Saiju Kurup has been a name that has been associated with most of the hit films of the last few years. Over the course of his 14-year career, with his debut playing the protagonist role in Mayookham to playing Johnny Peringodan in his latest super-hit Driving Licence- he has constantly proven his versatility, seemingly switching between genres with ease. There have been roles he has breathed life into- he believes that Trivandrum Lodge was that turning point in his career. His personification of Arakkal Abu in the Aadu movie series was when he, for the first time, felt magic on screen.
He tells us at Cochin Herald about all this and more about his acting career, challenges, upcoming projects and his personal life as part of this interview with Neha Vinod.
Saiju Kurup: The Actor
What makes Saiju Kurup- the actor?
There are a few principles I follow. The first is to obey the filmmaker and the second, is punctuality. I stick to whatever time I’m given. If there’s any problem with my performance, I cover it up by being punctual. The filmmakers end up thinking, “Oh, at least this guy comes on time, so let’s look past his underperformance.”
I have been lucky to be a part of some really great movies last year. Last year, I had the maximum releases with 11 to 12 movies coming out, of which 8 of them were shot in 2018 only.
What is your personal favourite performance?
To pinpoint one character of mine would be difficult. If I really had to pick one, I believe my best character was Unnikeshavan from Mayookham, my first movie. I got to play two variations of characters in a single role and I had the three greatest singers of the Malayalam film industry playback singing for me- MG Sreekumar, Yesudas and P Jayachandran. It was also directed by the legendary filmmaker Hariharan. What more could I ask for?
Over the course of your 14-year career, what has been your most memorable experience?
Eight years after my first movie, I got my big break in Trivandrum Lodge, directed by V K Prakash and written by Anoop Menon.
I had not been working in the Malayalam film industry for almost one-and-a-half years as I was working on a Tamil movie then. At that point, I used to survive on whatever money they used to give me. The good thing was that that the shooting for the Tamil movie, Aadhi Bhagavan, went on for a year and a half. So, whenever people asked me what I was working on, I always had this movie to speak of! Even when I didn’t have any Malayalam movies on hand, I had a project that I could say I was working on because of the prolonged shoot.
When Trivandrum Lodge came to me, I was waiting for something and I wasn’t choosy- because I didn’t have anything to choose from. Whatever mainstream cinema came my way, I had to do that. By God’s grace, Trivandrum Lodge was the first thing that came to me.
I was attempting humour for the first time and I wasn’t sure if it would work out. Generally, in life, I never crack jokes; and if I try to, people do not laugh. Somehow, that character clicked and the movie clicked. I had the space of a protagonist in Trivandrum Lodge.
I stuck to polished roles in terms of how I looked, before this movie- the clean-shaved look with formal shirts adopting serious characters. People did not know I could look like this too; I lost a lot of weight at the time and I looked the part of someone like Shibu Vellayini, the character. The tall, slim, bearded guy wearing a lungi and kurta, roaming around; that had some connection with the audience.
From then on, I started getting movies at regular intervals. I think I made good use of the opportunity that V K Prakash gave me. That’s why I’m still surviving! (laughs)
Have you ever felt starstruck meeting, interacting or working with any performer?
I felt starstruck when I met Mohanlal for the first time. In my childhood, I would watch movies of Mohanlal and Mammooty. I cried a lot watching the movie Thalavattam because Nedumudi Venu kills Mohanlal in that. As an 8-year-old, I didn’t understand that it was a mercy killing and so I held an almost life-long grudge against Nedumudi Venu until I grew up and rewatched the movie!
Watching these Mohanlal and Mamooty movies, I used to think that it would be so good if they were my brothers; so I could show-off! In school, after morning prayers, we always used to narrate the pledge, “All Indians are my brothers and sisters” and I used to feel great that Mamooty and Mohanlal are Indians and they are my brothers!
Any role in the recent past that another actor has played that you believe you could have done justice to?
There were actually a lot of characters that I used to think that, given a chance, I would have liked to do. If you had asked me this question two or three years back, I would have listed out 20-25 characters of various actors. But, now I think that we cannot recreate the magic of what other actors have done. Once an actor has delivered their performance and the audience has accepted it, the same character cannot be portrayed in a remake by anyone else. No one else can create the same magic in that character.
