Considering Rani Mukerji’s character in Aiyyaa fantasies about Suraj, played by 29-year-old Prithviraj, because he is dark, the first thing one notices about the Malayalam actor is that he is many shades lighter in real life. “Unfortunately in real life, I am very uninterestingly fair. So we’ve used many, many bottles of bronzer to make me darker for Aiyyaa,” he says with a laugh.
t2 met the actor at JW Marriott in Juhu that Prithviraj calls “home” when he is shooting in the city — that is until he buys “at least a small pad in Mumbai”. “I love Mumbai and have always wanted to live here,” adds the man from Thiruvananthapuram, as he chats about working with Rani, his ‘debut’ and being lust-worthy.
Aiyyaa wasn’t the first Hindi film offered to you. So, what made you want to be a part of this film?
It was the narrative. It was very refreshing to see a Bollywood love story breaking away from the Punjabi cliché. I would have done Aiyyaa regardless of the language it was made in. I liked the love story between a Tamil boy and Maharashtrian girl. It is treated with a new brand of humour.
All the promos until now have only showcased your physicality. Did you go through an intense workout regimen?
The brief that I was given was in two parts. Sachin (Kundalkar, director) wanted me to look very “normal” and unassuming for most of the film. For the songs, which are off-shoots of Meenakshi’s (Rani’s character) fantasies of my character Surya, I told Sachin that I would take at least three months to bulk up. Sachin, fortunately, gave me four months between the shooting of the film and the songs. I am normally very fit but I had to increase the intensity of my workouts. Twice a day I would exercise for two hours. I was living on close to inedible food. My staple diet is fish curry and rice — I couldn’t eat it to my heart’s content.
This is a question normally reserved for actresses, but is there more to your character than just looking sexy?
(Laughs) Of course! I know that the promos and the songs are all centred on my physicality but the character is obviously much more than just a ripped body. Surya is a south Indian painter. He gives Meenakshi’s character a lot of impressions and she imagines him to be in a certain way. The film culminates with Meenakshi finding out who the real Surya is. While as an actor, I am a little uncomfortable with being looked at as an ‘item boy’, I am also enjoying the attention. My looks have never been my USP but I am not complaining.
Was working with Rani what you had imagined it to be?
I have always been a fan of Rani and I am not saying this because I have done Aiyyaa. If you dig up my old interviews, you’ll know. Now that I have worked with her, I am an even bigger fan. She is so passionate about what she does. She loves to perform and be in front of the camera. She is surprisingly inclusive as an actor. She goes out of her way to make sure that her co-actor is comfortable in the scene. She’d call me home and we’d have discussions over coffee about the various scenes. Even while shooting, we’d discuss the day’s shoot. I don’t think I have ever worked with someone who has been so involved with my character graph and performance and vice-versa.
Rani’s character says she likes ‘dark men’. Isn’t that reinforcing stereotypes?
I think we live in a time when being dark is sexy. Why would being called dark not be a compliment when the description of the quintessential good-looking man has always been ‘tall, dark and handsome?’ I wish in real life, I was darker than I am.
You’ve done 80-odd films and are a star down south. Are you feeling the nerves about your Bollwyood debut?
Getting in front of a camera and enacting a character is what I do best. So I didn’t really think of this while shooting the film. But it is sinking in now. For millions of people I am going to be a new entity and they are going to judge me on just this one film. The 80 films that I have done don’t matter. The fact that I am considered a star down south doesn’t matter. But, that’s also exhilarating.
Every south Indian actor in Mumbai says there is a difference in shooting style. Would you agree?
The work environment in Mumbai differs but it has nothing to do with the process of filming. In the south, filmmakers are required to announce a release date on the day that filming starts. So the director has no option but to stick to a schedule because of the deadline. In Bollywood, there is no looming deadline. Directors have the luxury of shooting at their own pace. I think this is how cinema should be made. Apart from this there is no difference.
Did you always want to give Bollywood a shot?
I would be lying if I said that I never wanted to do Bollywood. Aiyyaa would be seen by more people than the audience of all my 80 films put together. This is my shot at the big league. But I never planned my career keeping Bollywood in mind. I was snobbish enough to believe that it would happen on its own at some point. Every performer yearns for his performance to be seen by the maximum number of people and within India it doesn’t get bigger than Bollywood.
A wider audience can’t be the only exciting part of being in Bollywood...
When you are a star down south, unfortunately, films start being tailored as per your image. And it is tough to experiment. I don’t have an ‘image’ that I need to conform to in Bollywood. Also my priority has always been good cinema and it remains that way. Bollywood is in a great phase right now and if you are in search of good cinema, you are more likely to find it here. What is also very exciting is that I don’t know if the Hindi audience will accept me.
You are doing another Hindi film...
Yes, I have already started Yash Raj’s Aurangzeb that also stars Arjun Kapoor. It’s not a period film. But for now, that’s all that I am allowed to reveal.
Some more from Prithviraj
What feedback are you getting about the promos?
I haven’t spoken to one person who hasn’t loved the promos or the songs. The film has managed to create the kind of buzz that we had hoped it would while we were making it.
What is the dominant feeling on the eve of release?
I am excited… that is what is on top of all emotions. I can’t say that I am nervous because this is a process that I have been through so many times in life. I have had a debut in Malayalam, a debut in Telugu, a debut in Tamil and now I am awaiting my debut in Hindi films. So, in that sense, I am quite a veteran (laughs). I am an actor who has been lucky enough to debut every five years… how many people can claim to do that? It’s exciting that, despite all the work that I have done all these years, I am starting out on a clean slate where people will judge me as a newcomer.
How would you describe Aiyyaa?
It’s just a mad, mad fun ride… it carries a very original brand of humour. How often in a Bollywood film do you see a Marathi girl falling in love with a south Indian boy? I know that Aiyyaa is an unconventional choice for a debut, but I would rather make a choice like that than do something that is run-of-the-mill. There are thousands of formulaic films being made in Bollywood and you have hundreds of actors who are already doing them. Why should I just add to the crowd?
But Aiyyaa seems to be all Rani Mukerji. You are barely there in the promos...
The story is narrated from Meenakshi’s (Rani’s character) perspective, but at the end of the day, Aiyyaa is a love story between two people and I am one of the two.... As far as the promotions are concerned, of course Rani Mukerji (in picture with Prithviraj) is the biggest marketing tool for Aiyyaa, given that I am a newcomer and she has worked in some of the biggest films in recent times in Bollywood.
Rani is a child of Bollywood commercial cinema. How did you see her adapting to a film like Aiyyaa?
Aiyyaa started off as a small film, but Rani coming on board just made it a lot bigger. I have probably done double the number of films than she has, but Rani has been one of the most commercially successful stars in Bollywood. She just brought so much to the film in terms of her experience… in terms of someone who has been there, done that.... No one could have played Meenakshi better. Also, Aiyyaa is as commercial as it can get, which is something you will realise when you watch the film. It has the item song, the comedy, the romance… but it isn’t formulaic.