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Smriti Kiran: Actor-producer Tovino Thomas is someone who has consistently been listed by Kochi Times as the most desirable man. He has no formal education in film, no diploma in acting, no film lineage to speak of, but nine years and over 35 films later Tovino is firmly at the centre of the frame.

He turned producer in 2018 with Jeo Baby’s Kilometers and Kilometers. This was before we were hit with the phenomenon called The Great Indian Kitchen, and Jeo Baby became a household name. Earlier this year, Tovino launched his production company, Tovino Thomas Productions. His latest film as co-producer, Rohith VS’ Kala, released in theatres earlier this year. It is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, so you can watch it.

Tovino’s rise to stardom was gradual but steady. In hindsight, one can probably piece together a pattern. Most of his films, barring a few, are on streaming platforms with subtitles, and he has a formidable slate of films to complete on the other side of the pandemic.

Smriti Kiran: Tovino, I’m going to ask you to dial back nine years and tell us how a software engineering graduate entered the film industry. Getting your foot in the door is a very hard thing to do, especially with zero connections. I know you’re Nivin Pauly’s second cousin, but Nivin was starting off at that point in time. How did you make your way in?

Tovino Thomas: I joined Cognizant when I was 21 years old, soon after college. Since my childhood, I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t have the courage to open up to everyone. As a guy from a small town and a middle-class family, it’s not easy. Not everyone is going to encourage someone like that to pursue something like this.

“When I was working at Cognizant, I was not happy at all. I always felt that I didn’t belong there. I had this fascination with cinema. I wanted to be someone or something in movies.”

My brother did engineering. So, naturally, I did Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering. That was the easiest thing to do. My brother is just a year older than me. So, I thought that if I did whatever he did, I’d be safe. That’s what I used to do, like any other younger sibling.

When I was working at Cognizant, I was not happy at all. I always had this sense of void within me. I always felt that I didn’t belong there. I had this fascination with cinema. I wanted to be someone or something in movies. From my childhood, I had wanted that. So, to quit this job, go out and explore my potential, follow and chase my dream, and do something I’m really passionate about was a huge decision for me to make.

A lot of things depended on my job. I had just moved out of my house. Until then, I was dependent on my father for my expenses. I started earning myself and I was very proud of that. Even though I was not very happy about the job, I was happy about the salary. Even my marriage depended on that. I was in a relationship with my then-girlfriend, who’s my wife now, Lidiya. We have been in a relationship since 2011. When I got this job, our parents finally spoke to each other and gave their consent for marriage. So, I was risking everything, including my love life. I knew that it was going to be a big decision but I had this inner voice telling me, ‘Follow your passion. Do what you want to do.’

Tovino Thomas and Lidiya

The very thought of me spending my whole life in front of a computer inside a cubicle was very scary. I didn’t want to do that. It took time, but I gained the courage to resign. Again, I had to take a lot of effort and time to convince my parents and her parents. She was really supportive.

Smriti Kiran: Wasn’t she the one who gauged that you were not happy doing what you were and were interested in something else?

Tovino Thomas: Yes. When I did my engineering, before joining this job, I never told anyone that I wanted to be an actor. I used to be an introvert in school before the seventh standard. Then, I made up my mind to become an extrovert, although I still have many traits of an introvert. But these introverted traits were holding me back from telling anyone that I want to be an actor because I had never excelled in any acting competitions or cultural events or any of that. But Lidiya knew that I was very fond and passionate about movies. When we were together I would talk about movies 90% of the time and 10% about our love life and future. We used to go watch movies together, but she is more of a news person. She likes to watch the news, whereas I’m more inclined towards movies. Even though she was not very entertained by all the movies I watched then, she used to come with me. And without me telling her, she understood that I wanted to be an actor. She was the one who asked me, ‘What do you want? If you want to get into movies, then you should start trying.’ But even before I started trying, I got a job. My father was like, ‘You got a job, now go for it. You finished college and within six months got placed. You’re an employee now. Not everyone gets such a chance. So, grab it and go to work.’ So, I started working in Chennai.

Tovino Thomas’ family (2020)

When I decided to quit, I spoke to my brother and sister. They, along with Lidiya, told me that if I didn’t like the job then I shouldn’t stay there for another minute. They said, ‘We’ll sort it out. You’re just 21. If you don’t like that job, we’ll find you another job. We’ll do something else.’ Not only did my brother say that but also helped me convince our father.

Now I can understand what my father felt. I have an elder brother and an elder sister. My elder sister got married. My elder brother is a software professional and I got placed within a year at an MNC. So, my father would have thought, ‘All my children are settled. My duty is done. Now I can sit back and relax.’ That’s when I came to him and told him, ‘Father, I’d like to resign my job and go in search of roles in the movies.’

“I used to send my portfolio pictures to anyone’s email ID I got. I had even requested actors on social media to consider me for any role in their films. I have sent messages to almost everyone in the industry.”

At first, he was shocked and then surprised. He couldn’t even admit the fact that I wanted to resign. He genuinely felt concerned about me. I am someone who wanted to be an actor not because I felt that I was super talented but because I was fascinated by the whole process of cinema. So, he was confused. He asked, ‘You haven’t proven anything in that field. So, how can I trust that you will succeed?’ And my leaving the software job and entering a world of uncertainty was a shocker for him. Even though it took time, I could convince him. Once I convinced him, he has always supported me.

Once I resigned from my job, I didn’t want to go back to my house and depend on my father. My brother was the one who told me, ‘You don’t go home. You come with me.’ He was staying with his friends in Cochin in an apartment. So, I went there and became a parasite. He took care of all my expenses. We had a lot of fun. I used to cook for them, and I would be the entertainer in the house. From there, I used to send my portfolio pictures to anyone’s email ID I got from casting directors, directors, to producers. I had even requested actors on social media to consider me for any role in their films. I have sent messages to almost everyone in the industry.

