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South Indian actor Nivin Pauly, who’s enjoying the success of his back-to-back Malayalam blockbusters Premam and Action Hero Biju, was determined to nab the role of Jerry in the family drama Jacobinte Swargarajyam (releasing in the UAE as Jacob’s Kingdom of Heaven). Despite his growing star power, he knew he wasn’t the first choice, but that didn’t stop him from building a case for himself.

Jacobinte Swargarajyam, which opens in the UAE on Wednesday, is a drama helmed by actor-director Vineeth Sreenivasan. It is based on the true story of a Dubai-based family who experienced tough times after they became entrepreneurs. Pauly knew Jerry wasn’t a lead role — nor was there a possibility of him getting a lot of screen time, but the 31-year-old actor didn’t give up.

“During the shoot of Oru Vadakkan Selfie, Vineeth gave me the outline of the story. I found it very interesting. I called him later and asked him who was playing Jerry. At that time, Vineeth said HE was planning to play Jerry. But I told him, if he was not doing it for any reason or if he felt that he wanted to concentrate on just directing, then let me know,” said Paul in an interview with tabloid!.

He didn’t stop there. He sent feelers through their common friends and kept following it up with Sreenivasan. Hints about him being the perfect choice were regularly dropped.

But director Sreenivasan had his doubts — would Pauly’s growing fan base accept him in such a movie after the massive hit that was Premam, a tale about a young man’s dogged quest for love?

“We were intent on doing the film on a small scale and we thought if I were to [act in the film], then we save on that aspect. But Nivin was so keen on doing this film. I remember him telling my friends to advise me that it’s not easy to focus on directing and acting,” says Sreenivasan with a laugh.

But it was the climax that made Sreenivasan re-think his decision to cast himself as.

“The climax scene need a hero. I felt those scenes needed an actor who could be upfront with the audience and the viewers’ need to accept certain things coming from him. That’s when I thought it was good to have him,” adds Sreenivasan.

The two have a rich, shared history.

Sreenivasan’s 2012 film Thattathin Marayathu, starring Pauly as a man who falls in love with a Muslim woman, was a game-changer for both. Jacobinte Swargarajyam, which released in Kerala in April and has been warmly embraced, has only cemented their working relationship.

The film is the story of Sreenivasan’s best friend, Gregory Jacob, and his family (all the names have been retained, except for Gregory’s, who goes by Jerry in the film). Having known them since childhood, he understood the ins and outs of the Jacob family.

“But my friend and his family never interfered. They told me everything that happened in their lives, but they didn’t ask me for a script even once. They didn’t even know what parts of their lives I would be including in the film. The trusted me completely,” says Sreenivasan. But that kind of implicit trust came with great responsibility and accountability.

“What interested me most was the dynamic behind a crisis. When a family faces a crisis, it’s interesting to see how the siblings bond and how they tackle the father’s absence from the scene or how the bonds changes. I wanted Jacobinte Swargarajyam to be relatable and I wanted that to be its biggest charm,” he says.

Inside a family crisis

Pauly and the crew were in Dubai for 39 days and according to its producer, Noble Thomas, the film was made on a modest budget of Rs75 million (Dh4.1 million).

“Jerry wants to be a businessman like his father. The father is telling him to pursue his studies, but he says he wants to be with his family. He’s a guy who loves his family, but then a crisis hits the family and the film is about how the family takes up the challenge and overcomes it,” Pauly says.

The real Gregory Jacob, his mother and his siblings are still in the UAE running their own building materials company, while their father, who goes by just Jacob, is in Kerala.

“We had blind trust and faith in Vineeth. He [has known] us for a long time and has seen me and my family through various ups and downs,” Jacob, 28, said. “He didn’t [find out about] our life story in a day... he knew us inside out. When lots of people from Kerala call me up and say that [their] problems look smaller [after watching the film] and that they have the faith to overcome them, then we feel blessed. We wanted our life story to be inspiring.”

Pauly drew on his own experiences to play the part.

“In looks, we don’t match … He has more muscles. So I thought I will analyse the script and understand the character on my own. Earlier, Vineeth used to tell me how I should play a scene, but this time he told me: ‘you act and if there’s any mistake I will let you know,” Pauly said.

The strategy worked beautifully and Pauly was happy to be a part of a film that had a strong script.

The actor, who wasn’t born into an acting dynasty such as Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salman or his own friend Sreenivasan, who is the son of legendary actor-director Sreenivasan senior, has made it big on his own steam.

“I never think of myself as a big star. Getting good scripts is all I think about. I don’t have a godfather or anyone to take care of me. To move forward, I have to be very careful in choosing the right scripts, the right director and the right technicians,” Pauly said.

He said he feels blessed to be surrounded by a crew who also happen to be good mates, with most of those working on Jacobinte Swargarajyam being thirty-somethings.

While the working atmosphere was upbeat, director Sreenivasan admits that he was under tremendous pressure.

“In the movies that we have done before, we played to the galleries a bit. We injected a bit of humour to make the film safe and palatable. There was a certain formula there. But for Jacobinte Swargarajyam, we set out to make an earnest family film. We tried not to add the so-called ‘masala’ and kept it subtle. We weren’t sure if it would be accepted by a larger audience,” Sreenivasan said.

His fears were unfounded. After screening the film in Kerala, Jacob’s father was inundated with requests for selfies and congratulatory calls for being brave. Realistic films with a good dose of family drama — even if there’s a tragic twist in the end — tend to do exceedingly well in Kerala.

“Many directors from Kerala understand the reality here. We cannot afford to make a Bahubali. But we can try to make films like Charlie, Maheshinte Prathikaram or Jacobinte Swargarajyam... These are not extravagant films, but they are inspiring and rooted in reality,” Sreenivasan said.

Pauly, known for his common-man roles in Action Hero Biju and 1983, is becoming the poster boy for keeping it simple.

“I don’t plan or schedule my career thinking first I will play a common man, then a police officer, then a super hero. I love good scripts and I don’t care if I play the main part in it or not. I want to be a part of good films. That’s my dream... Jacobinte Swargarajyam was that film for me,” Pauly said.

Jacobinte Swargarajyam also features Renji Panicker, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Sreenath Bhasi and Reba Monica John.

Don’t miss it!

Jacobinte Swargarajyam releases in the UAE on May 4.