The same case applied to me as well, if a movie with a character I have played gets remade with someone else playing my role, even if they deliver a better performance than me, people tend to like the original better always.
So now, I don’t have dreams of doing some characters that others have done.
Favourite Malayalam Movie?
There are quite a lot- but my first pick would be Sargam. It was a story that every son goes through in school years. When I was in school, I used to be an above-average student who used to play a lot of cricket. My father used to always ask me, “Why don’t you study?” while my mother used to get emotional and ask me to study.
During my 10th-grade board exams, a day before the finals, I went to play a plastic ball competition, ten kilometres away from home. My parents expected me to just pass, possibly fail; once the results came, I scored distinction.
The father in Sargam, played by Nedumudi Venu, felt that his son was a useless guy and one fine day, he begins singing better than his father, giving him goosebumps. Actually, I think every son goes through this. Between a father and son, at least in my generation, there was friction between the two.
What has been your most challenging role to date?
There have been quite a few. One was the Dulquer Salmaan starrer Njaan, in which the dialogues were long, it was a political language and was based in the 1900s.
Then, I did a movie called Karmayogi which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by V K Prakash and it was my first movie with him. The movie has scenes of Kalaripayyatu in it. VKP called and told me that he was casting me in the movie when I was waiting for a break and told me that I had to learn Kalaripayattu and told me to begin classes.
I had 24 days to prepare before the shoot began on the 26th day in Kanhangad. My wife took me to a Kalari class in Nettoor and enrolled me. She used to wake me up daily and I would leave the house. I’m a lazy guy, basically. The first day I went there, I saw people practising Kalari in the dim 25-volt bulb lights. I like well-lit rooms and I wasn’t getting a positive feel there!
So, 5.30 am was my class. I used to leave my house at 5 am and directly go to Muruga’s Cafe in Maradu and wait there till it opens. I used to be the first customer there when it opened for those 20 days. I would have puttu and kadala and a glass of tea, only to return to my office at 6.30 am to sleep. I would keep a spray in my office to give the effect of sweat and at around 8 am, I’d wake up, spray myself with sweat and head back home.
The problem was that my wife used to think I was struggling and working out a lot, so she used to try and feed me. But I had already eaten and slept too. I had to still somehow manage to eat.
Once I headed to Kanhangad, a doctor who would give the choreography on location gave us practice for those steps that he wanted on screen thankfully. We did a good job, I guess. The movie did not do well at the box-office. So, that was another movie that I had to something extra, which I didn’t do, and I had a lot of tension while shooting for the role.
Then was Trivandrum Lodge, where I was handling humour for the first time. The first day on location, several actors on set came up to me and asked, “Saiju, you’re playing Shibu Vellayini? Oh, this is a GOOD character.” Another said, “Saiju, if you enact this character well, you will be known as an actor before Trivandrum Lodge and after.” So, the pressure was building up. The challenge was talking in a Trivandrum-dialect, one that I wasn’t very comfortable with back then. But somehow, I managed.
Then came Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 which was really tough for me. In Payyannur slang, full words are not said. Another challenge was that this movie was sync sound, so there was no prompting. I had a dental appliance in my lower jaw to give an appearance of fuller cheeks to match the potbelly.
Do you have a process or method you use to prepare for your roles?
There’s no method as such. I will soon be doing my 104th movie and I have prepared for only one character- which was for Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. I played the role of an oncologist, Dr Saiju, in that. The director of the movie Althaf Salim gave me the reference of an oncologist working in Aster Medcity. An appointment was fixed and I decided to spend a little time with him to pick up on the mannerisms and body language during consultations. But, because of patient confidentiality, the doctor did not allow me to sit for the patient consultations. In a 45-minute appointment, he spoke to me without patients around as I asked him questions and observed his body language.
Other than this, I have not prepared for any character- not even Arakkal Abu. I haven’t seen a character like Arakkal Abu in real life. I may have seen a Prasannan or Pappan or Shibu, but no one quite like Arakkal Abu. It was a caricature and I didn’t know how to perform. I have heard a few actors in interviews say that in front of the camera, some magic happens. I used to think that was just something they said. I believed that the camera just picked up what we were performing. But as I played Arakkal Abu, I felt the magic happening. His controlled laugh with his mouth closed and his cry was so similar with a thin line between the two. Arakkal Abu made me believe that this magic happens!
