INTERVIEW: ‘I’ve never aspired to become a superstar,’ says Malayalam star Vineeth
You started your film journey at a very young age, in 1982. You grew up in the Malayalam film industry, literally. It’s been 40 years. How did it all start?
Well, I always loved dancing. I used to dance spontaneously the moment I heard a tune. It was my maternal aunt Pappiamma (actor Padmini, one of the Travancore sisters) who spotted my talent and urged my parents to train me in classical dance. That was the beginning (smiles).
Was it Padmini who introduced you to films as well?
I was always fascinated about films, the shooting process… and would keep asking her questions. She would explain it all to me patiently. In 1982, Pappiamma suggested my name for a children’s film directed by the great actress Bhanumati Amma. I was in Class 6 then. Shobana was also part of the movie. Rohini, too, was there. But I could not be part of the project, as it was not possible to stay away from school for 60 days. So I had to return. But I still have fond memories of that day.
You made your debut within a couple of years…
I had started learning Bharatnatyam under Saraswathi Teacher. It was she who suggested my name to M T Vasudevan Sir, who was writing the script for Rishyasringan for Bharathettan (director Bharathan). I was barely 14, and it was super exciting.
What happened to that film?
That production did not take off. That film later got made as Vaishali. Subsequently, I got picked for a role in Idanilangal. That’s how my journey began.
You have worked with the legends of the Malayalam film industry. Or, rather, you were nurtured by them…
Absolutely. It is a great blessing (folds hands). Nothing was planned; everything just fell in place. When we work with these masters, we become more responsible. We understand the seriousness of the craft seeing their discipline. I had the privilege of being moulded by MT sir, Hariharan sir, Bharathettan, Fazil sir… I am also grateful to Krishnachandran chettan, who dubbed for me in most of my initial films. My real voice was quite nasal, squeaky at that time (laughs).
You have acted in eight scripts of MT…
Well, I could enact eight characters penned by him. That’s a great blessing.
Would MT come to the sets?
No. Of the eight films, most were directed by Hariharan sir. He would want us to be there on the set three days before the shoot starts. We would be given a big, bounded draft of the script. We were expected to learn the entire script by the time the shoot starts.
Was improvisation allowed during that time?
For a beginner like me, to think of improvisation was something unimaginable. Getting the shot right would be the priority (laughs). I had to learn things right from scratch. Everything is clearly drilled in, including subtle expressions, eye movement. I was just a plain slate and he would write on it.
Did your training in dance help in acting?
Acting in cinema is very different from that in dance. The technique is different. The nuances of dance shouldn’t creep into cinematic acting. I have to be conscious of that. However, dance has helped me hone my observation, concentration, discipline, and sense of timing. That will apply in everything, including dialogue delivery.
Besides legendary directors, you got to work with great actors as well at a young age… What were the experiences like?
Mesmerising (smiles). I would just stand and gaze at great actors like Lalettan (Mohanlal), Venu chettan (Nedumudi Venu), Ambily chettan (Jagathy) performing. Their commitment to the craft and discipline is something that I have tried to absorb in my system. The role of Antony in Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal was special. I play Lalettan’s cousin, and there was a lot of camaraderie between the characters. It was captivating to watch him deliver the dialogues and the energy brought in during takes.
You mentioned Hariharan sir’s style of detailing. What were the distinct styles of other masters you have worked with?
Everybody has their own unique style. Fazil sir and Hariharan sir would enact and show what they wanted. Padmarajan sir would explain the sequence beautifully. The way he explained was charming, and his eyes were magnetic. Bharathettan would also enact, and his sets were so much fun with jokes and music.
In Kamaladalam, Mohanlal portrayed the role of a dancer. He learnt to dance for the film under the tutelage of Nattukom Paramasivan Mash. Were you present then?
Actually, Paramasivan sir had come to train him for Rajashilpi. Lalettan would call me for the practice sessions. Some complex parts of Aananda nadanam with Lalettan and Monisha was done in a single shot, and there was a spontaneous applause by everyone present there. I still clearly remember Lalettan doing some of those chakkars on a single leg. (smiles)
Monisha remains a painful memory treasured by Malayalis. You had acted in several films with her…
I did five films with her. She was a beautiful dancer. For her, dance was everything. You would never see her gloomy, dull or moody. You would know when she arrives, her giggle can be heard from a distance. It was like an alarm (smiles fondly). But she was very serious about dance. I got to watch her live dance recital for the first time when she performed at Thalassery. I believe she was more passionate about dancing than cinema. After Kamaladalam, Monisha was evolving as an actor. Sadly, tragedy struck at that time. It was a great loss artistically and also personally. If she had been alive, she would have become someone like Shobana, a highly acclaimed dance exponent.
You were the obvious choice to play Ramanathan in Manichitrathazhu…
Some people make it sound as if I was avoided… That was not the case. Fazil sir called me to play the role. But, at that time, I was doing Parinayam, and it was a tight schedule. That’s why it didn’t happen. However, I played the role in the Tamil (Chandramukhi) and Hindi (Bhool Bhulaiyaa) remakes. It was Rajini sir who recommended my name after watching my dance performance in Chennai.
You dubbed for Vivek Oberoi in Lucifer. That was a first for you…
Raju (Prithviraj) called me and wanted to know whether I would like to dub for Vivek in Lucifer. I was a bit apprehensive. My doubt was whether my voice would suit a villain. I said that I will come and try. When I tried it out, Raju was happy. Vivek had a unique style of modulation.
