked it, too. Dileep’s films were highly popular. I have acted in a lot of them.”
However, after a certain point, it struck him that this style was limiting him as an artiste. “I knew I could do much better. Especially, after cinema became more than just a pastime or profession for me,” he says. “In fact, a few times, I tried to tone down my performance. But each time, the directors asked me to redo it in the signature old style,” he laughs.
Suraj continued to dish out his popular gimmicks. “Even in the most mundane moments, like ringing a doorbell, I do something comical. I would trip on a shoe or act like I got electrocuted.”
He pauses, and says that he has, nevertheless, been sincere to his job. “Once I approached Ranjiyettan (director Ranjith) for character roles. ‘It’s not time yet,’ he told me. ‘Now, people want to see you in comic roles. Do it as much as you can. Serious roles can wait,’ he said.”
Years later, Suraj would play a brief, yet excellent role of a politician in Ranjith’s Spirit.
It was in God For Sale, a 2013 film directed by Babu Janardhanan, that Suraj got his first character role. He played a double role, the father and brother of the protagonist, portrayed by Kunchakko Boban.
“When I asked Babu sir what made him choose me, he said I had a face that suited such characters. That was encouraging,” he says.
The same year, he played Enthinum Ethinum Mamachan, a man who has a practical solution to any problem, in Lal Jose’s Pullippuliyum Aattinkuttiyum. “That was not a run-of-mill comic role. During an emotional scene in which I confront an arrogant dancer, and tell her how fleeting success and wealth can be, there was thundering applause in theatres.”
Slowly, Suraj started exploring a turf he had less access to until then. In 2014, Dr Biju approached him with Perariyathavar (The Nameless), a film that would fetch him a National Award for Best Actor. Suraj plays a manual scavenger who lives in the city with his only son.
“I was in between two films, and had enough time for Biju sir’s film,” says Suraj. He was yet to watch any of the acclaimed director’s films, though. He watched Veettilekkulla Vazhi before Biju narrated the script of Perariyathavar. “I found the character interesting. I was the protagonist, yet I had just a few dialogues,” says Suraj. “That was new. I was, at that time, mouthing pages of dialogues in every film I was in. ”
Suraj grew up in a strict household. His father was a soldier who took early retirement from the Army. “There was financial insecurity when I was growing up. My father wanted us to focus on education. He didn’t like me doing mimicry and club activities,” he says. Vasudevan Nair, Suraj’s father, is now a film buff, who never misses any of his son’s films.
Venjaramoodu was fertile ground for artistes. There were over 60 clubs in the region, and almost all youngsters were involved in club activities. “The country’s first children’s theatre troupe was founded in Venjaramoodu,” says Suraj, a tinge of pride in his voice. “Such club activities helped the youngsters stay focussed. We didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Now, there are not many clubs left in Venjaramoodu. I see a lot of old age homes, instead,” he says.
After he became a star, Suraj founded a theatre troupe in his village called Vaisakha Vision (later changed to Kashinatha Theatres). The troupe’s advanced light and sound shows, and plays based on Mahabharatha and Ramayana, are highly popular across the state. However, the troupe is short of artistes at the moment, says Suraj. “The audience loves it, but there aren’t many artistes interested in such programmes these days.”
New age Malayalam cinema, which is all about stories rooted in the milieu of Kerala, with filmmakers making efforts to shun dialogue-based storytelling, has a willing participant in Suraj.
“I have a new nickname in the industry now – New Generation Suraj, ” he laughs. “Mammookka teases me, ‘Eda how goes your new generation life.'”
After watching Dileesh’s directorial debut Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Suraj had been waiting for an opportunity to work with him. Before he could call Dileesh and ask for an acting opportunity, he got a call from the director, with an offer to portray Prasad in Thondimuthalum. “I was impressed with Maheshinte. I loved the detailing that he had brought into the filmmaking. I wanted to be a part of such a film. Thondimuthal is even more realistic and raw than Mahesh,” says Suraj, who always takes the effort to reach out to the person and tell him how much he loved the work.
