His latest movie is releasing on Diwali, and there are promotional events to grace and interviews to give. He is also in the middle of a shoot for a new film—by the end of 2010, he will have completed two more projects. In between shoots, he appears in commercials for leading brands and attends fund-raisers for the various charities he supports, apart from the one he runs. He exercises for at least an hour every day. There is rarely a free moment in Tamil superstar Suriya’s life, but lately, a new activity has cut into his busy schedule: Hindi lessons.
Beautiful south: (clockwise from top left) Suriya with wife Jyothika in the 2006 film Sillunu Oru Kaadhal. G. Venket Ram; his brooding, expressive eyes won him critical acclaim in films such as Nandha and Pithamagan; strutting his stuff in the forthcoming film Singham. Hemant Mishra / Mint
For 1 hour every day for the past one month, Suriya has been learning the language that hasn’t lost its potential to raise hackles in his state. Tamil Nadu has been the most vociferous among all the southern states in rejecting Hindi as India’s national language. It is the inability to speak Hindi that prevents many southern stars from acting more frequently in Hindi movies. And it is Hindi that will give Suriya a national platform.
Early next year, he will begin shooting for Ram Gopal Varma’s Raktha Charitra, a two-part biopic based on the life of Telugu politician Paritala Ravi. Vivek Oberoi plays Ravi, while Suriya will appear as his rival, Maatal Suri. “I am in a comfort zone at the moment, and I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” Suriya says. “But I keep thinking of Kamal (Haasan) sir, who acted in so many films in so many languages. He kept breaking stereotypes throughout his career.”
Suriya might ultimately get billed as the second lead in Raktha Charitra, but followers of Tamil movies know exactly where he stands in the pecking order of male leads. He is one of contemporary Tamil cinema’s strongest box-office magnets. His footprint extends across Tamil Nadu as well as to overseas Tamil enclaves in South-East Asia, the US, the UK and the Gulf. His close rival, Vijay, is the darling of rural and small town Tamil Nadu, but Suriya recently made inroads into those territories with action-oriented spectacles Vel and Ayan. Another contemporary, Vikram, is seen as a better performer, but Suriya has also wowed critics with his work in such films as Pithamagan and Vaaranam Aayiram. Besides, the abs have it—neither Vijay nor Vikram possess the perfectly sculpted body that Suriya flaunts in almost all his films. Ultimately, Tamil movies are quite conservative despite a reputation for raunchy song-and-dance sequences and double-entendre dialogues, but all inhibitions are shed when it comes to showing off Suriya’s bare torso.
“Suriya is the most handsome hero in the south,” says cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran, who worked with him on Aayuthu Ezhuthu and will be shooting Suriya’s upcoming project with Ghajini director A.R. Murugadoss. Suriya’s dreamy eyes and toothy smile have sealed his reputation as a sex symbol among women. His six-pack takes care of the men in the audience. Suriya, however, wears his pin-up status lightly and plays down his superhero status. “My father always says that this too shall pass,” the 34-year-old actor says. “I’ve heard too many stories of success leading to downfall at the dining table at home. This fear of losing it all is deep-rooted in me. You have to prove yourself over and over again. Once you finish a movie, you move on and start another one.”
Suriya’s father, eminent yesteryears actor Sivakumar, has been a source of encouragement as well as a cause for caution. Viewers and critics were unkind to Suriya’s initial films, starting with Nerukku Ner in 1997. He worried about whether he could carry the weight of expectation of being Sivakumar’s son. Those were desperate times for the young man who had chucked a salaried job and joined the movies partly to help his father pay off a debt. “I would come home from shooting and cry into my pillow,” Suriya says about the initial days. “I wondered why I had gotten into acting, whether there was a way out.” He began to pay attention to the nuances of performance. “I began to take dance lessons,” he says. “I started watching films on television more closely.”
Suriya’s break came in 2001 with Nandha, about a boy who kills his philandering father and attempts to reconcile with his mother as an adult. Suriya singles out Nandha’s director, Bala, for transforming his career and, in particular, his approach to acting. Nandha is a brooder who barely speaks—Suriya had no more than a page of dialogue to deliver. “Bala sir was the one who told me, you have powerful eyes, use them in your acting,” Suriya says. “He taught me body language, how to smile, how to hold myself. Only after Nandha did I think that I was eligible for the movies.”
If Nandha sobered up Suriya, 2003’s Kaakha Kaakha gave him the high he had been waiting for. Gautham Menon’s wildly successful cop thriller was a big success and sealed Suriya’s screen image as a strong-and-silent romantic. Suriya’s character, Anbuselvam, is an encounter cop who takes on a psychotic villain. The plot is predictable but the movie’s appeal has everything to do with its smooth screenplay and slick Hollywood-style editing and camerawork.
