When the trailer and songs of Sudha Kongara’s Soorarai Pottru were released online this year, Tamil film viewers remembered exactly what they had been missing about Suriya in his recent big-budget outings: the intensity in his eyes, and a certain lightness of craft usually visible when the actor becomes one with his characters. Remember Nandha, Pithamagan and Vaaranam Aayiram? The last time one probably saw this in all its raw appeal was a decade ago in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rakta Charitra 2 (2010), where the actor played Yeturi Suryanarayana Reddy.
The 45-year-old, who plays Nedumaaran Rajangam (Maara) in the film which is inspired by the life of Air Deccan founder Captain G.R. Gopinath (Retd), says that acting in Kongara’s movie took him into another zone.
“I think that when you believe in a character, you bring in your emotions and that makes all the difference. It becomes a character that lingers in people’s minds,” says the actor over an hour-long phone call from his home in Chennai, where he has been busy with online promotional activities ahead of the film’s release this week.
Speaking to Suriya has always been a revelation, for once he gets comfortable, he offers you a peek into his usually reticent self, but it feels like he has become even more philosophical after Covid-19 and the lockdown that followed.
“We have all become very restless, and unable to express what we feel. Everything is locked deep inside our hearts and minds,” he says.
But speak he has to, to promote Soorarai Pottru, which he also has co-produced with Guneet Monga. The film, which the Tamil industry expected would become the actor’s top money spinner in theatres, is releasing on Amazon Prime Video.
The past two years have shown people a side of Suriya they never knew existed. Earlier, he came across as the quiet sort who’d walk away from trouble, or try to work around an issue. But recently, he made news for taking three issues head-on. One of them was the OTT premieres of his productions, beginning with Ponmagal Vandhal, which stars his wife Jyotika, and now Soorarai Pottru. There was widespread condemnation from theatre owners over the digital releases, but Suriya stuck to his stand.
“I cannot expect my fans to go to the theatre when I don’t want my family members anywhere near a closed space during the pandemic. This call was the smartest thing to do, given the circumstances,” he says firmly.
As a producer, Suriya has eight films on the floor, and he was facing a financial pinch as well. “I am an individual, not a corporate with hundreds of crores as buffer. I am trying to safeguard my directors and projects and actors. Even then, I had to drop a big film to save the others. I see myself as the crab that’s trying to climb up a well, so that I can haul the others out with me. I am able to maintain all the families of those working in those projects because I took the OTT route. That cheque saved families, and that’s all I see right now,” he says candidly.
In 2019, Suriya surprised many when he issued a statement against the draft National Education Policy (NEP), saying it would exclude children from rural areas. While Suriya has long been involved in the issue of accessible education — his Agaram Foundation works to empower rural children through education — the public stand was still unexpected. The latest controversy was in September, when he issued a scathing statement against conducting NEET exams in the middle of the pandemic. It almost felt like a case of saadhu mirandaal (when the meek rise), like the character the actor played in Nandha.
“I have this urge to act and not merely be a bystander, and of late, I find myself more prone to expressing my emotions. I believe in amplifying the voices of those experts who are unheard. I believe in using my popularity well,” he says.
Agaram was set up in 2006, and Suriya credits its trustees Jayashree Damodaran and T.J. Gnanavel with opening his eyes to the inherent inequities in the system. “They taught me how to see first-generation learners. The government is doing all it can, but these kids need a helping hand too. These are the children who become doctors and want to go back to their villages to serve, because they want to help their people, their athai, mama and paati (aunt, uncle and grandmother). If we do not encourage them, there will be no balance in society,” says Suriya.
There have been several protests in Tamil Nadu over NEET after a number of student suicides. Critics say the standardised national test for medical college admissions is discriminatory, especially for students from less privileged backgrounds.
“I get very angry when I see perfectly capable children deprived of a shot at MBBS because they cannot answer in a particular format, because they lack the money to pay for the training required,” says Suriya.
“I am able to maintain all the families of those working in those projects because I took the OTT route. That cheque saved families, and that’s all I see right now”
This righteous anger occasionally flits across the screen too. No, not the Singam franchise variety, where he is an unreal, evil-destruction machine, but more the Vaaranam Aayiram and Kaakha Kaakha kind, both movies he made with Gautham Vasudev Menon.
Vaaranam... is one film that Suriya speaks about very fondly. And even though he and the director had a public fallout some years ago and a letter was sent to the media, they seem to have gone back to that creative collaboration zone. “We were actually planning to do Chennaiyil Oru Mazhai Kaalam. But Vaaranam was born out of Gautham’s father’s demise. Gautham was in London, and requested me to be with his family. I did what a family member would do. And from there came the germ of an idea about what a father is. Is he someone who is a superhero, someone very rich, someone who’s achieved a lot… or is he someone who is just appa, your world,” Suriya recalls.