Similarly, acclaimed cinematographer-filmmaker Rajeev Ravi’s Annayum Rasoolum and Njan Steve Lopez affected him deeply, and he wanted to work with the filmmaker. He asked Ravi for an acting opportunity; in 2016, he worked in his Kammattipadam. “Who am I to talk about him!” he says when I ask him about Rajeev Ravi. “He is an artiste well above my league. One day, he told me about his new film in which Dulquer Salmaan plays the lead. I asked him if he would have a role for me. Thus, Kammattipadam happened,” he says.
The role closest to Suraj’s heart is a nameless cameo he did in Abrid Shine’s 2015 film Action Hero Biju — that of a lower middle-class man who approaches a local police station to claim custody of his little daughter from his estranged wife who eloped with his friend.
“Initially, Abrid approached me for another role that appears throughout the film. Somehow, it didn’t work out. He told me there was another role that I could do, if I was interested. It was a small one, he said. But when he finally narrated the concept to me, I hopped aboard instantly,” says Suraj.
He attributes the character’s fineness to Abrid Shine. “He narrates stories so well,” says Suraj. “He told me about this man who loves his daughter more than anything in the world. One day, his wife leaves him and takes the child along. I was moved by his situation,” he says.
Abrid asked him to give the character a name and an address. “He asked me why the man would wait for a few days before filing a missing complaint. I said, maybe, he was waiting for her (the wife) to come back, since he knew she had eloped with his friend. That was how we created that story.”
That film was shot using sync sound. “I was nervous when we filmed it. I was fresh from the National Award. I had to prove I was worthy of it. There was no make-up, and no rehearsal. The scene was completed in the first take. There was absolute silence in the room; not even Abrid said a word. A few minutes later, he came to me and hugged me. I noticed that he was crying.”
Sync sound is a powerful device, says Suraj. “It’s just that Malayalam commercial cinema isn’t very used to it. I am an actor used to the comforts of a dubbing studio. In several films, I have improvised dialogues in the dubbing studio. It’s not easy to pull off sync sound perfectly. But sync sound brings out the best in you. We can perform like we do on stage.”
Before he debuted as an actor on television, Suraj worked as a dubbing artiste. And before that, he worked as an ‘announcer’ for roadside vendors and textile merchants. “We would travel across Kerala in a jeep and announce, ‘Discount Discount! Punjab Silks has slashed its rates to half!“(laughs). “I have even been to remote villages in Idukki. My advantage was that I could announce in both male and female voices. People liked that and would pay attention.”
Later, his voice would launch him to fame in Malayalam cinema. He also helped Mammootty perfect the Thiruvananthapuram dialect for his role in Anwar Rasheed’s Rajamanikyam.
“In at least 10-15 movies during my initial days, I was forced to use the Thiruvananthapuram dialect for comedy. Now, when someone asks me to do it, I ask them if the story demands it. I will use that slang only if it’s part of the character’s identity,” he says.
Suraj thought he wouldn’t find success in cinema. “My right hand isn’t fully functional. I had a fracture as a child. I can’t bend my hand or use it freely. I lived with an inferiority complex. But acting isn’t something that only perfect human beings can do. Actors need not have a perfect body.”
We talk about Thondimuthalum Drisksakshiyum again. In the second half of the film, there are long, raw and realistic chase sequences involving Suraj and Fahaadh Faasil. The latter played a thief who stole a gold chain, the only valuable possessed by Prasad and his wife. “We completed the running sequences in six days. We shot it without using a dupe. After the shoot, I took Ayurvedic treatment for my sore muscles,” he laughs.
