Back in 2001, when SJ Suryah directed Khushi with Pawan Kalyan in lead role, it went on to become the biggest hit ever in the actor's career. SJ Suryah became an overnight sensation in Telugu cinema, and having already made his mark in Tamil cinema, he was touted as one of the most interesting filmmakers to watch out for in South Indian cinema. But little did anyone expect that he had no plans to stick to directing films for the rest of his life. No, he had something else on his mind — the dream of becoming a lead actor.
“Back in the '90s, no one was ready to cast me as a lead actor or produce my films. So I had to direct films to make a name for myself,” SJ Suryah recounts with a laugh. With his terrific performance in AR Murugadoss’ Spyder making a solid impression, it’s hard to forget his laughter even in the midst of a casual conversation. In Spyder, he kills people for fun and derives sadistic pleasure when he hears others cry, and breaks into laughter. It’s this psychopathic streak of the character (Bhairavudu), SJ Suryah admits, that caught his attention. “The role was quite intense and on top of that, he’s a psychopath. It’s a challenge for any actor, and at the same time, whenever you get a chance to do something unusual, you feel all charged up. I figured out that the role is going to be quite challenging when Murugadoss began narrating the story. I was on a high,” he recalls.
In mid-2016, Suryah was on the verge of directing the Telugu remake of Veeram with Pawan Kalyan in the lead role. However, just before the film was supposed to go on floors, SJ Suryah shocked everyone when he opted out of the project to focus on his acting career. No one had guessed that he was quite serious about his plans, and looking at the way he has been flooded with offers, especially in Tamil cinema, it’s evident that he has finally found his groove. “Before I turned director, I was scared that I would end up becoming an unsuccessful actor or remain as a junior artiste for the rest of my life. Thankfully, that didn’t happen [laughs]. Now, I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going on. I have three more films where I’m playing a lead, and at the moment, I have no plans to direct a film,” he says.
Post-Spyder, SJ Suryah is betting big on Atlee’s Mersal, which will also release in Telugu as Adhirindhi. “I spent the last few months juggling between the sets of Spyder and Mersal (Adhirindhi). The switch between the two characters was also a big task and it was a great opportunity for me to explore two extremely different characters. While I played a dark role in Spyder, when it comes to Adhirindhi (Mersal), I’m playing a very stylish role and my look is going to be very classy. Like Daniel Craig! You’ll have to watch the film to see why I loved the role so much. The flashback episode is going to be amazing,” he explains.
Although he had made up his mind that he would continue playing lead roles after earning rave reviews for his role in Karthik Subbaraj’s Iraivi, SJ Suryah admits that he made an exception for these two films. “I admire both Murugadoss and Atlee a lot. Moreover, the concepts they told me were quite interesting. I also felt that playing such negative roles will help me to take a big leap in future when I play lead roles. For instance, take Shah Rukh Khan — I feel that his performances in films like Baazigar and Darr helped him a lot when he became a hero. Both Murugadoss and Atlee were very clear about what they wanted, and they have immense faith and respect for other technicians. I was in safe hands [laughs]. I pretty much made an exception for these two films, but I won’t mind doing such negative roles again provided the the character is powerful and exciting enough for me. Otherwise, there’s no point. I’ll continue to play lead roles.”
In Mersal (Adhirindhi), SJ Suryah is pitted against Vijay. The two had previously collaborated in 2000 when the SJ Suryah directed Vijay, Jyothika-starrer Kushi which went on to become a huge hit. And 17 years later, they are back together in the same fold, although in different avatars. “He’s become a huge star now, but at the same time, his stardom hasn’t changed him as a person. He has become all the more focused as an actor and humble as a person. The film will be a testimony to his star power and I’m confident that the Telugu version too will be received very well by the audiences. You’ll see a brand new Vijay in the film. Atlee is a wonderful actor too and he is very particular about what he wants from his actors. So, he would enact every scene during the narration. That helped me a lot. I adapted a lot of his body language to play my role,” he says, adding, “I’ve often been asked if I find it tough to just stick to acting and not interfere in the director’s ways nowadays. The truth is, I follow the designation quite strictly [laughs]. If I’m an actor, I will not unlock my creative knowledge beyond what is expected from me. I became a director to make SJ Suryah an actor. And I won’t do anything to change that equation now [laughs].”
Of late, a string of poorly written roles for villains had a ripple effect on the film experience itself. Why would you root for a hero if his nemesis isn’t strong enough? Under these circumstances, an actor like SJ Suryah has made a sea of difference. AR Murugadoss has already showed us what the actor is capable of doing, and now, all eyes are on Atlee. “The biggest take away after doing a villainous role in Adhirindhi (Mersal),” SJ Suryah says, “has been that when you approach a scene with a subtle performance, whether it’s dark or stylish, it reaches people a lot more than when you do a loud character. You have to truly believe in what you are doing and also, avoid doing cliched stuff. These days, people aren’t really bothered about what you do. They care about how you it and how well you play that role. Look at Aamir Khan — he might have done a lot of action and romantic films, but in Dangal, he played an old man, who loses against his own daughter, and then in the climax, he barely has a role to play. But everything he did in the film won him a lot of respect and appreciation. It’s by backing such good scripts that you become a true hero. You don’t have throw in a few punches and kick the goons.”
Sometimes, all it takes is to laugh and laugh when others cry. Or you could be a cool dude who matches a superstar eye to eye, and still make an impression as a villain. Whatever the case maybe, SJ Suryah is living his dream at the moment. Period.
Mersal (Adhirindhi in Telugu), directed by Atlee, is slated for release on 18 October.
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