R Madhavan: “It has truly been the game of destiny”

From a young lad who wished that people would glance up when he entered the room, to achieving a praiseworthy position as an actor and even a director, Madhavan is living his best dream. 

By Nichola Marie

Your supernatural horror ‘Shaitaan’ joined the ₹150 crore club. What was the experience like playing the devil who comes out of nowhere to take over the lives of a once-happy family?
This is the first time I’m playing an evil character; I’ve played negative leads before, but this is pure evil. I was nervous on two accounts. One is because I’m playing this for the very first time. And second, because a very prominent Gujarati actor had done this in the earlier film ‘Vash’ – and had done a brilliant job. I knew that the comparison would be there. I wanted to play it very differently. I wanted to use a little bit of charm. I also kept in mind that this guy has done what he’s doing to the family in this room 107 times before and succeeded. So I wanted a smugness to him, I wanted a sense of being overconfident and knowing that whatever he is going to do is going to work anyway. So I wanted to play that with a smug charm. In all frankness, I was very nervous before the release, because I wasn’t so sure how it was going to be looked at. But God’s grace, it really worked out well for me, and I’m thrilled with the outcome.

Your directorial debut – ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ (2022) won much attention. It also brought into public consciousness the life of Nambi Narayanan…
Rocketry’, for me, was a passion project, it was God-sent. It was a project that was probably meant to tell me what my true potential was. One of the things that did teach me was the power of cinema. Mr Narayanan is a boon for me and knowing him has been an honour of a lifetime. But to see the impact that the film had on him… Becoming a national icon, signing autographs for seven-year-old kids who knew who he was, being treated as a VIP in every corner of the country… goes to show what true storytelling is capable of achieving. And to know that I had a small hand to play in that is a reward and award of a lifetime!

Will direction play an important part in your journey in cinema? What stories would you like to tell?
I’m not so sure how much of a film director I want to remain… It’s a huge responsibility and I do not know how qualified I am to pull off another film. But I do know that if I do end up directing, then that is going to be a story that comes from within the heart because I don’t want to do it as a profession. Secondly, I have not trained as a director or in any technical aspects of filmmaking, it’s always learnt on the job. Sometimes, that’s an advantage because you’re at the cutting edge of storytelling, fighting the battles from the frontline, so you have an idea of what’s working. It’s also a disadvantage because your roots are still floating in the air and you’re hoping that you will find the basics somewhere and make sense of the gist of the story that you want to tell.
Regarding the second part of your question, I think that we, as a film industry, have not delved into one aspect of India, which is the extremely empowered, confident and forward-looking Indian that he has become today. With world leaders having their roots in India, with technological and IT experts around the globe having roots in and from India, there’s a certain sense of empowerment that Indians feel across the world. And I want to touch on subjects that portray the Indian in that sense, and show India playing from the front foot. I’m done with the freedom struggle, and the terrorist attacks and stuff, which I think has become the norm. In terms of acting or storytelling, I want to show the Indian as a world leader. 

You have also seen immense success in the South as an actor.
I’ve been lucky enough to know both the languages that I’m making movies in – Tamil, as well as, Hindi. So it becomes convenient to portray the characters convincingly with my limited abilities as – let’s say, a star – in terms of my dancing or singing ability. I have to dwell on aspects that I’m strong, playing the characters as real as possible. The films that I’m very proud of are ‘Alai Payuthey’ (2000), my first film, ‘Minnale’ (2001), ‘Anbe Sivam’ (2003),’ Karnathal Muthamittal’ (2002), ‘Thambi’ (2006), ‘Vikram Veda’ (2017), ‘Irudhi Suttru’ (2016) – all this in Tamil. And in Hindi, of course, I’ve done very limited films but I’m lucky to have been part of some very iconic ones, right from ‘Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein’ (2001), ‘Guru’ (2007), ‘3 Idiots’ (2009) to ‘Rang De Basanti’ (2006), ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ (2011), and ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’ (2015). Then there have been the web series, ‘Breathe’ (2018) as well as ‘Decoupled’ (2021) and ‘Railwaymen’ (2023) – all three of which I’m very proud of. And ‘Rocketry’, of course, and now ‘Shaitaan’. I’ve been very blessed with all my selections in Hindi. 