I went to a lot of auditions and met directors personally. I was not begging for a chance. Instead, I attached my portfolio pictures and the short films I did. I only wanted to market myself. I didn’t see a point in going and begging for a role. I couldn’t lose my self-respect. So, I went and marketed myself. For six-seven months, nothing happened. Then I got a chance in Prabhuvinte Makkal. That was my first feature film.

Smriti Kiran: You did three short films before your first feature film and a hair oil commercial.

Tovino Thomas: That hair oil commercial was done after my first movie. That was done in mid-2012. In January 2012, I acted in my first feature film, which was Prabhuvinte Makkal. That movie was based on atheism, which doesn’t have many fans in Kerala. As expected, it didn’t work well in theatres. But when that movie was released online, it got very good reviews for its content.

After Prabhuvinte Makkal, nothing much happened. Again, after the shoot, I came back to Cochin and continued the same routine of messaging everyone on social media, sending emails and attending auditions. When I went for a few auditions, upon seeing my pictures they told me, ‘You don’t look like an average Malayali, so your face is not suited for Malayalam cinema.’ But from 2012 to 2021, either Malayalam cinema has changed or my face has changed. Anyway, I’m in the industry right now. But I faced my share of rejections.

“The production controller, art director, costume designer would come for discussions and I used to be the one to make tea and serve the team. So, I got connected to everyone very easily.”

Six-seven months later, I got an opportunity to work in another feature film but not as an actor. Director Roopesh Peethambaran, who directed Theevram with Dulquer Salmaan, was one of my friends. When he kickstarted the project, I went and met him and requested him to take me as an assistant. He readily agreed. I joined them during pre-production. I cook decently and I’m very proud of it – so I was the chief chef there. Simultaneously, I was learning a lot of things as an assistant director. I was there for every script narration. I was there for all 43 days of shoot. I saw actors performing in front of the camera from behind the camera. It was a huge experience for me.

The production controller, art director, costume designer would come for discussions and I used to be the one to make tea and serve the team. So, I got connected to everyone very easily. Everyone knew that I wanted to be an actor. The production controller of that movie, Alex E. Kurian was also the production controller on ABCD, which was Dulquer’s next movie, directed by Martin Prakkat. Alex wanted some of my high-quality pictures. Martin Prakkat was looking for an antagonist. I happily gave them to him. I had a bunch of pictures with my phone number and address on the back so that even if the director were to see the photos accidentally, he could easily flip it, find my contact and cast me. That’s the idea I had. So, I gave these bunch of pictures to him in an envelope and he gave them to Martin Prakkat.

At the same time, I’d worked with Abrid Shine, director of 1983 and Action Hero Biju. I used to be a model for some magazines in which he did the photoshoots. So, he suggested my name as well. He’d already shown my photos to Martin Prakkat. So, I got this opportunity to meet the director Martin Prakkat.

He’s one of my mentors. I still remember that when I went to meet him, I had a lot of facial hair. So, I looked shabby. As soon as they saw me, they rejected me. I was very disappointed. They said that they were looking for someone very well-groomed. I didn’t know anything about the character before I went there. The character was Akhilesh Varma, the son of a rich politician in Kerala. This son is coming back from Australia after completing his graduation to enter politics. So, they said that they were looking for someone very well-groomed. They told me, ‘Better luck next time. We’ll associate in some other way.’

Dulquer Salmaan, Jacob Gregory and Tovino Thomas

Then I was like, ‘Sir, will you please watch my short films?’ I had this short film with me called Jaalakam, which I did in 2012. He was very kind and asked me to play the short film. I played it on my laptop, and he sat beside me to watch it. He watched it entirely, appreciated me and said, ‘We’ll work sometime soon.’ He wished me luck. Before leaving, I asked him, ‘Sir, can I come and meet you after two days?’ He smiled and said, ‘Yes, you can come and meet me after two days.’ Right away, I went to a salon, had my hair cut short and my beard zero-trimmed.

After two days, I wore a white shirt and a white dhoti – because that’s what politicians in Kerala wear – and went as the character to meet Martin Prakkat at his apartment. I rang the bell and one of the writers of the film, Navin Bhaskar, opened the door. He looked at me for a second and said, ‘Here comes Akhilesh Varma.’ Those words from the writer himself were an instant confidence booster for me. Then, with full confidence, I went inside and gave a screen test, even Martin chetta was impressed. They said that they’d let me know in two days. Then they called me and said, ‘You are in.’ That’s how the first break happened.

Tovino Thomas and Martin Prakkat

Being a part of Dulquer Salmaan’s movie gave me a lot of visibility. People who didn’t know my name started recognising me after ABCD. I went to 10-20 shows of the film. I went to almost every theatre to watch it. So, I started getting recognised there. That’s the first movie that gave me visibility. That’s how everything started.

Smriti Kiran: With so much passion and single-minded ambition of being in the movies, it is still a very different thing to be in front of the camera when you get that opportunity. When you were in the same film as Dulquer with Martin directing you, I want to know what you learnt from that experience.

Tovino Thomas: Dulquer was very kind to me. I was already friends with him because I was an assistant director on his previous film. Even on the sets of that film, he was very kind and friendly to me.

In ABCD, I got clear instructions from Martin Prakkat. Martin Prakkat is an amazing actor too. So, he enacted what my character had to do. I just had to follow that and imitate him. I had some references for my character. I kept watching YouTube videos of certain politicians to know how they behave, learn their body language – not to imitate but to be inspired. For ABCD, I was well prepared. I remember I never took more than two takes for a scene because the day before the shoot I used to sit and learn all the lines and try different modulations. So, that way I was well-prepared before every shoot. I used to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Martin Prakkat is one of the coolest directors you can get to work with.

