Run through Prakash Raj’s filmography, and it is not easy to put a finger on a single type of role that you could call a "comfort zone". For him, it has always been about the excitement that a good character can give and the search for something new in a script.
Currently walking through his 25th year in cinema, the actor has two releases in quick succession over the next 30 days – 60 Vayadu Maaniram directed by Radha Mohan and the biggie, Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, where he plays father to Aravind Swami, Arun Vijay and Silambarasan.
Apart from these films, Prakash Raj is also working on a book on the late Dravidian leader and former Tamil Nadu CM, M. Karunanidhi. The actor, who had played a role based on Karunanidhi in Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, had put out a wonderful note on the demise of the veteran.
"I won't say much on that now, because I'm writing a book on Kalaignar with my perspectives. Playing his character in Iruvar, I saw him in a different way. The Kannada version of the book is complete, the Tamil version is now underway," he says.
Prakash Raj’s journey with Mani Ratnam is something that he will remember forever, after their wonderful collaborations in films such as Iruvar, Kannathil Muthamittal and OK Kanmani. Their rapport continues in the upcoming action drama Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.
Speaking about his role, he says “Mani will not script something with Prakash Raj in mind. When he has a space that I can fit into, he will call me. With every film of his, I learn a thousand new things about cinema. He’s a complete encyclopedia. I have a list of such directors who I run to immediately once they call me, and Mani Ratnam is at the top of that list. It’s all about learning, and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is another testament of his brilliance. He doesn’t know anything other than cinema, and is purely run by his passion.”
“I value him more as a friend than a director, because of his perspective of the world and the Chaplin-istic sense of humour that he has. Even today, we can sit for hours and laugh together. We might have differences of opinion, arguments and polarising views. But these things are what make us stronger when we collaborate – in order to bring out the best output. And that’s why we’ve travelled all the way,” he says.
But at the same time, Prakash Raj accepts that directors like Radha Mohan still don’t have a space of their own in Tamil cinema.
To this, he says, “We have to hang our heads in shame for this fact. Radha Mohan’s career proves that he should have been a celebrated director of our times. His films are vastly different from the usual cinema. Many actors have come up to Radha Mohan and told him that they want to work with him, but when they are approached with a script, what happens? They bring up various excuses. The main problem here, is that people are afraid of failure. Look at the careers of Balachander and Mahendran – more than 50% of the films are flops. They still came out shining, that’s true victory. Cinema has become more of a business these days, but there are still a few directors like Radha Mohan who continue to walk their path without any compromises. He deserves your appreciation.”
In 60 Vayadu Maaniram, the actor plays an elderly man who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The film follows his son, played by Vikram Prabhu, tapping various ways to get back to his father. Even though it is an official remake of the Kannada hit Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Prakash Raj has taken extra efforts to fit into the character.
“My memory power in real life is very good, so playing the opposite of myself on screen was not easy at first. We wanted it to be authentic, so we acquired knowledge on the basic elements of the condition by visiting the Nightingale Organization in Bangalore. It was an interesting phase. Even now, I cannot say that I have broken barriers with this film. I just surrendered, that in itself was a tiring thing to do for me,” he shares.
Prakash Raj then spoke about how tough it is to be a producer, and how he himself had ‘burnt his fingers’ in the process of taking his film to the people.
“I always have to know where I stand. Cinema not only needs good actors and directors, there has to be a force to make the circle complete. A person like Dhanu is a value addition to a project such as 60 Vayadu Maaniram, he knows how to get the job done.”
Being in the industry for more than two decades, Prakash Raj has been a part of many ups and downs and therefore has a clear idea of how the system works.
When asked about the unpredictable market scene, he quickly comes back saying, “Yes, you always have to analyse the reason for a failure, but that should not affect the thinking process of the script. There’s a difference between a bad film failing and a film like Iruvar failing. These many years later, people call it a classic, but then you’ll have to learn to live with the wound. The mindset and the platforms on which audience watch films have changed, so we need to renovate ourselves and organise a growth in our thought process. You just can’t sit like the Sanskrit language and say that I’ve changed, you will die out.”
As an actor who has done films in several languages in India, Prakash Raj has an interesting comment on people who want to ban films in the name of language pride.
"Fools are there in all parts of the world. Here, we have people who built temples for heroines and get angry over villains who beat up their favourite actors. We have to handle such folk in our own way and move on."