Even in Driving Licence, the role was well-written but people really appreciated this certain mannerism I had. (He demonstrates by pursing his lips and stifling a laugh) The funny thing is that wasn’t planned- my lips would go dry after saying all those dialogues and I couldn’t laugh and that’s how I ended up doing that! Ultimately, in the theatre, it looked good for that character. That was magic!
What do you think is the highlight of your career?
Actually, that moment hasn’t come yet- I’m excited and happy about everything that has happened so far and all that happens when my movie and character becomes a hit. I am happy when people call or message me appreciating my work, but THAT moment hasn’t come yet. I think that’s because I’m yet to explore myself as an actor. Once that moment comes, I would have explored myself fully and then, I can’t do my next movie.
When did you decide to become an actor?
I was not passionate about movies and getting into the movie industry was not something I tried to do.
I was working for Airtel and I happened to meet MG Sreekumar on a sales call when he asked me if I would like to act. I thought about it for a fraction of a second and said yes because I thought that if I would do one movie, then people would recognise me and my sales would get easier!
He told me that the director Hariharan was making the movie with newcomers and I assumed it would be a supporting role. He then told me that for the lead character, they needed someone like me- 6 feet tall, fair, big eyes, long nose, aged between 20 to 25, unmarried. I fit that character just right but the only thing I lacked was acting!
Hariharan Sir told me not to worry and said that if there was even a small spark, I will make it big. I gave it a try- I acted like how he would show me. Once the cameras were rolling, he used to say, “look at my hands, look here, follow my hand here”. Those were all reactions to what the character opposite me was saying. I didn’t know why I was doing those things, and then when I watched the movie, I understood why. That’s exactly why, in Mayookham, I was okay as per my performance.
I was not at all good in my second or third movie. I earlier believed that being a good actor was only about delivering lines correctly. Then, slowly after 20+ movies, I got the rhythm for performing.
Tovino always asks me, “Before Trivandrum Lodge, what medicine did you take?!” (laughs)
What projects are in the pipeline?
The first one is Forensic with Tovino. Second is Mohankumar Fans (Mikacha Nadan Mohankumar) with Kunchako Boban, directed by Jis Joy. The third movie is Upacharapoorvam Gunda Jayan, directed by Arun Vaiga. Then, I also am doing a children’s film called Superhero where I play a PT teacher. Other than these, I am working with my favourite director VKP again on our ninth movie together.
I have done the most number of movies with V K Prakash. I did around eight national commercials for brands like Kellogs, Kurkure, Prestige with him. Do you know how I got my break from VKP? It all started with a phone call. I was sitting here, in my office, around 10 years ago. I took VKP’s number from one of the PRO’s in the industry, called him and told him that I wanted to work in one of his commercials. He told me to send a few photographs over mail and three months later, I got an opportunity to work with him for a Kurkure commercial with Simran. Then, I did Karmayogi, then two ads, followed by two movies and now, I am going to be doing my ninth movie with him!
So, now when a newcomer asks me for advice, I tell them to ask for work- to someone who can give us work. All it took was a phone call costing lesser than 50 paise. Because of that call worth 50 paise, I reached here.
What parts do you like (and dislike) about the whole process of making a movie?
My favourite part is definitely shooting. My least favourite part would be promotions! (laughs) But that’s something we have to do.
What do you see yourself doing in the next ten years? Acting or branching out into other dimensions of film?
I would definitely like to see myself as an actor ten years down the line. I can guarantee that for another two years, I will be here. What happens is if stagnancy comes, there’s nothing we can do!
One thing is for sure, I want to branch out by starting a production company. I don’t want to branch out as a director or cameraman or anything else that is creative but would love to do at least one movie as a producer.
What are your opinions on a social media presence for stars nowadays?
Social media is very good for promoting movies. Other than that, I use it to get feedback and reviews. People generally do not give bad reviews about us upfront.
