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Exclusive! Sarath Kumar: I would've been a superstar by now had I not entered politics

The actor, politician talks of his OTT debut Parampara, his second innings in the film industry and the advantage he has in establishing himself as a pan-Indian artiste

Srivathsan Nadadhur
Dec 27, 2021
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Age goes a long way in redefining the abilities of an actor. It brings in calmness, a sense of wisdom, having been enriched by the various highs, lows and the various debacles that life has to offer. More often than not, this maturity rubs off onto the characters as well. Actor, politician Sarath Kumar, who has lead a fairly eventful life, is in that phase now. 

He's in zen-mode, having made peace with himself, has got nothing to lose and unafraid of taking risks. He has his hands full with offers in multiple languages, mediums and is hungrier than ever to satisfy his creative urge. The veteran, who recently finished dubbing for Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan, is making his digital debut with a Telugu show, Parampara, on Disney+ Hotstar. Sarath Kumar is at his candid best speaking to about his latest project and his interest to be the Amitabh Bachchan of the South.

Is this your most relieving phase as an actor? No commercial pressures of headlining a film, no issues of getting trapped in an image and getting to add value in whatever little you do, in your own terms...

Certainly, it gives me more scope and adds more value to the persona and the actor that you are. You often get into an image problem while doing lead roles. Now, I get just another character - regardless of the positive or negative shades - and it helps me explore more as a performer. I'm definitely enjoying this stint and looking to make a comeback with Super Good Films for Suryavamsam 2. It's on the anvil and the story is getting chiselled currently. In the meanwhile, I am getting to play a plethora of characters that are a great source of pleasure and enjoyment for the actor in me. 

Life has indeed come full circle for you. You started as a villain in Telugu films and are entering the Telugu OTT space with Parampara, where you're rocking the shades of grey...

 When I wanted to be an actor in my early days, I didn't think about being the hero or the villain. Acting was the only thing on my mind. It's exactly what my career has come back to now. You get your characters, the freedom to perform it as per your style. As a protagonist, you have certain boundaries to maintain. That was a few years, decades ago. Whereas now, all such barriers have been eliminated. 

Parampara has offered me a lot of shades in my character - the guy, Naidu, is not totally black or grey. There are a lot of shades in his personality. The show is all about one aspect that keeps on haunting him. The show essentially revolves around Naidu - What does he do? What makes him the way he is currently? I enjoyed playing in Naidu and Parampara looks more like a power-packed film than an OTT show. 

The show is shot beautifully and I'm thankful that Arka Mediaworks picked me for the part. Any number of people could've done the role but I appreciate them for giving me the space and the confidence to pull it off. I'm really happy with my work and glad that it is being appreciated by everyone. Also, there's very little difference between the big screen and the small screen these days. It's all one visual medium meant to entertain audiences.

What appealed to you about Parampara?

Parampara is a family drama and revolves around the power struggle between two brothers in the same family. The story has a lot of interesting emotions between the brothers, father and son, several characters in totality. I think everybody has done their part so well. The combination of me and Jagapathi Babu, Naveen Chandra and Ishan in the other generation, the production value and the directorial touches- nothing has been left to doubt. I had a great time shooting with Jagapathi Babu, chatting and cracking jokes. We're in a different space now and both of us are trying to enjoy that. We hope audiences enjoy it too.


Does OTT give you more freedom in terms of your performances, be it the way you look, experimenting with the slang or the opportunity to be more understated and realistic?

I think as audiences and industry too, be it films, movies or OTT shows, we've shattered the myth that actors need to look, behave or perform a certain way on the screen. We're catering to different segments of crowds with every project. The OTT platforms have opened up a lot of opportunities for many actors. Not only India, actors across the globe are benefiting big out of it. Regardless of Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, English or Hindi, most of the content is available with subtitles - anyone across the globe can access any form of content. It's a great opportunity for everyone to work everywhere.

You began your career in Telugu films and also had a reasonable market for your Telugu dubbed films in the 1990s. Now that most actors today are comfortably branching out into other languages, do you think you could've done more to establish yourself as a star in the Telugu market then?

Things have evolved in a better way now. It wasn't so easy to have a career in multiple industries back then. Being in the Tamil industry and establishing yourself as a Telugu hero wasn't a conceivable idea those days. Whereas, the sky is the limit now. Now, the audience also has evolved to accept actors they like, across any language. 


You'd recently spoken of your aim to become the 'Amitabh Bachchan of the South'. However, do you see the transformation happening from the writer's perspective? Is it practical as an actor to expect such a variety of roles here?

