Anish Kuruvilla has always been a bag of surprises with his versatility and has been terrific in keeping audiences guessing about his next move. He debuted as an actor with Dollar Dreams in 2000, continued to be an active collaborator with director Sekhar Kammula, made a brief appearance in the latter’s film Anand, turned a director with Avakai Biryani, made Ko Ante Koti.
And just when one felt he had cemented his position as a director, his return to acting with Pelli Choopulu in 2016 turned it around for him. His salt and pepper look with a hint of sophistication in his dialogue delivery made him a hot property in Telugu cinema. He sprang a surprise yet again as he returned to direction with the web series Gods of Dharmapuri (on ZEE5) in 2019, arguably the best show ever made in the Telugu web space and even acted in it. We talk to him as his latest Telugu release as an actor, Madha, lands on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a role he gratifyingly calls one of his most ‘ambitious’.
The actor-filmmaker has mixed feelings about the lockdown phase, at least in terms of his creative juices. “Somedays, you find yourself being very efficient and productive, and there are days where you are just plain bored. At the end of the day, what matters is the fact that people are home and safe,” he shares.
Two decades in films and now, you are a hot-favourite actor among the directors, you’ve returned to direction with immense success, you’ve backed a handful of promising independent films and are continuing to collaborate with Sekhar Kammula and his films. Has this been the most fulfilling phase in the entertainment industry?
I’m enjoying this. I have always viewed filmmaking as an amalgamation of so many art forms and departments. From the opportunities that have come my way to the people I have collaborated with, it has been a fulfilling experience. As an actor on set, being directed by a filmmaker, I can really see their perspective, what they are striving to achieve. That’s the reason I have been involved in so many independent films. It’s lovely to see a young team put things together. I see a bit of myself in them because I have been in that place before. There are time constraints, budget limitations and yet they are working towards producing something very original. It’s a good space to be in and work becomes all the more enriching. I hope to keep this going.
Do you see through the layers in the characters you play with greater ease (given your experience as a director)?
This is largely dependent on the project. I am a director’s actor and I trust the director to take me through the character, have him/her explain it. I later discover the role myself and go to them with inputs. As you keep doing more films, you become more aware of your technique. It hasn’t changed over time. You are reliant on the creative force behind a project to be able to understand their vision. The handholding becomes necessary, as it is for every department.
Telugu cinema is perhaps witnessing one of its most thriving phases – both from an industry and a viewer’s perspective – opening itself to newer horizons of storytelling. Would you rather have wished to begin your career now (than the phase in which you debuted amidst)?
As a filmmaker, I am happy and secure in the space that I am in. It wouldn’t have been possible for anyone to have made Gods of Dharmapuri on this scale in Telugu ever before. However, more than any of these aspects, you need to understand if you’re able to constantly rediscover, sustain the integrity towards your craft, focus on the storytelling and not let anything distract you from the core of the filmmaking process. I keep that relationship with my craft very pure. I go by the moment and don’t analyse anything beyond necessity. I just invest my energies on what I am doing at this phase and don’t look back. As a creative artiste, it’s essential to be very ‘present’ in whatever you’re doing – having hang-ups about your past isn’t going to make you any productive or efficient.
Madha has been one film that has managed to tap into a unique dimension of your acting abilities with the duality in your characterisation. And we hear that you took time to accept the role?
Yes! I was apprehensive because I hadn’t done anything in that space as an actor. I didn’t know if I had it in me to challenge myself or push my limits to that extent. The kind of roles that came to me in the past were tailormade around my body language and the way I speak. The role that was offered to me in Madha was nothing like what I did before, especially with the space that the character is in. It’s a role whose layers would be understood by the viewer through the course of the film. Despite my initial inhibitions, Srividya had great confidence in me to pull it off. It was a close-knit team and that’s the reason I was comfortable with the unit soon. With co-actors like Trishna and Venkat, the process became easier. It took me a while to okay it, yes, but I’m glad I did it. If not, I would have missed out on a memorable experience.
What did you see in a debutante filmmaker like Srividya to pull off such a complex thriller?
You get an inkling and the vision of the filmmaker when they speak to you. I was genuinely surprised that she was attempting such a genre in her very first film. She completely went against the grain of what a female director would conventionally debut with. I knew that could be the USP of the film. It’s not that I haven’t known Srividya before though – I had met her on several occasions and had an idea about her work. She’s very individualistic and original in her thinking and the film stood out because those aspects reflected in the film too. I am someone who never has any calculations in my mind and trust by my gut instinct and the film proved me right. It has been a struggle for her to bring the project together and work on its release over three years. With her perseverance and conviction, I was sure that Madha would strike a chord with the audience whenever it was out.
Gods of Dharmapuri (streaming on ZEE5) too was a project like no other in your career – be it the scale at which it was mounted, the performances, the storytelling or the responses. As a creator, was the reception overwhelming?
It felt good because every creative artiste looks for validation at some point. I must say we were extremely confident getting into the project – I had a great cast and a strong team by my side. I have always believed in conviction in storytelling more than any commercial parameter, that’s been my mantra. I saw Gods of Dharmapuri as a great opportunity when the OTT platforms were just taking off – of course, we told the story convincingly, got great performances and were greatly supported by the contributions from the technical departments. I was sure it would resonate with the audience strongly. It’s important to approach every project with self-belief. The reactions didn’t leave me overwhelmed but I would say it made me feel complete and gave me a sense of pride.
Bringing together the second season of an immensely successful show isn’t going to get any easier for you, we presume…
I look at it as a challenge. The scale would be bigger and we always had a vision for season two even as we were making the first one. I had a clear idea of how and where do I take the story forward. Upping the ante this time will be exciting. Whenever it comes out, the onus is on us to get people invested in the universe all over again - it’s the characters that they remember the first season for and we’re confident of keeping them engaged this time too. I have a terrific writing team and that’s one of the key advantages with OTT. It’s not a single writer’s contribution but it’s an entire team that’s invested in the process and in the feedback we’ve gotten from the audience. We have all of that in mind and are equally looking forward to season two.