“In the fight sequence in the climax, I had to jump into a stream. Right before the take, I whispered to Fahadh about my right hand. He assured me that stuntmen would do the scene. And when the take was ready, there stood Dileesh asking, ‘Aren’t you two ready to jump?'” Suraj laughs, recalling the incident. When he expressed reluctance, Dileesh told him, “See if you don’t chase him (Fahadh) and tackle him now, you will lose that gold chain forever. So, run!”
A senior actor like him could have asked for a dupe to perform the stunt that could have damaged his hand permanently. “Dileesh wanted everything to be as realistic as it could be,” he says. “When you are on a film set where every crew member is working hard, and you have a director who knows what he is doing, you also want to contribute to the best of your ability.”
Veteran director-screenwriter Saeed Mirza was part of the jury that chose Suraj for the the National Award.
Mohanlal told Suraj what Mirza felt about his performance. Switching to Mohanlal’s voice and mannerisms, Suraj narrates that phone conversation to me, “Mone, have you heard of Saeed Mirza? He is a great man. He has seen my film Vasthuhara and he said your performance in Perariyathavar reminded him of me in Vasthuhara!”
But it’s not Mohanlal, but actor Jagathy Sreekumar whom Suraj considers his biggest icon. “When I was young, I used to imitate him. Is there another actor like him in Malayalam cinema who can handle such diverse roles with finesse?” He also recounts watching Shobana’s portrayal of Nagavalli in Manichithrathazhu. “That performance haunts me even today.”
A day after our interview, I get a phone call from Suraj. “I forgot to mention the name of an actress I admire the most. Urvashi,” he says. “An actor with exceptional comic timing.” Suraj worked with Urvashi in a number of films post her comeback to Mollywood through Sathyan Anthikkad’s Achuvinte Amma in 2005.
I mention the several films in which his characters unabashedly used sexual innuendos and rape jokes to evoke laughter. In Mr Marumakan, he played a conman whom the film’s protagonist, played by actor Dileep, hires to rape the villain’s daughter. A certain scene in the film has the rape victim crying in bed, and Suraj, Dileep and Baburaj engaged in a comic performance in front of her.
“Those were my characters, not me,” he says. After a pause, he continues, “For a long time, no one used to give me the script before shoot. And I was hesitant to ask for the script because I was still a junior actor. I feared I would be thrown out of the film for asking for the script. In fact, a few times, I have expressed concerns about such scenes. But I didn’t have much of a choice. I had to do such scenes. Now, I have a say, and I try to use it. When asked to do such a scene, I confront them and ask if the scene is really required for the film. The industry has changed. Even first-time actors are handed the script without a second thought.”
He adds, “The script-writers wrote those scenes and dialogues. If those films were any good, the audience would have accepted them.”
Suraj says that many a time in the past, he had done films that he had no interest in. “In order to reject the film politely, I would try hiking my fee. That was interpreted as arrogance. I couldn’t be curt enough. Also, I have done many films to maintain personal relationships only to be ridiculed because those films were silly. I finally realised one should never help another by agreeing to work in their bad films. I would rather help them financially, than by using my career.”
In 2016, Suraj played a comic character – a bathroom-peeping pervert – in Mohanlal’s mega budget film, Pulimurugan. The film took the box-office by storm, in spite of its outdated form of story-telling and insensitive humour.
His upcoming film, Aabhaasam, takes a dig at the concept of Aarsha Bharatha Samskaram. Directed by Jubith Namradath and produced under the banner of Rajeev Ravi’s Collective Phase One, it is touted to be a satire that hits out at society’s inherent misogyny and hypocrisy. Suraj’s co-stars in the film include actress Rima Kallingal and transgender activist Sheethal Shyam.
“We don’t have many good political satires in Malayalam. I hope Aabhasam will make up for that dearth,” says Suraj, adding that he has clear-cut political views. “I don’t go around talking about them, but I make sure that I use my electoral rights carefully. Also, I want to do my job sensibly and sincerely. That’s my biggest social responsibility as an artiste.”
The Suraj Venjaramoodu interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.