The Malayalam actor, who was part of Jagame Thandhiram, Nayattu and One, talks to OTTplay about his career spanning over 25 years
Joju George in a still from Jagame Thandhiram
It’s no mean feat for any actor to push on for two decades in small and supporting acts, driven just by the passion for cinema. But that’s what Malayalam actor Joju George did. That’s also why his rise to the top – from a junior artiste without a dialogue in 1995 to starring in one of the biggest releases this year, Jagame Thandhiram – is satisfying for the audience who have been watching him grow and evolve over the years. For the Joseph actor, life has been changing and that too rapidly in the past few years with him being offered opportunities, he says, that he never thought was possible.
In this exclusive interview with OTTplay, Joju tells us about his initial years, the tricks he has figured out to help him evolve as an actor and starring as a gangster in director Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram.
You started your career in 1995, doing small roles before being offered strong supporting characters in the last decade and lead roles only recently. Your latest film Jagame Thandhiram had you in an important role, the movie released in over 150 countries and in multiple languages. Has life come full circle now?
It’s a great feeling. I have been getting a lot of positive feedback from Tamil Nadu. I have been a huge fan of Tamil cinema; as someone who likes to be lively, I have always loved the energy of Tamil films and songs. Also, I am a big Rajinikanth fan. So, as far as I am concerned, I was someone who kept wondering if I would ever act in Tamil cinema? I had been trying to meet Karthik since Pizza released in 2012. It finally happened after Chola. He had also watched Joseph by then and called me to audition for this film. Because all of this has happened to me, I truly understand its magnitude and I am thanking God every day for it.
How was it working with Dhanush in Jagame Thandhiram?
His biggest contribution is the space that he gives to his co-stars. Even in Nayattu, Chackochan (Kunchacko Boban) made me comfortable. If my co-stars’ performances waver, I falter. If I was good in Nayattu, Chackochan and Nimisha (Sajayan) had a huge role in that. Similarly, in Jagame Thandhiram, Dhanush had a huge part to play in elevating my performance. I have a lot of mood swings. If I am not comfortable in a situation, I can’t perform; but Dhanush made sure that I was relaxed. I think that’s very important because if you don’t support your co-stars, it affects their output. I am also a huge Dhanush fan, so I was tense because of that too.
You have completed 25 years, but most of it was doing smaller roles. Were there moments where you felt that it just wasn’t working out?
Cinema has never weakened me. When I came to the industry, after completing my schooling, I wasn’t driven by the thought of becoming a big star overnight. I only wanted to show my face. After I accomplished that, I wanted to say one dialogue; I didn’t even know acting or how to say a line properly. But after I said a dialogue, I wanted to say two. So, my wishlist kept on increasing. However, over time I understood I wasn’t doing everything right. And then the task was to correct that. Looking back, I don’t have stories of struggles. I got whatever I had wished for. Back then when I wanted to ride a cycle, I got a cycle. In the past, I didn’t wish to drive a BMW like now.
In my life, there were a lot of problems. When you are chasing your dreams, you have to face a lot of insults and endure pain. But that’s my personal life and it didn’t have anything to do with cinema. When I started out, I used to get Rs 50 as a junior artiste; over time, this increased to Rs 100 and Rs 200. That’s how it kept evolving.
In the beginning of your career, you had also worked as an assistant director. What prompted that shift?
Initially, I found out that I wasn’t able to do a good job acting. I figured out that unless I learn the technique, it was going to get tougher. So, I had worked for a year as an assistant director in TV serials and it gave me so much knowledge. I come from a village and I used to think that after the first show, theatres play a new film in the second show. That was my concept of cinema. I hadn’t even seen a camera in my early years. That’s where I started from.
2010 was the year when you first associated with Nayattu’s director Martin Prakkat for Best Actor. Do working with people who understand your passion influence the casting in any way?
It would be futile if people gave me a role just because of that. Friendship, talent and profession should remain separate. He gave me a small role in Best Actor. After that he didn’t offer me a character in ABCD and for Charlie, he didn’t think I would be apt for a particular role. But he’s my best friend and I stand by his decision to not give me roles back then because I should be offered characters when I am ready and able to pull them off. You could say that when I was eligible for such a role, I got it in Nayattu.
Anoop Menon, whom you had worked with in Cocktail in 2010, had said in an interview about how there were films where you had to go for several takes but eventually there would be magic when you got it right.
There were shots that had gone up to even 30 takes in Anoop’s films. He has played an important role in my life. He was the one who thought I could do humour roles and also made me think about cinema deeply. He is a teacher to me.
In the initial years, you had been part of a lot of Mammootty-starrers as a junior artiste. This year, in One, how did it feel to see yourself on screen in a pivotal character as his confidante?
