It takes multiple phone calls and some coaxing to get Suraj Venjaramoodu to give me an interview. The actor has currently taken time out of shooting schedules to visit cinemas playing Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25, his latest movie, directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan. The film is a fascinating genre-bending comedy centred on a septuagenerian’s relationship with a robot.
“I love visiting theatres. I love the laughter, cheers and the sheer energy of a crowd inside a packed hall. May be it comes from my background as a stage artiste. I visited Vanitha theatre in Edapally, and Kavitha. You know how great is the crowd in Kavitha?” asks Suraj, on his way to another movie hall in Kochi.
The actor, 43, is passing through the brightest phase in his career. In the last three months, he’s delivered spectacular performances in three movies, coincidentally all directed by first-time filmmakers, in roles of diverse nature. In PR Arun’s Finals, released on September 6, he was Varghese, an athletics coach and the father of a cycling prodigy played by Rajisha Vijayan. In Emcy Joseph’s Vikruthi, released a month later, the actor played a real life character Eldho, a mute man who falls victim to a cyber crime.
Eldho and Bhaskara Poduval, the cantankerous lonely old man in Android Kunjappan, are unlike any characters Suraj has played in his career spanning over 13 years. Until 2014, when he won a national award for the best actor for Bijukumar Damodaran’s Perariyathavar, Suraj was exclusively a comedian, making his presence felt in inconsequential potboilers like Chattambinaadu and Twenty-Twenty. In an interview with Silverscreen.in in 2017, post the release of films such as Action Hero Biju and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum which signalled his transformation into a formidable character artiste, he joked about a new title bestowed on him by his colleagues in the industry. “I’m now called ‘New Generation Suraj’!”
When Suraj says “Let’s talk about Android Kunjappan!”, his excitement is unmistakable. In most parts of the film’s latter half, he shares screen-space with a robot. He refuses to call the experience challenging. It was rather an emotional affair, he says.
“I spent close to 45 days, in the company of the robot. We grew close. He was like my son. If you could ask the robot whom he likes the most in this world, he would say my name,” he says.
He modelled Bhaskaran after several people he had known in his life. “My father, in particular,” he says. “In fact, Bhaskaran resembles my father in his final days – the beard, the tired eyes. Like Bhaskaran, he was reluctant to express his feelings. He was brutally straight forward, and an expert at cracking jokes with a straight face.”
But Bhaskaran could be anyone from that generation, he adds. “People who knew Ratheesh’s (Balakrishnan) father identify Bhaskaran as his replica. Many fathers in that generation were like Bhaskaran. Sweet inside, hard outside. When I am immersed in a character, I think all these people I have met or heard of start influencing me.”
Adapting to the body-language of a 70-year-old man took a toll on his health. “The body pain was severe. But it is unfair to complain because I had so much fun being Bhaskaran.” He cites the scene where Bhaskaran is startled upon seeing the robot the first time and a passing shot where he tries to hit the robot using an umbrella.
The machine-human relationship, the crux of Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25, is what attracted him to the project. “It’s an important theme,” says the actor. “I think we are already living a world overpowered by machines. We are attached to our phones, television sets. If we switch them off and turn to the people next to us and talk to them, an entirely different world would open to us.”
It is not difficult to come out of a character, claims Suraj. “I leave a character as soon as I have to get into a new one. Two exceptions would be Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Vikruthi. The characters in these films lingered on a little longer than I’d expected.”
In Malayalam cinema, the anti-tobacco announcement in the beginning of films are usually heard in the voice of the film’s lead actor. I ask him if it was a conscious decision to pass that job to his co-actor, Surabhi. “Honestly, Emcy never asked to me to do it,” he laughs. “But I wouldn’t have done it even if he had asked me. I didn’t want my voice to be heard in the film at all.”
Vikruthi‘s Eldho uses a combination of sign language and indistinct sounds to communicate. “I have never played a mute character before in cinema or on stage,” says Suraj. “In my childhood, I used to interact with many speech and hearing impaired people in my neighbourhood. Several people, after watching the film, told me that my performance reminded me of their friends and acquaintances. “Do you know them?” they asked. People could connect to my performance because I just tried to keep it genuine.”
Sign language, he says, is the strongest universal language. “I have been to numerous countries in the world, in places where people speak languages I have not even heard of. Yet, I have never faced a communication problem.”
Before the shoot began, he met Eldho, the man whose life inspired the film. “I spoke to his son. I requested the boy to ask his father what he felt the day he was wrongly indicted and harassed. Why don’t you ask him directly, said the boy. And we got to talking in sign language. Eldho conveyed to me the exact emotions he underwent when the whole episode unfolded. I think I just replicated what he told me.”
The aching father in Finals is a fine example of both, nuanced writing and sensitive acting. Varghese master is an empty man, defeated by circumstances and gruelling depression. Suraj brilliantly underplays here, conveying Varghese’s pain through blank stares, and gentle and almost invisible body movements.
“I took up Finals because I felt it’s a story that needs to be told,” he says. The film is loosely based on a real incident. “My character is someone hiding a lot of pain. As a commoner, I could quickly and easily relate to his story when I listened to it first.”
As part of preparing for the role, he met many athletic coaches, and parents of cyclists. “Some of those stories are unbelievable. Professional sports cycles costs over Rs 8 lakh. These lower-middle class parents sacrifice and struggle so much to see their children win. My performance in Finals, essentially, reflects the lessons I learned from them. If you ask me how I do certain things on screen, I don’t know how to explain the process. It just happens… The fundamental thing in acting, I believe, is understanding fellow human beings.”
Suraj is thrilled when I tell him that few actors in Malayalam cinema in recent times have maintained a great consistency in picking fantastic projects as he has. “You will write that, won’t you?” he laughs.
“The fact is, I don’t have too many options to choose from. All I try is to not do the kind of characters I have done before. I take into regard the overall quality of the project, the relevance of the story, and the way my character is constructed,” he says.
“And I have consciously tried to cut down the number of films I do. There was a time when I was working on four films a day, running from one set to another. Later, I realised it’s pointless to be such an actor. I have made people laugh. I have tested their patience too. Now, my decision-making ability stems from the experience I garnered over these 13 years.”