In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the Malayalam star, who completes a decade in Mollywood on June 30, talks about his initial struggles, how Vikramadithyan shaped his vision for his career and his plans for the next decade
It was a series of fortunate events that led to a 17-year-old Unni Mukundan getting in touch with the late script writer-filmmaker Lohithadas, working as his assistant, and then years later making his acting debut in Tamil with Seedan and in Malayalam with Bombay March 12. On June 30, Unni will complete a decade as an actor in the Malayalam film industry. Though he admits that it’s a been a gradual process, encumbered by his lack of understanding of the industry in the beginning and then an unwelcome perception as an action hero, the actor has now created a space for himself in Mollywood and wants to propel himself as a pan-Indian actor in the coming years.
Excerpts from an exclusive OTTplay interview with Unni Mukundan:
Before we talk about the initial phase of your career, was acting in films always the dream?
To be frank, there was a point where I just had to do it. I was never this guy who wanted to act from his high school days. Neither my family nor anyone close to me had anything to do with movies. Even now, my family doesn’t believe that I make a living out of it. What happened was that when I saw a lot of films and understood the dynamics, somewhere I felt I wanted to do something related to movies. I always enjoyed literature and I think that too shaped my thoughts. By the time I finished my Class 12, there was a talk among my friends that I wanted to get into films. It was their sarcasm and jokes that actually made me want to chase that dream. But it wasn’t until after Vikramadithyan (2014) that I got the clarity that cinema is my career.
You had spent most of your childhood and teenage years in Gujarat. So, for you to come to Kerala and chase this dream without any contacts must have required a lot of effort.
The fact that I was raised in Gujarat was a bit of a hindrance. Just because you speak Malayalam, you don’t become a Malayali. I genuinely believe that understanding the culture, vibe and other things of the place play a very important role. Especially when it comes to Malayalis, we are so regional in terms of our preferences; we are so rooted. So, as far as I was concerned, I was just a Malayali by birth. It was an eye-opener for me; it was as if, ‘Though I like all of this, it doesn’t come naturally to me’. But I was not willing to give up because I never doubted the fact that I was a Malayali and it runs in my blood. Sure, there was a delay in getting things done.
As I had mentioned, till Vikramadithyan happened, it was a learning curve where I understood that cinema happens because of a lot of networking and it’s not just you directly tell them, ‘Let’s meet and discuss’. You need to have tact. I started to look around and understand how my colleagues are working, and everyone was so well connected. In that sense, it was a task because I was coming from a totally different space and I was trying to find out how to make it here. I didn’t have any friends or anybody to guide me. So, it was a huge challenge because I didn’t have anybody to discuss my career or dreams. My contemporaries had that.
How did Seedan and Bombay March 12 happen?
I had given an audition for Seedan, which I later found out was the Tamil remake of Nandanam. The only experience in my profile at that time was that I had worked as (director-scriptwriter) Lohithadas sir’s assistant. I think the film’s producer Good Knight Mohan sir, who happened to be Lohi sir’s friend, purely picked me out of sympathy. Unlike in Nandanam, where Prithviraj was the lead and the film revolved around him and Lord Krishna’s character was a cameo, in Tamil, because of Dhanush being a star, the movie was treated accordingly. As far as I was concerned, I needed a neat part to begin my career and I got that.
In Bombay March 12, the script only had that a simple guy gets blamed for something and later gets killed. But on screen, the character became the heart of the film and it completely revolved around him. So, when both the movies released, they weren’t blink-and-miss roles and I could make my presence felt. It was big for me. Today, when youngsters come into the industry, they have a lot to show in terms of digital content. I never knew we could do short films; if somebody had told me back then, I would have done it.
There’s a great story about how you came to assist Lohithadas.
I wrote him a letter. After a point, I told my father that I wanted to do something in films. I was quite surprised when he said, ‘It’s great that somebody is thinking differently in the family’. He was the one who made sure I got the address and he asked me to write a letter. I had my doubts whether anyone will read the letter but he said because it was a registered post, we will know if he has collected it. Lohithadas sir liked my handwriting. He was also surprised because a 17-year-old from Gujarat was writing to him and talking about life and dreams. So, he wanted to meet me. He was a very simple man and when he welcomed me the way he did, it was a boost for me because I realised there are good people and I can make it here.
