As Aashiq Abu’s game-changing Salt N’ Pepper completes a decade since its release, Mollywood star Asif Ali looks back at the impact the movie had one his career in this exclusive interview with OTTplay
For Malayalam cinema, 2011 was a landmark year. Both Traffic and Salt N’ Pepper released the same year and these kicked off the so-called era of new-gen films in the industry that was till then trying to mimic what Telugu and Tamil cinema did with mass entertainers. Both these game-changing movies also had Asif Ali, whose career is pretty much married to the course that Malayalam cinema has taken the past decade.
As Salt N’ Pepper completes a decade since its release on July 8, OTTplay caught up with Asif in a candid chat about his career, life and processes as an actor.
Ten years ago, you were part of two movies – Traffic and Salt N’ Pepper – that heralded the arrival of so-called new-gen cinema that changed the direction of the Malayalam film industry. How was it back then to be part of these films?
To be honest, I still believe it was beginner’s luck. It’s not as if I picked these scripts. For Salt N’ Pepper, Aashiqkka called me to tell me its theme and how they were going to do it. I believe that it would be tough even today to convince an actor with the script of Salt N’ Pepper. My character, Manu Raghav, was apt for me because it could make use of my chocolate-boy image at that time. Even in Traffic, the scriptwriters wanted three people of different age groups to be in the vehicle while it was travelling. Back then, I was probably the only option.
Salt N’ Pepper is a love story with elements of food wrapped together. How did Aashiq and its scriptwriters Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair present the script?
As far I was concerned, it was different in terms of the films that I was doing; because it was current and reflected the contemporary ambience. I was only given the character description of Manu Raghav. During the course of the shoot, Aashiqkka would quip, “Don’t try and act.” While working with the team, I was probably the youngest and that’s how I was treated. By then I had also managed to have a good rapport with Lal sir. So, those factors convinced me more than the script.
The film also marked the start of a lot of friendships in your life – with Lal and Baburaj, with whom you had collaborated frequently.
I had actually gone to Lal sir’s house for the audition of Tournament. But because it clashed with the dates of Traffic, I couldn’t do it. Then I met him again during the photoshoot of Salt N’ Pepper. Sameera Saneesh was its costume designer and it was a total makeover from the usual shoots back then. After spending an entire day with Lal sir, we built a great rapport. So, when we started the shoot, it just hit another level of comfort. There’s a scene where Manu has a disagreement and is about to leave, and Lal sir’s character says, “You didn’t like this brand of the alcohol? We will change it.” Even though these were jokes in the movie, these helped build our bond. Since the movie, he has treated me as a member of his family.
You also worked with him in the acclaimed film Ozhimuri the very next year and then in Honey Bee in 2013.
In Ozhimuri, we played father and son. Madhuettan (director Madhupal) got that idea from Salt N’ Pepper. I think it’s from Ozhimuri that our bond strengthened because it was just me and Lal sir in Nagercoil for 25 days. So, everyday after the shoot, we used to go for a drive or have dinner together. Bhavana was also there in the film and all three of us had this beautiful chemistry. Towards the end of the Ozhimuri’s shoot was when Lal sir told me that (his son) Jean (Paul Lal) was working on Honey Bee’s script, which he wanted to pitch it to Bhavana and me.
Ozhimuri was probably the first role where the filmmaker presented you in a different avatar that the audience were used to till then. It was a rural character that demanded performance. How was it playing that role?
Madhuettan’s approach to scenes and characters were also unique. So, it was again a learning experience. The crux of the movie was that my character is essentially my father. I realised that while I was shooting the film rather than reading the script. It was also the first time I was trying a different slang; the characters were from South Travancore. The film’s cinematographer Azhagappan sir helped me get the nuances right.
While we are talking about the style of filmmakers, your first three movies were with acclaimed directors Shyamaprasad (Rithu), Sibi Malayil (Apoorvaragam) and Sathyan Anthikad (Kadha Thudarunnu). How much did this help in giving a boost to your career?
