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Exclusive! Tovino: Minnal Murali introduced me to a wider audience and with that comes great responsibility

The Mollywood star, who will be completing 10 years in the industry this January 28, talks about the journey so far, what the success of Minnal Murali means to him and more, in this candid interview

Sanjith Sidhardhan
Jan 10, 2022
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Tovino Thomas

Tovino Thomas has just wrapped up shooting a scene for his upcoming movie Vaashi in a flat complex in Thiruvananthapuram and is heading to his caravan for a quick break as the crew sets up the next shot. Outside the flat, a small group of youngsters, mostly college students have been waiting for almost an hour to click a photo with the actor. Tovino quickly slips into a different costume and obliges. One by one, they are let in through the main gate for the photo with the Minnal Murali star.

Meanwhile, a resident family is on their way out of the complex in their car. But seeing the actor, they halt immediately and get out of the vehicle. Two excited children, both below 10 years of age, join the queue of the college fans along with their parents, who are equally chuffed at seeing Tovino. After waiting for two minutes, the parents retreat, with the wife informing the husband that the movie they are about to watch in a theatre would start screening in 10 minutes. The husband, however, doesn’t budge. Instead, he walks into the queue and asks if the family can get a snap first. Tovino’s assistant requests him to wait for another minute.

As soon as the actor is done clicking snaps with his fans, he soon comes to the family, who by now are joined by other residents from the flat and their children tpp, for the photo they have been waiting for. In a way, the snapshot summarises Tovino’s journey in the film industry, which began on January 28, 2012, with Prabhuvinte Makal. In his decade-old career that has seen him play supporting characters, villains and heroes but never stereotyped, the actor has won over fans from all age groups, be it the family audience, the youth or even children with his latest and most popular offering, Minnal Murali.

In an exclusive and candid interview with OTTplay after the massive success of Minnal Murali, which is currently in the Top 10 most-watched non-English films in Netflix Global Top 10, Tovino talks about his journey so far and what the success of Basil Joseph’s superhero movie means to him.

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Tovino Thomas

Seeing all the college students that have gathered for photos today, I just want to take you back nine years ago during the shoot of Martin Prakkat’s ABCD, which was your second movie and the one that put you on the map. You first scene was berating a bunch of college students as the politician Akhilesh Varma and you had this serious countenance on that day.

Yes, that’s because the character wasn’t someone who talked gently to others. He was a rich politician. When people around would smile at me, I would maintain a sombre expression because if I already had a rapport with them, I thought that would impact my scene. So, the idea was to not speak to people before a shot. It’s something that I learnt from what I had read. My reference was (ABCD’s production manager) Alex (E Kurian) chettan, who was always serious when he spoke to people, and yet is also a nice person. But right after the shot, I made sure people knew that I was doing it to be in character as I didn’t want them to think that the new guy is arrogant.

We praise a lot of filmmakers for their courage to make pathbreaking content. But it also takes a lot of guts to make a movie predominantly with newcomers. Be it in Martin Prakkat in ABCD or Syamdhar in 7thDay, how much has their efforts helped your career in the initial days?

Martin chettan is also a good actor. So, he knows how to extract the best out of you. I haven’t gone for many takes in ABCD. Because I want my scenes to be good, I would rehearse everything the previous day. The advantage of doing that is you don’t have to worry about the dialogues during the take, you only have to be bothered about the performance. But sometimes, it does take away from the spontaneity. That’s why most often what you get in the first take is better because otherwise you just become mechanical repeating the same thing. Even now, I am not someone who likes to go for several takes, but if I want to improvise, I do.

Martin chettan’s attitude though is that if he is able to get a better performance from an actor, he would go for any amount of takes. I still remember what (cinematographer) Jomon (T John) chettan had said one day during the shoot. There was a shift from one scene to next, and there was a break for the team to set up the next shot. In the meantime, somebody asked if we could film the tail-end sequence. Jomon chettan said that by the time we shoot the sequence, we would be delayed for the other scene. He asked whose scene it was and they said it was mine. So, he said, ‘He’s a single-take artiste’, and that’s how we went ahead with the scene. When someone like him said that about me, I gave me a lot of joy.

There was also another instance when we shot a scene and Martin chettan was fine with it. I wanted one more take to add an improvisation, but I was hesitant to ask because it was like I was doubting his judgment and we also had to pack-up by 9pm. This was my second or third film and the first one in which I was playing a prominent character, so I was at that phase in my career. I asked him if we could go for one more take, and he said, ‘If you want to, we can’. And he used the second take for the movie.

There were instances like where you had put up a post in the beginning of your career, saying that you will make it big, to somewhere in 2016 when you had vowed at the Filmfare South stage in Hyderabad that people will not mess up pronouncing your name when you keep winning more awards, which by the way you did again two years later. It’s not easy to carry on that confidence for 10 years, especially in a place as fickle as the film industry. Did you ever have a low phase?

Low phases were before I had come to the industry. Since I entered cinema, I have believed that I am successful because my dream was to act in films and I achieved that. In fact, I am living my dream now and so, if I have a growth or not, I am content. With every year, my career graph has been climbing. If you compare it with how I was when I began, my career is at its peak now.

