INTERVIEW | ‘I have evolved a lot’, says actor Asif Ali

In this freewheeling chat with Team TNIE, ace actor Asif Ali talks about his career, powering through various snags, reinventing himself as a person and actor, and more...
Actor Asif Ali
Actor Asif Ali

One of those one-of-a-kind actors with no formal training in acting, Asif Ali sees himself as someone who depends entirely on the director, provided there is an acceptable degree of conviction. “If I sense a lack of confidence on the part of the director, that will reflect on my approach too,” he says.
Initially enamoured of the glamour associated with the profession, Asif recalls taking it more seriously and having more fun once he began exploring different approaches with different filmmakers. He credits filmmaker Shyamaprasad, in whose Ritu (2009) Asif made his debut, as one of the strong voices that steered his sails in the right direction.

“I guess, in my case, it helped that I approached this profession without any preconceived notions. If I had kept in mind the detailed approach of trained actors, such as different reactions having different breathing levels, it might not have worked out.”Although not all his choices were the wisest, one can’t deny that Asif has, in around 15 years, established himself as a formidable acting talent worthy of notice.


You are a pretty extroverted person. Is that why you’re comfortable with multi-starrer productions?  

Look, when I get into a movie, I will make sure everyone is my friend. That is my equation. I want them to be comfortable. I will try to maintain this friendship even after the movie. During the pack-up party of Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha, while I was leaving, Nizam Basheer took the mic and said, “Asif is leaving, we cannot say when we will meet or talk again...” Yes, that happens with me. But when we meet again, I will pick up from where we left off. I like doing films where everyone is comfortable and together. This has been my habit since my school days.

Given your outspoken nature, have you ever felt the need to be more guarded?

During the Bhavana issue, my reactions invited a lot of trouble for me, but that’s who I am, and I’m ready to face its after-effects. I’ve always done what I wanted to, and I’ve never regretted anything.

There’s an increasing debate about artists and their social responsibility. What’s your take on it?

I believe there are always different versions of a story. I don’t respond to a lot of issues, because in most cases I’m not sure which version is true. I’ve also never felt the need to voice my concerns on such issues through social media. If I ever feel the need to do something, I’m up for it, but I don’t want it to be a publicity stunt.

I want people to know me only through my on-screen roles and performances. Even if we want to do something genuinely, there will be strange interpretations. See what Jayettan (actor Jayasurya)is going through now.

I also believe overexposure off-screen negates the unpredictability of an artist, and people, sometimes tend to pin unrealistic expectations on us. 

Most superstars from Tamil don’t play Celebrity Cricket League (CCL) because a lot of people there actually believe these actors can hit six sixes in an over. They stay away because they don’t want the image they meticulously built over the years to be ruined.

If not an actor, would you’ve become a politician, given your father’s political background?

Never. I’ve always seen my father being active in politics and because of his busy schedules, we always missed him. He must’ve been helping a lot of people, but I always saw the busy side of politics, which naturally detached me from it. My father also ensured we never got any preferential treatment because of his background.

It took some time for people to warm up to you. Like the initial phase of Prithviraj, you, too, had to endure some trolls. Ever felt disillusioned at some point because of that?

Not really, because the fact that people are noticing me made me feel special. Sometimes I’m asked whether I find the idea of people taking pictures with me annoying; it’s not, because I yearned for it. We go through different stages in life, and I’ve evolved a lot since then. A long time ago, I used to get sad reading Facebook comments; not anymore. And of course, then you remember Prithviraj has also gone through all that... I had a problem with the idea of being a ‘celebrity’. When I’m not shooting, I spend more time with friends and family, and once I return, it’s just for movies. I can’t fake, and I’m averse to people who fake it. I’ve experienced the unpleasant after-effects of being in circles I don’t gel with it. That’s why I’ve maintained a close circle of only a few people. 

You were one of the representative faces of Malayalam’s new-gen cinema. Did you realise that you’re doing something ‘different’?

