Actor Arvind Swami on getting into the character of MGR for upcoming film ‘Thalaivii’, starring Kangana Ranaut
As a child, growing up in a farm in Nazarathpettai near Poonamallee, Arvind Swami used to take long drives every day to get to his school in Adyar. On his way, he would always peer out of the window while crossing Ramapuram, where matinee idol MG Ramachandran lived.
“Every day, I used to look at that blue-grey gate,” recalls Arvind, sitting comfortably in Thalaivii director Vijay’s Nungambakkam office. “I would see him drive out many times, and get excited looking at him from a distance.”
His MGR connection did not stop there. A few years later, two German Shepherd pups that were born in his farm were bought by the MGR family. Much later, when Arvind’s father, VD Swami, who was involved in setting up Sankara Nethralaya, invited the actor-politician for the inauguration, Arvind recalls “walking alongside him and just looking at him”.
Cut to 2021, Arvind Swami is playing MGR in this week’s theatrical release Thalaivii, the biopic on late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa (played by Kangana Ranaut). This is a different outing for the 51-year-old star, well known for his cinematic outings in the ’90s with Bombay and Roja and more recently, as a stylish baddie in Thani Oruvan.
“It was quite exciting and a big responsibility, because MGR is probably the most iconic man in Tamil Nadu, be it movies or politics. It was a character from real life, and resembling him means two things: physicality, which you have seen in movies and public life, and his personal space. That former is a problem that you can work on, but the latter has no reference. For that, I had to bring in my understanding of the character and create a balance between myself and the person I was playing.”
In tune with mind and body
With ample help from award-winning make-up artist Pattanam Rasheed, Arvind went about transforming into MGR. “In keeping with the timelines in the film, we split the character into four segments: younger days, middle-aged, political life and when his health deteriorated, and worked on the looks accordingly.”
Prepping for the role also involved a fine understanding of his own body. “I had to work a lot on getting his mannerisms right; the way he rested his hands, or the way he pursed his lips while speaking. The way my body is structured is the exact opposite of his; I had to figure out a way to translate that on screen without the strain showing.”
For that, Arvind stopped hitting the gym for a couple of years. “His bio-mechanics were very different from mine, and I had to work a lot on specific areas, like my leg, to do justice to some of the sequences,” says Arvind, who observed a lot of visual material on the actor-Chief Minister to get aspects like the hop-skip and hand movements right.
Thalaivii also showcases the relationship between Jayalalithaa and MGR, and the MGR-Karunanidhi rapport. “We wanted to show the human side of their relationships and not go into controversies. MGR and Karunanidhi, for instance, had many differences of opinion but they were equally affectionate towards each other,” says Arvind, who is a big fan of MGR films like Anbe Vaa and Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.
The way back
Arvind Swami’s film career had a major resurgence in 2015, when he played Siddharth Abhimanyu with much swagger in the superhit Thani Oruvan. It was a character that he picked and designed with a lot of care, and looking back, Arvind still feels passionately about that project. “In formulaic films, villains are usually punching bags for the hero. At that time, I was looking to play someone with negative shades, and he [Siddharth Abhimanyu] was quite complex. I insisted to the director [Mohan Raja] that at least 33 percent of the audience should be in tears when he dies, though you know he must be vanquished. Siddharth was in that great grey area where you do not want him to win, but also do not want something bad to happen to him.”
Thani Oruvan changed the way directors looked at Arvind, and subsequently, he landed interesting roles in films like Bogan and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. However, Naragasooran, which saw him teaming up with young filmmaker Karthick Naren, is yet to see the light of day due to financial roadblocks.
“As an entrepreneur, I am involved in a business that revolves around process and technology. But I cannot decipher the business of cinema. It does not follow any pattern and I find it chaotic. It is most disappointing when you are stuck with a character for a year and a half, and it is not even out there for the public to watch it.”
Looking ahead, Arvind Swami is hoping to start a new innings as a filmmaker: he already has started well, with his debut work (Rowthiram, meaning anger) being the most acclaimed film in the recent Netflix anthology, Navarasa. “I hate that emotion, but I picked it as my son’s name is Rudhra,” he laughs, “The struggle to keep that emotion in check is a daunting task, which I fail at very often.”
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