IT WAS A rainy day when R Madhavan first landed in Mumbai. He was 24, stuck in a train that had stalled on the tracks just minutes into the city. The water was rising, and exit options were few. Which is when a group of good samaritans got the passengers off the train and provided them with food and a place to stay the night as they waited for the deluge to subside.
“I was coming in from Kolhapur and was carrying a big suitcase. They ushered us into the local community hall and gave us hot khichdi and papad. I was new to the city and had heard all kinds of things about how one gets robbed and mobbed in Bombay, but this was unprecedented. There was a sheer sense of care the common man showed which I hadn’t seen anywhere else,” says the 47-year-old actor.
That night, he saw a vision. “I will never forget how I was looking out of my window and there was a building against the hills with a penthouse on the top floor. It had long draped curtains and beautiful golden light coming from within. Because of the rain and the clouds, it had a misty feel to it, almost surreal. I said to myself, ‘One of these days I will be living in a house like that’,” he says.
Sitting in his duplex apartment overlooking the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Madhavan is still trying to pieces together how he went from a part-time college lecturer to a full-time actor. It’s been two decades, and though the story may sound like one straight out of his movies, he narrates it like it was just yesterday.
Dressed in a full sleeved t-shirt and track pants, with a hot-water bottle in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, Madhavan looks more content than he ever has. His hair is unruly, silver strands proudly grace his beard, his eyes look wiser and his smile still sparkles. He is nursing a recent workout shoulder injury, but that hardly curbs his enthusiasm about two things. Work that has kept him in the news, and his son Vedant who just won an international bronze medal for swimming. “He is embarrassed that I posted this on Instagram. He says there are kids who won gold and silver who deserve to be in the news more. I think he has a good heart,” says Madhavan.
Interestingly Madhavan’s debut online serial, Breathe, on Amazon Prime Video, has become the most popular Indian streaming show this year. Unlike anything Madhavan has done so far, Breathe was pretty much a make-or- break for him. “Breathe came at a time when I was grappling for something I hadn’t already done. I had been the romantic hero, the vigilante, the good cop, the simple husband. After two decades, it becomes a little difficult to reinvent yourself and this was exactly what I needed. Not just in terms of character, but in terms of a new medium, and a story that wasn’t so black and white,” he says.
In Breathe, Madhavan plays Danny, a father who is desperate to save the life of his six-year-old son and resorts to killing innocent people. For nerds overdosing on international crime dramas and dark thrillers, Breathe may not make the cut; it often spoon-feeds the audience and is melodramatic at times. It does, however, retain its unpredictability through almost all eight episodes, and throws up many surprises thanks to a sharp script and Madhavan’s earnest portrayal.
It’s important to keep pushing the wheel
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“When the show came to me, I knew it was a winner. Connecting with Danny was difficult, but it didn’t take way from my association with him. Would I do this in real life? Now that is a question no father wants to answer because no answer there can make you a winner,” he adds.
Madhavan sounds like a new person, after deciding five years ago to give it all up. This was the man who epitomised the boy-next-door almost all his career, and with conviction each time. For those who grew up in the 90s, Madhavan was the friend you could turn to in times of crisis, the boyfriend who would sweep you off your feet, and the son who in his own way would make his parents proud.
“I was a south Indian boy who grew up in Bihar. I came from a simple family where we’d lock suitcases on long-distance trains. Everything I learnt was on the job. I was changing too soon and wanted to keep things real. There is a difference between keeping it subtle and keeping it real. Luckily, I survived the change process,” he says.
Madhavan was innocent, yet witty. He was playful, yet passionate. He was funny, yet fierce when he needed to be. If you were a woman of marriageable age, he was the actor you wanted to take home to your parents. When he proposed to a woman on the railway platform in Mani Ratnam’s Alai Payuthey (2000), it stoked a trend to ask someone out between train announcements. And when he took his adoptive daughter to meet her birth mother in Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), he set a new standard for devout fathers.
He walked into our lives as a film hero at the turn of the century, but he was never the superhero. While the Khans of Hindi cinema and those like Vijay and Suriya down south were busy being larger than life, Madhavan was the only one who was among us. We could extend our hand and touch him, we laughed and cried with him. He was our Maddy, and honestly there was really no one like him.