Jyothika, Suriya’s co-star in the movie and future wife (they married three years ago), also made her contribution to popular cinema. Menon had already decided that he wanted Jyothika for the role of Maya, Anbuselvam’s lover. Jyothika had an idea of who could act opposite her. “Jyothika came late for the Nandha preview, ran to the projector room and saw the first 30 minutes from there,” Suriya recalls. Jyothika recommended Suriya to Menon, who, like Bala, realized the draw of Suriya’s mesmerizing gaze.
The film-making team was nervous before the movie opened. “Very few young actors had played cops,” Suriya says. “We thought the movie would work for college students.” What followed was “magic, just magic,” Suriya says. “For many in Tamil Nadu, Kaakha Kaakha was my first film.” For his role, he had shaved off his five o’clock shadow, beefed up his body and let his eyes do the talking. The heart-throb had finally been born. “Suddenly, he had became an action hero who could also be extremely confident and subtle in his emotional scenes and perform comfortably in his romantic scenes,” says Venkatesh Chakravarthy, film studies professor at Mindscreen Film Institute and a friend of Suriya’s father Sivakumar. “This transformation of the boy who started out as a shy, reticent actor is amazing.”
Suriya’s ascent is the result of a combination of raw talent, hard work, meticulous image-building and sheer luck. He wasn’t the first choice for Nandha or Ghajini, that are now considered milestones in his career path. Since Kaakha Kaakha, he has attempted to strike a balance between the roles that suit him best and the projects that he feels he must do in order to widen his base. He has done romance (Sillunu Oru Kaadhal), comedy (Peralagan) and action (Ghajini, remade in Hindi with the same title). He has tried to shake off the label of being the big-city darling by appearing in formulaic larger-than-life entertainers such as Aaru and Vel, both by G. Hari Krishnan. Suriya is currently shooting for Krishnan’s Singham. He plays a cop yet again, this time from a small town. The movie is targeted at the B and C centres—industry parlance for smaller towns and villages that constitute 40% of the Tamil film market. “I can’t say that I’m experimenting with Hari sir’s film, but I know that it won’t be bad or senseless,” Suriya says. “I do this with every third film of mine. This is the market that caters to Rajnikanth and Vijay. My films don’t always go there.”
Movies such as Ghajini or Vaaranam Aayiram made Suriya a heart-stopper in cities, but they alienated viewers who prefer earthier heroes. Chakravarthy, who had compared Vijay and Suriya in a magazine article some years ago, points out that Vijay started acting in B films and continues to “focus his energies on being the Rajnikanth No. 2, given his popularity with the subaltern Tamil youth”. In Mumbai, the multiplex has allowed offbeat films to compete with bigger releases. However, “Tamil cinema, like other regional cinema, can’t afford a multiplex film” such as Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram, Chakravarthy adds. In Vaaranam Aayiram, Suriya plays the double role of an aimless drifter and his inspirational father. The movie has urbane characters and several lines of English dialogue. “Some said that Vaaranam Aayiram was only for double PhDs,” Suriya jokes.
Suriya has spent the last few years coming to terms with what audiences want, and how it is to be delivered to them. “I was born in Tamil Nadu, and my people are like this,” he reasons about playing the village strongman or the small-town thug. “These are real people and they come to single-screen theatres, sit on wooden benches and watch movies. I have to cater to them. I owe my status to them.” Among Suriya’s lodestars is actor and director Kamal Haasan, who has sampled both commercial and offbeat cinema throughout his career. “Kamal sir has this thirst for cinema,” Suriya says admiringly. “Even if I wasn’t an actor, I would have been drawn to the way he does different things. He has never bothered with success.”
Tamil cinema is full of examples of mavericks who have found ways to merge creativity and commerce. Right from the 1960s, actors and film-makers have tried to tell old stories in new ways, and they have found audiences willing to go along with them. The tradition of experimentation means that young actors like Suriya can pack their resumes with blockbusters as well as vanity projects. However, the absence of multiplexes means that the actors can ignore the mainstream only at their own peril—especially when Tamil movies cost more and make more money than they ever did. Sivaji, starring Rajnikanth, raked in close to Rs80 crore, while Suriya’s Ayan earned about Rs65 crore.
Suriya’s Diwali release, Aadhavan, sees him once again in populist mode, as does Krishnan’s Singham. If Suriya was larger than life in Vel, he will spill out of the screen in Singham, Krishnan promises. “Suriya is in a very good position at the moment,” he says. “Tamil audiences want both Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth. Suriya is a bit of both.”
