Ashna Zaveri has a variety of adjectives for her Inimey Ippadithaan co-star, Santhanam. He is fantabulous, she says. “He makes me laugh so hard all the time!”
In direct contrast, the Santhanam I speak to is calm; almost reflective. He doesn’t seem to want to make me laugh. Or, smile. “I don’t think I’m going to be very funny today,” he says firmly. “Is that okay with you?”
It’s been a while since his Manmadhan debut, where he played the ‘friend’ for the first time. Exaggerated body language, and comic timing that was a little raw. “I used to push the dialogue out of my mouth. Like literally spit it out. I was confident about the cameras, I always have been. But somehow the lines came out wrong and my rhythm was off.”
Ten years on, his sense of style too has evolved along with his comic timing. The days of clown-like attire and a variety of laugh-out loud wigs are long gone. In its place, there’s a new and improved Santhanam. Hair slicked back, cool aviators and a new-found sense of confidence. Curiously, there’s also a nervous energy about him, and it seems to have robbed him of all his trademark wisecracks. It’s a refreshing change to witness, especially in a comedian who is always brimming with smartass remarks. “I have a good sense of humour, I think. Normally, I am always making digs at things and laughing out loud. Just not right now.”
There’s another thing about this Santhanam I see. He sighs ever so often, a little weary about everything. “I set a goal for myself a long time ago and I reached it. I made it. Where I am right now is what that boy from Pozhichalur wanted to be. I have friends like Arya and I have acted with Rajinikanth. What else is left? What more can I do? What do you do when you reach your goals? That’s not something any of us think about, right?”
It’s this question that had Santhanam go on a spiritual quest of sorts. The feverish energy that carried him through the initial stages of his career is nowhere to be seen now. In its place is a more zen-like Santhanam. “He has become more spiritual this time around,” Ashna supplies.
Following the negative reviews he received for his work in Nanbenda and the others that preceded it, the comedian has made a serious effort to cut down on ribald humour, instead drawing inspiration from the works of Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis. “I want to keep it clean. A lot of children like my stuff and watch it repeatedly. Whatever I say, it shapes their minds. It is a huge responsibility and it weighs on me that I could somehow be responsible for the way they turn out. So I have decided to keep it clean. At least as clean as I can.”
Besides, he doesn’t have much control over the way his role has been written. It’s all about the hero, he says, a touch defensively. “See, you’ve got to understand. I play the friend in all those films. A friend of say, a playboy or a degenerate would think like him only right? People with a similar mind-set are the ones who become great friends. So if the hero is a playboy, then I must be one too. So my jokes are written that way. It’s nothing personal.”
His work has also been raked over hot coals in the past for its anti-women slant (remember Settai?), an accusation that troubles Santhanam. “I have a lot of respect for women. In fact, some of the most influential people I have met have been women. I find them inspiring. I wouldn’t deliberately say something offensive, right? I’ve apologised time and again but that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you I guess. What else can I do? But be assured, I am very vigilant about the way I address issues now.”
Over the past few years, Santhanam has stepped out of his comfort zone in a huge way. He has embraced acting and has also ventured into production, even floating his own banner called Handmade Films. The name is deliberate, says Santhanam. “Every film that we produce is something we like to be involved in actively. Isn’t that what makes it successful? It takes a village to raise a kid, right? That’s the kind of thinking that we had when started producing.”
Playing the hero is ‘not a big deal’ for Santhanam. He’s had to learn a few other skills, like dancing ‘the right way’, and be more expressive. From the man who used to make a living spoofing ‘mass’ heroes, he has now joined their ranks. Tricky business, Santhanam calls it. “I get it, really. Mass heroes are easy to make fun of, and who wouldn’t love to be one! But you can’t really call me a mass hero right? I mean, I am an entertainer more than anything else.”
All that aside, Santhanam finds it easier – ‘less stressful’ to play the hero than the ‘nanbenda’ that he usually plays. “As a comedian, there are a lot of things at play. You’re funny when you’re allowed to simply be. Apdiye vittutta sirikka vaikkalaam. But when everybody expects you to be funny, when people wait, their brains already programmed to laugh at the thing that’s going to come out of your mouth…that’s when the pressure sets in. I mean, there’s nothing worse than saying the wrong thing and making people stop laughing right?”
That was the life Santhanam lived for all these years. Hard at work crafting jokes that would crack people up, ‘despite themselves’. “It’s a high pressure zone. I mean, I do want to tell people that it’s easy and it comes naturally to me. But the truth is, it’s tough. Writing jokes is hard. Especially when you have someone like me who doesn’t like separate comedy tracks. I like to integrate my humour into the script and make it more organic. So in a situation like this, it’s doubly hard. The real truth is that I have a team behind me. A wonderfully dedicated team, mostly childhood friends that help me write. If I tell you about it, it’s going to become boring. We just sit around and bounce ideas off others. That’s about it. But, yeah, it’s hard.”
Inimey Ippadithaan is Santhanam’s attempt at making a Tamil film with ‘world standards’. In the sense that the film has high production values and an unlikely hero. “There is a dearth of films like this one. After a while, it’s either romantic movies or scary ones. But, Inimey… will be fun, refreshing and a change from everything else you’ve seen onscreen. It will hopefully set a trend.”
But, two heroines? Does he think the audience will accept that bit? “They’ve accepted me in drag, as a man who gets someone like Sherin (Nanbenda) to fall in love with him and in a number of outlandish and weird costumes. Two heroines is the most normal thing I have done in a long time.”
The Santhanam interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.