I am still unable to talk to Mammukka and Lalettan (Mohanlal) comfortably as I do with the people around me. I still haven’t reached that state of mind. Even now when I see them, I get excited. But now I truly understand the greatness of what they have accomplished. Earlier, I used to clap in theatres for their movies without realising the effort they have put in. Their talent is exceptional. I believe they deserve the fanfare because if it wasn’t for them, Malayalam cinema wouldn’t have reached these heights. Even now, I show my children their movies because there is greatness in their art.
Like I had mentioned earlier with Dhanush, Mammukka is also someone who goes out of his way to make his co-stars comfortable. When I got tense, there were moments when he took me aside, calmed me down and made me perform. If he hadn’t done that then, I am sure there wouldn’t have been a Nayattu, Jagame Thandhiram or One in my life. Even Rajadhiraja happened because Mammukka made me comfortable.
If we look at the past five years, was the role Elvis in Ranjith Sankar’s Ramante Edenthottam that started the wind of change?
The funny thing about Ramante Edenthottam was that a lot of people told Ranjith not to cast me in the film. I don't know the exact reason why people would have said that, maybe they must have felt that I couldn’t convincingly pull off such a big role. But he decided to give me a main character that stood toe-to-toe with Chackochan in the movie.
You played complex roles in Joseph, Chola, Porinju Mariyam Jose and Nayattu. Do you invest a lot of time preparing for the characters?
Yes, you can’t get results if you don’t put in the work. If you are seeing good performances from me, you should believe that I have put in the effort for that; it doesn’t just happen. Chola, especially, was a huge learning experience for me. (Director) Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is a great filmmaker; he decides the cinematography, sound design and script of his films. He is a director who has won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, which only the likes of Christopher Nolan have won in the world. I think working with him has moulded me better. I also think that among the filmmakers I have worked with, he is the one that I haven’t been able to satisfy. He kept telling me that I can perform better. But I also have limits and I don’t think I was able to portray the role in Chola as he had expected.
It was not an easy character to play, was it? Because the intense gazes and body language had to do most of the talking.
If you believe that character depends solely on the actor, you lose the battle. Cinema is a director’s art; they are the ones that guide the story and the artistes. If it’s a good director, you don’t have to worry about anything because they will ensure they exact the performance out of you. Earlier, I never used to follow the work of directors. But now that has changed. More than actors, I am now a fan of filmmakers. Every director I have worked with is different and there’s a lesson to be learnt from everyone – what to do and what not to.
Joseph, which is a milestone in your career, almost didn’t happen. Tell us about how it worked out.
(Scriptwriter) Shahi (Kabir) first approached me but then he couldn’t find producers willing to back a film with me in it. So, he went to a lot of other actors. Three years later, the script came back to me and I decided to do it. Three producers had backed out after that and then I eventually decided to fund it myself. The movie released and not even in my wildest dreams did I expect that it would alter my future. It’s the biggest risk I took in my life – to produce a movie in which I played the hero. There wasn’t anyone to help me financially, except for my friend Sijo Vadakkan who loaned me some money. I made Joseph with whatever I had.
But that opened a lot of doors, with you getting a Special Mention at the 2019 National Award and winning the State Award for the Best Character Actor.
You have to believe in karma. Everybody in the movie – from the director and scriptwriter to the editor – had put in so much work and hence it got the reward and recognition. From overcoming the hurdles while shooting the movie to getting it to release in theatres, I had endured every pressure that a producer of a film goes through while making that movie.
The type of roles that have been coming to you after the movie has changed.
I am now being offered more lead roles. But what I look forward to now is working with exciting directors. It’s a trick that I figured out. When you work with good filmmakers, you enjoy the process too. Consequently, you learn and grow. If a big director offers me a small character, I would agree. Right now, I am working with a lot of new filmmakers. There’s a big bunch of brilliant youngsters who are ready to make their mark in Malayalam cinema; they are well-trained and know exactly the kind of movies that they want to make. My forthcoming associations are with some of them and I am thrilled about that. Peace, directed by Sanfeer K, is one such film. It’s a fresh movie, I play a totally different character and the making is again something I have not been part of before.
You are also part of Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramukham and Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik – both big projects. How was the experience working in these films?
I play important characters in both movies. I was excited about working with Rajeevettan because he has his own pattern of making films. I also play the main character in his next movie, which will go on floors soon. I also have Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Churuli and Pada, which again has Chackochan.
To complete 25 years in the industry is no mean feat, especially when there were periods of uncertainty. Tell us about your support system.
My family and friends have all been helping me out in their own ways. If one of them holds back, I will also stumble. So, I try to keep my support group minimal – with just six or seven people.
Now that you have starred in a big film like Jagame Thandhiram, what next?
I don’t ask myself that, I just keep moving. This is life and I want to explore what happens when it happens. I have two more Tamil movies coming up and almost 10 movies in Malayalam. Apart from that, I am waiting for the pandemic to subside to begin new projects.