The success and failures of my films don’t impact my mood. There will be times when the movie that I thought would run well doesn’t and I become disappointed. But that has a time frame, after which I move on. You can’t keep saying that you won a gold medal in Class V, even after you have reached college. It’s just like that.

Also, since the beginning, I have been vocal about what I want from my career. I am not someone who wants to be a star, I just want to be a good actor. I have also maintained that my goal is not for movies to cross Rs 50 Cr or Rs 100 Cr; that doesn’t affect me as an actor. If my producer doesn’t face a loss, I am happy. And then, five years earlier, I have said that I want Malayalam cinema to be viewed by international audience. If I can watch Korean films, why can’t others watch Malayalam? One inspiration for that has been Raju ettan (Prithviraj Sukumaran).

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Tovino Thomas and Prithviraj Sukumaran

So, I have made what I want clear. There’s no need for people to sympathise for me not getting what they think I want. Whatever I have aimed for, I am getting it. I am not here to compete with anyone. My first priority in life has been movies, and my family also knows that well and they are fine with it. They are only concerned with my health and happiness. My father had asked me the other day, if I was overworking myself. I told him, ‘I am getting to live my dream. What’s the harm in working too much? I can do this only when I am healthy’. But they miss me and this Christmas, because I didn’t go home, all of them – my parents, brother, sister and their families – came to Thiruvananthapuram to spend two days with me. They support me through the thick and thin. So, if I am prioritising cinema, I want to make sure I leave a mark.

Minnal Murali is definitely an achievement in the sense of what you set out for 10 years ago.

Yes, it’s a start. More than me reaching somewhere, I want to be part of the industry when Malayalam cinema gets international exposure. There’s no point in me being bigger than the industry. If that happens, where do you find work? But if the industry expands, all of us can grow together. The name and fame that Malayalam cinema has achieved now is because everyone in the industry has worked for it – be it my seniors or my contemporaries. This is something that I had wished for and I have worked for it. But it didn’t happen just because of me or Minnal Murali. The goodwill of Malayalam cinema from the start has helped.

Along with emotional and humorous roles, you are someone who is capable to pulling off action scenes. Does that somehow also align itself to your goal of being an actor who can achieve international stardom?

I am not someone who wants to keep doing roles that I have already done. I don’t wish to do a lot of action roles either. I am an actor who wishes to do films that are story-driven. An actor’s job is to do what the film demands.

There is also only a point to which I can push my body. For Minnal Murali too, when you are fighting in that suit, you perspire a lot. On certain days, no matter how much water I drink, my body does feel stretched because my uric acid levels go up. Recently, for Thallumala, I had to do an action sequence. If we are shooting an action scene for a week, from the third day, I start experiencing pain from Gout attack and I am then on painkillers till I complete it.

I have changed my lifestyle in the past few months to adapt to all of that and understand how my body reacts to the food I eat. I have also become disciplined. I am doing this because I want to make the most out of the opportunity I have got. I am now at a position far greater than what I have ever wished of. As I had mentioned, I have only dreamt of entering into films. The reason I learnt driving, swimming or anything new in life is to act.

The success of Minnal Murali has also opened new avenues for all your upcoming releases – from Aashiq Abu’s Naaradhan to Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Vazhakku. Everyone who has seen Minnal Murali will be waiting for your next film. What does it mean to you?

I am well aware of my responsibilities. I know this space that I have now is hard-earned and I have to be more responsible now. Like how they say with great power comes great responsibility, in cinema, with more reach comes more responsibility. I know that it’s not the same number of people who had seen my previous films who will be watching my next projects. Minnal Murali has introduced me to a wider audience. Last year, I was able to play entirely different characters in movies like Kala, Kaanekkaane and Minnal Murali, and the cameo in Kurup was again dissimilar to any of these. So, the audience will be expecting more from me and there will be every effort from my part to meet that.

Also, Minnal Murali is not the first movie that I have wanted people across the world to watch, I have been wanting this with every film in my career. But it took a Minnal Murali to achieve that. More than reaching a pan-Indian audience, it was trending on Netflix in countries such as Bahamas and Honduras.

I am willing to go to any extent for my character. That said, those who follow my filmography will know that this is a team effort. I have not achieved any of this alone. Every success I have earned in my career, I share that credit with so many others – my co-stars and my directors. But this was my dream too. My upcoming movies including Naaradhan has got a wide theatre release and OTT deal because of Minnal Murali’s success. All of this, however, doesn’t mean that I will now only do big films or sign projects in other industries. If I did that, I would again be restricting myself. I will still do cameos, play villain roles and be one of the many characters in a multi-starrer.

You must also be aware that the number of projects coming to you will increase now and you will have to reject far more than you have done earlier.

It’s extremely difficult to say no. But I have to take up that responsibility. From now on, I won’t sign a film just based on hearing the film’s script. I will look at its director and the rest of the team. If they are good, the chances of the film being good are also more. I am someone who doesn’t interfere in anything else. I give my opinions only if they ask me.

I am also trying to break a lot of misconceptions here. I haven’t interfered in anyone else’s work and I am still content with the offers I am getting. A lot of people have asked me how will I be considered for hero roles, if I continue to do supporting roles or villains? But I did all that and I still got to play a superhero in Minnal Murali. I have Naaradhan, Vaashi, Thallumaala and other movies coming up. So, these are just unreasonable fears.

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