I didn’t realise it then. Some of these films have my personal traits in them, and at the time, there was the issue of these films not reaching the family crowd. But Sunday Holiday broke that.
Also, it wasn’t until I did a Sathyan Anthikad film that my family accepted me as an actor. Until then, they were unsure of telling others what I did. But I also realised that I needed to not get locked in a particular space, and that led me to Uyare, which I did when Sunday Holiday was a hit. I was told not to do such foolishness when family audiences had just begun to accept me. But I wanted to give writers the freedom to expand their imagination. I was wary of becoming limited. I had to prove my versatility and show that I can be unpredictable too. 

Do you have any close-to-heart characters?

The effort I put in for all my characters is the same, so everything is special for me. Still, I have a preference for roles that fetched me praise. In that sense, I would name Sleevachan (Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha), Govind (Uyare), and Anand (B Tech).
Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha is a film that received slightly polarising responses. Given its mature subject, how did you approach it and the character Sleevachan? 

When writer Aji Peter Thankam and director Nizam pitched it to me, I committed immediately, and it was mostly due to its humour. I didn’t understand its political side until after its release. The character Sleevachan piqued my interest, and this man being completely different from who I am and having no similar mannerisms whatsoever made it more interesting. After committing the movie, I came across a series of articles in a newspaper about marital rape written by a doctor. It was then I understood the gravity of the story and the issue being talked about in the movie. But we decided to go ahead with the script as such. Even while doing the movie, I never thought from the character Rincy’s perspective; it was only after the film’s release and the audience that gave me that understanding. As I mentioned before, I was just thinking from Sleevachan’s point of view — his love for his family, his simplicity, and his love for his wife Rincy. The movie is based on true events. Most of the Idukki-based Aji Peter Thankam’s stories are inspired by people around him. I’ll be doing another movie with him soon, in which I’ll be starring alongside Soubin. Debutant Nahas is the director. 

Nizam also directed you in Rorschach. Your role had an element of surprise and it was widely discussed...

Before Rorschach, I thought an actor’s identity depended on his sound or choice of movies, but Rorschach made me realise that a person’s eyes could be his identity too. When director Nizam and scriptwriter Sameer narrated the story and my role, I was confused, but Nizam wanted an actor to do it; their confidence made me take up that role. I felt proud that Malayalis could recognise me from just my eyes. While shooting for it, Mammukka told me it’s essential to take up such challenging roles, and only then can one do a self-evaluation process. I mean, the fact that Mammukka took up Rorschach alone was inspiring! Usually, people are apprehensive of committing to movies with such strange concepts, but Mammukka taking up Rorschach did change that perception. His upcoming Bramayugam is another testament to his different choice of movies. I never thought he would take up such a character... his judgements are unbelievable!

How were you able to get the depth of Govind (from Uyare) right? 

The speciality of Bobby-Sanjay’s scripts is that they’re very detailed. Also, Manu (director) worked on the story for around a year and circled other actors too. But Sanjay wanted me to do it. What’s striking about Govind is he is not a psycho. I found a convincing way to justify that character. There are many people whom I know who are such good people but cannot handle relationships.

‘I wish to do mass entertainers like KGF  ’

Like in Traffic (2011), your personal experiences reflect in your character in 2018. Did you expect the latter to be such a huge success?

We couldn’t predict it, but we desperately wanted it to be a success. When Jude pitched it to me, I was particular about incorporating some of our personal experiences into it, like that one instance where I gave an old lady a bottle of water in a camp near Cheranallur, and she kissed my hands. Jude also expressed his wish to do it more cinematically rather than treat it like a sort of documentary. The shoot was thus tougher than the actual rescue operations. Aside from setting up humungous sets and arduous schedules, remaining continuously in water caused skin diseases for many. We were literally recreating what we experienced during the floods. Both Jude and the producers deserve a lot of credit for their unending passion and efforts. 

Is it true you always insist on a complete, bound script?

