Neelima Menon quizzes Sharaf U Dheen on his innings so far in Malayalam cinema.
Madhura Manohara Moham is his 37th film. Last year he headlined three: 1744 White Alto, Priyan Ottathilanu and Anandam Paramanandam, in addition to playing a crucial role in the Mammootty-starrer Rorschach. And even if these films (with the exception of Rorschach) didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze, Sharaf U Dheen, the actor, was on point. Strangely, the paradox is one that’s followed the performer throughout his career. Even when a film doesn’t bring in the numbers, his performance is always noticed. No one understands this better than Sharaf U Dheen himself, the reason why he’d rather be part of “economically viable” films in the present.
When you converse with Sharaf U Dheen, the first thing that strikes you is how madly passionate he is about films. Second, he has perspective. And third, he is incredibly self-effacing. So much so that you have to remind him it’s okay to occasionally gloat over your successes. Excerpts from an interview with the actor:
Madhura Manohara Moham is your 37th film. Have your priorities changed over time?
Definitely. Now I do look at how it will fare economically, especially if I am leading the film. At the end of the day, we can only hope for a good film, pick whatever comes to you. Of course, I am choosy, but it cannot be a possibility all the time. Not every film that comes to me was written keeping me in mind. I have done character, villain, and romantic roles (though I don’t think the latter really worked). Sometimes we get a 1744 White Alto or a Rorschach or a Priyan Ottathilanu.
Do you see a pattern in the kind of roles that come to you?
I do check if such a pattern is there. But I don’t want to repeat even a successful pattern. Perhaps what makes me different is that I have always tried to do something different. Learning on the job you can say. When I stop enjoying the process, then I would think I have gotten into the repetitive zone. After Aarkkariyam I was approached for a certain type of ‘silent’ role in female-centric films. But I am trying to observe where they have placed me from Varathan to here, and I am really thrilled by that shift in the image too. If I get a different version of Aarkkariyam I will do it. I think that’s what I am doing in this six-part web series for Hotstar. Once my current commitments are finished, I hope to jump from this loop.
But your performances in Ntikkakkoru Premandayirunnu and Neeyum Njanum were widely appreciated. Why would you want to jump from that romantic loop?
Sure it feels good, but I want to be part of commercially viable films now. I was confused, but people seem to like it. You can relate to my character who nurses an old romance in NP. We don’t have such powerful lovers like DDLJ’s Raj in reality. We have mostly faint-hearted lovers who still sigh over their old love. I was thinking of keeping away from romance for a while. But you never know.
When you watch yourself on screen, are you very harsh on yourself?
During the scripting, editing, and dubbing I think I come to a judgment. After that, I don’t really analyse my performance too much when it comes on screen. Since I am aware that I can’t make many changes in the final film, I don’t worry much about finding an alternative to a scene I performed.
What’s your process?
The story is my preparation. In cinema, as an actor, I know what my character will do in the next scene, but the audience doesn’t. So if I get too involved that might affect my reactions to the character. After one reading, I only read just before the shoot. I am not saying this is the correct method. This has worked for me.
Amal Neerad said the creepy antagonist Josy K Baby in Varathan, was a darker version of Girirajan Kozhi (Premam). From comic roles to an out-and-out villain, was it a surprise call?
I think Joy was a more aggressive version of Girirajan. True, Girirajan was hilarious, but he can also be called a stalker. It was Fahadh who first gave me this character’s narration. And it was dense. I felt like kicking him. Then Amalettan (Amal Neerad) lightened the narration. I was skeptical if that character would typecast me in cinema.
The scene where he is recounting his interaction on a school bus with the heroine Priya was downright unsettling. How did you do it?
Writers Suhas and Sharfu were so detailed. For instance, they specified that it should be on a bus ticket that I should write down my phone number and pass it to Priya. I have even asked them how someone can be in that space. I think they have interacted with such people. I won’t deny that I have seen such people around me as well.
Neerad’s heroes invariably get the best introduction scenes...
True. But having said that I think no male actor’s introduction can match up to a heroine’s introduction in cinema. In Varathan I thought the villain got a better intro than the hero. When Big B came in 2007, I watched it in a theatre, and I remember people wondering why Mammootty is walking so slowly. I was blown away and watched it at least 3-4 times in the theater. He is an amazing mainstream director. He would call me Josiyetta on the sets and used to communicate that he was enjoying my work, and therefore that character’s cockiness came organically.
