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Home»Interview»Exclusive! Dulquer Salmaan: The next stage of my career is to lose myself and delve deep into my characters»

Exclusive! Dulquer Salmaan: The next stage of my career is to lose myself and delve deep into my characters

In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the Malayalam superstar talks about his 10-year journey in the film industry, the lessons he has learnt and how it has all shaped the star he has become

  • Sanjith Sidhardhan

Last Updated: 01.40 AM, Feb 08, 2022

Exclusive! Dulquer Salmaan: The next stage of my career is to lose myself and delve deep into my characters
Dulquer Salmaan | Pic credit: Shuhaib SBK

Ten years ago, when Dulquer Salmaan made his debut without any fanfare or a fancy director helming his first venture, few would have imagined that he would go on to work his magic in four film industries. Today, he’s arguably one of the most popular actors in the country and no matter how much he denies his ‘pan-Indian’ appeal, it’s here to stay.

His upcoming slate of films itself is a testament to his popularity and the diversity of his work – he has Brinda’s romcom Hey Sinamika in Tamil, Hanu Raghavapudi’s period romantic drama in Telugu, Rosshan Andrrews’ investigative thriller Salute in Malayalam and R Balki’s thriller Chup: Revenge of the Artist in Hindi. The 35-year-old actor is also gearing up for his web debut with Raj and DK’s Netflix series Guns & Gulaabs.

In a candid interview with OTTplay, the Malayalam superstar recounts his 10-year journey in the film industry through 10 of his defining roles across film industries.

Last week, you completed a decade in the film industry. How much do you believe in fate? Growing up, did you believe you would eventually find your way to the industry?

I feel like somewhere deep down, all of us kids want to emulate our fathers in some way. It need not always be about choosing their career path; it could be about their values, traits or how they conduct themselves. In my case, you can’t ignore the kind of respect and stature my dad (Mammootty) has. He is highly looked up to, not just in the society, but even within our families. So, somewhere I wanted to be someone like that. Also, I am sure there is a deep-rooted love for cinema and storytelling. So, I don’t know if it was something that I was sure would happen, but I wished for it to happen.

Before you made your debut with Second Show, people knew very little about you, compared to say, Fahadh Faasil, Kalidas Jayaram or Pranav Mohanlal. Did 25 years of anonymity, being in Chennai and away from Malayalam cinema, in any way shape your journey to films?

Firstly, growing up in Chennai, I had no added privileges. Especially the school I went to, I think they almost didn’t understand regional cinema. There were kids of big industrialists and old Chennai families, and I just moved from Kerala. So, they didn’t quite understand what being an actor was or what our lives were like. In that sense, it was great because I always had to try to fit in. My background was quite different from the other kids in the school; all of them had a lot in common – either their folks studied together or they had been in Chennai for generations. So, there weren’t any pretensions or I wasn’t led to believe that I was special in any way. That genuinely helped shape me as a person. I constantly had to prove myself.

Honestly, I loved the anonymity. Every time we visited Kerala along with my dad for a function or a wedding, it was a bit too much for us to understand with the crowds and everything. So, I was well aware of the luxury of my anonymity and I understood its privilege. Be it in Chennai, America, Dubai or even in Mumbai, when I went to acting school, these were places where I could almost restart every single time.

When I flew to Kozhikode for Second Show’s shoot, I knew this was one thing I had to give up. Whether I succeeded or not, people will know my name and face. Even now, I am happiest shooting outside Kerala because I am not as recognised.

Every actor has a defining role in the initial phase of their career and for you, it must be Faizy in Ustad Hotel. You have said that it’s a character that makes the audience fall back in love with you every time they watch the movie. But how important was that role, because it helped you carve an identity for yourself in the industry?

I think you probably understand the value of it further down. I think Anwarkka (Anwar Rasheed) narrated Ustad Hotel’s story to me when I had signed Second Show. In fact, (producer) Listin (Stephen) and he had requested to make it my debut film but I said it wasn’t fair to the team of Second Show. Also, Ustad Hotel had these wonderful names attached to it – from Anjali Menon, Anwarkka, Thilakan sir to Sidhique uncle. I never felt that I would be the person carrying this film. Even when it got all the accolades, I never believed it was me; it deserved all of it because of so many other people. I was grateful for it, but in my head, I was like, ‘Move on because you didn’t do this. You were just lucky’.