They guided me in the right direction. When I started my career, my idea was not to find satisfaction through my performances. Initially, I was attracted to the concept of stardom and fame. But while interacting with Shyam sir, I got to understand his idea of cinema. We had about 25 days of workshop before we began the shoot of Rithu, and each session was an eye-opener for me. So, Shyam sir was the one who changed my idea of an actor. After that movie, I went straight to the sets of Sibi sir’s film and some of my all-time favourites are his movies with Lalettan (Mohanlal). It was again a very disciplined and professional set. Even though Apoorvaragam had a lot of newcomers, it was mounted as a big project with songs, dances and action scenes. Then I moved to Sathyan sir’s film, which again was a different experience. All three of them pointed out my mistakes and helped me correct them. So, after doing these movies, when I moved to Salt N’ Pepper, I found out the joy of working with friends.
All the films that I have worked in also had great songs. In Kadha Thudarunnu, Aaro Paadunnu with Mamta (Mohandas) and me was appreciated. Then came Salt N’ Pepper’s tracks. I still proudly say that Aanakallan is my theme song because people play it in several functions to welcome me.
From 2011 to 2013, you had done close to 30 movies back-to-back. Is that because there was a void in terms of young actors in Malayalam back then?
I keep saying this, the films that used to come to me back then were the ones that were rejected by Chackochan (Kunchacko Boban), Jayettan (Jayasurya) and Indraettan (Indrajith Sukumaran). If someone would narrate a script and it would excite me, didn’t pause to think if I could pull it off; I would immediately say yes.
Did that affect your career somehow because while there were some good films, there were also movies didn’t work at the box office?
In the past 11 years, I could work with so many people, learn a lot and understand what not to do. This was only because I did so many films. Right now, I can control my excitement and be patient while selecting movies.
You have played heroes, supporting characters, cameos and also villains. Did that come from that realisation that you didn’t want to be stereotyped while doing so many films?
I had that idea from the start. If you see, be it Rithu or Apoorvaragam, my characters had shades of grey. Salt N’ Pepper was probably the movie had conformed me to the chocolate-boy role. So, there was always a mix of roles that was coming to me. I decided consciously to pick different roles only by 2015, because I didn’t want my characters to be predictable. When a scriptwriter is creating a character, he or she needs the freedom to believe that I can play any role. As an actor, that’s a huge bonus for me.
Two writers who have done that repeatedly in your career has been Bobby and Sanjay through their films – Traffic, Nirnayakam, Take Off and Uyare.
I have a huge debt of gratitude to them because they have understood me well. Though the characters are of different shades, if they are sure that I can handle it, they wouldn’t go for another option. Even when they pitched me the role in Uyare, a lot of people told me not to do it because I had just done a family entertainer, Vijay Superum Pournamiyum. But Bobby chettan told me that I can do it, and it’s a character that has given me a lot of courage as an actor.
As you mentioned, people who know you well have predominantly worked only with you. Jis Joy is one such filmmaker. He has said in previous interviews that he is always grateful to you for agreeing to work with him in his debut film Bicycle Thieves when a lot of people turned him down.
It’s because of how well we communicate. And that’s not just with Jis. Any filmmaker that I repeatedly work with, I have that rapport. I understand the kind of cinema they want to make and that helps in every day when we shoot the film. This is what I share with people like Jis and Rohith VS. Even while doing Kettyolaanu Ente Maalakha, (director) Nissam Basheer and I had taken a lot of time to shoot some scenes. These directors are willing to be patient with me and vice versa. When I am doing a movie with Jis, he is able to tell me exactly what he wants and that makes an actor very comfortable.
You are an actor who learnt about cinema by doing movies. Over the years, have you figured out a process for the craft?
I think it’s the movies that I did in 2013 to 2015 that helped me figure that out. I don’t think anyone would have done such an expensive acting course (laughs). Even if it wasn’t deliberate, many experiments during this time have become lessons that have helped me better understand characters and build their identities. When we were doing Rohith’s Adventures of Omanakuttan, it faced a lot of financial difficulties. So, there were a lot of breaks between the schedules. During those days, we would all discuss how to make the titular character of Omanakuttan different. Though the movie didn’t do well, it was noted. While the audience watched the movie, they spotted his nuances and mannerisms and for me that was again an eye-opener. After that, I started investing time and effort into my characters.
But is there a set method that you keep going back to for your characters?
When you hear stories, you remember certain people that you have met in life. For Uyare, I know people like Govind. I studied in a hostel and Govind is reflection of a lot of people. Kettyolaanu Ente Maalakha’s Sleevachan is purely its writer Aji Peter Thankam. We have used his mannerisms. So, I have been lucky to get a flash whenever I hear the narrations.