Yes, I realised later that it was a luxury because we’ve heard of instances where  some films were written on location or one scene being written while another is being shot. In my case, I need to prepare everything in advance or else I’ll be anxious till I reach the location. When Shyam sir cast me for Rithu, having script reading sessions helped give us the necessary clarity. Had it been any other way, I might’ve quit acting then and there. 

You must’ve broken this rule for Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum, though. 

Kuttavum Shikshayum was a different experience because Rajeevettan doesn’t follow the usual cinematic approach. He finds artificiality in dialogues off-putting. One night, he called me after dinner to make alterations to a particular sequence with which he was dissatisfied. He simply asked me to write it. As I was a bit lazy, I sent voice notes instead and he picked the best options.

Some extra effort must’ve been required to create a different body language for the film...

Indeed. First of all, getting called by Rajeevettan was a big thing. Who doesn’t want to work with him? I met him while shooting for Virus. He liked something I did in one scene and expressed his wish to do a movie sometime. When he called eight months later with this police story, I was a bit hesitant at first because all the police characters I’d seen until that point were sort of heavy and possessed an unreal, near-supernatural power. My frame of reference was films like Kaakka Kaakka. But Rajeevettan put me at ease by asking: Have you seen any of those movie cops in real life? 

At what point did you fall in love with your craft, and realise that this is what you wanted?

I was fortunate to have worked in my initial phase with Shyamaprasad sir, Sibi Malayil sir, Joshiy sir, and Sathyan Anthikad sir. My journey was unplanned. Then the competition phase happened. I got all the scripts that Prithviraj, Jayasurya, Indrajith, and Kunchacko Boban rejected. Though I did certain roles that I knew I couldn’t pull off, the excitement behind the realisation of some events happening to you without planning them drove me. Nothing can replace the happiness you get when some films turn out well. Take Adventures of Omanakuttan, for example: it may not have worked at the box office, but I was able to appreciate the efforts I put into the character, and its director Rohith VS had a lot of clarity. 

You once said you badly want to do ‘mass’ entertainers. 

I want to do films like KGF, which the public flocks to theatres to watch. In Malayalam, one can’t do these ‘realistic’ or ‘prakriti’ movies all the time; once in a while is fine. We are all ordinary people with our share of worries in life, and cinema helps us temporarily escape from that reality. Nowadays on screen, most of what we see are relatable characters going through similar problems as we do, which lacks excitement. I’m someone who believes that films have to be cinematic and should give a full-on escapist experience, so I have plans to commit to such movies in the future. 

Your character in Mahaveeryar was memorable. What did your preparations for it entail? 

I was first scared of taking it on, especially the lengthy, literature-ish dialogues, and planned as single shots. I even told Abrid Shine that I didn’t think I’d be able to pull off the character, but gradually I got the hang of it and learnt the dialogues thoroughly, I don’t think I’ve prepared this much during my school and college days. Aside from that, I learned horseback riding. Usually, the horses that are brought to the location will stop when it says cut and start when it says action. However, as per Abrid Shine’s demand, he wanted a good-looking horse, and we got one from the Polo Club there. This horse was the most aggressive one. We had to make him run for at least 45 minutes in the morning and calm him down. My point is that Abrid Shine was very particular about the movie and the characters’ details.

That character had a majestic aura apt for a warrior. 

He has an attitude similar to some characters we have seen in the ‘Amarchithra Katha’ stories. When Abrid came and narrated the story, I thought in my mind that I would be wrapping a shawl and standing beside the king (laughs). But Abrid came with a detailed character sketch, and we did numerous makeup tests. He wanted me to change my posture, and, for this, a 3-inch heel was kept in my shoes to correct the posture. The best part was that Lal Sir was the king, and I had to stand next to him. I have a complex when selecting a character. I am not confident enough in my appearance when doing such majestic roles. Through Mahaveeryar, I overcame my complex. It’s one of my favourite characters, and I frequently post pictures of Mahaveeyar on my social media. 
What’s your take on song acting? Are you comfortable with it?

