In this candid interview, the fast-rising star speaks about his films, handling criticism, misogyny on screen and more.

Dont believe in insulting women on screen to get claps The Tovino Thomas interviewWikipedia/Tovino Thomas
Flix Interview Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 15:03

At 29, Tovino Thomas is among Kerala's fast-rising new-generation stars who value the roles they play over building a certain image with the audience. From essaying the antagonist to doing supporting roles and playing a hero with grey shades, Tovino has made a place for himself in the competitive Malayalam industry.

A qualified engineer, Tovino was a model who always dreamt of making it big in cinema – a childhood desire he never expressed to anyone till his college days. However, he says that apart from the experience of standing in front of a camera, modelling does not really offer one a stepping stone into the film industry.

"I still had to approach people and ask for opportunities," he says. "It wasn't easy to get chances in modelling and it wasn't easy to get good films either. Just as the previous generation of actors have stories to tell about how they had to starve to make it big in cinema, this generation too has its own tales of hardship. Maybe we don't have to drink pipe water like they did, but we have our own struggle."

Mathan from Mayaanadhi

If the commercial success of Oru Mexican Aparatha and Godha announced his arrival as a star, it was Mayaanadhi which established him as a serious contender to the top rung in the Malayalam film industry.

Speaking about the success of this poignant film on love and loss, Tovino says, "It's difficult to predict when you're doing a film whether it will be a hit or a flop. But certain films, you can tell when you're doing it that this one will be good. A good film is not ascertained by whether it was a hit or a flop. There are many factors which contribute to it."

The last sequence in Mayaanadhi, in which Mathan (Tovino) refuses to blame the woman he loves (Appu – Aishwarya Lekshmi) for betraying him is in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of the femme fatale in pop culture.

Commenting on this, Tovino says, "Mathan truly loves Appu. In fact, he realises that she's the only one whom he's really loved. Even when he wanted to escape, it was with her that he wanted to do so. Mathan also knows that whatever he's done until then isn't all correct. He's aware of his mistakes. Till a point, we see Appu as a weak character, who is dependent on him. But then, she becomes a strong person who can live without him – that's what happens. And it is Mathan who wants to be with her desperately. If the love between them is true, then it is only fair that Mathan sees what happened from her perspective."

Despite earning rave reviews, there were many social media users who said they wouldn't watch Mayaanadhi. This was a fall-out of the Kasaba controversy during which the Women in Cinema Collective came under fire from disgruntled Mammootty fans. Mayaanadhi was directed by Aashiq Abu, who is married to actor and WCC member Rima Kallingal.

"Cinema isn't the most important thing in the world. It is for me, but not for everyone. It is up to people whether they want to watch it or not – you can't tie anyone up in the theatre and make them watch it. But the film has completed over 60 days in theatres. Such campaigns may affect a film in the beginning, but they can't stop a good film from doing well," he says.

On Aami and freedom of expression

Tovino's next release after Mayaanadhi was Kamal's film Aami, based on the life of the fiery Kamala Das, also known as Madhavikutty. The film was mired in controversy before its release and has received mixed reviews.

Tovino, who plays Lord Krishna, Madhavikutty's (Manju Warrier) friend and lover, says he was concerned about playing such a role, but not because of the opposition to the film.

"For me Krishna, Jesus Christ, Nabi ... all are the same within me. Each of them is a supernatural source of positive energy. I dislike attempts to divide people on the basis of religion. When I got the role, I thought it wouldn't be easy for the audience to accept it. They're likely to make fun of it. So that was a big challenge for me. How do you bring a supernatural feel to the character without alienating the audience? The Sri Krishna in the film is part of Madhavikutty's imagination; he's her first and last lover. It wasn't to be a Krishna with a flute and peacock feather. It had to be an approachable Krishna who'd still be acceptable to the audience," he says.

However, the reception to Aami has been lukewarm, with the producer of the film attempting to remove Facebook posts which were critical of it. Tovino says he was unaware of this when it happened, but believes nevertheless that there has been a deliberate attempt to scuttle the film.