(I interject and ask if he always takes these reviews in a positive light)
If I wasn’t positive about all these reviews, I wouldn’t have been here! I was always optimistic about these trolls. It is only because of this optimism that I am sitting here today- there’s a lot of humiliation and insult. I didn’t have an option but to deal with the criticism- I knew that I couldn’t go back to sales- the pressure was too high and I realised that cinema was the only way that I could survive.
Generally, people say that comedy is the more difficult genre to act in. Do you prefer comedy to other roles?
I love playing supporting actor roles that do not have humour- it is the easiest thing to do.
Humour is very difficult.
We think if we say this line, we will get laughs in the theatre but that is not the case. I know that I have a limitation on comedy. So, I depend on scriptwriters who write humorous characters for me. All the movies I have done in a comedic role have been well-written. That is why it became successful. People say I’m trying to be humble when I say this.
Let’s take the recent Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 or Driving Licence, for example. If any other actor was playing my role, I know I still would get entertained and laugh watching them portray those characters. No one is irreplaceable here- everyone can be replaced. It doesn’t mean that people will only laugh if Saiju Kurup says that dialogue. I am not generating humour, the writer has generated that humour.
How do you generally pick your scripts?
The first thing I do to pick a script is to see if I get entertained. After that, I look at my character and see if I can entertain people somehow. Entertainment can be given to an audience by making them laugh, cry, scaring or thrilling them. Some entertainment factor should be there throughout the movie.
Saiju Kurup: Off-Camera
What’s a day in the life of Saiju Kurup like?
If there is no shoot, I wake up, get my son ready for school and drop him off. Then, I have some breakfast, speak to my mother and wife for a while before heading off to the office. I usually will have some meeting or the other scheduled- mostly to hear scripts. After this, I head back home for lunch and a power nap. Once my daughter is back from school, I just ask her about her day. She is very busy and heads off to classes and to play, not long after. I come back to the office and usually have a few more meetings. Then, I return home, have a very light dinner and sleep off.
Sometimes, during the day if I get time, I play cricket with my son inside the flat. We live a very normal life!
There are times I have to do those duties that every husband does. Today, for example, I was dubbing and my wife calls and informs me that gas is over. She instructs me to call and get a new cylinder soon or no food will be made at home! So, in between dubbing, I had to call the gas people and get that arranged. (laughs)
If not an actor, what would you see yourself as?
I would have been in sales only, probably in a regional business head profile- but I wouldn’t have been happy about it. I just love my life now.
Usually, people say that they would love to go back to their childhood and all that but I don’t want to. I’m 40-years-old now and I’m enjoying what I am doing right now! This is the best!
The difference between Saiju Kurup on and off-camera.
The main difference is that the person off-camera is always the same. In front of the camera, it keeps changing.
Off-camera, I am an introvert who is trying to improve my social skills. This “introvert-ism” pulls me back from attending parties and gatherings. I do not like photo sessions at all- I really dislike posing in front of the camera. But that is something I HAVE to do. During photoshoots, I am always irritated inside, but I do not let it show. I always want to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible. Hiding that irritation is a part of learning social behaviour. But sometimes, I really can’t keep it in! (laughs)
How do you manage your work-life balance?
Somehow, I manage. But my wife does say that there’s an imbalance- in my work-life balance. That’s when I make an effort to balance it. But within a week or so, it’s back to how it was.
It was very good that I got married at the age of 24. A lot of changes happened in me, because of her. I picked up a lot of good habits. Anupama, being the daughter of a Colonel, followed strict dining etiquette and had the habit of thanking others when they do something. She taught me how to respect females. Not that I ever disrespected females, I never showed how I respect them. Small things like opening a car door for a woman are things I have picked up. Now, these things have become a habit for me.
Even brushing my teeth at night and flossing, these are good habits I have picked up from her. Now, when I pack my bags, floss is the first thing that goes in.
Since this is an article for the Cochin Herald magazine, we wanted to know what is it that you like most about this city.
Basically, I like living in a city. The best city in Kerala is definitely Ernakulam. We have all the facilities; whatever we ask for, is there here. I am used to Kochi, so I can proudly boast about it.
Saiju Kurup is a doting husband and father to Mayookha and Aftab- and he is very pleased that he could give his children better names than his!
Saiju Kurup signed off the interview by urging aspiring actors to be optimistic and persistent.