For Krishnan, evidence of Suriya’s growing popularity lies in the crowds that throng his outdoor shoots. One of the shoots for Singham took place in Thiru village in Tuticorin district. It was hot enough to bake a cake, and even the wind, whenever it appeared, bore heat. As Suriya stood on the seat of a jeep, grimaced and growled, and beat up a few rowdies, clusters of open-mouthed fans cheered on from the sidelines. They put their mobile phone cameras to work and resisted half-hearted attempts by policemen to leave the set. The star, in keeping with his nice-guy reputation, remained affable and obliging. “When we shot outdoors with Suriya earlier, not that many people came to watch,” Krishnan says. “Nowadays, it’s getting difficult to take him to locations.” Suriya has his own analysis of the situation. “They don’t know the real me,” he said. “I’m like Mickey Mouse for them—they stand with me and get their picture taken.”
Although Suriya is consciously trying to be a hero for the masses, he tries to ensure that “every movie will be special in some way” and that there will be “at least 10 minutes new” in each film. He insists on retakes even when film-makers are okay with a shot, often irritating some of them. “Suriya is a director’s actor,” Menon says. “You have to keep talking to him about his role and he will do everything that needs to be done to get it right. My only problem with him is his insecurity. He will insist on two or three takes, whereas I like the rawness of the first take.”
Menon and Ravi K. Chandran are wary of Suriya’s crowd-pleasing moves. Menon says: “I don’t believe that rural roles work for Suriya. The problem is that all heroes feel that they need the masses. He works best in quiet roles because he’s that kind of a guy.” Chandran adds: “I don’t like to see Suriya in commercial films, but I guess he has to do them. A hero in the south has to be everything for everybody. Suriya must keep himself focused and maintain a reality check.”
Perhaps Suriya will never forget his early failures or the reviews that advised him to be a character actor instead of a hero. “The pressure poked me,” he says. “I like to be scared, under pressure. I perform better that way.” Doggedness has now become a trademark of Suriya’s approach to acting. For Vaaranam Aayiram, he lost 10kg to look like a teenager. “I would be on the treadmill till 2.30 in the morning,” he says. “My wife used to tell me, you don’t look like the husband I know.”
It is now said that acting is in Suriya’s blood, but the fact is that his father, Sivakumar, built a wall between his profession and his family. Besides, Sarvanan, which is Suriya’s real name, doesn’t have a pleasant first memory of watching his father on screen. “I remember going at the age of 4 to a preview of one of my father’s films,” Suriya says. “He plays a Christian priest, and there’s a scene where he gets beaten up outside a church. I remember crying and I was so agitated that I had to be taken home from the preview theatre.”
Sivakumar kept his distance from the film industry, Suriya says, and encouraged his wife, two sons and one daughter to do the same. “We didn’t go for parties, and very few people from the industry came home,” Suriya recalls. He took the bus to school and college, and was more preoccupied with his grades than the movies. “I was a reserved kid and I had a complex that I couldn’t speak well,” Suriya says. “I never got good marks in school or college, and that affected my confidence. I didn’t know what to do with my life.” He eventually graduated in commerce and worked at BNT Exports in Chennai for over two years before joining the movies. “I used to earn about Rs800 a month at the garment unit,” he says. “I earned Rs50,000 for my first film. I was paid in cash in a white envelope—I can still feel those notes.”
Suriya continues to live with his parents, his siblings and his wife and two-year-old daughter Diya in Chennai’s T. Nagar neighbourhood. Jyothika, a Punjabi from Mumbai who had a successful run in Tamil films until her marriage, is Suriya’s Hindi movie watching companion. The attractive couple endorse a few products together, and are the picture of married bliss. Jyothika acted with Suriya in her first Tamil movie, and they started seeing each soon after. “There was something about her,” Suriya says. “I was a bit protective of her. My fan base expanded after I married her.”
That fan base could exponentially increase if Ram Gopal Varma returns to form with Raktha Charitra. Suriya’s Bollywood adventure would have taken place earlier had he accepted the films he was being offered by Mumbai directors. His rapport with and admiration for Varma helped him decide on Raktha Charitra. Apart from grasping the arithmetic of Tamil cinema, Suriya has also been keeping an eye on his counterparts in Mumbai, even as he complains that the idea of Bollywood can be overpowering. “We envy the budget and canvas to do things in Mumbai,” Suriya says. “Kaakha Kaakha cost Rs3 crore. Ghajini, Rs7 crore.” That too is changing. Tamil movies are now costlier—Ayan cost about Rs20 crore, Aadhavan came with a bill of Rs25 crore. Suriya’s acting fee alone is said to be about Rs5 crore. As Tamil cinema tries to become bigger than it already is, one of its brightest names prepares for new challenges. Raktha Charitra isn’t just Suriya’s Hindi movie debut. He will play a villain for the first time. “I would love to play a black character,” Suriya says. “With Varma, I can see the transition happening.”
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
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