You started your career with masters. Now, you are acting in the films of youngsters like Akhil Sathyan. What is the biggest change?
Films have become very realistic now. Also, during earlier times, we were expected to practise a scene thoroughly; sometimes there would be up to 25 rehearsal takes. There was little room for errors. Now, in the digital mode, one can go for umpteen retakes without the worry of film wastage.
Do you miss anything?
Songs (Smiles). That could be because I grew with music in all my films. Earlier, there used to be a lot of excitement over the songs in a film… People would wait for the songs, and never think about the logic. Now, that culture has changed. But I think it will come back. We have some brilliant music directors such as M Jayachandran and Bijibal.
In your latest film, Nila, you have acted with Shanthi Krishna. She used to be a great dancer, too…
She is a great dancer. Though she is just a few years older than me, we developed a mother-son kind of bond on the sets. We would discuss dance and compositions in between the shoot.
Many of your works, be it in Malayalam or Tamil, have been critically and commercially well-received. Yet, you never entered the realm of a typical ‘hero’ or ‘superstar’...
I simply did not work for it (smiles). There is a lot of hard work to become a superstar. I am happy with my body of work. I have never done PR work. It is very important if you want to become a star. I consider myself very fortunate. With God’s grace, I am getting good offers even now.
You have surprised many, playing some roles with negative shades, villain roles…
Yes, but I am not keen on playing typical negative roles, especially ones where there are attributes that I personally disagree with, like disrespecting women, for instance.
Any plans to wear the cap of a director?
I don’t have the talent for that (smiles). Also, if you want to make a genuine film, you need to invest a lot of time in it. I have a lot of other commitments like my dance school, performances. I haven’t given it any thought as of yet.
Siddique-Lal film Kabooliwala was a turning point in your career…
That film actually transformed my image from a gentle village boy to a fashionable one. I was amazed that even now some children discuss Munna, the character I played in Kabooliwala.
What are your memories of Siddique?
His death is a huge loss. Siddique ikka’s story narration was exceptional. I would miss him greatly. His body of work will live on forever in people’s hearts.
You once said that you accepted the role in Pachuvum Athbutha Vikakkum because Fahadh Faasil was doing the lead role…
I have been an ardent fan of Fahadh. When you work with such talents, you get to learn a lot of new things from them. Appreciation is a way of learning.
You mentioned in an interview about your film Kambhoji getting heavily trolled…
No, no. It was not the film that got trolled; my character bore the brunt (laughs). Kambhoji is a beautiful film in which I play a kathakali artist. To me, it’s one of the best characters I have played. Trolls and memes are amusing, and I take them in a fun spirit.
Did your training in classical dance influence your personality?
Training in a classical art form brings values into one’s life. It teaches us how to respect elders, value our cultural heritage, and gives a sense of discipline and punctuality. We will have a balanced mind and won’t get carried away easily. Whether it is success or failure, you will know how to balance it. You perform namaskaram where you pray to the almighty, your teachers and the audience. This is a ritual we follow before every performance. Also, one is learning the techniques of Natya Shastra, which is over a thousand years old.
What is your vision about classical dance? Should it be preserved in the purest form or should it adapt to changes?
We have to stick to the traditional framework and explore. There is no harm in taking up contemporary themes, but the sanctity of classical dance should be maintained. My guru, Dr Padma Subramaniam, had depicted Jatayu Moksham for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. It was a masterpiece.
Is classical dance meant for all?
In my opinion, classical art and music should be included in the syllabus as a subject. Understanding classical art forms during childhood is important as it provides an opportunity to understand and value our great culture. There are so many talented people hailing from humble backgrounds.
But is there a need to water down classical art forms to make them popular?
It is already valued by so many people. So there is no need to popularise it.
Boys learning Bharatnatyam wasn’t quite common when you started...
As I started learning it from a very young age, it was part of my system. I was never bothered that there were not many boys learning dance then. Actually, it is wrong to say classical dance is for girls.
There is a perception that learning dance makes boys effeminate…
It’s a misconception. There is a certain way you teach boys. If it is done the right way, then you get to see true masculine beauty. It’s not effeminate. As a person who has experienced it personally, there are a lot of benefits to it. It gives a balanced mind, similar to yoga. It’s a spiritual experience.
Is there a surge in interest in traditional art forms?
Definitely. Also, now some children are serious about learning these art forms and they are very focused. I see genuine interest in children and parents. Their interest also inspires us. My only regret is that there are not enough boys coming forward to master the traditional dance forms. We have phenomenal male dancers, but I feel there should be more.
Are you into research?
Not exactly. I am still learning the art, under my guru Dr Padma Subramaniam.
What are the projects you are working on now?
I am currently doing Kathanar, directed by Rojin Thomas, in which Jayasurya is playing the lead role. Another film, Kuruvipappa, is all set to release. I am donning the character of a Muslim man from Thalassery. I revelled in the role, especially the typical local slang. I have done a Tamil film produced by Jeo Baby. Then there is a Netflix project with Renjith.
Which director would you give credit for fully utilising your potential?
Hariharan sir. I did several good films with him. I got to learn a lot from him. He laid my foundation, and I am always grateful to him (smiles).