The film, which traces a man’s life from youth to middle age, got good reviews from critics, but failed commercially. However, over time, it has become a cult classic, especially with young men. Earlier this year, actor Vishnu Vishal tweeted about how the film inspired him to seek help from his depression and alcohol-dependence.
“Movies are timeless now, and with OTT platforms they will reach their intended audience. So what if it is a generation far removed from the one you originally made it for?” laughs Suriya. “It still adds meaning to your work, it is worth spending that kind of time creating a movie.”
Suriya and Gautham have now patched up their differences and will soon begin shooting for a short film for Netflix’s Tamil anthology Navarasa.
The mild-mannered actor’s voice becomes firm when he says there are some people he just won’t work with again. “I won’t take names, but they’ve let me down so badly, movie-wise, that I cannot bring myself to work with them again. I usually let go and march forward. This industry prepares you for failure, but when the very process is wrong and you work setting aside your inner voice, it’s painful. They don’t want you to ask questions or doubts and they expect trust. And then, they mess up. You are upset, your fans are upset. All that time is wasted and there’s nothing redeeming about it. I now console myself that it was some karma that I was paying back. But after the last experience, I’ve decided that I will never ever make a movie because of personal obligation,” he says.
The actor’s voice becomes lighter over the phone line when he speaks about Soorarai Pottru director Kongara, his rakhi sister and someone he’s seen since her days as Mani Ratnam’s AD. “She’s lived with this film for 10 years, and we started speaking about it in 2018. She’s meticulous and came to me with a script. She is not the sort who will waste a single minute. I’d place her right among the top one or two per cent when it comes to hard work,” he says, recalling how she loves shooting action and fight scenes. “Be it the Jimmy Jib [a crane system used during shooting], a tracking vehicle, a lorry, or location scouting, she’ll jump in,” he adds.
With Kongara, Suriya was in a zone he says he’s most comfortable in—where the film is bigger than the star. “She goes beyond what your experiences are, her aesthetics are superb, and you want to surrender to that kind of vision. You know you will only grow as a performer with someone like that,” he says. “I work with the belief that everyone else is better than me. Take Aparna [Balamurali, the heroine of Soorarai], she’s done a wonderful job. I still learn from everyone and remain a student. I am grateful I still get to do that.”
And so, when he had to take the call to move Soorarai Pottru from the big screen to OTT, it took a lot of thought.
“This film is almost three years old, and everyone knows what it is based on. The pandemic shows no sign of getting over, and I was afraid that someone else would make a similar film. That happened with Maattrraan [the Priyamani-starrer Chaarulatha, also about conjoined twins, beat them to theatres by a month]. I could not let all that hard work go to ruin. We had already screened the film to focus groups, and I could not have held onto the film any more. All that creative investment would have gone meaningless. Also, many other countries that opened up have gone back into lockdown again. I could not have expected families to go to the theatre. This is the new normal and we have to accept that,” he says.
“I can afford all I want, all my family wants. But, is that happiness? No. After the first crore, it’s all quite meaningless.”
For backing his arguments, Suriya cites a conversation between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in 2013 when they spoke of a radically different entertainment landscope. “I want to go back to the theatre, yes, but life is evolving, and we have to cope. Our regular commercial, crowd-puller films will continue to play in theatres and do well too. Indie films and projects will find new life on OTT. I think we will see more pure cinema, I would like to do projects unfettered by financial considerations too,” says Suriya.
The actor-producer says he developed this state of mind after he made his first crore. “I have been blessed with more than what I need. From dreams of owning a textile mill in Coimbatore, I re-aligned myself to cinema when I realised that my mother had to pay back Rs 25,000 to someone, and my father hates taking a loan. He’s the kind who would always share a portion of his salary among the film unit. I always thought we were the children of a film star and had a lot of money. It was a reality check, a Who Moved My Cheese moment.”
In 1997, for Vasanth’s Nerrukku Ner, produced by Mani Ratnam, Suriya received an advance of Rs 10,000 and Rs 50,000 as salary. “They gave me costumes, did my make-up, taught me to act. I was ready to lead that life. Much later, I realised it also came with broken kneecaps and elbows,” Suriya laughs. But that money helped him run his family.
“I can afford all I want, all my family wants. But, is that happiness? No. After the first crore, it’s all quite meaningless. I am glad I am able to help so many get the opportunities they deserve. I had all the facilities, but still did not ace my studies. These kids live amid suffering, go to schools without teachers, and still manage to score. That fire in them… if my money helps keep that alive, it is worth it. One life changed is 10 lives changed. The cheque I spoke about, that cheque also ensured kids stayed in school and did not go back to work. In my mind, it’s justified.”