The actor, who made his debut with Mayookham in 2005, has a slew of upcoming releases including Unni Mukundan’s Meppadiyan, Biju Menon and Manju Warrier’s Lalitham Sundaram, Dhyan Sreenivasan’s Prakashan Parakkatte and Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan
The start of 2010s had left several voids in Malayalam cinema in terms of character actors. But the decade also had some of the best young talent stepping up to fill the gap and also carving a space for themselves. Actor Saiju Kurup is undoubtedly one of them and his filmography which has crossed 100 films with his upcoming release Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan is a testament of sorts to that.
The actor, who began his career in 2005 with Hariharan’s Mayookham, is one of the busier supporting actors in Mollywood today with his next releases being Unni Mukundan’s Meppadiyan, Biju Menon and Manju Warrier’s Lalitham Sundaram and Mohanlal-Jeethu Joseph duo’s 12th Man.
In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, Saiju tells us about his journey so far, why he believes he can play both rural and urban roles with ease and his upcoming movies.
Almost 17 years ago, when you had walked straight into director Hariharan’s house for a role in Mayookham, after being recommended by MG Sreekumar, as someone who didn’t even have a passing interest in cinema, did you ever think that one day you would complete 100 films in the industry?
Never. But I thought that my first film would become a huge hit and I would have to leave my job immediately because I would be busy in the movie industry. Doing 100 films is a blessing; few are fortunate to achieve this feat.
Despite being launched by Hariharan in Mayookham, your career took at least five years to take off.
Yes, I think till Trivandrum Lodge released on September 21, 2012. Before that there were phases when I didn’t have movies. But after that, I kept getting movies regularly. Trivandrum Lodge was like a ‘oxygen cylinder’ to my career.
Even in the initial phase though you had worked with experienced directors like Joshiy, Jayaraj and Shaji Kailas. How much did that help mould the actor in you?
Working with Hariharan sir in my debut film itself has helped me a lot. I got to learn the basics of acting. My character Unni also goes through several emotions in the movie and Hariharan sir used to show us how to react. So, that was what I was trying to execute. Even in my next movies, I used sir as a benchmark and would think how he would approach the role. Later, when I started doing things on my own is when my acting actually suffered. I think it’s in 2009-10, when I found the rhythm of performing and that’s when I did movies such as Mulla, Doubles and Karmayogi. I believe my dialogue delivery and body language were better in these movies, compared to my earlier films.
After that, I wanted to polish my skills and became selective. This was also when I got to work with Paruthiveeran director Ameer sir for the Tamil movie Aadhi Bhagavan. He is someone who makes his actors perform just like how we do in Malayalam cinema. That helped me a lot and after that is when I did Trivandrum Lodge, which became a milestone in my career.
Having started as a lead actor, were you bothered that majority of the roles that came later had you in supporting roles?
I have never dreamt of cinema and have never struggled to reach the industry. A legendary director cast me as a hero in his movie and that in itself was a huge bonus for me. I never had to face any challenges of being an actor and didn’t even wish to be a hero. I started out as a hero, but I was never stubborn that I would only play lead roles. My second movie itself was Lion, for which I began shooting a month after Mayookham’s release in December 2005. I was only thinking about my next project at the time and when pressure increased at work, I left my job and actively pursued projects. But back then, I was only thinking of it as a source of income. It wasn’t until 2008-09, that cinema became a passion. So, I was never disappointed about not getting lead roles.
In fact, I am happy when new actors create a market for themselves after playing leads because I can play supporting roles in their films. It gives me more opportunities.
While Shibu from Trivandrum Lodge might have established you as a character actor, Arakkal Abu from the Aadu franchise has expanded your fanbase. What was the impact of the character in your career in terms of landing you more humorous roles?
There have been milestones at different points of my career and Arakkal Abu is a pivotal one. If you take my top 5 characters, Abu will be leading the list. It gave me a foothold in the industry and led to me getting varied roles. Even if I play a humorous role, it’s placed in such a way that the character gets prominence. Filmmakers don’t think that if they cast me in any role, it automatically generates comedy; instead, they give me a good character that has organic humour. I also prefer that.
While Arakkal Abu is a character that generates humour through slapstick comedy, all the other roles I have done – be it Beempally Noushad in Pokkiri Simon and Dr Saiju in Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela or the brother-in-law Vijith in Theevandi, Johny Peringodan in Driving License and Prasannan in Android Kunjappan Ver. 5.25 – they are all characters and it's their situations that pave the way for the laughs. In my upcoming movies such as Prakashan Parakkatte, I play a strong character who is still funny.
Supporting actors have to strike an amiable chemistry with the leads to make their scenes memorable. Are there any particular actors or directors with whom you are most comfortable with?
If you take directors, I can pick VK Prakash and Midhun Manuel Thomas because I have worked the most with them. I have done nine movies with VKP and eight commercials, and I have acted in five of Midhun’s movies. As they have repeatedly cast me in their films, naturally you develop an attachment. As for actors, I have worked most with Jayasurya and Asif Ali.
Your next release is Meppadiyan, in which you play a rural character. Not many actors can pull off rustic and urban characters with the ease. But you manage it easily. Does that also increase the pool of options for you?
Yes, these days I have more options. I am getting an equal number of city-based and rural characters. Generally, if you look at the rural areas in Kerala, people mostly wear lungi or mundu. The costumes, the make-up and the locations help a lot to get into the skin of the character. So, when you are wearing a lungi or a mundu, your mind automatically gets tuned that you are playing a village-based role.
Even before coming to films, when I was a teenager, I used to wear lungi. I didn’t grow up in Kerala; I was in Maharashtra but I used to love wearing lungi and mundu. When we used to play cricket, I used to wear lungi with the aim of also stopping the ball. So, it’s easy for me to handle these clothes. When you are wearing a mundu, there are so many things you can do, for instance, you can fold it or hold just one tip of it while walking. But you can’t generate so many mannerisms while wearing pants, you can either have your hands in the pocket or on the hips. So, I think that’s one of the reasons I am able to play both types of characters.
You also have Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan coming up, in which you play the titular character. What can you tell us about the movie?
We had completed the shoot of the movie two years ago. It’s a fun ride; it has comedy, suspense and twists. It's a family entertainer that will be worth the price of the ticket. I am sure after the audience watches the movie, they will attest to this.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am currently shooting for Asif Ali’s A Ranjith Cinema, which is directed by Nishanth Sattu. I also Sunil Ibrahim’s Third Murder, in which I play a lead character. I have a few more movies in the pipeline.