April 17, 1998
Vim and vigour
Locating Prashant, and trying to get across to him, is a formidable task. Sort of like climbing the Everest -- a tough grind but once you get that done, it is downhill all the way.
Prashant. Click for bigger pic!
His home, when I finally get there, is quiet. Strangely, "antiseptic" is the adjective that springs to mind. I am greeted by his mother who asks my name, my journalistic affiliation, and do I want coffee, or a Coke. She then ushers me into Prashant's den, and leaves me alone there, staring at a collection of gizmos none of which -- save a state-of-the-art computer -- I can identify. Luckily, before I press the wrong button on one of those gadgets and, who knows, get teleported into the fifth dimension or whatever, Prashant saunters in, oozing cologne and confidence.
I kick off by telling him about Rediff. Which, as it turns out, is almost a mistake -- Prashant, it turns out, is an internet junkie, and the knowledge that I am from an newsmagazine on the net turns him on to his latest hobby horse.
I get him off it by asking about Jeans -- the Amritraj-Solomon Production helmed by whizkid director Shankar, that teams him with Aishwarya Rai. Given that Shankar pulled off a hat-trick of superhits with his first three releases, the TN industry is abuzz with the prospects for this one.
"Actually, Shankar had first approached me for Kaadhalan, his second film, but at the time I was up to my neck in other commitments. So, much to my regret, I had to turn it down. Prabhu Deva did the role, instead, and it was a huge hit. The offer to star in Jeans took me by surprise, really -- a pleasant one.
"I was like, you want ME?!!! I mean, I can't tell you much about the movie because we are not supposed to talk about it. But I can tell you it is a young, trendy tale, the director is the tops, so is my co-star, Aishwarya, and this film is the most expensive movie made in India..."
A good part of the film is set in the United States, and for Prashant, that was the stuff of dream schedules. "It was way out, really. We travelled to almost every place in the States, met tonnes of people, which was great. I got to sample every conceivable kind of cuisine -- Spanish, Mexican, Italian. You name it, I had it. The actual shooting was very tough, though -- Shankar is a very demanding, work-oriented director. We were a team of about 35 including seven-eight American technicians from Hollywood... It was a great experience all round."
How about a clue to the storyline, I ask. The response is a teasing grin. "I can't tell. I'll tell you this, though -- you won't guess it in a 100 years: it is superb, very novel, really brilliant. But then, all of Shankar's movies so far have been that way," says Prashant.
One thing is very clear -- Prashant can't seem to stop talking about his director. "He is wonderful to work for, work with... What I like most is that he has a remedy for everything, nothing fazes him. I land at the location, there is a huge flap on, something planned isn't working out, everyone is in a state and Shankar calmly suggests the solution, and it works! He has a solution for everything, no fiascos when he is in charge..."
So how would he compare Shankar with Mani Ratnam, the other whizkid from the south he has worked with? "Every director is different, really. One similarity between the two, though, is that both are enormously confident. Other than that, well, their styles are different, the way they visualise scenes, songs... Even the way they explain things to their artistes is different... Mani tells you what he wants and leaves it to you to produce the goods, Shankar makes it very easy for you to understand exactly what you have to do.
"Then again, Shankar's basic style is rich, mind-boggling, grand in scope. Mani tends more to use lights, camera angles as his highlights. But both are very focussed, very into what they are doing. Most directors, at the end of the day, relax, come 'down' off the work high. These two are right there on the sets, busy planning the next day's shoot, briefing you, getting things organised."
With Aishwarya Rai in Jeans. Click for bigger pic!
Prashant's experience with Mani Rathnam was when he worked on Thiruda Thiruda, a madcap caper that bombed at the box office, probably because the humour was a bit more subtle, more on the parody-style, than the average banana-peel stuff that has the southside frontbencher in splits.
"No, how can you call it a bomb. It actually did pretty decent business at the box office and everyone I spoke to liked the film," Prashant says, quick in defence. Then he rather unfairly turns the tables on me by asking if I had seen the movie, and liked it. I had, and did, and I tell him so. "There you are!" he says triumphantly.
He then goes off on a tangent, to talk of how he is using the advantage of working with good directors like Shankar and Mani Rathnam to learn the intricacies of film-making. Any directorial ambitions, I ask. "Well, not now at any rate. I find I enjoy acting... mainly because you get to play so many people, characters that are not 'me' in real life.
"I think my biggest trait is curiosity," he elaborates. "Like, when I go to someone's home, I like to explore it, see how many rooms there are, study the architecture, see how the décor reflects that person's personality. In fact, whatever I am doing -- like a dance scene, for instance -- I like checking out the different dance masters, their techniques, what makes them tick... Fights, stunts, they are turn-ons, too, maybe also because I have a black belt in karate, I am naturally agile, so doing such scenes becomes a kick....
"I talk to people, watch people, all the time -- people I meet, people I work with like light boys, unit hands, I get to know them all. Their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes and fears and joys... and it all helps... Like, you play a character that is not you. That is the time you draw on the various people you have met and observed, you use little quirks you have spotted.
