Mention Unni Mukundan and what comes to mind are those chiselled abs that he’s flaunted on screen time and again. In his roller coaster ride as an actor, Unni has come a long way, but his determination and commitment to the art of cinema has helped him make a mark of his own. He The actor is now gearing up to share the screen with legendary Mammootty in Mamangam. So, everyone’s gets ready watch him perform some scintillating stunts on the big screen, we had a candid conversation with the actor about the mega project and his journey so far.
There’s a lot of buzz around your next film – Mamangam, how did the film happen for you?
This movie came to me roughly two and a half years back. That time I was not able to accommodate the dates. I started off my career with Mammookka (Mammootty) sir. I played the role of a muslim guy from an orthodox family. So, in the film we showed how people are brainwashed into joining Jihad but my characters resists that as he does not want his religion to dictate his life. Later, I starred in another film with Mammookka in which we were playing firefighters. My character in the film was very real towards his job and life. As an actor, I’ve always been lucky enough to receive good films when I’m starring alongside Mammookka. So, I always knew that Mamangam will be good. Also, in Malayalam cinema, you rarely get period movies or costume dramas as often as you see in other languages. With Mamangam also we’ve shelved out roughly Rs. 50 crore which his pretty huge for a Malayalam film. We’re trying to push the scales and put Malayalam cinema on a larger pedestal. So, this is very special to me because earlier I could not be a part of it and then two years later, it again came to me. I always feel “Dane dane mein likha hai khane wale ka naam”. I was convinced that I won’t be able to do it and two years later when it was offered again, I was prepared for it and I really worked hard. In fact, I feel now there are lot more period dramas than they were back then. Even in Bollywood, there’s Panipat, Tanhaji and all… so that phase of larger than life movies, showcasing historical events is slowly coming back.
It’s just been 3 days since film’s trailer was released and it has already hit about 3 million views. What kind of response have you received from your fans and friends from the industry?
I’m very happy with the response specially since it’s been in the process of filmmaking for almost 2 years now. Malayali audience in particular are very excited primary reason being that these kinds of films are not made very often. Also Mammookka is someone who’s done it more than one or two times. He’s done this in his mid 30’s in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989) and there was Pazhassi Raja (2000) which was based on the king Pazhassi and his battle against the British. So, it was so good to have him on the sets. Many times I would go up to him for advice and ask him that how would he go about this. For the rest of us, this was really new but for someone who’s done it before he’ll be aware of what is there and what can be done. It had to look authentic. I’m sure in my career ahead, I’ll be doing more of such roles but this will always be special to me.
Tell us about your character in the film?
In Mamangam, I play the character called Chandroth Panicker. Chandroth is this young rebel warrior who was very celebrated at the time. Like the film is about these people who fought against the Zamorin ruler. He was a ruler who had around 10 or 12 states under him. Valluvanadu is this particular Nair clan and they basically were warriors who didn’t want to give in to the Zamorin rulers and they fought against them. Mamangam was a fair in which rulers from different places would come and put up their offerings for the king. But, this group of people would fight against the Zamorins and they ended up becoming rebels. This was the challenge. Every 12 years, the fair used to return and they would put up an open challenge in which they were never defeated. So, the point of the film was to show how these men fought for their beliefs and refused to surrender to a system by force. This was a very challenging film for me as I had to adapt to the style of language which was spoken in that period. So, it was very different from movies I’ve done previously.
How was the experience of shooting with Prachi Tehlan in the film?
She comes across as very talented and enthusiastic. She’s got a great screen presence… and extremely tall. A while after I met her, I realised that she was really into sports. So, the sportsman spirit and all the good qualities that a sportsperson posses she brings it into her acting. Two completely different professions but the eagerness to learn and improvise helped her a lot. So, it was great to see someone who’s switched professions and still comes across as this very confident personality… it was very admirable.
Other than this, you also have Vishnu Mohan’s Meppadiyan lined up. It’s said that the film is based on true events. Comment on that.
Meppadiyan literally means the person and address mentioned above. It’s something that you see in the stamp papers. Like in letters we say, “As mentioned above”. So, you can figure that it is related to some paper work. So, I cannot reveal much about the film, but I can tell you that I play this guy named Jai Krishnan whose extremely bound by ethics. I always felt that why I chose the script was firstly because it’s a good script and secondly I connected with my character. In today’s times, it’s very hard to find someone like that. Jo zabaan ka pakka bolte hai na… he’s just like that and because of this the film moves ahead. He gets into trouble because he sticks to his ethics. All this has happened for real. And after playing a warrior in Mamangam, I had to cut down on all my muscle for this role. This character happens to be a mechanic so I had to work on my shape and body language.
As an actor, what’s your process of selecting a film or as they say choosing a script. Do you aim to pick a film that’s different from your previous work?
First I pray for the fact that I get a good script in hand. When you go through hundred, then you find one that you feel you want to be a part of. Also, it has to come in at the right time for you. Everything has to happen organically. So for me, first the script has to be good and secondly I’ve to see that there should be something for me to grow as an actor also. It’s a cumulative process. Sometimes what happens is that I genuinely want the movie to do well. You need not take the entire limelight. I always look at the bigger picture. I feel I’m nothing more than a part of the huge process. Over a period of time, I’ve understood that if anything goes wrong, it affects the film. So, it’s not a one man show. I pray that I get a good team that is as passionate for films as I am.
