Chup: Revenge of the Artist is Dulquer Salmaan’s third outing in Bollywood after Karwaan (2018) and The Zoya Factor (2019). One of the biggest stars of Malayalam cinema who has a fan-following that transcends linguistic barriers, Salmaan was last seen in the multilingual blockbuster hit Sita Ramam, which also starred Mrunal Thakur and Rashmika Mandanna. He will be seen in a different avatar in R Balki’s Chup: The Revenge of the Artist alongside Sunny Deol, Pooja Bhatt and Shreya Dhanwanthary. Touted as a psychological thriller, the film’s plot revolves around an artist who turns into a serial killer and targets film critics, engraving star ratings on their body after murdering them. The film is also billed as an homage to filmmaker Guru Dutt and his 1959 classic Kaagaz Ke Phool that was trashed by the critics when it was released.
Busy with a slew of projects in many different languages, the versatile actor and legendary Mollywood superstar Mammootty’s son, Salmaan is set to make his digital debut with Raj and DK’s comedy crime-thriller Guns & Gulaabs, on Netflix. Firstpost catches up with the actor, who, over a mug of piping hot coffee, shares his thoughts on working with Sunny Deol, completing 10 years in the industry, his take on critics, ‘freedom’ of working in Bollywood, and why Malayalam cinema has stayed away from big budget masala entertainers unlike Telugu, Tamil and Kannada movie industries.
Chup is a very different space and genre for both you and R Balki, you must have been surprised to be approached for this film …
Yes, I was pleasantly surprised and I loved that Balki sir was doing something unique, something different that he has never done before. That excited me the most because I love being part of movies where people are trying something new. I listen to so many scripts in different languages and I thought this is genuinely something that stood out. The film will surprise people as well.
There are a lot of theories going around and one of those being you play this artist who kills and engraves star ratings on the body of victims believed to be film critics. Can you please tell us something …?
(Interrupts as he laughs) We don’t know who engraves the star ratings but there is a killer in the movie. I am not allowed to reveal anything, anyone could be the killer, it could be Shreya, it could be Sunny (Deol) sir, it could be Pooja ma’am, or it could be me. It could be different from what we are leading you to believe. It is an interesting role that I have never played before. I got to explore the written character that has got a back story, he leads a very interesting life that affects his choices and the way he behaves.
Chup seems to talk about an artist’s anguish, his pain on seeing negative reviews, what has been your experience with critics in your career?
It was interesting because I was promoting the film with Sunny sir. I could really resonate with what he was saying. He said when he started out his career, criticism and certain critics would really make him angry but now over time he doesn’t bother or give it too much energy. I feel maybe I am at that stage where it is slightly early in my career so I am still getting affected. But having said that I am less and less affected now because I am in a space where I am really happy with many films lined up and it is not that somebody can write me off. So I should not expend too much energy into it but I do take the constructive bits of it. It depends upon us actors, what we would like to take from criticism. And it is not just about critics, now everybody’s a critic. Today a fan or a hater can send you their thoughts directly. But some days I do feel low about it, some random fleeting comment would play on my mind which is not healthy but I have always been that person – oversensitive, somebody who over thinks and my family can gauge it. If post release I am looking sad, they ask me — ‘What did you read? Stop reading all those comments’ (laughs).
Are you active on social media?
I am not very active in posting but I do read people’s comments and in a way it helps me with my choices also. If I say, I don’t want to be boxed in certain genres and roles that is because I am reading that I might be getting boxed in a romantic hero image, therefore that will be my takeaway from people’s opinions. And if the audiences’ comments show that I am very comfortable doing a certain thing then I will consciously do the stuff that scares me and something I am not comfortable doing like for instance this film Chup.
That brings me to ask you that you have often said that you don’t like getting stereotyped …
Most of my career it has always been that certain genre films have come in bunches. There was a period when I was doing ‘finding myself’ films (laughs), then there was a period I was doing only love stories, then came gangster films, now I don’t know why it comes together; maybe people have similar ideas at the same time. So I keep trying to break that. Actors should keep their line-up interesting so that people’s excitement remains in watching you in different roles which I think is my primary responsibility as an actor.
How was it working with Sunny Deol who barely talks?
Yes, he is very calm and soft-spoken, so opposite of his on-screen image of that of an angry man. He is really lovely. A lot of times when you work in films you do your bonding with your co-actors mostly during promotions because during shoot we are busy going through our lines, prepping for scenes and sometimes our combinations are different, you don’t really get to hangout. Also, out of respect I didn’t want to invade his privacy. But getting time with him during promotions was great. I could relate to him because we both have fathers who are from the industry and are veteran actors. Now Sunny sir has an image of his own, so that is something very encouraging for me that I can break away and make a name for myself.
You completed a decade in the industry early this year, how do you look back at your journey so far?
I am more than happy. When I started out I don’t think I ever imagined that I would work in so many different language industries and I would get this kind of recognition and opportunities. In 2011 if someone had told me that I would do a film with Balki sir and that too in Hindi, I would have never believed. It has been a very beautiful and organic journey, every film opened doors to something else. Every time I get an offer from another language it will be for some film that I have done earlier, maybe a Charlie, or Bangalore Days, or Okay Kanmini, so everything is leading up to something, it has not been planned and I love that.