I would like to tell you about my first experience in front of a camera. I still remember the date. It was January 28, 2012. The shoot was happening in Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur, which is around 20-25 kilometres from my home. So, I went to the location in the morning on my motorbike. I’d gotten the script earlier. On that particular day of shooting, I had to deliver a speech. I was playing a student political leader called Che Guevara Sudheendran. I was supposed to go in the class, address the students in the class and then we all go outside on strike. That was the whole idea. It was a one-paragraph dialogue in Malayalam.

“If you’re prepared, the process becomes much easier. Sometimes, more than mugging up the lines, you have to use your presence of mind and create your own dialogue.”

For two days, I kept on rehearsing it. First, I mugged up the lines, then I tried different modulations, then I recorded it on my mobile phone. I had a Nokia X2 in which I used to record, delete and record again. I used to stand in front of the mirror and rehearse, although it was just one paragraph. But for me, it was my first experience, so I wanted to nail it.

When I went to the location on the first day, I was so nervous and excited at the same time. Whenever I got a chance, I went to some vacant room and rehearsed this paragraph to the wall. I wanted to be appreciated by everyone for making the shot in the first take itself. I believe that that enhances my confidence. I was so ready. The time came and I stood in front of the camera. Everything went blank for a few seconds. By the time the director said action, I regained my consciousness and I delivered the speech. It was an okayish take, but the director wanted a variation. So, we did another take and that was okay-ed. So, I was very happy. Unfortunately, that sequence didn’t make it past the editor’s table. All my rehearsals, all my recordings, all my mirror rehearsals went in vain.

I learnt that if you’re prepared, the process becomes much easier. I’m not talking about mugging up the lines. Sometimes, in some movies, more than mugging up the lines, you have to use your presence of mind and create your own dialogue. So, there are different ways of movie-making and different ways in which an actor has to adjust to everything. This was an amazing experience for me. Even now, when I’m standing in front of the camera, I have this nervousness but now I know how to overcome that.

Smriti Kiran: What were your chief takeaways from that experience?

Tovino Thomas: In my first few movies I was struggling to memorise the lines. Now what I believe is, learning the lines is not a big deal. You just have to be confident enough. Most of the time when we come in front of the camera, when we lose our confidence, we start forgetting our lines. But if you’re confident enough, you will never forget your lines. That’s what I learned. After three-four movies, I stopped mugging up the lines. Instead, I started to prepare myself as the character, so that I could do more improvisations. Dialogue doesn’t always have to follow the script. If I have a better dialogue within me, which in a way contributes to the movie, I can say that. So, that’s what I learned.

Smriti Kiran: When you were watching movies as a youngster you just had this desire that nobody knew about, who were the people that you admired? Who are your screen idols?

Tovino Thomas: I grew up watching Mammootty and Lalettan (Mohanlal). Even before I was born, my parents used to be hardcore movie buffs. My father and mother used to go to the theatres every week. But when my sister was born, they understood that it’s not an easy task to go with the toddler to the movies. By the time they finished the movie, they’d have to search under the seats of the theatre to find my sister. So, they stopped going to the theatres. Instead, my father started renting video cassettes. As far as I can remember, Fridays were movie nights for us. When I was a kid, every Friday, my father rented one video cassette and came home and the entire family would sit together and watch the movie.

“When I was growing up, my brother and I started going to locations. I have waited in front of caravans and in the crowd to just get a glimpse of any actor. I saw Mammootty and Lalettan in real life only after entering the film industry.”

So, we rented the video cassettes on Friday. Saturday and Sunday are holidays. So, you didn’t have to return it until Monday. My brother and I would watch the same movie again on Saturday morning and Sunday morning. We were so addicted to watching movies. We never missed any movie that came on Doordarshan on Saturday nights or Sunday evenings. We used to watch as many movies as possible because we loved movies. Even though my brother is not working in the film industry, he watches every movie that releases – not only mine. He tries to watch the movie first-day-first-show.

Back then, my locality used to be a place where a lot of film shoots happened. So, my father used to take the whole family to watch them. We would stand in the crowd and watch the process. We have gone to many locations. When I was growing up, my brother and I started going to locations. I have waited in front of caravans and in the crowd to just get a glimpse of any actor. I saw Mammootty and Lalettan in real life only after entering the film industry. I still have that excitement and nervousness when I see them. I consider myself damn lucky to share screen space with every actor I admire or to interact with them and see them in person. Deep down I’m still the same old small boy who was excited to watch them on screen.

Smriti Kiran: How do you hold your own when some of the people that you really admire, like Mohanlal, Prithviraj Sukumaran, are placed right next to you in your early years?

Tovino Thomas: I still remember sharing screen space with Lalettan for the first time. It was in the movie Koothara. This was before I could work with Prithviraj in 7th Day. We were shooting in a coastal area. We were all waiting for Lalettan to come. When Lalettan came, he couldn’t get down from the car and reach the location. It was hardly 200 metres. Because of the crowd who came to see Lalettan, we couldn’t start shooting. Lalettan was stuck inside the car. Finally, he was the one to tell everyone to give him way, after which everyone finally obeyed and he came to the set.

Tovino Thomas and Mohanlal on the sets of Koothara

It was a competition sequence with me, Lalettan, Sunny Wayne and Bharath. When I stood in front of Lalettan, every character of his that I have seen and admired flashed through my mind. I was dumbstruck for some time. He was the one who made all of us comfortable. He treated us like younger brothers and friends. He made us comfortable. Whenever we made any mistakes, he corrected us. Like in a particular scene, I was supposed to turn to the left but I didn’t. So Lalettan casually put his hand over my shoulder and pressed lightly to remind me to turn left. He not only acts well but also helps us act well.

