Any conversation about contemporary Malayalam cinema cannot happen without mentioning Nivin Pauly. Breaking into films with the 2009 film Malaarvadi Arts Club, the 35-year-old actor has fast carved a niche for himself, consolidating his boy-next-door image with films like Neram, 83 and Oru Vadakkan Selfie. Premam and Bangalore Days — both of which connected with a pan-Indian audience — feature among the top grossers in Malayalam cinema and were instrumental in catapulting Nivin to the big league.
The former software engineer’s latest screen credit is Geetu Mohandas’s hard-hitting yet poignant Moothon, in which he plays a vulnerable gangster called Akbar whose younger brother sets off on an arduous journey to bring him back home. Moothon is the opening film at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival with STAR 2019, starting today. t2 chatted with Nivin on becoming Akbar, his pan-India connect and the turning point in his career.
Moothon opens in India at MAMI today. That must be special…
MAMI is the biggest platform for any film in India. It’s getting bigger every year and Moothon being picked to be the opening film at this year’s edition is a big thing for all of us on the team. It’s going to be my first time at MAMI and I am looking forward to it. Thanks to the jury for picking it and gratitude to Smriti (Kiran, the artistic director of the Mumbai Film Festival) who has been so welcoming to us. We are waiting for the premiere so that people in India get a chance to watch the film.
Before this, the reception at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) last month was amazing. I remember an old lady coming with her son to TIFF to watch the film and after it, she told me, ‘The film is so haunting… it’s the best film I’ve watched at TIFF. The hangover of the film is going to stay with me for days. And if there is one more show, then let me know. I just want to watch it again’. That is something I really loved.
What was it about the film that made you sign on? I read somewhere that you took some time to say ‘yes’, possibly because you hadn’t played a character like Akbar before?
Yes, the narration was very intense and powerful and I took a little while because I hadn’t played someone like this before. There was never any doubt that I would say ‘yes’ to the film, but I was on a kind of break and it took some time for me to get out of the hangover of the narration and give my nod. I was just revelling in the hangover that one gets after hearing a good script (laughs).
Did you do this film specifically to break the ‘common man’ and ‘boy-next-door’ image that you are known for?
Akbar is also a common man, a boy from the streets. It’s just that the character has a different thought process, the conversations that he has are very different. Most of my films have common-man characters and I find myself connecting to those kinds of scripts a little more than the others. Moothon was a script that just took it a few notches higher and so I didn’t want to miss it (smiles).
What did you have to do to get into the skin of Akbar?
We had an intense workshop with (casting director) Atul Mongia in Mumbai. It wasn’t a proper acting-acting workshop. It was more on the lines of how to be that character, how to channelise your energy to get into the skin of the character, how to approach it from different angles, how to give an edge to the scene. It was not just about acting, but also about how a different and more studied approach in workshops of this nature can help you become the character wholly and seamlessly.
Did the fact that Akbar is a vulnerable gangster who kind of subverts traditional notions of masculinity make you want to play him?
Yes. When I signed on, I was completely unaware of how to play this character. I told Geetu (Mohandas, the film’s director), ‘Geetu, let’s unlearn everything and start all over again on a clean slate’. That’s how we ended up meeting Atul and doing that workshop. We had some of the other actors in the film in that workshop and I think it really helped us. There are certain films in every character’s life that stand out when you look back many years later… Moothon is that film for me.
What did you have to learn and unlearn about the craft of acting to make this film?
The workshops, as I said, helped us a lot but how intense we had to be is something we only learnt during the process of shooting the film. It is an actor’s responsibility to deliver a character rather than waiting for the director to direct you. That effort should come from an actor and that’s something I learnt while making this film.
You’ve firmly established yourself as a dependable actor and a bonafide star down south. Is there a plan to test the waters in Mumbai anytime soon?
I would love to work in Bollywood (smiles). Let’s see what comes up… I am waiting for the right script and the right director.
Premam and Bangalore Days are the films that gave us a peek into Nivin Pauly the actor. Are those the films people talk to you the most when you interact with a pan-India audience?
Yes, mostly it’s Premam, Bangalore Days, Action Hero Biju, Kayamkulam Kochunni…. The starting points are Premam and Bangalore Days. These are the two films by which people everywhere I go recognise me. So all my thanks to Anjali Menon (who directed Bangalore Days) and Alphonse Puthren (director of Premam).
What do you think has been the turning point of your career?
I think the person who brought about the biggest turning point in my career is Vineeth Sreenivasan who introduced me in Malarvaadi Arts Club and then directed me in films like Thattathin Marayathu and Jacobinte Swargarajyam. All his films have given me memorable characters and immense popularity. I always say that whatever big films have happened in my career so far are all thanks to the start that he gave me.