Like I remember, one time... I am a person who is basically easy with a telephone, but I saw this chap, very uncomfortable with it, very awkward. I noticed that once, and when a particular character gave me the chance, I used it.
"Another big thing about being an actor is the adulation you get," he says frankly. "An actor gets affection from people he doesn't even know, he is recognised wherever he goes. I take my fan mail very seriously, both snail mail and the emails I get, I respond to all mails though, of course, when I am away shooting, they tend to pile up a bit. These mails give you encouragement, they keep you going. And some of them are rather sweet -- they send you their photographs, saying, 'We know what you look like, now you can know who you are writing back to'.... I find that a nice thought..."
I realise this is one good thing about Prashant -- unlike with a lot of other stars, you don't have to keep leading him through an interview. Ask him one question, and he is off and running, expanding on his thoughts with minimal prompting.
When the conversational stream dries up, I nudge him in the direction of a Malayalam film that earned him enormous kudos -- Perunthachchan.
Doyen of southside script-screenplay writers M T Vasudevan Nair scripted the story of the legendary Keralite architect Perunthachchan, responsible, according to lore, for various miraculous constructions, and his genius son. Thilakan played the architect and Prashant the son, while ace character actor Nedumudi Venu plays a pivotal character in the film.
Click for bigger pic!
"Oh yes, that was a wonderful experience. First, there was the thrill of working on an MTV story -- he is a master storyteller. Then there was the added plus of working with brilliant actors like Thilakan and Venu, they are the kind who challenge you, bring out the best in you. The picture won the national award. We shot straight through for 56 days and it was 56 days of fun and learning, shooting (in and around Kundapur, in Karnataka) from dawn to late night...
"I remember I had this long-haired wig, held in place by about 40 pins, quite a bother. But it was a great role, a lifetime opportunity and I guess I was lucky to get it...
"Another big bonus on that film was the cinematography, by Santosh Sivan. In fact, when I think of it, I guess I am very fortunate -- I have got to work with the very best in the business. I've had people like Sivan, Madhu Ambat, Ravi Yadav, Ashok Kumar (for Jeans) handle the camera, directors like Shankar and Mani Ratnam... Top teams... That kind of thing brings out the best in you always...."
The winner of the Filmfare award, 1990, for best debutante (Vaigaasi Puranthachu, in Tamil) hasn't, I notice, lost his "Gee whiz, is this really happening to me?" attitude even seven years later. A very wide-eyed, this-is-fun approach to his work appears to be his main characteristic.
How would he assess himself?
"I think my biggest asset is confidence. And at times, I come up with performances, a shot that I like, I pat myself on the back and go, 'Hey, that was good.' Mostly, though, I am never satisfied. It is like what you used to get in your report card in school, I tend to keep marking my own report, 'Satisfactory, but can do much better!'," he grins.
Nudged a bit, Prashant traipses down memory lane to recall the time he faced the camera for the first time. "I remember that one, it was shot in a temple in Thiruvananthapuram, I had to ring a bell. I did that, and the director shouted "Cut!". Not quite Oscar stuff, but hey, it was a start," he laughs, adding, "And if you believe in such things, then it was even an auspicious first scene, right? The next shot was a dance step in a school... All this was when I was fresh out of school, very young.... It was all very exciting..."
"Those first scenes were shot in Kerala, actually, for my debut in Vaikaasi Puranthachu. My second film was a Malayalam one, shot in Karnataka. Then I did a Hindi film, I Love You, shot mostly in Goa. Quite a forgettable film, that one. Then I did a Telugu film shot in Madras.
"Actually, I was preparing for my medical entrance. Someone saw me practise martial arts and told director Prabhakar about me. My dad, around the same time, had got to listen to the songs of his film. He liked them, and so when Prabhakar approached me to act and I checked with dad, he said, 'Go ahead.' My first shot was on July 9, 1990. The shooting ended on August 9. The film was released on September 16 and it became a huge hit, and that I guess was that, really...."
Any roles he dreams of doing, I ask.
"Well, ideally, every role is a challenge, a fresh opportunity. These days, you get to do love stories -- boy meets girl, they fall in love, obstacles arise, they surmount them, and live happily ever after. Funny thing is, I rarely get to play tough characters because directors feel such roles don't suit my face! I think there is a challenge there, but the trouble is, there is a lot of money tied up in each of his films, so the risk is huge and few producers are prepared to take such chances...."
Click for bigger pic!
Prashant's father, Thiagarajan, is himself an actor of some repute, having debuted as the bad brother in Bharati Raja's Alaigal Oyvathillai, though he is most famous for his starring role in the film Malaiyur Mammootiyan.
"About dad, what I remember with greatest pride is his role in the Malayalam film New Delhi, directed by Joshi and starring Mammotty. Dad plays a killer recruited by Mammootty to do away with the bad guys, I remember seeing the film in Safire Theatre, in Madras (where the film created history by running for 150 days straight -- very unusual for a Malayalam film in Tamil Nadu), and when dad appeared in the climactic scene, the entire audience clapped, I sat there feeling very proud!
"What do I say about him? He is friend, guide, guardian angel, he dotes on my sister and me. Dad and mom don't have too many close friends, really -- we, sis and I, we are their closest friends.