Pan-India has become the new buzzword in the film industry. How do you look at it?
It is something that I cannot handle (laughs-out-loud), maybe because it is overused, anything that is overused you get tired of it. I think we all make Indian films and some subjects are very Indian in nature and not very region specific. My latest release Sita Ramam is an Indian story, it is about an army man falling in love and that story can be placed anywhere. So more than Pan India I will tell Indian stories.
You got a lot of love for your multilingual Sita Ramam …
That is the power of good cinema. I don’t remember if I have received this kind of love before, so many messages and comments and it is not ending, it has been over 40 days that the film was released. So many of them have watched it multiple times – eight, 10, 12 times. It is one of those rare, once in a lifetime films and I feel blessed that I got a chance to be part of it.
Chup is your third film in Bollywood, how do you plan to take forward your journey in Hindi cinema?
I am very open to doing things but if I do work in Hindi, I really want to experiment. I don’t have this star baggage here which I have in the Malayalam industry where there is a lot of weightage given to how my films perform. Here I can experiment with roles and I can be a part of say a multi-starrer. I like that because I feel a bit free when I perform here in Hindi films.
Why do you think huge big budget masala films are not being made in the Malayalam industry the kind we see in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada cinema that gave blockbusters like RRR, KGF, Vikram…?
I don’t know if that has ever been our sensibility but I think those experiments are happening. There are some films being attempted now that they want to make bigger and bigger. It is probably in the making right now and I am sure in the next couple of years we will see that happen. But I personally don’t think that should be a big criteria. I have always chased only great content and you can then try to make that as commercial as possible. But it is not so easy because we have attempted this with so many films and what we are celebrating today are the ones that have been really loved and really worked. But a lot of them have not worked and those are forgotten. It is a risky business. Also, Malayalam is a small industry and it is hard to take big bets unless you are totally convinced with the product. Maybe we are looking for the right scripts but I know that everybody there wants to do it.
At the same time, I know for sure that people are still watching Malayalam films. You don’t need to do that massive, huge commercial, theatrical type of film. Malayalam cinema has always been content-driven, realistic, rooted in our culture. Even our own local consumption films — we don’t do a lot of big actioners — those are also quite realistic and believable. I think we have to find the kind of cinema that we think should be backed by a big budget and pitched everywhere.
How do you look at the current scenario with movie watching habits and content consumption undergoing a drastic change post pandemic with the emergence of OTT?
It is lovely; it is so nice that everybody is watching everything. It is nice to see how all the different parts of the country are consuming each other’s content; it is nice to be exposed to each other’s culture. There is a lot of exchange of talent. It has also happened historically because down South you will always find technicians and actors from the North, so I am liking that reverse exchange happening. More than anything it is nice to get that recognition. When I shoot in other parts of India they know my work and that is very exciting and encouraging.
You have a big line-up of films in all languages. Tell us something about that.
My next is a big Malayalam action film. I have something lined up in Telugu, then a period film in Tamil and some more stuff in Malayalam. It is going to be interesting because every year I will have multiple language films.
Which genre do you like the most?
I like my period films a lot. I love that old world charm, I collect old things, so when I get those films I enjoy it, I love the costumes, set, ambience…
Which are the directors you would like to work with here in Bollywood?
I am very curious about so many filmmakers. I would definitely like to work with Anurag Kashyap, we are friends and we have discussed some films in the past. I have spoken to Anurag Basu quite a few times. I have also met Rajkumar Hirani socially and he really gave me time and talked to me about my movies. I am also very friendly with Karan (Johar). Most of my interactions here have been so nice. I realise that all the big directors here have been watching everything even before content started travelling with the emergence of OTT. And even when I visited Mumbai quite early on in my career, in 2015-’16, they knew my work.
Tell us something about your debut on OTT — Guns & Gulaabs, the comedy crime-thriller with Rajkummar Rao ..
I am very excited about it, it should be out early next year. We finished shooting in the summer but since it is for OTT it needs to be subtitled in different languages. It is a fun, exciting project and has a great cast, great premise. It is a complete entertainer. I was very curious because I have never done web series before and I wanted to do that long format project. Just that in a day one has to do a lot of work, in a day you do nine, 12, 13 pages of script and you get to live in a character for quite some time.
Lastly, what is your takeaway from Chup: Revenge of the Artist?
It is an experience that I can’t forget and this is one of those few films that I would love to discuss after the film is out and watched by people. Otherwise one can be dancing around so many topics around the film but there are certain elements in the film that I would like to talk about post release.
Produced by Gauri Shinde, Hope Filmmakers and Pen Studios, Chup: Revenge of the Artist releases on 23 September.
Seema Sinha is a Mumbai-based mainstream entertainment journalist who has been covering Bollywood and television industry for over two decades. Her forte is candid tell-all interviews, news reporting and newsbreaks, investigative journalism and more. She believes in dismissing what is gossipy, casual, frivolous and fluff.
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