You made your movie debut back in 2011 with Tamil film Seedan, after working in the industry for all these years, what changes do u see in the kind of films and the audience perspective.
I think I was able to witness the transition from film to Digital. My 6 movies were shot in film and rest of them were in the digital platform. Now right from the process of filmmaking to the audience reaction… everything has changed. Everything is on sale now. If you pick up any subject and can narrate it properly, they’re willing to sit through. It’s not like they want just one type of a film. Also, there’s no image attached to a hero. He doesn’t necessarily have to look a certain way or be the ‘good guy’. It’s more content oriented now. Although, mass movies have always sustained, I’m not a big fan of them. They’re more of entertainment only. But, I feel that the parallel cinema is now more widely recognised than it was earlier.
The audience today is more open to consume different types of content.
Today the audience is even encouraged to consume regional cinema. They’re more accepting of it. It’s not the case that if I speak Hindi, I will only watch Hindi films or if I’m Malayalam, I will only watch Malayali films. People are willing to watch films even with subtitles now. I think they’re keen to explore the varied natures that India as a nation is bringing out with moves. I’m familiar with five languages. So, as an actor as well I would like to explore different cinemas as well and experiment with different characters, different kinds of movies and different dialects.
Any plans of featuring in a mainstream Bollywood film ?
I would love to. That’s one reason I’m rendering my voice for a period movie like Mamangam is like setting a profile and letting people know that we’re there. My colleagues like Dulquer Salmaan, who recently starred in few Bollywood movies and Prithviraj Sukumaran has done it even before him. So, there are many actors who are willing. Also the fact that I was born in Gujarat so I’m comfortable with Hindi as well as Gujarati. So, language for me is never a problem. I’m doing pretty well in Malayalam cinema and have done two films in Telugu as well. So, I want to just keep exploring and let time take its course.
Which Hindi film actor and filmmaker are you keen to work with if given a chance.
I like Anurag Kashyap, Kabir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani, Neeraj Pandey and even Nitesh Tiwari. So, there are many filmmakers whose work I enjoy and would love to have a collaboration someday.
I’m a huge fan of Hrithik Roshan. I always wanted to be a director. And if I could direct him one day it would really mean a lot to me. Let’s see there’s a lot of time but this one thing will always remain in my heart. I started off as an assistant director and gradually acting happened. Initially, I played the role of a villain later I did a supporting role and in my fifth film, I became a hero. So, it’s been a very gradual progression, I even wrote songs and did play back. So, it all just… evolved.
In your film Clint, you essayed the role of both of a 72 and 34 years old man, which was phenomenal. Hence, how difficult or easy it is for you to get into the skin of your character for any film, specially difficult roles?
So, these are real men. Joseph was Clint’s father and he was a prodigy. We wanted to portray him and the life of this man. It was one of the most disturbing films because for the first time in my life, I had a headache at the end. It was very disturbing to get the feel and try to understand the mind of the father who knew that his kid will not survive. I feel I was just too young for this. Maybe because my parental instincts have just started to begin. So, when I started to render those lines and feel kya scene hai yaar, this is so well written and immediately there was a flip side and it was no more a scene for me because it actually had happened. That broke me down. That’s when I decided I don’t want to get too into somebody’s personal space and make a move out of that.
How well or seriously do you take what critics have to say about any of your films. A lot of times, a film becomes such a big commercial success but critics don’t give it their nod, what’s your approach then?
It does affect a lot. I mean sometimes I hear them and I think that this is not how what meant but it’s comes across like that. Initially, I tried to explain it a lot. I kept justifying everything. But, as and when the years went by and the numbers grew, I found myself to be helpless. But even today, when I have film release coming up, I go through the comments and see what every damn person has to say because I want to know. All my efforts that I’ve put in is precisely for this. It may be good or bad but an opinion is an opinion. So, I’ve trained myself to sit through it. I feel when you’re critical of someone you’re trying to take away their uniqueness. People tell you should walk like this, talk like this, behave like this, sit like this… all those things takes away the uniqueness you bring. It’s not my good qualities but my shortcomings that make me who I am. More than me, I am worried what’s wrong with the film.
Are you more of a director’s actor or like to add your own perspective once you’re infront of the camera ?
If I look back today, all the success that I’ve experienced in my career it has happened when I’ve had a very tailored and monitored approach with my director always being heavily involved. I feel I tend to offer a lot and sometimes it’s not just needed. You don’t how much is too much. That is why a director is very important for an actor like me. So, if I had to put it, I’m a director’s actor knowingly or unknowingly. But, I also try to put in a lot of myself into the character. It’s not like I’m just following the notes. But, I need to monitor me… that’s how I like it. There’s a lot of back and forth going on with me and the director and I enjoy that thing. Unless and until the director says that the take is okay, I’m, willing to keep going.