Tovino Thomas is on a high. The actor has two releases on December 21 - Maari 2 in Tamil and Telugu, and Ente Ummante Peru in Malayalam. This means that people in four states would be watching Tovino on the big screen. Interestingly, he's playing the hero in the Malayalam film and the villain in the Tamil/Telugu one.
However, anyone who has followed Tovino's career trajectory would know that such labels mean little to the actor. All he cares about is the role and the script, not the image that he's building in the minds of the audience.
TNM caught up with Tovino for a chat on his upcoming films.
Maari 2 and the villain with a brain
"I don't want to be typecast as the villain," Tovino begins, when asked about whether he relishes playing negative roles. "All I want is to not play the cliched hero. I'd rather be a different villain than a cliched hero. I like portraying different characters with different shades. I don't want to be the good guy always. If I keep doing the good guy character all the time, I'm limiting my calibre to play the bad guy. Why would I do that?"
Tovino is playing Beeja or Thanotos in Maari 2 and his look in the film is pretty unusual - he sports tattoos, a silver tooth, and dreadlocks. Some would say he resembles Jack Sparrow!
With a laugh, Tovino says, "There is a back story for this character and there's a reason why he's kept this look. It's not just for the sake of it. Not everyone with dreadlocks looks like Jack Sparrow! I won't agree that he looks like him. People can say that Jack Sparrow looks like Bob Marley. There's a reason why he has tattoos, dreadlocks, and the silver tooth."
In recent Tamil films, we've seen that the villain is a strawman who keeps praising the hero and is easily defeated. Will Maari 2 have a stronger character, considering Tovino has signed up for it?
"Actually, I have only four scenes with Dhanush in the film. The rest of my scenes are all either individual or with other artistes. It's a villain with a brain, not someone who just comes to get punched. He has a flashback, justifications for why he's doing what he's doing. When he confronts Maari, there are many incidents which lead up to it. The villain has a separate track in the film. I do want to talk more about it but it will end up being a spoiler," he says.
Tovino has dubbed in Tamil for himself. And although he cannot speak the language fluently, he's quite familiar with it, having studied in Coimbatore.
"I'm scared to speak in Tamil onstage, but movies I can," he says.
Ask him about Lucifer, the Mohanlal film that Prithviraj is directing, and Tovino is tight-lipped.
"Nobody is allowed to talk about their role in Lucifer. Mine is an important role. It's very short, but an important role. I have 5-6 scenes but they are integral to the film," he says.
Is that going to be a negative role, too? And does he have a scene with Mohanlal in the film? He says no to both.
"I can't reveal more. Only the first look poster and teaser of the film have come so far. They want to maintain the secrecy about the film, so I can't tell you more," he says.
Twisting arms, kissing on screen
In Maradona, Tovino plays a hero with a negative shade. Nothing unusual, considering several of our top rung stars have done it. But when these actors do such roles, they tend to draw the line when it comes to doing certain things on screen - like twisting a small girl's hand. Not Tovino.
So was it hard for him to do that disturbing scene, acting like such a cruel person to a cherubic child?
"I didn't actually twist her arm!" he exclaims. "I just acted like I did. Being that character, I didn't think it was a problem. But yes, if I'd been asked to slap a child or touch her face or something, I'd have said no. I'd have asked if we can't do it in another way. I'm just pressing her hand hard in the scene and it's not me who's doing it, it's the character. I've never done that to a child in real life, maybe I've twisted some people's hands when I was in school. It's Maradona who did it, not me."
Tovino adds that as an actor, he found the scene to be rewarding.
"It's a character defining scene and it's my job to listen to the director. I don't feel guilty about doing it," he says. "We can have our own morals and political views. It's not fair to bring them on screen. In real life, there will be people who do such things - shouldn't there be actors to portray them on screen? If I say no to such scenes, I wouldn't be doing justice to my role. I only see if a film has logic, I don't bother about the rest."
Need we remind the reader again that Tovino is probably the least image conscious actor we have in the south film industry currently?
Tovino is also frequently trolled for doing kissing scenes in his film. After his film Theevandi released, there were plenty of memes doing the rounds about the actor's willingness to do "liplock" scenes.
