HERE IS THE chocolate boy Maddy swirling around trees and jumping in the air singing Pachai Nirame in Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000), in clothes colour-coordinated with Shalini, his co-star. There is the slightly more serious Madhavan playing Farhan Qureshi in 3 Idiots (2009) getting scolded by his on-screen dad. And there is the completely uninhibited 51-year-old madman unleashing his towel in the locker-room with a swagger to match a Spanish matador in the delightfully nutty Decoupled, on air currently on Netflix.
R Madhavan has never been afraid of experimenting. From a BSc in electronics, he moved into a career in public speaking and acting on television until Ratnam decided to give him the breakthrough role of a young man in love in Alaipayuthey. Easily straddling the Tamil and Hindi film industries, he was one of the first big stars to move to OTT with the Amazon Prime Video thriller Breathe in 2018.
And he’s done it at his own pace, frequently taking breaks to refresh and reinvent himself, whether it was in 2012 when he busted his knee and went three years without a theatrical release or whether it was recently where he has chosen to shed his old skin and create a new body of work. “During the lockdown, I realised one had to make content that is Covid-proof because people are not going to accept stories that were relevant before the pandemic,” he says. “People are not ready to be sermonised on the screen anymore, nor do they want to see anything morbid. So what do you do to engage them? That’s the fight happening in my life right now. I have to herd writers into the new era right now.”
He says he is more nervous now than ever before because he is at an age when he can easily be written off. He wants to be comfortable not being the Alpha Male on the set. “But I am also inspired by actors who are 91 right now, continue to work and continue to win Oscars,” he says, referring to actor-director Clint Eastwood. “The number of times he has had to metamorphosise to be relevant is amazing. You have to break your mould ever so often. That is what I am doing right now. It’s really painful,” he says, because it means breaking one’s habit, one’s conditioning, and looking out. “You have to learn from people younger than you are,” he adds. You have to shed the rhythm in which you perform, the words you use in a dialogue, the speed with which you convey an idea.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who directed him in the iconic Rang de Basanti (2006), calls him a world actor, and indeed Madhavan has worked across languages and industries. “In a world of poster boys, he has chosen to stay an actor,” says Mehra. He doesn’t take himself seriously but he takes his work seriously, he says. Indeed, Madhavan’s approach to creating Arya Iyer in Netflix’s Decoupled was serious but the result is a delicious (if extremely polarising), story of a middle-aged man who manages to offend all manner of people. Arya doesn’t have a social filter and usually says and does things that are not culturally acceptable, whether it is laughing at a woman with a big bottom, or doing stretching exercises in a prayer room in an airport, or putting his driver up to mischief at a contemporary art exhibition. It is no surprise that his long-suffering, beautiful, and very bright on-screen wife, played with aplomb by Surveen Chawla, wants to leave him. How the two consciously uncouple and explain it to their teenage daughter makes up the first season. Madhavan plays Arya as a man who justifies his own actions in his head, especially as he has no malice or intent to hurt anyone. “It was just observations,” he says. Madhavan’s triumph is that he makes Arya both acceptable and likeable.
As he is in person. Writer Chetan Bhagat who appears in Decoupled as himself—as India’s most popular fiction writer says that Maddy was a lot of fun and their friendship developed very fast. “I met him at his home in Dubai (where he has moved to help his 17-year-old son train in swimming) and did a long 90-minuteYouTube conversation for my channel, which also had a lot of views. Even in Decoupled I never thought I would be noticed so much but it is great that people like seeing Maddy and I together. We have hung out many times after the show and have become good friends and maybe we will even work on something soon,” says Bhagat.
DECOUPLED’S DIRECTOR, Hardik Mehta, says on day-one of the shoot, he was quite intimidated about directing Madhavan even though they had had many readings and Skype sessions earlier. “Here was someone who had worked with legends like Mani [Ratnam] sir, Rajkumar Hirani and Aanand L Rai, and now I had to be the director for the whole series, which is completely based on the quirks of his character. But the series is also a huge ensemble with so many actors in every episode. So Maddy Sir and I adapted a technique where we would do a rehearsal first where he would act exactly like a take and that would let all the other actors know what the tone of the scene is and how it is staged and designed. And that proved to be a fabulous exercise for a comedy because we can’t go for multiple takes in a comedy, the performances get affected. Even when we were shooting in a village, once he did his make-up and wore his costume, he would never return to the vanity van. He would just soak in the winter sun and lie down on a charpai while we prepped,” adds Mehta.
“During the lockdown, I realised one had to make content that is Covid-proof because people are not going to accept stories that were relevant before the pandemic,” says R Madhavan, actor
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Mehra adds that Madhavan is the kind of actor directors wait for, because he doesn’t play the role, but becomes it. “He’s a great human being first and then a great actor and in no circumstances would he want to switch that,” he says. The actor has somehow negotiated the demands of stardom with the need for artistic fulfilment with enviable ease. He had just completed his passion project—Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, which he directed and acted in, based on ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan who was falsely accused of being a spy—and was lazing around the house, when Decoupled came to him.
Madhavan has mostly played “good guys” in Hindi cinema though in Tamil cinema he is proud to say he has done a few malevolent characters, beginning with the mercurial Inba Sekhar in Ratnam’s Tamil version of Yuva, Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004). “I’ve never played the same role twice,” he says, adding “with Breathe andDecoupled, I get to explore my dark side.” He enjoyed playing Arya, calling him “Maddy without the guts”. But it’s not always easy to find co-actors like Chawla whom he can tango with, because otherwise he’d stand out “like tits on a bull!” Chawla in turn found it “a dream” to work with Madhavan, and she filled out her onscreen character, making her more opinionated than how she was originally written.
One of the other traits that Mehta admires is Madhavan’s sincerity and discipline. “We shot in November/December, 2020, and January 2021, when a lot of people still hadn’t been vaccinated. So Maddy sir ensured that he always stayed within the hotel after the shoot and didn’t indulge in meeting or going anywhere for those two-and-a-half months. He knew that any one person getting affected could stall the whole shoot. In fact, when his father-in-law passed away, he just went for a day and quickly came back because he knew there weren’t many shoot days without him. This shows his commitment and understanding of the medium, which has given him so much in life and deservingly so,” says Mehta.
Madhavan believes the younger generation will put a brake on things. The world is becoming slower now. Generation Next is minimalistic, relationships are far more important for them than material things. “The difference between Squid Game and Money Heist was that the former was all about relationships. My son told me about it, as opposed to my friends recommending it to me. That’s a great revelation.”
Pan India is too limiting for an actor with as long a vision. “We need to think global now, perhaps even of Mars in the next ten years,” he says. “There are so many Indian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. We are respected and recognised everywhere. We’re watching Narcos with subtitles. There is no time to rest. This is the time you’ll either fall off the wagon or ride the high horse. It is all about change. But the old world also has a charm. There’s also the universe where Kishore Kumar is playing on the radio, it’s evening, the wind is blowing, the curtains are fluttering and you’re having chai and pakoras. There’s a place for everything.”