In 2009, director Ranjith called Murali to train theatre actors for 'Paleri Manikyam' and since then, he's been regularly conducting acting workshops.

Talent cannot be produced from an institute Mollywoods acting trainer Murali Menon
Flix Interview Thursday, August 22, 2019 - 13:17

Murali Menon graduated from the Thrissur School of Drama and Fine Arts in the '80s and did theatre in Europe for over two decades. He likes to call himself a theatre actor though he wouldn’t ideally advise any of his students to pursue it.

“I love theatre. Though I am fond of cinema, I am not very keen on acting in cinema," he says. Back home, he joined Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan as an associate director, as well as his friend and School of Drama classmate Shyamaprasad’s films. He thinks Adoor and Shyam are very good at working with actors.

Towards 2007, he was invited to train participants for a reality show called Vanitha Rathnam. Before that, he had already started doing theatre workshops as part of personality development. The show, which went on for four years, was a gratifying experience for Murali who also learned a lot in the process of training mostly non-actors. In 2009, director Ranjith (who is also his SoD classmate) called him to train theatre actors for Paleri Manikyam. It was the first time a workshop like that was happening in Malayalam cinema. And ever since, he has been regularly conducting film acting workshops.

Can you take us through the workshop process in Paleri Manikyam?

Ranjith didn’t want to cast established actors and was keen on roping in theatre actors in Kozhikode. We filtered the selection to 34, picking actors in the age groups of 18- to 80-year-olds. The challenge was to take the drama out of them. The pattern of workshops I do right now started from there.

“Drama out of them" - can you elaborate on that?

It’s not about teaching them how to act but how not to act. Drama acting is a bit of a projection. Even in that projection, we shouldn’t feel that he is acting for the audience. That wouldn’t be a good sight to watch. If you take our old Malayalam theatre, it’s loud, there is no honesty in that acting. In cinema, you don’t need to push your acting. If you look at great actors around the world, we talk about how they live the character, don’t we?

You mean a lot of unlearning happens in these workshops?

For theatre actors, yes. But with new actors, they are starting on a fresh slate. The process is easier for them. We need to prepare them to be “ready” and ease them out. Give them confidence. Acting is not something we can teach them, the same goes for any artistic medium. You can’t teach photography or sculpting. I can only teach you acting if there is already an actor in you. I can’t create an actor who is not in you. Sometimes you might not be aware of a spark in you, we guide you to find that spark. We teach them to use their emotions, how to become another person.

Which are the films you worked on after Paleri Manikyam?

I trained all the actors for Shyamaprasad’s Ritu. In Aami, I trained the actor who played the younger Kamala Das. Surabhi Lakshmi, Mustafa, Sidhartha Siva are my students.

Can you break down the process behind an acting workshop?

Training requires time and effort. We need to check whether there is an actor in there or not. But we don’t always get the time. It can range from 3-day to 20-day workshops. I give weightage to internal acting. Salman Khan is a star, an external actor, there is nothing inside, while Aamir Khan is an internal actor. Similarly, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patel, Shabana Azmi are all internal actors. If the days are fewer, I will straightway go to internal acting. If it is for 10 days, I will be preparing their voice, body and then their mind, which is when we come to the internal acting.

How do you know they have got it, I mean the internal acting bit?

You figure it out after the first workshop. Some have it already, some need to be pushed a bit. Even if they don’t have it, I won’t discourage them, because we already know that such acting is also necessary for our cinema. You become a better actor only if you can work with your internal acting. But you can also become a star without having anything inside you. You basically work with what they have.

I have seen workshops where they shout a lot. What’s that for?

Maybe you saw theatre workshops then. That’s where you are told to raise your voice, train on your vocals, but at cinema workshops you don’t need to do that. In cinema, an actor’s voice is used either in sync sound, where we don’t need to push sounds, or in dubbing studios where the mic is near you and therefore you don’t need to shout. In my workshop, I take them through three levels of speaking voice—bass, medium and high pitch. Within these pitches, a good actor will be able to modulate it. Voice projection is not needed for cinema.

Now we see a lot of films where actors are more comfortable with on-the-set improvisations. Can it be acquired through training?

Improvisation is basically presence of mind. And it’s a skill that needs to be developed. The more you do it, the better an actor’s imagination gets sharpened. There are directors who tell you to improvise, some tell you to follow the script to the T. It depends on the film. Out-and-out comedy actors often get lots of freedom to sharpen these skills. And we have seen many writers and directors rely on this skill while writing a script, leaving room for them to improvise. You can’t do this improvisation in every film, but an actor needs to have this improvising capacity.

These days, Malayalam cinema seems more disposed towards natural acting...

In our cinema, it has only come now. But I wouldn’t say theatre has completely left us. In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, we saw underacting. 10 years ago, we had only a few actors who would underact, we relied on melodramatic acting a lot. But now in mainstream cinema, you see that change. Even in comedy, with all the improvisation, we are maintaining that underacting.

How much can film institutes help an actor?

I started acting before I entered the institute. I didn’t become an actor by joining an institute. If I didn’t go there, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to live my dream of being a theatre actor. Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah studied at NSD and FTII but then not all of them turned out like that. Our talent can be nurtured with such an institute. Talent cannot be produced from an institute.

We often see terrific actors getting stagnant after a point. Why does that happen?

We can get a base from these institutes, but the real training comes in life later on. Take Mohanlal - till the mid-80s he was an average actor, but he improved, not because he was lucky but also because he was prepared to work hard and learn with each film. Each time I am on stage, it teaches me to update my craft. That learning process is there until I die. No institute will give you that. These are things you have to do and develop practically. Good actors will do it. Genuine internal actors will do it. They won’t be satisfied by buying cars or taking selfies. They would rather grapple with new characters and better their previous performances.

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