"The audience should grow up. Let me give you an example. In so many films, when the hero is brutally killing the villain, people clap and watch it happily. When you can applaud and watch an act of hatred, why do you get disturbed when watching a kissing scene, an act of love? It's fake morality. I think it's better to show an act of love rather than brutal violence," he says.
Going on to explain about Theevandi, where he plays a chain-smoker, and why the kissing scenes in the film were important, Tovino says, "In Theevandi, the heroine says you stop smoking and I will kiss you. Finally, he does stop and asks her for a kiss and she gives it to him. That's when there's a completion to the story. What are we saying in the film? That it's far more enjoyable to kiss than smoke. If people think it's a problem, then maybe the CBFC should have disclaimers like the 'Smoking causes cancer' one about kissing - 'Kissing is not allowed' or something. What else can we do?"
On censorship and disclaimers
Speaking of disclaimers, the frames in Malayalam films are quite crowded. Apart from the smoking and drinking disclaimers, there are also ones for traffic violations. Nearly every frame in Theevandi, for instance, had some disclaimer or the other, not to mention the blurring of the cigarette when it was being smoked by minors (played by adult actors).
Commenting on this constant distraction, Tovino says, "I'm personally not inclined towards disclaimers, coming as I do from the film industry. I think it can affect the viewing experience. Writing it there may not change anything. If this was not the case, why won't people just read the labels on cigarette packs and alcohol bottles and stop? Theevandi shows people smoking but the message is anti-smoking. I have felt that we should use more common sense in judging such films. Let's say I'm playing the character of a man who wants to take revenge on someone who has killed his father. I suddenly get an opportunity and take my bike and go to confront the villain. Can I say, 'Ammey, I'm going to kill the villain now, can you please get me my helmet?'"
Tovino also points out that practically speaking, it would be difficult to show the character's emotions if one were to show him/her wearing a helmet in such scenes.
"Why underestimate the audience? A lot of people can tell the difference between cinema and real life. For those who can't, there should be some other way to drive home the message. I don't think such disclaimers alone will help. But since it's the law, we're obliged to follow it," he says.
Working with Urvashi
In his upcoming film Ente Ummante Peru, Tovino shares screen space with Urvashi. Asked about the experience, he says, "It was an amazing experience. Our wavelengths match a great deal. She's very caring, she's like an older sister to me."
Recalling the shoot fondly, Tovino says, "It's like we have this child within us that we haven't allowed to mature. She's a lot of fun on the sets. She came into the industry when she was just 14 years old and she has so many stories to tell. And she does such good comedy. She shared the kind of work stress she had, the kind of work timings she kept...it was very strenuous. How artistes in those days used to work on 3-4 films on the same day!"
What does the future hold?
In Tovino's last film, Oru Kuprasidha Payyan, the actor played a character who is wrongly accused of a crime. The story was based on a real-life incident and Tovino once again won accolades for his performance.
"It was the writer and director who told me what to do," he says with disarming honesty. "I say that about every film I do. If I'm good, it's because of them. And if I'm bad, it's also because of them. I just surrender myself to them."
The film, which released only in Kerala on November 9, will hit the screens in the GCC territory on Friday. Tovino, meanwhile, is learning to take time out and look after his health. He ensures that he works out for at least two hours a day and gets sufficient sleep, he says.
"There's a limit to how much you can do. I've started asking for time to work out and sleep now. I didn't have even that much until now. If one fine day I'm no longer there, it will only be my family which gets affected. I can work out in my location spot when required, I can plan my schedule accordingly. I don't mind working for 12 hours a day and maybe more once in a while, but not all the time. There were days when I've worked for 48-50 hours continuously. I know I will get health issues. I'm not yet 30 and I shouldn't be developing health issues at this age," he says.
Tovino adds that he's cutting back on poor health habits like overeating and is taking care of himself now. This, apart from preparing for a role in his upcoming film Kalki, which requires him to look fit.
Another film that Tovino is excited about is And the Oscar Goes To, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Salim Ahamed, which also stars veteran actor Sreenivasan. And then there's Kilometers and Kilometers, a travel film which has him travelling from Kerala to Ladakh. Tovino is currently at the shoot of this film, directed by Jeo Baby.
"Jeo Baby's films go to a lot of film festivals. But this film will be suitable for festivals and will also work as a commercial one. It's a well-balanced film, it's among the best scripts I've heard in my entire life," he signs off.