A moment in my journey

Print edition : October 09, 2009

Prakash Raj:I am in cinema because it is basically the journey of my life.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

PRAKASH RAJ won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in the Tamil movie Iruvar in 1998. But this time it is double delight: the National Film Award for the Best Actor for his performance in Kanchivaram, which depicts the life and struggle of weavers of the silk capital of India, and the Best Feature Film Award for the movie. Prakash Raj, known for his frank views, speaks on a wide range of issues in this interview to Frontline. Excerpts:

What does this national award mean to you? Please tell us about the Kanchivaram experience, and your journey through Tamil cinema and Indian cinema?

In the context of our country, the national award for any actor or film-maker is a very important recognition in his lifes journey, [and one] which will probably be a milestone. For some it may be the goal, but for me it is a moment in the journey where you are recognised for your work. It turns into a milestone and you continue the journey.

Coming to my journey in Tamil cinema and Indian cinema, as an actor or now as a producer, for me it so happens that I am in cinema because it is basically the journey of my life. As you understand, we do not come from a culture where we are brought up with cinema as a profession in mind. Probably this may happen in the next generation; or a few of the present generation whose parents are in cinema are being nurtured from a young age. But in most cases it is a search for an identity to express yourself. There is no known history of anybody having been in the field of arts in my family. For me it is more like having stumbled into the profession. Now probably you share yourself and as you gather momentum, you turn into whatever you are. And in a matter of 15 to 17 years you look like a veteran in cinema.

You have described Vengadams role in Kanchivaram as the most intense and powerful character you have done. What makes you feel so?

I am not one of those actors who do a lot of homework. When you see the film, you can see there is a dilemma between ideology and life. It is a turmoil, between the love for his daughter, his dream, and his ideology. See, when you start thinking about all these things and looking from all these dimensions, it is a different world where probably I am more informed as an actor.

Though it was a piece of information before I entered the role, I forget it later because, for me, when I approach Vengadam, it is a human story. So I tell the director, Priyadarshan: Priyan, you continue to direct. Put it in order because for me the challenge is to start the film on the first day and finish it on the 30th day. But through this 30-day journey, you intend to portray a life that spans 20 years. So, for me, I start proceeding and understanding as he shoots in the chronological order.

When I enter this role, I am empty as in a Zen masters story because that is where the director can fill in me whatever he needs and it is all total surrender. Do what he wants, and just add to it your experience as an artist.

You have done very serious roles, as in Iruvar and Kanchivaram. At the same time you seem to fit into chirpy roles too, as in Mozhi and Gilli

The scene where the protagonist, on parole, feeds his paralysed daughter poisoned food.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It is as simple as that: I am an actor and I am expected to be an actor. I am requested to be an actor and I am paid to be an actor. I am committed to being an actor. So I just do the same in intensity or perception or the time spent. The time I spent on Kanchivaram is as much as the time I spent on Iruvar or on Mozhi or on Abiyum Nanum or on Gilli.

It just so happens in the context of India that we need to balance between the commercial and artistic needs. Around 99 per cent of the time we only entertain, to make a living out of it. There I take upon myself a social responsibility, within me. My conscience says, Dont do films that are crass or that cross the border into obscenity in my perception, so that I do not earn out of it. But if it is harmless entertainment, it is fine.

At the same time, an actor is not a chooser but a beggar, because he is not cinema. An actor can never be cinema. An actor may be one of the major colours of a painting.

You have placed on record that your bread and butter is commercial cinema. Still you strive to make different movies.

Both of them are bread and butter for me. But one part of the bread and butter is for the stomach and the other is for the brain. Two different types of hunger I have in life. You cant expect me to do ten Kanchivarams in a year. I will go bankrupt.

You are considered a great producer to work with. You have been paying tributes to your directors for shaping you as a good actor. When are you going to don the directors role?