"I don't think being his son helped me professionally, because he believed in keeping the professional side of his life away from the family, so not too many people even knew me as his son. In fact, when I started acting, people were rather surprised when I mentioned I was his son! I guess," Prashant adds, laughing, "The surprise was also because he looks very young, stylish. So maybe people don't expect him to have a son this big. A lot of people think even now that I am his younger brother. Heck, when we go out together, more girls look at him than at me," he says, with a wink and a mime of mock envy. "Seriously, though, there is something very attractive about him."
Did you inherit it, I ask. "Hmmm, let me see, I think maybe half of it rubbed off on me. Anyway, about my family, mom is another key element, her world revolves around me and my sister. She is the one who attends to all our needs, personally."
Did you miss friends, growing up?
"It is funny, dad's friends are mostly lawyers, auditors, people like that. They are the ones I met growing up and, I guess, I grew up to think like them, very mature and adult. I didn't make too many friends in my own age group because I was busy with extra-curricular activities. Sis and I were table tennis champs of our respective schools. Sis even went on to represent the state. Also, dad insisted on us learning all sorts of things, karate, dance, whatever, so when one course got over, we were promptly enrolled in something else. Even during the holidays, I was busy learning something.
"It is not like dad pushed us or was ambitious for us. In fact, he didn't push me towards acting. That was my own dream. It is just, he liked the idea of us learning lots of things, so I learnt piano, Bharat Natyam, roller skating, rowing... You name it..."
A characteristic of Prashant is that he takes time off, every now and again, to muse. It is as if he is thinking of what he has said, weighing what more has been left unsaid. We hit one of those pauses here, before he resumes...
"Dad came up the hard way, struggled a lot. At the age of 14, he was the sole support of seven people. I guess that kind of struggle teaches you values, and he has passed them on to us, to sis and me. In fact, even in our extended family, uncles, aunts, the rest, everyone is treated with equal respect. We may be more successful but it is not like I can throw my weight around with my uncles. Dad would give me what for if I tried.
Click for bigger pic!
"When the family gets together, it is oneness and fun... There are times when I think of my father's struggles, realise I have had it all handed to me on a platter, and go, 'Hey, what am I doing, nothing'... but then, as dad helped me realise, that is life, you do your best, don't waste your opportunities... I have learnt to respect everyone, not lose my head over my success and I think that has been the biggest lesson I learnt..."
How about freaking out?
"Oh, I do plenty of that on the sets, mingle with everyone, crack jokes, play tricks on people... I have a lot of fun at work, really..."
When shooting, what kind of scene turns you on?
"Oh, for me, every frame counts, I tend to concentrate immensely on whatever I am doing at the time. Like, take this as a scene, you and I are talking, the camera is rolling, I am thinking, this is a conversation scene but besides the words spoken, how can I make it visually interesting for the audience? What would a Tom Cruise do, an Antonio Banderas? What is this aura they project, where even when they are silent they still hold the frame? That is what I am trying to understand, and capture for myself, now...."
Which among the characters you have played is your own especial favourite?
"Oh, I really can't name one, because, you see, I am a picky type of guy. I don't take a role I don't like, so...," An eloquent shrug, then a pause for thought... "Okay, I'll name one character for you, it is from Aaan Azhaghan, directed by my father. I cherish the moments where I worked under his direction. Besides, in the second half of the film I play a lady It was huge fun. People went bonkers over that role, I got mail from fans saying that if I really was a female, they would have married me!!!"
Considering how turned on he gets when you talk of acting, it is a surprise when he tells you there are other things he enjoys. "Like rowing. I get to do that regularly, at the Adyar Boat Club. Then horse riding. I go to the Polo Club here and freak out on the horses. I enjoy martial arts, roller skating, basketball... Luckily, being selective in my roles, I do manage to get some time for all these things as well... Then there is music, I freak on most kinds of music except heavy metal. I don't like that kind of noise, I love reggae, pop, hip hop, play the piano, a little drums...
"You know," he smiles, "Dad is a garden freak but because I got into roller skating, he sacrificed his garden, had it paved over in marble so I could roller skate all over it... He pampers me, really," says Prashant with a broad smile.
Having someone this articulate to interview, I realise, is a pleasure, but it does have its downside. You are more used to asking questions -- so when you run out of them, you have a sense of completion. Here, it has been more a narration, with me playing passive audience, except for the occasional nudges. So as we wind down, I am left with a feeling of uncertainty. Have I asked him everything? Have I missed out on something, and will I start kicking myself the minute I am out the door?
Is there, I ask him, something you would like to add to all that you have said? Something for which, perhaps, I may not have asked the right question, cued you in?
"Well, I guess, maybe, I would think about me, about films... I think right now, I am in this field, enjoying it, learning... I am not thinking about tomorrow, really. I love the access this line gives me, I get to go places most guys only dream of, do things, I value the
love, the affection people shower on me... it is a huge high...
"One thing I have realised, though. A film, every film, is like a human life span in itself. You live, breathe that character and when the film ends, a character ceases to exist. I think every film takes 10 years out of your life..."