“I felt like a total misfit from the very beginning. When I was doing TV shows like Banegi Apni Baat and Sea Hawks between 94 and 97 they said, ‘You’re overexposing yourself, you can never be a film hero.’ Next thing, I get a call from Mani Ratnam. Then they said, ‘You are a very unlikely Tamil hero. You don’t have a moustache, you’re married, they will never accept you.’ I still didn’t care because I knew they liked me as an actor. That attitude propelled me to do even better. Then they said, ‘You are a Tamil actor, they will never accept you in Hindi.’ So whenever they said, ‘You will never be able to do this’, I wanted to push that boundary and see what the hell would happen if I did. Today, after 22 years, I am still playing main leads, being offered romantic roles, which is quite shocking to me. I think today I am in the best place possible,” he says.
I know I will get dated. Over a period of time, I will get so comfortable and set in my ways that I won’t be able to change myself again and invite the disruptions in my life with as much open heartedness as I have now
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His transition from Tamil to Hindi is one of the most organic and successful ones we have seen of his generation. Other than him, only Sridevi and Kamal Hasaan have gone on to become all- India stars. And Madhavan did it with ease and grace. “I kept away the hero worship consciously because that tends to get into your mind. You walk into the airport and have four bodyguards to make you feel important. You have to be picture perfect, your interviews have to be a certain way, your clothes have to be a certain way—all this is baggage hanging onto an actor’s soul like dead weight. I removed all that. That’s really kept me closer to my audience,” he says.
From the strong-willed air force pilot in Rang De Basanti (2006) to the unsure engineer in Three Idiots (2009) to the sharp tongued journalist in Guru (2009) to the under-confident lover in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), he was understated and yet defiant in every role. He might have had more confident actors opposite him like Aamir Khan, but Madhavan stood his ground.
His first Hindi film, Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein (2001), which did not do well when it released, is now seen as a cult romantic movie. The clip of his speech about why the youth of India need to step up for their country (from Rang De Basanti) is watched and re-watched by the youth. “Rang de Basanti was a great eye opener for me. It was a testimonial to how filmmaking has changed. There was a full script for the first time with dialogues and everything. That was not usually the case,” he says.
Despite a successful run in both the Hindi and Tamil industry, in 2011, Madhavan felt like it was over for him. He’d had a few unsuccessful films in the south, which made him question why he was doing what he was. “I felt like I had been marching to someone else’s beat all my life. I did everything they expected me to do as an actor and I had nothing more to give. I saw some of the things I did in Tamil at a later stage and I was repulsed by myself. I did those films for money. I was thinking of retirement. I told myself, ‘Let’s walk away with dignity’.”
For the first time since the start of his career, he had some time to himself. He indulged in his hobbies like biking, flying his remote planes, skiing, playing golf. “I realised these are so many aspects of me that I have never seen on screen. This is the reason people actually like me off screen. So I told myself, ‘Don’t do dumbed- down versions of yourself, the audience is far more intelligent than you and they are paying top dollar to hear you.’ From then on, my approach to content became extremely investigative. I wanted to create a team of people who were creating content for an international view point. Writers and directors who may be first timers or one-film wonders but are not scared to tell a story differently,” he says.
For months, he walked in and out of producers’ offices in Chennai with scripts that seemed like a far cry from what he was used to doing. These were scripts that reflected the changing times and stories of today. Vikram Vedha (2017), which was last year’s second highest grossing Tamil film, was a step in that direction, and so also Saala Khadoos (2017). Today, all he wants to do is empower storytellers who have the ability to break the norm and reach out to a world larger than ever. “I want to harness their energies and break the norms of how a hero should be seen. They are armed with life experiences other older directors have not been open to in their lives, forget about experiencing it. I want to mould those life experiences into good content. Which is why I don’t care if people are watching me on their smart phones on the toilet seat just before going to work. Times are changing, and content is becoming more accessible and intimate and let’s wake up to that,” he adds.
He sounds fearless, and this time it isn’t just about hits or flops, but doing what he believes in. Many of his contemporaries may still be vying to romance female actors half his age, but he wants to go beyond it. “I look at myself and I say, ‘You are 48, if you have to do a romantic film, it has to be age appropriate.’ Obviously, even now I know I will get dated. Over a period of time, I will get so comfortable and set in my ways that I won’t be able to change myself again and invite the disruptions in my life with as much open heartedness as I have now,” he says. “But until then, it’s important to keep pushing the wheel.”