But down the line, when it won National Awards, I began getting enquiries from Hindi and Tamil because people were curious about this Malayalam film and they wanted to remake it. They would ask me if I was interested in movies in other languages. So, I felt it had an impact then, but over the years, the love for it has multiplied.

You had mentioned what excites you the most about being an actor is ‘discovering different parts of the country, languages and culture’. Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi was all about that, and to do that for a movie in the company of some great technicians must have been rewarding and liberating, early in your career.

From the moment, Sameerkka (Sameer Thahir) shared this idea, I was on. I remember telling him, ‘I know I am going to tell my grandkids about this because of the journey’. I have very protective parents. They are paranoid if I get on a motorcycle, they worry if I am out and will wait for me to return. I have read many books of solo riders and even now most of the YouTube channels I follow are of solo travellers, motorcycles and cars. So, when he told me the story, I knew this was my one chance where I get to do this, as part of my work.

It was exciting for me as a traveller, but as an actor, I felt Sameerkka is a big name and he was directing for the first time, so I had to be responsible too. I used to really pressure myself to crack the character. Often, I feel that I build up the pressure so much that I feel like I have a burden on me while performing. It has taken me time to liberate myself from that, but I don’t think I am fully free from that yet.

How has the process of getting into the skin of the character evolved over the years?

My dad’s process was not something that any of us could ever witness. He’s really like a chameleon; he can get into different skins – from body languages to looks to dialects. None of us are ever privy to how he works on these. Now, with the more films I do and the more actors I work with, I observe and ask questions. Some of them shut themselves in a room or stay somewhere for a long time. In Malayalam, we don’t have that luxury, because we are jumping from one film to another. I think the first phase of my career was very important for me to register myself to the audience – to establish my personality as a person so that I can shed this surname. Now that I am somewhat free of it, the next stage is to shed my personality, lose myself and find more of the character.

Director Anjali Menon in an interview had mentioned that during a workshop ahead of Bangalore Days, all of you discussed various things that were personal to you and she inculcated a part of that into the story. She said that you had shared that at some level you felt like you were a misfit. Why?

When you think about it, it’s a bit like the NRI syndrome. When you meet an Indian American kid, they are neither an Indian in India nor an American in America; you are neither here nor there. When I moved to Chennai, it took me a long time to fit into that culture and school. I always felt like an outsider there. But having lived away from Kerala for that long, when I entered cinema, I again felt like an outsider. I didn’t know the nuances of having studied here. For instance, in Neelakasham… Kassi is very politically inclined, but when you are discussing the student bodies of the two parties, it wasn’t something that I was extremely aware of. So, that’s always been there. I don’t know if I truly fit in. People always see me as a bit urban and these are all things I have to shed.

Has that feeling changed now?

I think I have stopped stressing too much about it. I am someone who overthinks and dwells on negative criticisms and comments. When someone says I can’t do something, I want to try and do that. Maybe it’s part of my process. But now, I want to do cinema that I believe in, irrespective of the role. I believe the film is bigger than the character. I won’t choose a film based on what I can prove if I pick a certain character. I definitely do things that scare me but I have stopped trying to convince people that I can play small-town or village-based roles. If a role that I love comes my way, I will do it. Otherwise, I don’t want it to affect my choices.

There’s this sense of energy and freedom in all your portrayals in Tamil films. Does that come from the lack of pressure or do you relate a lot more to these characters than the ones in Malayalam?

I have had some of my Malayalam directors tell me for some reason, I seem to enunciate Tamil better than Malayalam. Also, I feel that the metering is different in different industries. In Malayalam, anything can be considered overacting. So, you have to always underplay it a bit. But in Tamil or Telugu, it has to be a little more enhanced. I think in doing that, it appears that I am a bit more loud or open.

Also, the pressure aspect you talk about is definitely relevant. When I work in other industries, I come as just myself. I am just another guy in this age bracket and I am a lot freer. I don’t have this baggage that I have here in Malayalam, where every move, choice or shot is dissected.

While working with filmmakers like Mani Ratnam who have collaborated with your dad, do you enjoy listening to them sharing experiences of working with him?

