Fifteen minutes are all I have with Karthi. He’s in between interviews, his assistant tells me. “He’s been promoting since morning. There are many demands on his time right now.”
And why wouldn’t there be? As the latest Mani Ratnam hero, Karthi, by his own admission, is the man of the moment. For one music channel, the actor drives around the city, belting out songs from his film. In another interview, he earnestly confesses to prioritising work over family.
To his credit though, he seems troubled by this.
“My daughter, Umayaal, is at that period in her life when she misses me when I’m not around.
The last time Mani Ratnam offered Karthi a role in his film (Aayutha Ezhuthu), he weighed 96 kilos. For the actor, this was reason enough to walk away from the role, and opt to assist Mani Ratnam instead. “Food was everything to me back then. I had just returned after completing my Masters in the US, and I was in no mood to deprive myself to act. I was more focused on directing films.”
Soon though, helpful advice from his father, Sivakumar, changed his priorities “all over again”. “He opened my third eye, so to speak. He told me that directors can direct anytime. But actors always have a sell-by date. He advised me to make the best of my opportunities and start acting.”
That prompted Karthi to take up Paruthiveeran, an Ameer film that dealt with the relationship between a hyper-aggressive man and a headstrong woman in rural Tamil Nadu. It was a landmark movie for Karthi in many ways. “It established me in the B, C centres in a way that I didn’t imagine. I have a huge audience in those areas, and for a newcomer, that was quite a big thing.”
This realisation has led Karthi to continually make films that cater to the audience in B and C centres. For every Madras, Karthi signs a Komban, a regressive film that was all about caste aggression and chauvinism. Karthi, though, thinks of it all in terms of business. “I’m being realistic here. I have a very specific kind of audience. And, I happen to know the kind of films they like. It makes sense to cater to them, right. Also, I don’t make films like Paruthiveeran, Komban always. I also work with directors like Gokul, Pa Ranjith to balance it.”
The balance is lost when he signs a film like Komban, I remind him. But, Karthi is in no mood to be reminded of reality.
Not even when we talk about female artistes, and the way they’re paid in Kollywood. “My comments were taken out of context, really.
Actors are paid on a different scale altogether, I remind him. “But that’s the way it has always been!” he insists.
While not many would agree with Karthi’s opinions, the actor is fine with it. “It’s a free world, everyone is entitled to their opinions. I don’t want to not say something I believe in because I’m afraid of the backlash. That is fundamentally wrong.”
Mani Ratnam wanted a ‘real man’ for Kaatru Veliyidai, Karthi says. “He told me right away that he was not interested in boys. The film was about a man who volunteered to risk his life for the nation. This needed a man’s man.”
As opposed to the commitment-phobic hero of Ratnam’s previous Ok Kanmani, remains unsaid.
And just like that, even with director Mani Ratnam, Karthi gets to be himself onscreen. He gets to play the obnoxious, testosterone-charged roles that have made him a bankable star in the industry. Karthi’s character, Varun aka VC, is a clean-cut, urban version of his roles thus far. There’s no real change, at least from what Karthi has revealed.
It’s a perplexing thought, but not for the actor. “Everybody likes to step outside their comfort zone for a while. This is not familiar territory for me. And it certainly was not familiar territory for Mani sir or anybody else who worked in the film…”
Working with Mani Ratnam was a dream for Karthi. He shot for hours on end in the freezing cold, rolled down sand dunes, and has generally put himself in harm’s way for his upcoming Kaatru Veliyidai. But, in true Sivakumar family style, Karthi is humble about it. “I didn’t do anything big. Fighter pilots dedicate their lives and do such dangerous things for our country. I did these things for maybe three months. It really isn’t much,” Karthi says.
Kaatru Veliyidai is a throwback film, the actor reveals. It has a ‘classic’ love story that will stand the test of time. A two-minute trailer of the film has already evoked comparisons to Mani Ratnam’s previous work. “I have read those reviews, yes. What can one say about a film from a two-minute trailer? In terms of work, this is Mani sir’s most transformative script yet. It has a great script and it touches all the high points. The trailer is just a collection of all the things we love about Mani sir’s work. The film, itself, exists in a different space altogether.”
Karthi hopes that the film will prove to be a landmark one, just like Paruthiveeran. “My career would’ve looked vastly different if I’d debuted through Aayutha Ezhuthu,” he says, “Sometimes, I wish it had turned out differently. Perhaps then, I’d be able to spend more time with my family.”
The Karthi interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.