Smriti Kiran: When you started out and when you started working, did you feel that maybe if you had the opportunity of formal education, you might’ve gone in for that and that might have helped you?

Tovino Thomas: Acting comes naturally to us humans. Whether you agree or disagree, I know for a fact that we all act in our day-to-day life. We smile when we are not happy and we cry when we are not sad. We keep on acting to make others happy. So, acting comes naturally to us, but I wish I had gone to a film school not to learn acting but to learn acting techniques, to learn how to approach the script, how to prepare for a character. There are exercises that can help you acquire the character. If you want your character to be relaxed, there are exercises which can relax your body and mind. If your character is an aggressive one, there are exercises that make you aggressive physically and mentally. So, I wish I had a chance to go to a film school and learn instead of going to an engineering college.

In 2012, I signed for this never-ending acting course in the Malayalam film industry. I’m learning directly from the maestros. I’m working with brilliant directors, actors, and technicians. So, I’m learning a lot of aspects of filmmaking and acting, and it never ends. I keep on learning from every movie. So, I don’t regret not going to film school.

I have friends who have gone to film school and from them, I’ve learned techniques of acting, exercises that we can do. We get advice from senior actors, which is not theoretical advice. That’s experience speaking, which works more than theory.

Smriti Kiran: Ennu Ninte Moideen gave you a lot of visibility subsequently but Guppy and Mayaanadhi gave you a lot of credibility as an artist. Did things change for you after that? When you get that kind of visibility and credibility as an artist, did you have to change the way you were accepting roles, looking at your career path, or did the industry also change the way they looked at you as an artist?

Tovino Thomas: Ennu Ninte Moideen was a Prithviraj starrer. People came to the theatre to watch Mr Prithviraj and Parvathy (Thiruvothu). Along with them, they noticed my character as well. I also got noticed after that movie. Before Ennu Ninte Moideen, I used to get a very limited number of offers, but after Ennu Ninte Moideen, I got numerous offers. Even though I did a supporting role in that particular movie, most of the roles I got were for positive leads – like somehow that movie made filmmakers consider me as a lead actor rather than a supporting actor. So, definitely, Ennu Ninte Moideen was a turning point in my career. After that, I started getting a lot of offers.

Tovino Thomas in Ennu Ninte Moideen

Then came Guppy. It failed at the box office. It didn’t do well. I wasn’t a big star then, and since there weren’t any big stars in the movie, people were not very excited to go and watch the movie in theatres. It bombed at the box office. It didn’t even run for 30 days. We were all very excited about that movie and had high hopes for that movie because we all knew that we had made a beautiful movie, but it was demoralising and disappointing for the whole crew.

After a few months, we got this overwhelming response from the audience when the movie DVDs were out and when the world premiere happened on a prime television channel. A lot of people watched the movie using pirated copies. After that, I started getting apology messages on my social media handles. Most of the messages said, ‘We are sorry that we missed this beautiful movie in the theatre, but we promise that we’ll watch your next movie in the theatre,’ and they kept their word. My very next movie, Oru Mexican Aparatha, was a huge commercial hit. But I still believe that Guppy was a better movie. Oru Mexican Aparatha was the movie that made me bankable.

Tovino Thomas in Guppy

After that, Godha, Tharangam and Mayaanadhi happened. Mayaanadhi is a really special movie in my career. I believe a movie is successful when it’s successful in all aspects, like commercially and critically. A good movie will last in people’s minds. Mayaanadhi did so well at the box office and the movie also got very good critical acclaim. My performance was appreciated. Maathan still tops my favourite characters’ list. I know many others feel the same. A lot of them like Maathan a lot.

Tovino Thomas in Mayaanadhi

Smriti Kiran: It was considered your breakout role. You were also working with Aashiq Abu who is now considered an institution and someone who was a part of the gang of people who changed Malayalam cinema.

Tovino Thomas: Yes. It was a dream. To work with Aashiq etta, Syam etta, Jayesh, Aishwarya and the whole team was a dream. They were brilliant. When the team is brilliant, we cannot go bad. We will never perform badly. They enhance our performance. The team will take care of it.

“The industry doesn’t need us. We are the ones who need cinema. So, we have to update ourselves and keep on doing good movies.”

But even after that, the struggle continues. In our industry, we all know, after a success, we get back-to-back movies. That happens. But success is another track. The struggle, however, is constant in Malayalam cinema, or any other cinema for that matter. The first struggle is to show our face on the big screen. Once we accomplish that, the next struggle begins: to do a character with the dialogue. Once we accomplish that, the next struggle begins: to get a break as a lead character. If we accomplish that, then comes the biggest struggle: survival in the industry. We cannot make a good movie and use that movie for another 10-20 years. We have to try to do a lot of good movies. If we give one hit movie and five flops, we’ll easily be out of the industry. The industry doesn’t need us. We are the ones who need cinema. Cinema doesn’t need any of us. So, we have to update ourselves and keep on doing good movies.

Also, when you are an underdog, you will get some considerations. If you have done a good job, people will appreciate it. They’ll definitely appreciate you when you are an underdog. But after being successful, when you are no longer an underdog, then comes the tricky part. Audiences will appreciate you only if you are extraordinary. They won’t appreciate a good performance. They’ll appreciate only the extraordinary performances because once you are not an underdog, you are privileged. So, they expect more from us. We have to work hard. I constantly try to impress the audience. And that’s the thrill. That struggle is the best thing about the industry. That’s what keeps the fire in us alive.

Smriti Kiran: Also, you cater to a very tough crowd. It’s not an easy crowd to please.

Tovino Thomas: We cannot fool them. Malayalis watch movies in all languages. That makes our competition tougher because the Malayalam industry is competing with everyone. Nowadays, they have OTT. They have this exposure to world cinema. So, we cannot fool them. We have to update ourselves.