What is your idea of updating yourself as an actor?
I don’t think actors can do much. And for someone with such a short career, I am not sure I have the correct answer as well. But then you have a Mammootty who seems to have mastered this over the years. Of course Lalettan as well. In Mammukka’s case more than his method of acting, it has to do with the kind of films he chooses. That’s where the updation should be.
Perhaps watching a lot of films will also help an actor.
Maybe. I am an avid viewer. And I do watch films on a daily basis. Since there is too much content, it is difficult to catch up. Now I do a lot of rewatches. Godfather is one film I keep rewatching. I even saw it in the theatre when it was recently released.
You debuted with Alphonse Puthren. You are part of his friend circle. What’s his magic with actors?
His freedom. He just hands over the stuff to us. And then he goes through his process and tries to tweak it. Sometimes I might not have the freedom to discuss scenes with other filmmakers like I get to do with Alphonse, but I still do. Having said that, I am not stubborn about getting things my way. There are filmmakers who will tell you that they will make something out of whatever you give them.
Was Anjaam Pathira emotionally exhausting?
At that time I was averse to violence. I remember saying that the quantity of blood on the knife needed to be reduced. In the film, he operates and takes out people’s hearts. The life of an actor is unpredictable. You don’t know what it makes you do.
Satheeshan in Rorschach looked so lived in. Be it the way he carried his tools or his body language or manner of speaking. Was it as easy as it looked?
Satheeshan is a local Sherlock Holmes. My understanding of him is that he has a false ego and thinks he has the right to know everything that happens in his village. He is cocky and arrogant. And everything was correctly instructed. It was relatable to some extent.
Does every character have to be relatable in some way to help you get into the act?
Yes. So far I have been able to relate to all my characters in some way. Or else it will be difficult to pull him off. I don’t need to like him, but I should understand him. Even if a character has many slow-mo scenes and swag, without understanding him, I might end up looking like a fool.
Are interviews too much stress these days? Having to weigh every word you say. Being politically correct.
Yes. I do get stressed. Though I don’t use my account, I do check social media regularly. I abhor seeing anything negative written about me. I don’t want that kind of publicity. I only want to be known through my films. I am someone who doesn’t even want to be featured in the trailers. Just see my film. I just want to exist within that time frame in your mind. Besides, being politically correct can be very subjective. We are still unclear (on a lot of things). Having said that, such a movement is very positive. We are still at a nascent stage of being politically correct. We are still at 10 Pro.
Earlier actors could just act and go but now their roles are manifold...
Maybe you can just see it as the changes that have come over time. Marketing is a part of our process. I often tell my friends that some actors are naturally charismatic. They will shine wherever they go, in whichever field they choose. That’s something inbuilt. I don’t want that attention. I would rather journey through the service roads and not highways.
You have worked with Aashiq Abu and Rajiv Ravi. What were the takeaways?
I am a huge fan, to begin with. I love their films. Be it Aashiq Abu, Rajiv Ravi, Sameer Tahir, Shyju Khalid or Anwar Rasheed. They brought in the new wave in Malayalam cinema. They created a friendly and democratic space. I don’t know if we are truly able to understand the gravitas of Rajiv Ravi’s films. They have been consistently making good movies and their motive is only that. Even if one of their films runs into a controversy, I think they will again make a film they want to make. After them, there was Alphonse Puthren or Abhinav Sunder Nayak, or Madhu C Narayanan who made something different. I love Arun Kumar Aravind’s films as well. In Tamil I love Mysskin, Bala, Ameer Sultan, Vetrimaaran, Balaji Sakthivel, Selvaraghavan and Mari Selvaraj. I am waiting for the chap who did Rocket Singh to make another film. Kathal was what led to a Sairaat.
Are you fine with asking for roles?
I did properly ask everyone once. Now they have to call me. I don’t want to be too annoying.
Are you still tense before your first shot?
It was there only till my first film. If I am tense I can’t act. But it is only when a film ends that I start annoying the director, wanting to know details about the film and edits and other particulars.
Does failure still affect you?
Of course. Not as an actor. But I will be concerned about my next paycheck and about my box office standing.