"If the film had been an uncensored version of Madhavikutty's life, would the censor board have passed it?" he asks. "If it had received an 'A' certificate, would it be possible to watch the film as a family? When you make a biopic, it's not necessary to represent every single thing on screen. This is an art form and it needs to keep a certain balance."

Tovino asserts that people have the right to critique a film and acknowledges that pointing out genuine flaws is useful to the makers and the artists. However, he adds that criticism should be constructive and not insulting – and it should be about the film and not politcised.

"Let's say I don't know anything about Kathakali. I watch a Kathakali performance and slam it because I didn't understand it, how will it be?" he counters. "I'm not saying they need a degree ... but they should have some knowledge of the art. When it comes to films, there are so many kinds of films and people's tastes differ."

Pointing out that Madhavikutty's sister had watched the film and said she felt that she was watching her sister onscreen, Tovino says there's nobody who'd known the controversial writer more.

"There are many who feel the negative criticism against Aami was an orchestrated campaign. There were people who started saying it wouldn't be good even before it released. Within one or two days of the film coming out, there were many reviews that people felt were biased. Maybe that's why the producer took such a step – I don't know. It certainly wasn't me who told him to!" he says.

Misogyny in cinema

After the Malayalam actor assault case which shook Kerala in February last year, there has been a lot of conversation on misogyny and sexism in the film industry. The WCC, for its part, has been vocal about its intention to critique such representations on screen – a position that has not gone down well with the rest of the industry.

Tovino's take on misogyny on screen is nuanced.

"I don't agree with the idea of deliberately showing a woman in poor light just to get applause from the audience. But if the story demands such a scene, the film should have another one that balances this out before it ends," he says.

Elaborating on this, Tovino adds, "Take Devasuram, for instance. The hero in the film behaves very insultingly towards Bhanumathi (Revathi), but later in the film, he recognises that what he did was wrong and apologises to her. So what does the film say? It recognises that his behaviour in the beginning was bad. Then there's a transition and he becomes a good person. It is to show this transition that the first scene was there, not to deliberately insult a woman. If the first scene wasn't there, the impact wouldn't be as powerful. So if the story needs it, yes; but there should be a politically correct scene later to balance this."

Tovino notes that though he is a man, the women in his life are important to him, "I have a mother, elder sister, wife ... I have a daughter. So how can I act in a film that insults women purely for commercial reasons? As an actor, I will do what the script demands, but I'm conscious that it should be balanced out."

Entering Tamil cinema

Tovino will soon be seen as the villain in Balaji Mohan's Maari 2, acting with Dhanush, Sai Pallavi, and Varalaxmi Sarathkumar. Asked if he doesn't mind playing the villain just as he's establishing himself as the lead, Tovino laughs. "I don't think about all that. I started my career by playing the villain. As an actor, I only look at whether there's scope to perform in any role I do. That's the only criteria I've ever had," he says.

And it shows – Tovino looks quite distinct and different in every role he has done so far, paying attention to the styling, body language and make-up in equal measure.

Before Maari 2, Tovino's first Tamil film Abhiyum Anuvum will hit the screens on March 9. Asked if he felt the sensibilities in the two industries were different, Tovino says, "I didn't feel that way. I'm a director's actor. I try to do what the director wants and balance it with what I myself can bring to the role."

Tovino has dubbed for himself in Abhiyum Anuvum.

"I'm not very fluent in Tamil like a native speaker but I do feel that I can manage the language," he says with a smile.

Tovino has also starred in ‘Ulaviravu’, a single from Gautham Menon's stables, along with popular TV anchor and actor Divyadarshini.

"I know Menon sir quite well and I really like his films. He told me about the theme and I liked it. I had seen ‘Koova’, which came out earlier, and thought it was interesting, so I decided to do it," he says.

On family

A busy actor, Tovino is also father to a two-year-old. Asked how he balances his work with family, he says, "It's for their sake, too, that I'm doing films. Whenever I get a gap, I spent time with them."

Though he travels quite a bit for shoots, Tovino says that even if he gets two days off, he makes it a point to spend it at home.

"All my vacations are with my family," he says.

Tovino's upcoming projects include Theevandi, a political satire in which he plays a chain smoker. He's currently shooting for Madhupal's Oru Kuprasidha Payyan and Maari 2.