How does Malayalam cinema’s favourite romcom hero shift his image to play one of the most experimental characters ever?
Bhai is arriving! After impressing viewers in Toronto and Mumbai, Bhai, a.k.a. Akbar, the protagonist of Geetu Mohandas’ Nivin Pauly-starrer, reaches cinemas today. The much-acclaimed film premièred in the Toronto International Film Festival and was the opening film of the film festival of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) in Mumbai. And it is proving to be a game-changer for Nivin, Malayalam’s favourite romcom hero.
“Akbar was an intense role in many ways, physically and intellectually,” agrees Nivin during a conversation over phone. Since Geetu and he lived in the same building, Geetu used to discuss her film with him and ask his opinion about who would be the best actor to play Akbar. “I used to wonder why she did not consider me,” he admits.
Eventually, when Geetu did give him the script to read and asked if he would play the lead in her film, he was taken aback. “It was an extremely demanding role. I wondered if I would be able to do justice to it and breathe life into Akbar, a complex man with a past. I had doubts about myself,” he recalls. But to evolve as an actor and to grow, he knew it was essential to step out of his comfort zone.
“I knew the romcoms and light-hearted characters would come again. But here was a chance to try something entirely new, something that would push me to explore myself as an actor,” says Nivin.
He adds that it took a little while to get used to the character and the working pattern on the sets. In addition to learning to speak two languages (Hindi and the Malayalam spoken in Lakshadweep), he also had to bulk himself up for the role.
While his Hindi diction was fine-tuned by sound engineer Sanjay Maurya, the script dealing with the portion set in the islands had already been written into the Lakshadweep dialect. Under the supervision of Sreeja Sreedharan, one of the associate directors in the film, Nivin perfected the dialect of the islands. “That was not all that difficult because it is a kind of Malayalam. I also went on a special diet to put on weight and then I had to reduce my weight for certain scenes in the narrative. Losing the additional kilograms I had gained amidst my hectic shooting schedule was not easy,” laughs Nivin.
The director demanded that “we be in character all the time on the set”. “So, she would insist that there be no mobile phones on the sets and not to keep chatting and cracking jokes. Geetu is a very protective director who wants her actors to give their best. We also attended a workshop led by Atul Mongia in Mumbai. He helped me find Akbar in me. Once, I got into that space, I realised how all that helps to make that transition from Nivin to Akbar,” he explains.
There were many such firsts for Nivin during the shooting of the film and after. “I was visiting Lakshdweep, one of the main locations of the film, for the first time. We shot in Bangaram, one of the islands. Apart from the scenic locales, it was the people there who made it a memorable stay. Cooperative and friendly, they went out of their way to help us during the shooting,” he says.
Similarly, walking the red carpet at the première of Moothon in Toronto was a new experience for him. He says it is great to be a part of this new spring in Malayalam cinema that has revived its place in world cinema. “To be part of such a prestigious festival was wonderful. There were many Indians too at the screening and they only had encouraging words about the film and Malayalam cinema in general,” says a happy Nivin.
Moothon will be his last release this year. Early next year, he will be seen in Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramukham, based on a true story of labour exploitation and unrest in the Kochi port in the fifties when three labourers died in the shooting at Mattancherry.
“I play a labourer in the film that has a large cast. Again, this is a film that is quite challenging in its own way.”
So, how was it to work with the husband-wife team of Rajeev and Geetu as directors? “Both of them have the same vision when it comes to cinema but their working styles are different. Rajeev ettan wants every actor to find his/her interpretation of the character and is quite laid-back once shooting begins. Geetu is this protective director who wants to see each actor delve into his/her role to enact the character,” he says.
Nivin says though at some point in the future, he would like to try his hand at direction, it would have to wait till he feels confident. “There is much to learn, to conceptualise a scene, layer a story, decide the cast, organise the shoot… a lot of hard work. As of now, I plan to stick to acting.”