I never knew that I would be an actor. Now I am one. I never knew that I was going to be a producer. Now I am one. It is kicking within. Soon I will be a director.

Kanchivaram revolves around the communist ideology and how it impacts the lives of weavers

Communist ideology is one part of the story. But for that matter no ideology in the country or the world has been followed to its complete sense because there has always been a dilemma between human dream and ideology. And that is what happens here too.

Is cinema a mere mass entertainer or an instrument of social change? Is it not difficult to strike a balance between the two?

How do you see painting? How do you see writing? How do you see sculpture? Everything is an art form. Over the years, you document the person behind the works when you talk about great writers, sculptors or film-makers. Cinema as a medium has come from outside. We have taken it as it is a very powerful tool. But here again, 90 per cent of the time we are trying to use this medium for doing the same larger-than-life characters. It has to transcend the present stage of catering to the taste of the audience and grow to its full form and become a medium of expression. It is a long process. Till then you will have to continue to balance and work.

You have drawn a parallel between the creative writers Lankesh and Jayakanthan. Do you have any proposal to make films based on their works?

Drawing a parallel between creative writers Lankesh, Adiga or Jayakanthan, or Chalam, speaks of my perception of literature. It need not be necessary that their works should be turned into films. But my perceptions can be turned into films because they are in a different form altogether.

You are an actor who is quite frank about his views. Has this got you into trouble in this sensitive industry? Do you think an actor needs to be diplomatic?

It depends on his strength, on his own integrity. It depends on the persons comfort level. But I would say, Dont be too diplomatic as one day a spade will have to be called a spade.

You are regarded highly for your ability to do different roles. How do you think your theatre background has helped? Would you still like to act in a stage play?

Yes. Theatre has helped me. My reading of literature has helped me. Theatre and reading of literature always help you in understanding or sensitising your perception. These are very important things for any actor. But there are certain actors who are gifted. These born actors do not need such things. Well, going back to theatre, in my journey I have come from stage to cinema and I am still in awe of this magic. I dont want to go back for the sake of going back. I wont say going back is wrong. But for me I am still in awe of this journey. When I feel like, I will go, or I may never go if I dont have the time in my life.

History has shown that cinema, which is a mass-based performing art, cannot remain unaffected by the socio-political atmosphere prevailing in the world. Would you like to comment?

It has to reflect, it has to document, it has to dissect, it has to evaluate, it has to discuss and it has to express. But there again it will find its purest, strongest expression only when this medium gets into the hands of responsible, sensitive and aggressive individuals who are guided by conscience. So, it depends on how many of us individuals of our country become morally responsible and would like to master this tool and use it this way.

Actors Rajnikant and Kamal Haasan have time and again appealed to political leaders not to bring politics into cinema.

Politics is different from cinema. But if an actor is totally committed to politics, he can use it to express his ideology. But dont misuse the love and affection the people have for an art. Dont distort it into a political vote. By doing so, you are not making a voter more conscious about his right and more sensitive to his right. But rather, you are using his weakness. It is like somebody giving you a hundred rupee note to buy something and you purchase something else and tell the person that this is what you should have.

As an alternative to mainstream commercial cinema, can leading film stars help parallel cinema?

That is the only way in this country because it is the responsibility of the already popular film stars. Otherwise, it will take a long time for parallel cinema to find its feet. It is the responsibility of all sensible and popular actors and technicians to make a conscious decision to devote some time to parallel cinema.

Recently you stated that you are an agnostic. How do you see attempts to divide people and let loose violence in the name of religion?

For me religion is a personal thing, like sex. It is an individuals belief. So, being a believer or non-believer does not matter as long as you are not going to force your views on others. Cultures have come in to help people live as a community and not to divide them. Religion should make you human. If it forces you into making moral judgments, it is wrong. It is the animal in us that is using the name of religion, caste, wealth and power. All these things should make the human in you more beautiful and more colourful. They should not make you say that you are better than others.

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