In 2018, when Kerala experienced heavy rains and flooding, South Indian actor Tovino Thomas swung into action like a real-life superhero, helping those in distress in his neighbourhood. His good Samaritan act was widely appreciated at the time, but the actor initially thought it was a bit of an overkill when he was offered a role that chronicled those unsung heroes during a calamity.
There was a good chance that people would misconstrue his selfless, charitable act as a quick way to get some PR mileage.
“At first, I said I didn’t want to do the role because I didn’t want my good deeds to be interpreted in a different way. But my director refused to take ‘no’ for an answer because he truly felt that this is a story that could only happen if a raft of actors joined hands and cooperated,” said Thomas in an interview with Gulf News over the phone. He relented, and the result is director Jude Anthany Joseph’s star-studded film on the environmental disaster, ‘2018’, which is now showing in UAE cinemas.
Apart from Thomas, veteran Malayalam actors including Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Aparna Balamurali, Kalaiyarasan, Narain, Lal and Indrans joined this ambitious film to breathe life into the flood drama. Like most disaster films that are epic in scale, it wasn’t an easy project to pull off.
“This was a very challenging film to shoot. It’s not one of those films where I am sitting in a room and conversing, and a tale is drawn around characters. We were all aware that this film ‘2018’ had to be visually stunning... Recreating those heavy rains and submerged homes wasn’t easy, and you also need to remember our budget constraints,” said Tovino. This self-made actor, who is known for his blockbusters ‘Mayanadhi’ and ‘Minnal Murali’, has a point. Malayalam films are legendary for making stirring and powerful films on limited budgets. Unlike Bollywood and Hollywood films where budget allocation begins on a steep and wider berth, Malayalam filmmakers rely on sturdy storylines and talented actors to do the heavy lifting.
“For instance, a Hollywood disaster film like ‘2012’ was a visual spectacle with a budget [of millions of dollars]. We are making ‘2018’ for the infinitesimal fraction of the cost but having said that the budget is modest when you compare it to other Malayalam films. Yet the truth is that we had to battle many constraints. CGI was a supporting bit, we didn’t rely on it entirely,” said Thomas. He also pointed out another big factor that helps Malayalam films make compelling features with limited resources.
“The cost is smaller because the salaries of the heroes and actors in our industry are relatively lesser. We believe in spending it all in our actual film,” said Thomas. And, that formula seems to have worked wonders. Malayalam films are known for their realistic films and are less escapist like their glitzier Bollywood and Telugu cousins. And actors – even with immense star power – like Mohanlal, Mammootty, and Prithviraj Sukumaran, aren't trapped into playing larger-than-life characters alone. The focus and spotlight are usually on developing a water-tight script, which has helped Malayalam cinema tremendously to turn into this cultural tour-de-force.
“This is a film that fictionalises a true-life catastrophe. Remember back in 2018, as Kerala was reeling under floods, a wave of help from all quarters emerged. At that time, irrespective of financial status, class, caste, religion or other man-made classifications, nothing mattered. Everybody united to help each other. It was a true triumph of humanity,” said Thomas.
According to this actor, all those who rushed to help weren’t instructed to do so.
“We all helped and swung into action out of compassion alone. The fact that everyone stood together back in 2018 still gives me goosebumps,” said Thomas.
In the film, Thomas plays an army deserter who ran away from military duty because he feared death. However, when his neighbourhood experiences a disaster, he looks at the whole event differently.
“My character is very relatable … There are many who aren’t naturally cut out for being valiant on the army lines. Imagine you are sitting hunkered down in bunker that’s snowed in, and you hear gunshots in the neighbouring camp, you will be scared. Fear is a natural emotion and there shouldn’t be any guilt to it. I love playing ordinary and simple people who are vulnerable,” said Tovino.
True to his claim, Thomas is one of Kerala’s most endearing heartthrobs. He doesn’t walk around with an entourage like most high-profile actors and chooses roles that are varied and different. For instance, in the hit lovestory ‘Mayanadhi’, Tovino played Maathan – a twenty-something troubled young man in love – and in ‘Minnal Murali’, he played a superhero with ordinary origins.
“As a person, I am simple and extremely vulnerable and I feel my choices should reflect all those who feel the same … I don’t know why many think I am an accessible actor, but I always observe the works of ‘Lalettan’ and ‘Mammukka’ [veteran actors Mohanlal and Mammootty] and I feel they are never scared of the outcome of their films. It’s commendable,” Tovino said.
He’s also not a 'nepo-baby', who got ahead in life because of industry connections or pedigree. The former engineer got into acting without any safety hacks to break his fall. But Tovino – who has already completed a decade in Malayalam cinema through merit and grit alone – is understandably chuffed.
“I am always ready to learn. I have been in the movies for over 10 years and this is my 11th year. There’s enough clarity that I am here to do different roles and films,” said Tovino. He also has an interesting analogy on how people are ready to slot actors in different brackets and slots.
“People may think diamonds make me happy, but what if laddus [sweets] make me happier. So, isn’t it better that I just dozens of Laddus instead of those gleaming rocks? We should all do what works for us and do it fearlessly. That’s the trick to surviving this game,” said Tovino.
Apparently, the trappings that come with fame and being a star doesn’t rock his boat. Currently, two of his films ‘2018’ and ‘Neelavelicham’ are screening in the UAE cinemas.
“Stardom doesn’t attract me. I don’t crave fame and if I did, my choice of films would be different and be those blockbuster-materials. I am an eternal student of cinema and I want to just learn.”
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‘2018’ is out in UAE cinemas now