Your big break came in 2012 with Vysakh’s Mallu Singh, in which you replaced Prithviraj after he dropped out because of scheduling conflicts.
I wasn’t someone with big plans, I only wanted to do a few films that I did by then. And then suddenly Vysakh chettan and (producer) Anto Joseph started calling me. I had no clue that I would be doing Mallu Singh. The primary reason I took up the movie was that I wanted something big to happen and this was a challenge. I always felt that you can’t claim that you are an actor if you just did one or two movies. I wanted to explore; nobody should have a doubt that my acting career was a fluke. Mallu Singh was the biggest hit of my career back then but it wasn’t until Vikramadithyan that I became confident about my standing in the industry. It’s like when you join a company, you don’t tell yourself that you made it, you will always try to move ahead. That mindset organically took over in my case.
Initially, I only wanted to be a director and that’s why I joined Lohitadas sir. He had actually offered me the part in Nivedhyam but I said no. I still remember Nivedhyam’s heroine Bhama calling me years later, after Bombay March 12 released, and asking me why I backed out. I told her I wasn’t ready to act back then because direction was my aim.
After Mallu Singh, you did two good movies with M Padmakumar – Ithu Pathiramanal and Orissa. Were you disappointed that the films and the effort that you put in didn’t get the due attention?
Yes. Orissa was a good film and I am very proud of it. Ithu Pathiramanal was also one of the most underrated films at that time. Its character Eldho was a complex role for me to play. In our industry, growth is number-oriented and if you don’t hit the numbers, you start questioning yourself. Post Mallu Singh, everyone had opinions on what my next character should be. But I was like I played a Punjabi guy and Orissa had me in this role as an aged man; it had a good story and a great director, so why not do it? I didn’t know that we had to build this onscreen persona with back-to-back hits. I had also forgotten the fact that I was no longer a newcomer, I had just delivered a hit and I had this image of an action hero that came with its set of expectations. All my career, I have been fighting this battle; I never ask for action roles. It’s just that when I get them, I do them really well. In the Malayalam film industry, it became a talk that I wanted to do action roles and that the public too is demanding that. So, despite Ithu Pathiramanal and Orissa receiving good reviews, these worked negatively for me because they didn’t fetch the box office numbers. But I got cast in Vikramadithyan because Lal Jose sir liked me in Orissa a lot. He saw something in me.
With Vikramadithyan, you did prove a point – because you went toe-to-toe with Dulquer Salmaan, who came in with his own set of expectations, and you managed to change the popular perception of you as an actor.
When Lal Jose sir narrated Vikramadithyan’s story, I was not at all happy with the character’s handlebar moustache and him being called ‘muscle aliyan’. I was already fighting to get over that image. He told me that I have to believe it’s my strength and use it to my advantage. He said he will vouch for the fact that people will love me in the movie. While doing the film, I realised little things like I haven’t smiled in my films till then. Vikraman in the film says that he can’t compete if he has fallen down. That’s exactly how I felt as a person back then and Lal Jose sir asked me to perform genuinely. The movie became a huge hit and as you said, it opened doors for other movies.
After this phase is when you started doing a lot of supporting roles. Was that something you picked consciously or was that the only kind of role that was coming to you?
Primarily, it all depended on the box office numbers. I did films like KL 10 Patthu and Style. Style went on to be a huge hit after it was released. KL 10 Patthu was Muhsin Parari’s first film before he did Sudani from Nigeria. I think the pilot batch comes with its set of risk elements. After these films, I didn’t want to play a lead actor in a mediocre film. I know how it works now. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be part of good films just because I wasn’t the lead; so it was a deliberate decision to do supporting roles but also make a mark with those. I didn’t want to do random films and fade out. This was also the phase where I got offers in Telugu to be part of Bhaagamathie and Janatha Garage. So, that helped me grow. Even when I played negative roles in Mikhael, it was noticed and people wanted a spin-off for Marco Jr. Playing John Thekkan in Masterpiece opposite Mammukka again was a huge confidence booster. So, even when people were casting me as a second lead or a villain, they weren’t able to hide me.