To be honest, I am not. During a song shoot in Munnar, the controversy over me confessing my love to Mamtha Mohandas went viral (laughs). It was my second song sung by Hariharan sir. It was my first time acting with a heroine. After three days of continuous shooting, I could actually feel the song and the moment. I was sitting next to Sathyan sir and told him with a feeling that ‘Mamtha looks so pretty’. The very next moment, Sathyan sir said this out loud through the mic (laughs).

You are blessed to have acted in many romantic songs, which have become popular in Malayalam.

My first dance song was for the movie Apoorvaragam. After the pack-up, the assistant director came and handed over the song lyrics and told me it was to be shot tomorrow. I opened it, read it, and was clueless. So I folded it and kept it in my pocket. We were shooting this song at Christ College in Irinjalakuda, and students were all around us. I was standing there after putting on my makeup and applying gel to my hair. Ajayan Vincent sir set the camera and lights. We started the shoot around 7:30 a.m. and until 11:30 a.m., we couldn’t take a single shot. The gel applied to my hair seeped into my face. The lyrics were so complicated, my lip-syncing wasn’t working, and Sibi Malayil sir was a man of perfectionism. When the lip-synching was going right, the steps would go wrong (laughs).
One of my favourite songs I appeared in was ‘Hemanthamen’ from Kohinoor, my first production venture. After completing the shoot, we decided to kick off our promos with this song. It was more than enough.
Is your upcoming release Kasargold a ‘vibe’ film? Will we see the old Asif in it?

It has been a while since I did a youth-oriented movie. It does have a bit of wildness and has all the essential commercial cinema ingredients meant for a big-screen experience. And you can see the craziness of Mridul (director) in it. The shooting went on for almost 75 days. A fight sequence in Payyanur took around 12 days to shoot. At Josegiri, we had a fight in the rain. It was hard work, as the movie panned many locations. The film boasts a fabulous team; be it Sunny Wayne, Vinayakan chettan or Deepak Parambol, we can see an unseen shade of everyone in this film.

Since Vinayakan was on the set, everyone must’ve followed a disciplined approach.

Maybe because of the media perception, everyone has misunderstood him. He follows a different system. One should never insist that everyone should be like how they behave. It’s his individuality. You should see the effort he puts in. There was a fight sequence where he told the stunt master that what the scene needs is not a ‘dishyum dishyum’ sequence. And we both literally fought, raw, completely unchoreographed, for around 30 seconds. After that, we both had to throw up, and I even asked him, “Chetanu bhranthaano?” (Are you crazy?) (laughs).

Where do you get the most honest feedback from?

From my friends and my wife. Recently, I heard a dialogue. When a movie tanks, the person who comes to know about it in the end will be the hero. I make sure that doesn’t happen to me. I have a good circle that’s frank with me about where I went wrong. Despite that, I am like this (laughs).
The script selection, though, will always be mine. I don’t depend on anyone for that. And if it goes wrong, it will be because my decision went wrong. When I hear the script, and I am excited, I will do it. Otherwise, I will say no. And some such movies have turned out into hits when a suitable actor has picked it. But that decision is always mine. Then, there are a bunch of good movies I didn’t get because I didn’t pick up the phone (chuckles).

We’ve heard that your intro shot in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha was directed by Prithviraj. How was it to be directed by one of your co-stars?

At that time, I wasn’t considering Prithvi my co-star. For me, he was a star! He was at the peak of his superstardom—driving a Porsche Cayenne and owning his own vanity van. Though I had all the freedom with him, I maintained a distance and never experienced a co-star rapport with him. When he found my intro sequence in the film to be very exciting and insisted on shooting it, I was a bit tense if I could live up to his expectations. But thankfully, it came out well. 
You’re headlining Resul Pookutty’s directorial debut, Otta. 

It’s a family drama with a huge star cast. I play Sathyaraj sir’s son in the film. There are a lot of other actors from other languages, including Adil Hussain. 

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