I think the change has to come from the writers. For most films in Hollywood, they buy the rights of a book, pick a true story and find the actor later. Here, they generally have a person in mind and then write stories, while Hollywood only chooses someone according to the needs of the script. The scenario is gradually changing and they're making an effort to see how someone could someone fit into a role authentically, more so in the case of small films. Well made films are finding their due regardless of OTT or the big screen. 

Amitabh Bachchan had a great first inning but struggled after ABCL ran into losses. Abhishek Bachchan had even spoken about the difficulties they had to face during that tricky phase. I think I've gone through a similar phase - my political entry, the setbacks, a section of audiences distancing from my films. I must be honest to admit my career went haywire at a point. As an actor, I don't have an image now. I don't have people telling me that four fights, six songs would be enough to sell a film. 

Look at Amitabh post the 2000s, he was game to play any kind of character and people started writing unique scripts for him. He's still a superstar today. We should also adapt ourselves similarly and there needs to be some change. One must gracefully accept the transition phase and shine well again. After facing several debacles, miseries, physical, political and personal, I am gradually getting back to where I was before.

You're a perfect fit for the pan-Indian film trend. You're an established name in all South Indian languages and are quite comfortable with Hindi too.

Yes, there's an opportunity to carve my niche in multiple industries. I grew up in Delhi, so I'm fluent in Hindi. I have made my presence felt across all industries in the South - Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. I dub for myself in all the languages and audiences recognise my voice well. James, a Kannada film with Puneeth Rajkumar, is slated to release shortly and I've done a different shade of an antagonist. Our combo is always anticipated there. I've got my imprint in several languages. The market is certainly big with me and the producers know that my presence will resonate with audiences across all languages. I have an outright advantage for sure.

When did you realise that you had to transition into a character artiste and not a hero? Does the market dictate such terms?

In my case, my political entry lessened my scope. I should've stuck onto something in life. I should have made it clear that at no point I would enter politics. If I had taken that decision, I could've been a superstar. In a situation that's specific to Tamil Nadu, the moviegoers, theatre owners, producers are divided by politics. People are hardcore supporters of either DMK or AIDMK. It's similar to how they talk in the US - are you a Democrat or a Republican? The entire country knows their political stance. 

When you have a stance in TN, it's clear that the loyalists of the other party will not take your side in films as well. Movies should ideally distance itself from such politics. Provided one is free from political ambition, the path becomes easier to establish oneself in the industry. If I stuck to being an actor, the question that you asked wouldn't have even arisen. Now, the situation has presented itself that I want to try something different - physically and mentally. It's like starting your career from scratch again. The platform, the scope to perform varied characters is bigger now.

Many may have said this to you before, but let me say it again... Kanchana was truly a game-changer, a proof on how far you could go to get into the skin of a role...

I agree. It also helped me connect to the younger generation. Even kids watched Kanchana and despite not having watched my films in the past, they refer to me as Kanchana Sarath uncle. Lawrence had the vision that I could pull it off and it came out well. The role got me appreciation from all corners of India - North, South, East and West. It has widened my horizons and given me the chance to go beyond playing father to the hero or the heroine. I'm not even accepting such roles. I'm only doing projects where Sarath Kumar's presence could add value to the story.

Isn't this the time also for you to try out screenwriting or direction? You'd written Sandamarutham in the past and even directed your 100th film Thalaimagan...

Though I truly love the technical side to filmmaking, be it direction, editing, I know it's the forte of someone else and don't try stepping into their territory. They demand more energy from you than acting. You need to have a command over the script, control people on set, filmmaking nuances and how audiences will react - it's a very big job. I need to give my 100% when I'm in the director's chair. Thalaimagan was a case where the director Balaji had opted out of the film mid-way and I had to complete it. The total product wasn't mine though I knew I was equipped enough to direct a film. It's just that I am not ready to take up that mantle now. I am catching up on everything I missed in the initial phase of my career and making a strong comeback. 

Vaanam Kottattum had one of your best performances in recent times. It was a realistic film with a strong emotional undercurrent and truly showed this generation about what you could bring to a role...

It's one of my favourites too. And now we have Ponniyin Selvan also coming up with Mani Ratnam. It has shaped up well. I feel lucky to have worked with big banners like Madras Talkies and Arka Mediaworks at this phase of my career. We're also doing a show for aha in Tamil called Irai (Prey), which is slated to release next month. It's an adaptation of a book written by a Singapore-based author. The director and another writer Manoj, who's worked on The Family Man, have developed it into a show. It's slated for a release in January. Audiences will get to see different shades of Sarath Kumar when these projects are out. I'm very happy to have been a part of them. Something like a Cheeni Kum would be great. 

(Parampara, produced by Arka Mediaworks, is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar)

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