R Madhavan on the space for ideals in society, his relationship with his directors, and his need to be at the centre of attention.
“With me it’s pretty much—what you see is what you get. There are enough pressures in the world without having to worry about what others perceive of you. I don’t have the energy or strength to do that.” Be it the crusading journalist in Guru, or Flight Lieutenant Ajay Rathod in Rang De Basanti, or Farhan in 3 Idiots, R Madhavan remains associated in our minds as ‘the good man’, whether his character succeeds in the end or not. In real life too, he comes across as someone with a strong idealistic core. Excerpts from a conversation:
QAs a public figure, you’ve campaigned for Peta, promoted vegetarianism and done social TV commercials. But do these leave any impact on the public mind?
A I have been more than lucky and had more than my share of goodies, and I am driven by guilt to repay it back in whatever way I can. The reason for getting involved with something like this is to spread a little bit of cheer in these hard, hard times. I don’t know how else to do it, and so, I do it the best way I can.
Q About your roles: in Rang De Basanti and Guru, idealism is at the core in both these characters. But does anyone take idealism seriously any more?
A The reason why idealism exists is because most people don’t take it seriously. You don’t need ‘idealism’ as a word if everyone were doing their job properly or if everybody feels that life has to be lived by rules. I am somebody who loves to follow the rules, and if following them makes me an idealist, then we require more of those people. It is important to bind yourself to some civilised behaviour, to integrity and honesty.
Q But idealism was subverted in both films. The tycoon in Guru is glorified in the end, and in Rang De Basanti, one friend murders a minister and the other kills his own father.
A Causes are driven by ideals. It’s not bias. It’s not something you’re doing for your personal benefit. If it is for the goodness of what you perceive, of what is good for society… then it falls into the realm of idealism. It is not the responsibility of the filmmaker to propagate goodness in society. Sometimes it has to be portrayed the way the director feels, as honestly as is possible. There is no point in creating an ideal world in cinema when there are examples to the contrary.
Q We live in that kind of world and we practise the non-ideal in real life…
A The reason why India is a functional country is because we have idealists here, or we’d have gone the Pakistan and Sri Lanka way a long time ago. Now, for example, I’ve never seen the Tatas embroiled in a controversy that involves unscrupulous behaviour. What I am trying to say is that it is possible to live like the Tatas, live by the rules and still make it successful. Having said that—there are successful people because there are unsuccessful people around them. What is the measure of your success? If it’s money, then it’s black and white. This one is rich, this one is not, but if you don’t consider wealth as a currency but the kind of lifestyle you’re living, and right now I am thinking about my family… My mother has been a bank officer—one of the most honest bank officers to have come out of Bihar, and I don’t see her fretting or fuming or anything of the sort. Many of her colleagues in the bank were corrupt and have nothing much to show for their lives. It’s when you’re able to create the world around you which you’re comfortable with, that is heaven, and that is what works.
Q What should an actor do to bring that little difference to a role?
A Honestly, one of the reasons for my success is that I cannot act—in the traditional sense. I cannot act like Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan or Kamal Hassan Sir. If you asked me to imitate any of them, you’ll lose whatever little respect you have for me. Knowing that and knowing that I am not trained, and that I had to survive working with some extraordinary directors who put me in the position I am today… so, total submission was the first thing. I had to absorb as much as I could from the directors and use that knowledge with the next. When you’ve worked with a director like Mani Ratnam—all that success is attributed to a big director, there’s no place you have of your own after that, so you have to carve out a niche of your own or die as one of his proteges. So I took that long leap of faith for survival, and it worked.
In Tamil cinema, I’ve done everything from playing a wuss to a vigilante to doing comedy to a villain. I don’t think success can be measured in the number of hits you’ve scored. But “Success,” as Mr Bachchan once told me, “is if you can still be considered for a main lead; if you’re still a viable option and still fighting battles.”
Q So you’re aspiring for longevity?
A I was thinking just the other day what I want out of this industry, and I realised that wanting something out of the industry is the worst thing I can do to myself. What is important is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy telling stories; being a narrator; making people laugh and cry, being the centre of attention. So, if I was bored with myself for what I was doing, my audience would be bored too. I just want to lead my life the way it makes me happy—on my terms.
Q What are the roles you like to essay?
A The police and defence forces have not been entirely and correctly portrayed yet. There is far more to defence than singing songs and going to the borders and saving Tiger Hill. I fear that the glory of being defence personnel is slowly being eroded because people don’t see the honour and excitement with which these people live. I really wish there is a film—and, I hope I can do it—that shows them in the right light. It’s so easy to show a corrupt cop or an honest cop. There’s only black and white. Why don’t you show me a true cop? Tell me what these guys are made of. How do they train? What are the instructions given to them? How do they manage to keep India still a functional democracy? Despite all the violence around us and all the dysfunctional countries around us, we’re still a growing, powerful economy. Somebody must be doing something right. Who are these people? I would love to make a story about them.
Q How do you see yourself growing as an actor?
A The whole challenge is to cater to the changing world. When the actor fails to evolve, he gets thrown out. I know that I should not just pooh-pooh away new ideas or the things that the new generation does because every old generation has done that. When you look at a Mani Ratnam, and at 44, he makes a love story that reaches deep down into everybody’s heart and stays there—Alaipayuthay (which became Saathiya in Hindi)—I am amazed at how he does it… I hope to be able to do that.