From being ‘that cute boy’ of Indian television in the ’90s to charming the Bollywood audience, while finding superstardom in the Tamil film industry, and also now being the first A-list actor to make an OTT debut, R Madhavan is an actor like no other.
It’s been 25 years since this then-shy guy with a cute smile sang his way into the hearts of the Indian audience with ‘Chup Tum Raho’ in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi. Ask him how that young man making his Bollywood debut with a brief appearance in a song would feel about the star he has become today, and Madhavan quips: “If you consider television as well, it’s 26 years (laughs).”
“That shy guy would look at me with complete awe because I didn’t expect to become an actor. I wasn’t trained to be one and I didn’t study to be one. I was just doing what was coming my way, and doing it for fun. People started calling me a good actor, and I started getting jobs with bigger directors. Suddenly, a lot of iconic projects had my name on them. So, I think I couldn’t have charted this, it is divine intervention, and I am very grateful for it but I think I still have my best to give,” he says, as we sit down for this interview.
In fact, that might just be true. With Bollywood and Indian cinema, in general, becoming far less ageist in the last few years, now there is no dearth of interesting age-appropriate lead roles for older actors. “I actually moved into those 15 years ago. When I did Rehnaa Hai… I was 31. I was already sure that I wanted to get into an age-appropriate bracket of doing roles wherein it will increase the longevity of the kind of movies I can do. I knew if I continue to do puppy love stories where I am romancing younger girls, then there will come a time when people won’t take me seriously irrespective of what I do next. I think I was smart enough to understand that, and I made that transition right after Guru. I think I was instrumental in getting that wave in where people started writing age-appropriate roles for older actors,” he points out.
At 51, he just had two major movie releases on the OTT amid the pandemic. He is also all set to make his directorial debut with Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, a project he is still tight-lipped about, and his second web series, Netflix original Decoupled, is already out. “It is about these two people who have grown apart, and their eight-year-old daughter is the only thing that holds them together because they are unable to tell her that they want a divorce. When you are in college, you have the strength and resilience to be what you want to be, career-wise and personality-wise. But as you grow older, you lose the strength to be what you want to be, and become who you actually are. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes who you are is not what your partner expected you to be. Under those circumstances, a fissure develops. And all this doesn’t necessarily have to be bitter,” he elaborates, adding that what made the project more exciting for him was the fact that it is in English, and it is set in the ultra-urban society.
“Decoupled is in English because we are trying to keep it real. We aren’t making it language-specific not for commercial reasons but for the setting of the scene,” he says, noting, however, that with the content on OTT platforms increasingly becoming language agnostic, Hindi cinema is slowly giving way to pan-Indian content, and even international content.
When it comes to the changes Indian cinema and OTT content have seen in the past five years, he has been part of, and even, at times, instrumental in ushering those in. He was the first legit star to have ventured into OTT content. When he made his web debut in 2018 with Breathe, he was the first one to do so. Sacred Games was still a few months away, Inside Edge had come out right before Breathe, and nobody would have expected a pandemic to usher in an OTT boom in just about two years.
Point it out, and he says, “Thank you for saying that. There are some stories that render themselves only through longer format and I always wanted to be part of those. Breathe was one of those stories. I was looking at the trends around the world—big stars were jumping into OTT and making successful series, or actors were making successful series and becoming big stars. I also realised that the content has to be international and has to be consumed by people around the world, and appeal to their intellect. That is why I took up Breathe. Yes, it was a risk and it gave me sleepless nights, but I think the success confirmed that this could be a great avenue and opportunity for actors.”
He didn’t expect the OTT scene to become this big where it will put a question mark on the very existence of movie theatres. He says, “I did expect the OTT to go ballistic, and it has. But nobody expected the pandemic. And while the pandemic was raging, nobody expected big films to release, but those have. But I think eventually, people will go to a movie theatre to watch a movie only when it is theatre-worthy, and renders itself for a community viewing experience. There is a clearcut indication no matter how much you want to write it off, cinema will never go away. The grandeur, the larger-than-life characters are not losing their charm anytime soon.”
“On the other hand, if you make a small film with a great story that doesn’t require to be seen on a 70mm screen, it is very unlikely to work in theatres. Those would work better on OTT. I think there will be a marked discrimination in content, and where it will be consumed. The trick will be to understand that and make your product accordingly,” he explains, adding that OTT content still has a lot more room to grow.
Indeed, Madhavan has always understood the importance of good content. The actor started his career in the ’90s and was part of hugely popular TV serials like Yule Love Story, Banegi Apni Baat, Saaya, Sea Hawks, before taking over the big screen in 2001 with Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein, which went on to become a cult classic. But Bollywood somewhat lost him to the Tamil film industry where he attained superstar status, with his appearances in Hindi movies being sporadic. Although he has been part of some of the landmark Bollywood movies, the Tanu weds Manu actor is notorious for ghosting his Hindi cinema audience. Ask him what makes him take such long breaks between movies, he laughs. “I followed sort of what the Hollywood actors used to do. The content was very, very important. As an actor, I had to mould myself into the character completely. Because that was my strength. I couldn’t dance like Hrithik Roshan or deliver dialogues like Mr. Akshay Kumar. That wasn’t my forte. So I wanted to do stuff that makes every project of mine memorable. That is the kind of content I was looking for, and that is not easy to come by. Even though I wasn’t doing movies, I was looking for scripts or working on projects. I never wanted to disappear. An actor feels most comfortable when they are sitting in front of the camera, and I am no different. But I don’t want to look back at the work I have done and cringe.”
In pursuit of a good role, he is not afraid to mute his own halo for some other actor to enjoy the spotlight, and in movies like 3 Idiots, Guru, and Rang De Basanti, he did that, and he managed to shine in each.
“I don’t need to be the alpha male on the set, as long as I like the character,” quips the actor.