Malayalam actor Tovino Thomas, whose career is touching stratospheric heights with five successful films this year, remembers a time when he was a rank outsider looking to enter films.
The ‘Mayanadhi’ star, 30, was a software engineer in Chennai in a job that he wasn’t particularly passionate about. Tovino yearned to be a part of an unfamiliar, but heady, addictive world of entertainment. But he knew his shortcomings. He wasn’t born to an acting dynasty nor had a famous producer uncle to call in a favour.
“It has only been seven years, but in those seven years here I have experienced my own shares of trials and troubles … How can I reach this position without any struggle?” said Tovino in Malayalam in an interview in Dubai last Tuesday with Gulf News tabloid!.
Looking back, Tovino remembers a time when he had to swallow his pride and live with his parents and sibling after quitting his stable job and borrowing his brother’s car, wearing his friend’s clothes to reach auditions until he got a breakout role. Like any struggling artist, Tovino worked in minuscule roles in more than 20 films before getting a prominent role in films such as the hit star-crossed romance Mayanadhi.
“There were dozens who helped me in my journey as an actor… From my friend in Chennai who lent me Rs3,000 to attend my first audition in my life to my sister who said that I shouldn’t do a job that I hate in my life … To my girlfriend who’s now my wife who never questioned me about what our lives would be like in the future… To my cousin in Dubai who calls me every week to find out if I am meeting directors and marketing myself enough … I owe my success to every one of them,” said Tovino, who was last seen in Prithviraj-directed blockbuster ‘Lucifer’.
Tovino’s career narrative is startlingly similar to Indian National Award-winning director Salim Ahmad who has directed the actor, popularly known by his first name, in his new film ‘And The Oskar Goes To’ (ATOGT), out in the UAE on July 4.
Like Tovino, Ahmad was in a regular nine-to-five job before taking a stab at film making. Ahmad was a travel consultant who moved on to TV and then to his debut film ‘Adaminte Makan Abu’ that went on to become India’s Oscar bid in 2011 in the foreign film category. For both, breaking down resistance with one good film at a time was their new normal.
Their latest feature ‘ATOGT’ chronicles an aspiring filmmaker who puts everything in his life on the line for his debut feature, which goes on to represent India at the Oscars in Los Angeles.
“It’s partly fiction and partly my life story. You could say 50 per cent of what you see in this film has happened to me in my life,” said Ahmad, taking a break during the screening in Dubai last week.
Tovino plays the small-towner Issak Ebrahem who heads to Los Angeles when his debut production — that he had made with his own sweat, blood and money — gets chosen to represent India at The Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language film.
He’s the quintessential underdog who’s out of his depth when it comes to aggressively campaigning for his film by nabbing voters. It’s a lone man’s struggle in an unfamiliar world of Hollywood. His inability to create some buzz and publicity before the big night — mostly due to inadequate marketing budget and lack of high profile actors in his films — forms the second half. His mercurial publicity manager in LA doesn’t help him in courting voters either. It’s a film that will give you a ring side view to creating Oscars buzz and a director’s laborious struggle to get his first film out into the world.
“There are many instances where you get this feeling that it might not be fiction … There is a scene in the film where a man looking at Isaak’s plight during film returns the money that’s owed to him. How a stranger supports him because he feels he is going to make a good movie. It’s a beautiful, telling scene,” said Tovino.
The actor, who was born in Irinjalakuda in Thrissur, dubs himself as an actor’s director.
“I observed Salimka’s [Salim bro] mannerisms carefully, but I didn’t want to play Issak as a mere imitation or a caricature. But we spoke a lot … In my opinion, there’s no better director who has an authority to speak about what goes down at the Oscars than our director.”
While the director has taken creative liberties to his partly-fictional account of his journey to Hollywood, Ahmad believes more than any international honour, it’s the audience’s acceptance that every filmmaker craves for.
“There was a lady in a wheelchair who had come to watch ‘And The Oskar Goes To’ at a cinema in Kerala and her determination to watch our film was touching and heart-warming,” said Ahmad.
According to Tovino, the vibrant Malayalam industry is going through a wonderful, prolific period filled with content-driven films like the incredibly entertaining ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ and the riveting procedural Nipah outbreak thriller ‘Virus’.
“2019 is proving to be a golden year of Malayalam cinema... As an actor, I have always classified films as either good ones or bad ones... I had five films that released this year in the cinemas and our audiences liked every one of them.” But the best is yet to come.
“The idea is to bring unconventional stories with new sensibilities. All I have tried to do as an actor is push good story telling. I want to be a part of good stories. It’s not about my role, but the overall story that counts,” said Tovino.
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'And The Oskar Goes To' is out in the UAE cinemas now.