“Stardom is not what excites me. Being called a good actor is what excites me.”

We also want Malayalam movies to be noticed pan-India. We believe we make good content, very few people from other states watch Malayalam movies. Now things are changing with OTT. We have dubbed Kala in Tamil. So, Tamil audiences can relate to the movie easily. Its Telugu version is coming out on Aha Video. The Hindi rights have been sold. So, soon everyone will watch Malayalam movies.

Smriti Kiran: You said in an interview, ‘I think I get more experience as an actor when I do films in which I am not the hero.’ What did you mean by that?

Tovino Thomas: When I keep on doing these positive lead characters back-to-back for a while, I’m not doing anything new. It becomes a repetition of what I’ve done before. I had this unpredictability when I was not a successful actor. I want my unpredictability back. People shouldn’t predict what I’m going to do on screen next. If we are being predictable, then for an actor the whole process can be a bit boring. If I’m getting bored of myself, how can I expect people to not get bored when they watch my movies? So, I wanted to break it.

I want to do villain roles, good character roles, which I’ve done in Lucifer, Uyare and Virus. I’m open to villain roles even now. I’ve done one in 2018, and recently, in Kala. I’m proud of that.

Stardom is not what excites me. Being called a good actor is what excites me. I’ve been saying this from the beginning of my career. If you ask me 10 years later, even then I’ll still be trying to prove myself as a good actor. There might be people who enjoy stardom. Stardom is good. I don’t mean to say stardom is bad. But, for me, as an actor, sometimes stardom is a burden. I don’t want to be known with a particular image. I want to be a shapeshifter. I want to be the one who does all kinds of roles. I don’t want to limit myself.

Smriti Kiran: But, Tovino, stardom is like social media. It depends on how you use it, and you’re using it to propel work like Kala.

Tovino Thomas: A lot of people couldn’t digest the ending of Kala just because they see me as a star. I want people to see me just as an actor. That gives me more freedom to try out new things. When I’m doing different kinds of characters, I’m exploring myself, I’m experimenting with myself and I’m becoming a better actor. That’s what I believe.

Smriti Kiran: You’re very comfortable putting your ambition out there. When you put your ambition out there, you also become slightly vulnerable because people know what you want. Do you ever feel like that?

Tovino Thomas: What’s wrong with being vulnerable? Yes, I am vulnerable and I admit that – most of us are. I don’t find any problem with that. I am what I am. I cannot fake it in front of others. So, this is what I want.

Smriti Kiran: Tovino, you operate in an industry that has a very strong ensemble culture. Actors very routinely shift from character roles to main leads and back to character roles. But then, it must get competitive at some level. Is there competition?

Tovino Thomas: Yes, there is competition. For instance, in Virus, a lot of prominent actors from the Malayalam industry came together and collaborated by understanding the seriousness of the movie. We were all very excited about the content that we were speaking about. So, we all came together and started working. We might have had this healthy competition within ourselves to be the best performer among the lot, which made the movie better and which eventually contributed to the interest of all. I think such healthy competition is there, and I’m proud of it.

But the best thing, and what people don’t know, is that all of us were so happy working together. We all are very good friends. We all talk over messages. We have WhatsApp groups, and we all are in touch. We don’t get such opportunities very often. So, when we got such an opportunity, we had a blast. Every day we were so happy.

Virus (2019)

Smriti Kiran: Another aspect of filmmaking in your industry is that the films are very politically aware and the films make statements while being thrilling. Kala is a very thrilling film, it’s very visceral, but it’s talking about something extremely important. How much of that politics of a film and of what you’re saying also need to be reflected in the person who’s the vehicle for that message?

Tovino Thomas: I’m also the producer of Kala. So, the politics that we spoke of in Kala was shared by everyone – me, the director, the cameraman, the writers and other producers. Everyone in the crew had the same opinion. The ultimate aim of this medium is entertainment. But if we can put forward a political idea without compromising the film, I think that’s great. Yes, political correctness matters if we are talking about politics in that movie. I don’t think we have to incorporate politics in every movie that we do. There are some movies which are not discussing any political issues, and that’s fine. That entertains people. I would like to do such movies.

When I’m acting in that movie and when I decide to produce that movie, that means that I agree with the politics spoken about in the film. If I’m doing some other film and some other ideas are being projected through that movie, even if I have a different opinion, I will still read the script and as long as it’s not sending out any toxic ideas, I’ll be a part of the film. I don’t look for political correctness in anything and everything. I understand my responsibility as an actor and influencer. I don’t want to be a bad role model. I can do villain roles, but villains don’t care about political correctness. I don’t want my movies to give out toxic ideas, because cinema is one of the most influential and popular art forms. It can influence millions. So, everyone working in movies should understand the responsibility.

Tovino Thomas in Kala

Smriti Kiran: Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil, Prithviraj, Nivin Pauly, Asif Ali all have production houses now. Is it a natural step for an actor at some stage to turn producer? Does it give you more control over the material? Or are there other larger plans for your company that go beyond the films that you’re featuring in?

Tovino Thomas: I don’t have any plans to be a full-time producer. I just want to concentrate on my acting career. You call me an accidental producer. In 2015, I listened to the script of Kilometers and Kilometers. We couldn’t find any producers who would fund that movie. I didn’t have any market value or bankability then. I loved the script, and I love Jeo as a person and as a filmmaker. His ideas are so sharp. I was really impressed by the script of the movie. Monetary benefits are secondary. I wanted this movie to come out well. I wanted people to watch my movie. If my being a producer helps in that, I’ll be the producer. That’s what I thought then.