The past few years haven’t just been about acting because with Achayans, you also ventured into songwriting and singing.
I have always wanted to grow and evolve in my career and that’s when I started writing songs. Once I became sure that this was my career and understood how the industry works, I wasn’t getting stressed. People outside the industry might have felt that from playing leads, he is now doing second leads and villains, but I was truly enjoying my work. I also started exploring the creative space – I could sing, write songs. Recently, I did a narration for an award-winning short film titled Ente Narayanikku. Now, I am also part of an upcoming Telugu movie titled Khilladi.
You, Asif Ali and Tovino Thomas almost began your career together. So, was there a competition in terms of creating a mark in the industry?
I don’t think there was ever a similarity between Asif and me because I never got a script that was rejected by him and vice versa. With Tovino, there might have been because we are alike in terms of physicality, but again he is seen mostly in urban roles. So, I don’t think there’s a competition in terms of scripts with anyone. I don’t know which category I belong to because I have tried every kind of role.
When Vishnu Mohan, who directed Meppadiyan, first narrated its story to me, he said that he was told by people that I wouldn’t like a movie that didn’t have action scenes. The only reason he narrated the story was because the meeting was confirmed. I was surprised that people still have that image about me. The script of the film was so good that I went ahead and produced the movie. Personally, I am confident about myself as an individual and I have never thought that if I worked with somebody else my weaknesses would be exposed. I am probably the only actor who has acted with every other actor because I am comfortable with my space.
Meppadiyan is your first production. What can you tell us about the film?
It is a family entertainer. I was so involved in the script that to look the part, I had to gain 20 kilos. It’s got a good cast and has me playing a rural character. It will be the next big film in my career. Anybody who knows my past and where I come from, will know that it’s a big achievement to produce a movie. It’s heartening for me too, when I look back at these 10 years. I never got a launch or was part of a group. It was a trial-and-error career and to make it this far and create a film is inspiring.
Is Meppadiyan an OTT release?
We are working on it. We want it to get the best release. We haven’t decided on anything as of now. Vishnu and I are also teaming up for a political thriller titled Pappa. I believe OTT is a blessing to the movie industry because it brings regional cinema to a wider audience. In terms of bringing quality to films, I don’t think any actor or a technician needs to be reminded of that because those who are true to their craft will always try to bring their best to the table.
You are teaming up with Vysakh again to act in and produce an action-entertainer titled Bruce Lee.
Yes, it’s an all-out action film that can be enjoyed by people of all age groups. It’s a ‘mass masala’ movie that is made for theatres. I feel that people expect me to be part of such films. Even though I don’t have a favourite genre, I think I gel well with vibrant entertainers that have action.
You are also part of the Andhadhun remake, Bhramam, where you share screen space with Prithviraj. How was it working with him, years after replacing him in Mallu Singh?
He is someone I really look up to. Though we belong to different spaces, I see how confident he is about his work. I am the same in my space. When Mallu Singh happened, it was a huge compliment for me to get a role that was meant for him. It was also a burden because both our career graphs are entirely different. I was trying to figure out what my next step was and he had already done 50-plus films. He was focused on what he wanted to achieve while I was still unclear. Now, however, I am sure about where I want my career to go for the next few years.
With Meppadiyan, I believe I have managed to be part of all kinds of cinema. It has pushed me the most as an actor. My production company, Unni Mukundan Films, started functioning because of Meppadiyan. Having done a series of roles in all genres, in Telugu, playbacks and song writing and having enjoyed these processes, I clearly see the future as an extension of this very attitude. I see myself moving into a lot more aspects of filmmaking, diverse movies and characters. I want to create a pan-Indian appeal as an actor and be part of projects and stories that reach beyond regional barriers. The future looks exciting.