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the highlights. It’s a combination of me asking and them remembering. My dad at home is just my dad; a lot of us don’t know how he is at work. A lot of things that he does, he does quietly. It’s very personal to him. In that sense, I have heard so many wonderful stories of people he has helped or the things he has gifted. And there’s so much love I get to witness because of that.

Often, it could be from second generation actors. They might tell me a story about how in those days, people would come to sets in gadgets, cameras or Walkmans. So, there was a senior actor who was looking at a Walkman and he didn’t want to spend. Finally, my dad bought it and gifted it to him. So, his son was telling me how he still has that Walkman in his house. While working with filmmakers, my dad’s peers and their kids, I get to hear these anecdotes about him that I wouldn’t otherwise. It’s something I value and cherish.

Charlie was the film that won you your first State Award for Best Actor, but it’s also a role that required you to step out of your comfort zone because prior to that a lot of the characters that you had done had a bit of that urban appeal.

Charlie was a script that I had with me for a good two and half years. Unni chettan (scriptwriter Unni R) and I got close over the years and he pitched the idea to me. Funnily enough, when I first heard it, I imagined it to be something for the festival circuits. I didn’t see it with so much colour. The tone that I saw was almost rustic, and in an Anurag Kashyap kind of zone. But he didn’t have a director on board. Multiple filmmakers expressed their interest but I said I didn’t see it with them, and we kept sitting on it and he kept fine-tuning the script.

One day, randomly, Martin (Prakkat) called me and said that he bumped into Unni chettan and said this is something that could be fleshed out. So, I was like, ‘Martin and Unni, this is an interesting combination’. This is something that I feel is my weakness – I am really bad at placing people together. If you give me options, I can pick.

So, when Martin came onboard, I said let’s go ahead. I know it scared the crap out of Martin. He was afraid if he or I could pull it off. That was interesting because we were both scared and both of us wanted to push our boundaries. I remember, Martin and (cinematographer) Jomon (T John) would tell me that Charlie must be someone whom people have never seen before. I was like, ‘A lot of this is in the writing. See, I can’t walk on all fours and appear like something that people haven’t seen before’. Charlie is an off-centre character and a lot of him is built through what other characters are talking about him.

It was one of those characters where the meter had to be up?

Yes, he was someone who had to walk into the room and charge everybody up. That’s something we kept working on. We kept going for retakes where we kept upping the meter. I remember when the film came out and I read this criticism that Charlie’s guffaws seemed forced. Actually, I am someone who laughs loudly. The outfits and look also helped. I also gained some weight and put on muscle; these were little things that we kept tweaking. In hindsight, it’s easy to figure things out; now, everyone sees it as a fleshed-out character but it was an organic process.

You followed Charlie with your most underrated role as Krishnan in Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam. It was a role for which you underwent a physical transformation to play the younger portions.

That was a bit of fate too because I contracted jaundice during the climax shoot of Kali and I was hospitalised. So, the jaundice helped me shed the pounds.

It sort of marked you as someone who didn’t fall into that superstar trap of only playing the most important character in the film. But did you ever feel that your efforts didn’t get its due?

It was a year where my kitty had Charlie, Kali and Kammatipaadam and I was extremely thrilled. It doesn’t get better than that and it was probably the best year of my career.

Working in Kammatipaadam, I was quite aware that in terms of the content, it would focus more on Balan chettan and Ganga than my character. But it was also such an amazing experience to work with Rajeevettan. The whole process was so unique – like nothing I have done before or after.

We were narrated the idea vaguely and we never had a script in hand. We would work on the look and styling based on Krishnan’s age and what he was doing at that time. Our editor Ajith chettan (B Ajithkumar) was also part of the writing team. So, when we come to the sets, they would fish out small bits of crushed paper from their pockets. There would be bits and pieces of dialogues in them. They would say this was the skeleton that we had to play within.

I remember there was a sequence with me, Vinayakan chettan, Vinay Forrt and I think Vijay Kumar. Vinayakan chettan and I are sitting and Vinay comes running with some news, all stressed. And we had to figure out this problem. So, again, the dialogues were uncrushed and given to us. The four of us then had to come up with a conversation, while Rajeev ettan was watching us, smiling to himself. Once we had an idea, he wanted to shoot immediately for spontaneity.