On the sets of Kilometers and Kilometers

And later on, I didn’t have any plans to produce, but in the last lockdown, director Rohith VS narrated the script of Kala to me. Rohith, me and the cinematographer of the movie, Akhil George, used to do short films together in 2012. All three of us came into the industry, but we never got a chance to work together. With Akhil, I worked in Forensic. He was the cinematographer. But the three of us worked together in 2020. So, when Rohith narrated this script, I was so excited. I loved every aspect of the movie, including the politics. I respect Rohith as a filmmaker. I don’t think his previous movies were blockbusters or huge commercial hits, but they were good movies. I could see the filmmaker in him. I was more than happy to work with him.

“I don’t want my movies to give out toxic ideas, because cinema is one of the most influential and popular art forms.”

We didn’t want to go to a normal producer for this movie. We didn’t want to give all the burden to one single producer. It was lockdown time. We had no clue what was going to happen after the lockdown when this movie would be ready. We didn’t have any business ideas. We were not sure if we’d be able to get back the money we’d have put in. Theatres were closed, then. The OTTs would not buy all the movies, instead, they were handpicking the movies. We didn’t know how the business would work after the pandemic. So, we didn’t want one single producer to take all the burden. We called Siju Mathew and Navis Xaviour, producers of Forensic, and asked them if they’d want to be one of the partners. And finally, the movie was produced by Siju Mathew and Navis Xaviour’s Juvis Productions, my Tovino Thomas Productions and Akhil and Rohith’s Adventure Company. So, whatever responsibility we had, we shared it. We had decided that if the movie is profitable, we’ll share the profit; if it’s a failure, let’s share the loss. That’s how movies should be. I could have easily got my remuneration and secured my salary. But that’s not what matters. We want this kind of work culture to happen.

The next movie that I’m producing is with Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. We are producing Vazhakku together. So, again, we are sharing the responsibility. If I get my full remuneration and the movie bombs at the box office, then I cannot be happy. It’s not about money. It’s about movies.

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Tovino Thomas

Smriti Kiran: A good artist becoming a star becomes a plus because you can then go ahead and enable cinema and stories that you actually want to put out there. So, Tovino Thomas Productions is basically you empowering the stories that you would like to tell?

Tovino Thomas: Yes, it’s very simple, but I cannot keep doing this for a long time. I might go bankrupt because I am not choosing safe movies. I don’t want to be the producer of safe-bet movies. I can do some movies and sell them. I can do the business before the release and get some table profit, and I can sit back and relax, but I don’t want to do that. I want to do something different. That’s why I did Kala. That’s why I’m doing Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Vazhakku.

Smriti Kiran: In Kala, you’re not playing a man one would root for. Eventually, it becomes about redemption and not revenge. But when you do something like that, what exactly is going on in your head? How do you balance that out and feel that if I’ve taken up this project, let me do this project and let me also take on two or three projects that would not put me in a position like this?

Tovino Thomas: Shaji was not an easy character to portray. Until a point, everyone thinks Shaji is the hero and only midway do people get to know his true colours. Shaji is a manipulator. He manipulates his wife, his father, his workers and he is even trying to manipulate his enemy. I believe Shaji had so many layers. We have hidden a lot of things in the movie, which people can find in the second viewing. That’s what brilliant filmmakers do. I love Rohith for that. For every shot, he wanted something extraordinary.

That character was a tricky character to play. It needed to be subtle. The character needed to be relatable to a lot of them. Only if that character is relatable to people, the movie’s politics will work. Shaji is not a bad guy. He is a normal guy. I could relate to him. Everyone can relate to him.

Smriti Kiran: He’s a product of conditioning.

Tovino Thomas: Yes, exactly. So, that was not an easy character to play.

I had a good scope to act. As far as what my director and well-wishers have told me, I have done justice to the character. So, that’s what matters. It’s not about winning in every movie. Sometimes, losing in the end or letting someone else win gives me satisfaction. As a person, I believe that the politics we talked about in that movie is so important. A lot of people who have seen this movie see it as a fight movie. It’s not entirely a fight movie. If you think it’s a fight movie, then you have seen only the superficial layer of the movie. Maybe if you watch the movie one more time, you will get a lot of hidden things.

We had other brilliant actors in the movie. We had Sumesh Moor, who played the guy opposite to me. He’s a brilliant actor. When he is being appreciated, I am the one who’s proud. It’s our movie. That’s what we wanted. As a team, we wanted people to clap when Moor won. That’s when a movie works.

Sumesh Moor and Tovino Thomas in Kala

Smriti Kiran: What space do you see yourself occupying when you think of yourself standing beside other actors that work in the industry like Nivin, Asif, Kunchako Boban, Dulquer, Fahadh, Prithviraj, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Roshan Mathew? You are somebody who has created opportunity for yourself from scratch and then moved into the frame with great effort.

Tovino Thomas: I’m really happy that the Malayalam industry is blessed with brilliant actors, exceptional directors, writers, and technicians. Right now, I believe, apart from the pandemic, the Malayalam industry is growing at a very fast pace. It’s in a growing phase. We cannot compete in terms of budget, but we can come out with good content and brilliant performances. In the last two years, we have seen brilliant performances from all these actors and brilliant movies being made, even I have been part of some brilliant movies. So, I consider the Malayalam industry as a team, and I consider all other actors my teammates. Naturally, I’m this team player. That’s my space. I, along with all my teammates, am trying to take Malayalam cinema to another level. I have a set of movies, which I believe will contribute to the growth of the industry.

I really want the Malayalam industry to be noticed by everyone over the world. I just want the Malayalam industry to go international. When the Malayalam industry goes international, everyone grows with the industry. Yes, we have healthy competition among us, but I don’t see them as competitors. I see them as my teammates. We are working together for something. That’s my space. We are not doing similar movies. I’m doing my kind of movies. They are doing their kind of movies. So, we are taking a lot of effort to make different kinds of movies. We are a team, you know?

Smriti Kiran: A lot of people want to know when Minal Murali and 2403 ft. are coming out.