A young lad from Jamshedpur, did you ever dream you would be where you are today?
When I was in Jamshedpur, I remember an overwhelming feeling that I used to have whenever I entered the room: That everybody should at least have a glance and see who has just entered. I should be able to draw everybody’s attention. I do not know why or how I had that. From there, to achieving that, in the true sense of the word, has been a blessing. It has truly been the game of destiny. I am always overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, because I do not know if I deserve it all. But I do know that the amount of talent that the good Lord has given me has yet to be exploited completely. 

Some of your most fulfilling achievements, and also challenges you are proud to have overcome…
I’m really proud of the fact that I stay relevant after almost 27 years in the industry – and if you count the television era, it has been close to 30 years, and I’m still growing, I’m still relevant, and I’m still able to tell the stories that I want to. Speaking of achievements and challenges… You know, pulling through films and finishing them despite the biggest struggles or swallowing my pride and ego when I’m wrong and apologising and getting things done. Taking up a film like ‘Rocketry’, for instance, in a field which I have no experience in, like direction or editing or script, writing a screenplay and having pulled it all off to get the National Award, I think has been my biggest achievement. But one achievement I’m really proud of? I think I have one of the best senses of screenplay in the industry, even if I say so myself. I don’t know how much of an actor I am. But I don’t think anybody can quite beat me in my sense of screenplay. And I proved that over and over again with my movies and my OTT series.

Women find your rough-around-the-edges magnetism extremely attractive.
In all frankness, when somebody calls me sexy or says I’m attractive or good-looking at my age, I have an out-of-body experience, almost like they’re talking about somebody else because I’ve never actually revelled in that idea. I have always wanted to be a nice guy, somebody who’s honest and just, somebody easy to approach and have a conversation with, who would share his life experiences with you in the hope of making your life slightly better than before you met me. To be considered good-looking and a symbol for the ladies to be attracted to, to put it mildly, (laughs) is something that I never expected and I’m very grateful for it. I do look at myself sometimes in the mirror and say, ‘Sexxxaaay’. But that’s about all I ever do.

Your son Vedaant has been consistently making waves in competitive swimming. What are your emotions as he dreams of Olympic gold?
Vedaant has been a labour of love as well, but more labour from my wife’s side as opposed to mine. Because of my constant travels, I’ve only followed what he’s done remotely at times, and being there to motivate him and to talk to him has been my only contribution. I have been in awe of Vedaant because of his commitment to his beliefs and desires. Right now I can just hope and pray, look at the records and look at the results, and pray even harder. Sarita and I have been very blessed, and we hope it stays that way. 

You and Sarita evidently share a rock-steady marriage, what are the elements that go into its making?
I’m very lucky to have found Sarita as a wife. It’s not easy being the wife of a celebrity, especially of a film actor, all the insecurities do set in and we had to field that the way we did together. I cannot take credit for the success of the marriage. It’s mostly Sarita’s achievement. We have all the challenges that any couple faces in today’s world; we still get into nasty fights and arguments. But, over a period of time, we realise that we are the best fit for each other. So we do what it takes to get back to the companionship that we both enjoy as opposed to the arguments. There is a lot of give and take. And there’s a lot of losing oneself. There’s a lot of compromise in the beliefs that one has, to stay together. And the best part is the person you’re willing to stay together with is worth all the effort. 

You recently opened up about your most expensive purchase (after your sprawling house) – a 40-foot yacht which you are qualified to sail yourself.

Hey, much has been spoken about that little boat of mine but it’s just something that I enjoy doing because it’s one of the materialistic impulsive purchases that I’ve made. Being on it fulfills a childlike desire that I’ve had of being a captain of a boat. And although it’s not as big or glamorous as the one shown in pictures with reference to my yacht, I still feel very proud of it and I spend a considerable amount of time on it, speculating about the stories I’m about to do or sitting around with friends and just enjoying the bobbing of the sea. It’s very soothing, and I’m very grateful to God for it.

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