Do you revisit your previous roles?
I get embarrassed, I don’t watch my movies. I haven’t watched most of my movies that the audience have said was good. I have not seen Uyare or Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha. I try my best to not watch my better films because if I realise what was good about my performances, then I would be conscious about that and try and use that in my next films. I don’t want that.
You are playing politicians in Sibi Malayil’s Kothu and Jibu Jacob’s Elaam Shariyaakkum.
A few years ago, I had a few films based on the problems faced by women. I was thinking about that and the reason is that I find certain films interesting because of what I hear about the incidents that happening in our society. Sibi sir’s Kothu is a based on the emotions of political murders. The idea is that it affects the family more than the party. Jibu chettan’s film is about a person who takes up politics because he is unemployed. So, though both deal with politics, they are different ideas.
Kunjeldho is another film that a lot of people are waiting for, primarily because of the team, with you, RJ Mathukutty as its director and Vineeth Sreenivasan as its creative director.
The movie is intended for a theatrical release because that’s its format. A feel-good movie is not something that people can pause and watch; it’s an emotion that has to be seen in its flow for people to understand. That’s the reason we have been waiting to release it in theatres. It’s about a problem that happens in Kunjeldho’s life and how he overcomes that. It’s an innocent movie that has ‘a Vineeth Sreenivasan touch’.
You were shooting for Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum just before the pandemic lockdown was announced, and then you had to again travel to Rajasthan later last year to complete the movie. Who was it working in the film?
For all the other films I have worked in, I ensure that I got the entire script and dialogues beforehand, so I can go to the sets prepared. But what Rajeevettan gave me was a character and he would shoot the scene after discussing it with me. If I wasn’t convinced, he wouldn’t shoot it. The way he makes a film too is very different. Somedays, when we are asleep in the hotel, he would wake us up and ask, ‘How long does it take you to get ready? Let’s film a scene’. That’s how he shoots the film. We didn’t have a huge crew; it was just 20 of us who went to Rajasthan to shoot the movie. It’s based on police officer Sibi Thomas’ service story. I don’t think any other Malayalam film has been shot as authentically as this.
You returned to Rajasthan earlier this year again to shoot Abrid Shine’s Mahaveeryar, which also has Nivin Pauly in the lead. You have been part of a lot of multi-starrers over the years and you have never been the kind of actor who has been insecure about sharing screen space with another actor. It has always worked to your advantage.
It has. While we were shooting Mahaveeryar, what excited me the most was working with Nivin, who is more of a partner in crime. The other times, I am acting with either people who are elder or younger than me, and I was beginning to miss the fun. While shooting this film for 45 to 60 days, it was more about two friends having a lot of fun; that excitement was more than the characters they we were playing. We were acting together after nine years and so there was also realisation of how much we have travelled in life and our career. I was acting in a movie that Nivin was producing. Before this, when we acted together, we were just two youngsters who came into the industry. The film, Mahaveeryar, cannot be placed in any genre. It’s a pure Abrid Shine movie; it’s got an out-of-the-box concept.
Be it Uyare or Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha, these were movies that were celebrated after it released in OTTs. Now, do actors have to also take the reach of OTTs into account when they choose their movies?
I think after the second lockdown, all of us have been asking ourselves that. All the Malayalam movies that released in OTTs recently have got attention on a pan-Indian level. So, it’s become a requisite to think about that while selecting your upcoming scripts. We have brilliant directors and writers, and our ideas are being discussed across the country. So, I will definitely try to be part of such films in the future.
2011 was a landmark year for actor Asif Ali, who began his career with Shyamaprasad’s Rithu in 2009. He scored hits with Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic and Aashiq Abu’s Salt N’ Pepper – both movies being celebrated as part of the start of new-generation cinema in the Malayalam film industry. Traffic and Salt N’ Pepper also introduced scriptwriters Syam Pushkaran, Dileesh Nair and cinematographer Shyju Khalid, all of whom have been part of several great films in the subsequent years. Asif, meanwhile, played an array of roles, never allowing himself to be stereotyped. Today, he is one of the most-sought after and bankable actors in Malayalam. This could also be why, apart from Mohanlal’s Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, it’s just Asif’s two movies – Kunjeldho and Elaam Sheriyaakkum – that have got dates for theatrical releases after the second lockdown in Kerala.