Tovino Thomas: 2403 ft. is a movie directed by Jude Anthany Joseph. Minal Murali is directed by Basil Joseph. The latter is almost completed, but we have to discuss it with Corona when we can release the movie. Corona is the one that decides. It comes and breaks all our plans.

We make plan A and Corona comes and spoils it. We made plan B, again Corona spoiled it. Right now, we are making plan C. The movie’s shoot is almost completed, but as it’s a lockdown here, we are not able to do the post-production. We have just two-three days of shooting remaining. While we were shooting, I got detected with Corona and we had to reschedule the movie. We want this movie to be the best. It’s a dream project for me, Basil, the producers, and everybody who has worked on the movie. We have high hopes for the movie. That movie is something I want to promote all over India. I want that movie to be coming out as a pan-Indian movie. So, I believe that the team will work hard and release the perfect output only. We will not release the movie if we are not happy with it. So, as of now, we are happy with the movie. The only thing remaining is post-production. It should get its time. We don’t have much computer graphics, but whatever we have, we want it to look real. Dubbing and DI remaining, the final edit is not locked. So, Corona has to decide. If it leaves early, we will release the movie early.

Smriti Kiran: There is this association that gets credited in your movies. What is that association?

Tovino Thomas: I was someone who never wanted a fans’ association. But after Guppy’s failure, I had to rethink. After Oru Mexican Aparatha, some issues happened. That also made me rethink. I want someone who supports me, who comes to the theatre and watches my movie on the first day. I have met every one of them and given clear instructions to them, and to know the fact that I am friends with everyone in the industry. You might think that my contemporary actors are my rivals, but they are not. I’m always in touch with them. I watch their movies. I love them. I respect them. So, just because you love me, you don’t have to hate anyone else. So, I wanted to make sure that the Tovino Fans’ Association is not making trouble. I never want to hear that.

For good movies to get noticed, fans help. I’ve told them that they have responsibilities towards their family and friends and that cinema is just a medium of entertainment, and I’m only someone who is acting in the movies. So, for me, cinema is the first priority. It’s not necessary that it should be their first priority. I don’t want them to spoil their lives for me. Whenever one of my films releases, if they want, they have an association, they have WhatsApp on which they can plan and come together to watch the movie. I have never had any of my fans troubling anyone. I’m very proud of them.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube

Tushar Sasi: How do you internalise complex characters like Maathan, who have many layers? Even, for that matter, your character in Virus. There was a lot that was expressed without using dialogues. How do you get under the skin of such characters and maintain a balance between what to show and what to conceal?

Tovino Thomas: I consider myself lucky to work with good crews, good directors and good writers. When I’m working with a good crew, they give me a clear picture of what to do and what not to do. In Virus and Mayaanadhi, I’ll give half the credit to Mr Aashiq Abu. He’s one of the coolest directors I’ve ever worked with. He is someone who makes sure that every artist working in his movie is comfortable. He takes special care and he makes sure that everyone is comfortable. He is also a very good technician.

Aashiq Abu and Tovino Thomas

Whenever I listen to a script and when I’m committing to a script, I talk to the directors and writers. I have these long discussions and conversations about the character which I’m playing. Even if some parts of his past are not being shown in the movie, I want to know it. I want to know the whereabouts of this character. Even if it’s not important in the movie, I want to know. So, I ask. In Mayaanadhi, Mr Syam Pushkaran, who is a brilliant writer, and in Virus, Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas, had done nine months of research before writing. Only the writers could give me a clear picture of these characters. If I’ve done anything good, I give all the credit to my directors, to my writers, my co-actors and my team.

Rimoh Jacob: Was Kala the inspiration for you to start Tovino Thomas Productions?

Tovino Thomas: : I still don’t have a plan to be a full-time producer. When I did Kilometers and Kilometers, I thought that’d be the only movie I’d ever produce. But when I decided to produce Kala, when I decided to share the responsibility, I thought that I will launch a production house. If more movies like Kala happen, I want a proper production house to be able to produce them. Maybe, years later, if I find exciting scripts and I’m capable of producing movies individually, I might do that.

Still, I don’t have any plans to change my focus from my acting career. So, whenever I’m producing a movie, I’ll have an executive producer. I am not the one who’ll go and check the accounts and all. At least, on my part, I can back them.

For Kala, we had a very enthusiastic team. We completed shooting that movie in 45 days. It wasn’t an easy task to complete shooting the movie in 45 days. On the last day of shooting, we shot for more than 36 hours without break, without sleeping. We started shooting in the morning and shot through the night, and the next day by 11- or 12 o’clock we broke the shoot. It was because we had such a passionate crew to work with. That’s when I want to produce movies. If people working in my movies are working hard and think that it’s their movie then I’m happy to produce the movie, but only as long as I have enough money.

Uttkarsh Sharma: What process do you follow to prepare for any character or film? Also, you’ve worked in both the Tamil and Malayalam film industries. Do you see any difference in the work culture of the two industries?

Tovino Thomas: : First, I’ll read the script a couple of times, so that I have a basic idea of what the movie is about. Then, I request the writer and director to fix a time to start discussing the character. Since they have created the character, I need maximum input from them. At the same time, since I have read the script I’ll be having my own doubts and suggestions. Most of the time, I feel lucky that I have gotten the space and freedom to talk to them, ask my doubts and clarify things. So, we have long discussions, and by the end of the discussions, we conclude on the design of the character. And while being on the shooting spot, using our presence of mind, we may improvise. Basically, this is the process.

About the working culture in the Tamil and Malayalam film industries, the process is the same. Everyone is passionate about the movies that they make. The only difference is in the extravagance. Malayalam is a small industry – we work in comparatively constrained environments, and Tamil is a bigger industry, so there are lots of extravagances. Nonetheless, in both industries, there are brilliant filmmakers, performers, exceptional writers, and beautiful movies are being made.

