South India’s prolific actor Prithviraj has hit a career milestone. His slick thriller Ranam, out now in the UAE, is his 101st film in a career spanning 16 years.

But who’s counting? Certainly, not Prithviraj — the son of late veteran actor Sukumaran and actress Mallika. The Ranam hero doesn’t display any overt pride in his voice when the staggering statistic is brought up.

“I haven’t checked to be frank. But someone told me that Koode is my 100th film and that’s when I realised it… But I have no reason to complain,” Prithviraj said in a phone conversation with Gulf News tabloid!.

His last sentence is an understatement as the actor, 35, has emerged as one of the most provocative talents in Malayalam cinema. Whether it’s playing an emotionally unavailable young man in director Anjali Menon’s dysfunctional family drama Koode or a closeted gay man in the thriller Mumbai Police or a sly, enterprising hustler in Indian Rupee, Prithviraj can never be accused of playing it safe. Despite being a bankable actor, he has never shied away from playing unconventional roles. But he isn’t letting his roaring success come in the way of his craft.

“I started my career in films at a young age and I remember doing weighty roles even then. I remember playing a sub inspector of police when I was a teenager and a 54-year-old Anglo Indian writer when I was 19. I was pushed at the deep end right from the beginning,” he said. But he didn’t drown in the weight of collective expectations. He claims that it was his films that taught him the ropes of his acting job and he hopes that his projects will remain his biggest teachers all his life.

“What I am today is the sum aggregate of what I have picked up through these 100 films — good and bad. So judging by that, I don’t have any reason to complain. Today I am at a place in my life and career where I can choose films that I want to do and make sure that they are done in a way they should be,” the actor said.

Prithviraj has always gravitated towards directors who embrace risks and are willing to push the envelope.

When he was peaking as an actor, he famously agreed to be a part of an indie film Manjadikuru by director Anjali Menon long before she courted instant fame with her blockbuster Bangalore Days. His formula to choosing projects doesn’t hinge on a director’s fame.

“There’s nobody obscure in cinema. If you ask me: there are people who know what they are doing and people who don’t. Anjali, I can assure you, is someone who knows what she is doing. Even though it was a small part in Manjadikuru, I found it interesting and refreshing,” said Prithviraj, adding that he stepped in after the film was already shot and edited. He was blown away by what he saw and dubs it as one of the finest films that he had ever seen.

Their interaction deepened in Koode, his 2018 film that opened to polarising reviews. Prithviraj played a hardened Gulf-returnee Joshua who returns to his fractured home in Kerala when his ailing sister (Nazriya Nazim) dies and he is forced to make peace with his troubled past. With each director, he has a different process when it came to nailing his character. For instance, director Menon describes Prithivraj as an incredible actor with a “photographic memory”. So to toss things up, she gave him his dialogues written in English and asked him to translate it in Malayalam just before a scene. It was an unconventional method, but Prithviraj didn’t resist it.

“But hey, it’s not a process that I recommend to other filmmakers … I had to instinctively react in those scenes,” the actor said.

Despite having featured in 100 films, Prithviraj claims he felt like he hit a jackpot when he got picked to act in films such as Koode and the swish gangster drama Ranam, which has opened to mixed reviews. But he isn’t resting on his laurels. Soon, he will try his hand at direction with Lucifer, featuring award-winning Malayalam actor Mohanlal in the lead role. Ask him if moving onto the director’s chair is his attempt at reinvention, Prithviraj prefers to call it “natural progression”.

“I don’t feel as if I am doing anything new. I have been in cinema since I turned 17 or 18. I just see it as an evolution of someone who thrives within cinema,” he said. “If you ask me if I will do anything different on the sets of Lucifer than I have done before, the answer is I am not going to do that… As a director, I understand that the entire decision making and responsibility rests on me, but it won’t feel like anything new.”

While it’s impressive that Prithviraj is taking a plunge into the unknown with directing, there’s a cross-section of Malayali movie fans who thought he was playing it safe when it came to roping in an A-lister instead of taking chances on newcomers.

Prithviraj is unfazed and says his casting decision was based on the project’s requirements. And that his aim is not to do “stuff that he has never done before” in directing.

“You can look at it the way you feel fit. But I listened to a script from somebody who written it hoping that he would get Mohanlal to play the part. I liked what the film was about and I liked the story… Fortunately, Mohanlal sir also like it and the idea of me directing it,” Prithviraj said.

Written by Murali Gopi, the political thriller is studded with talents including Tovino Thomas, Vivek Oberoi, Indrajith Sukumaran and Manju Warrier.

While Prithviraj gears up for his new chapter in his career, what curried favour among his fans was his oath as an actor not to accept dialogues with misogynistic undertones in his films.

Malayalam cinema has been lampooned for films that saw its A-list heroes indulge in misogyny-speak and taking on roles entrenched in patriarchy. Actors such as Mammootty are constantly criticised for taking on lead roles that belittle women. For instance in Kasaba, Mammootty played a swashbuckling police officer who threatened his colleague, a woman, with sexual violence. It was a dialogue directed at claptraps, but been criticised widely.

But Prithviraj’s decision to reject such roles and dialogues is a part of his personal journey as a person.

“Something just flipped inside me as an actor and I thought that I am no longer comfortable mouthing or glorifying lines like that. I have no problem in playing characters that unbearably misogynistic, but I have a huge problem with us implying that saying those lines by a hero is heroism or what an alpha-male should be. Being a man is lot tougher than that,” said Prithviraj.


Ranam is a thrilling ride

Prithviraj plays a getaway driver who wishes to escape the world of crime and drug dealings when he meets a woman who means a lot to him.

Directed by Nirmal Sahadev, the film is set in Detroit and is being appreciated for its high-octane stunt sequences and slick pace.


Don’t niss it!

Ranam is out in the UAE now.