That experience was so incredible and rewarding. I didn’t care where people thought I fit – whether I was second, fourth or fifth. End of the day, I am well aware of the fact that I will always have amazing opportunities to play the lead. I don’t define my career with just one film. If it’s a great movie and I have a great part, it doesn’t affect me whether I am the lead. Nobody can take Kammatipaadam away from me no matter what they say or criticize.

You said that you don’t get too affected by what people say. But Bejoy Nambiar’s Solo is probably your first movie that has faced a lot of criticism, prompting you to put up an emotional post. There was also this controversy about the producers editing the film’s ending after a section of the audience wasn’t too pleased with it. Did that change how much you are emotionally invested in a movie?

I don’t think my emotional attachment to films has changed. Solo was a tough movie to make. Bejoy is from Mani sir’s school and he loves to just power on. We were shooting for 20-hour days. I know the sincere effort that went into the film and then I felt it was attacked from outside and inside. Eventually, you have to respect the director’s call. You can’t have 100 people meddling with the product. It broke my heart to see it get attacked and meddled with.

See, you do a film, it connects or doesn’t work, that’s fine. I am not saying Solo wasn’t flawed. But I felt it was getting butchered because of an idea that some felt was off-putting or was something that couldn’t be discussed openly; I felt that was unfair. But that was again one of the catalysts of me wanting to turn producer.

In that post, you had said that there were seven billion people on earth and as many stories, and just because some are not familiar with them, that doesn’t make these go away or make them wrong. More than being earnest, it was an unprecedented plea because we haven’t seen many actors back a film like that.

I am someone who doesn’t speak out and I am also criticized for it because I don’t take stands, I am not a social media activist. One thing I am passionate about is my cinema. I say more no’s than yes to the films I am offered. So, when I genuinely try to do stuff that I believe in, I am in it for the long run. It is something I will back with all my might. This instance was something where I felt like speaking my mind.

What were your initial apprehensions when you were approached to play the legendary actor Gemini Ganesan in the Telugu-Tamil bilingual Mahanati?

When I was offered the film, I asked them, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Telugu was alien to me. I have a lot of friends from Hyderabad but I speak to them in English. I had no idea about the language and I didn’t know if I could crack it. I didn’t want the pressure of language while performing and I looked nothing like Gemini Ganesan.

But I loved the team. They were a bunch of youngsters who were below 40 and they wanted to make a movie on a yesteryear superstar. I loved that thought because typically across our industries, when you say a period film, they mean freedom-fight or mythical films. I told them, ‘It’s great stuff and you guys are going to do something special. However, I don’t want to come and mess it up’.

But they kept coming back and said it was the hardest casting and they couldn’t find anyone else. I have this weird belief that if something comes back to me the third time, I should do it. Three is a weird number I believe in. I saw (wife) Amal randomly in Chennai three times and I thought I should reach out to her. Similarly, this movie came back to me thrice and I thought I would be missing out on something wonderful.

Your latest release Kurup is your biggest hit yet and has catapulted you to superstardom. What did the success of the ambitious film mean to you, especially because you had also produced it?

I have always believed that if all the money you put into the film is there on the screen, the audience will make sure that it comes back to you, provided it’s a sincere effort. I have always felt that if it’s an idea that we believe in, we must tell it through the best visual experience and for that, we should have the best team. For Kurup, it was again a different period that hasn’t been explored on this scale. It’s usually the mythical films that get the budgets. So, Kurup was something that I wanted to back at that level.

Obviously, its reception gives you confidence to produce big films. A lot of the time, I would shy away from such films because it was too much pressure or gamble for the producers. I have always been concerned about my producers. I think when it’s my own production, I am able to push a little more because I have more creative control and say in other departments too.

The superstar thing though, I feel, is just jargon. It won’t affect my choice. I want to do films of all scales. One of the criticisms I was facing was that I have never had a solo blockbuster, it was either a multi-starrer or it would be credited to someone else. So, Kurup’s success was a bit of a relief in that sense.

It does set you up nicely for the next 10 years.

I don’t know if that’s the case. Ten years is a long time. It’s not like superstars or stars or actors are not unmade in 10 years. Anything can happen. I think I want to continue what I am doing, which is to follow my instinct. I genuinely and passionately love cinema. I might not always get it right but you can’t say that I didn’t give my best.