Akshay Anil: As an actor, what is your biggest limitation? And how do you plan to overcome it?

Tovino Thomas: I have a lot of weaknesses, I have a lot of limitations, but my biggest strength is that I know how to hide them. I don’t give away my weaknesses or my limitations. I don’t talk that way. But I am very much aware of my limitations, and I am working on each one of them. So, as an actor, when I improve, maybe you might have noticed some of my limitations. In my coming movies, you won’t find them again. I’m working on each and everything.

I’m not a fool. I’m watching all my movies. I’m watching all my interviews. I am watching myself in the mirror. I’m the one who knows myself the most. So, I would say that my biggest strength is that I will not reveal any of my limitations. I agree that I have limitations, but I don’t want to reveal them. I’m a hard worker. I’ll work hard and overcome all my limitations. I’m damn sure about it.

Sreehari Ajith: After working for almost 10 years, what advice would you give to an aspiring actor who wants to get into Malayalam cinema?

Tovino Thomas: I don’t see myself as someone who can give advice as I’m still a struggling actor. I’m struggling to survive. I can still tell you something from my experience. Just keep your focus alive and work hard. There will be people who will judge you, abuse you, criticise you. People will try to pull you down, but never give them your ears. You just keep your focus alive and work hard. If you are an acting aspirant who wants to get into movies, then give your hundred percent in whatever you do; and once you start acting in movies, give your hundred percent. Hard workers who dream a lot, who work hard and never give their ears to bullshit like that will definitely achieve success for sure. I’m an example. Before coming to the movies, I wasn’t even sure if I knew how to act. I came here and learnt. I gave my hundred percent in every movie I did. I don’t think I’m super-talented or a born actor, but I’m learning. I’m still learning. That’s it. Not only in the cinema industry but also in any other industry, the key is focus. Keep your focus alive and work hard.

Shashank Pallav: How do you aspire to be fresh in every character that you do? Because there are chances that you may repeat certain nuances in characters. Also, you haven’t been to any film school. How do you resist the urge of not going to one and continue working?

Tovino Thomas: If you still want to go to a film school, don’t miss your chance. But if you’re not in a position to go to a film school, just go out. The world is such a huge film school. We have to act 24×7 to live in this fake society. So, you’ll learn acting.

I worked at Cognizant. I worked there as a software engineer for one year. I even became one of the team leads without even knowing the basics of C and C++. I learned acting from there. I acted as a software engineer. My teammates used to work and I used to act as if I was one of them and as if I was working. So, we use some real-life opportunities to learn acting.

You can learn acting techniques from different books that are available. You have Masterclasses available. I am taking a Masterclass right now by Natalie Portman. I want to learn new techniques of acting and I want to know how other actors prepare.

I had the problem of thinking that I was repeating things. As a human being, I tend to repeat. When I’m expressing something, there’s a tendency for any human being to do it in different ways. If ‘m smiling like this, I know I can smile in many different ways. One smile itself can mean a lot of things. So, I’m now trying to learn micro-expressions, and in this lockdown, I’m watching my old movies and evaluating myself and seeing how many times I’ve repeated something. So, self-evaluation is the only way to overcome repeating.

When we grow up and mature, our reactions might naturally change. I consciously try not to repeat, and that is one of the reasons why I want to do different kinds of characters. If I’m doing the same kind of character of a guy who comes and saves the village in 10 movies, I’ll be out of stock in emotions. How can I express the same thing in more than 10 different ways? So, self-evaluation and doing as many different characters as possible is important.

Athira Menon: Pay parity has been a discussion in every industry including the movie industry. As a producer, will you pay the same amount for both male and female actors? What are your views on this?

Tovino Thomas: I don’t think pay is decided by gender. As far as I know, in this industry, pay is decided by market value. When I was working on my initial movies, my first movie’s salary was zero, my second movie’s salary was 20,000 rupees, my third movie salary was 75,000 rupees. I was still a male, then. I didn’t get paid in lakhs and crores. Slowly, as I kept on working, people started coming to the theatre to watch my movies. Then, I started demanding. That’s a very simple process. It doesn’t depend on gender at all.

If you want to blame someone, blame the audience. Let the audience come and watch female-centric movies like they come and watch male-centric movies. That’s the only solution to solve this pay disparity discussion. So, it does not at all depend on gender. It depends on market value. I’ve noticed that for female-centric movies, we don’t see the same rush that we see in male-centric movies. So. I think our audience should re-think. They should rush to the theatres to watch female-centric movies. In Uyare, that happened. People came to theatres for Parvathy (Thiruvothu), who is getting paid well.

I’m telling you from my experience. I used to get paid very little. I still belong to the same gender and getting paid more now. Why? I know a lot of female actors who get paid more than me. That’s because people are coming to theatres to watch their movies. So, market value is not decided by the actors or producers, but by the audience.

Society has a way of correcting itself. Similarly, every industry is correcting itself. It takes time, but it’s happening for sure. Nowadays, I don’t feel discrimination is happening so much in Malayalam cinema. I know brilliant female actors who are being respected more than male actors. And I know female actors who are getting paid more than male actors. And I used to get paid very less when other female artists in the same movie used to get paid double, triple, or 10 times more than me. So, it’s happening. There might be different cases, I don’t know, but at least in the movies that I have worked on, they have been treated equally in all ways.

In the movies that I produce, I make sure that female actors or any other actor acting in the movie will be staying in similar kinds of rooms as I stay in. We eat similar food. I will never discriminate. I think the new generation is very much aware of that and they won’t discriminate. That’s what I believe. In older generations, they might have done that. And that is a problem.

Kenshin Aamir Hamza: As an actor and producer, do you incorporate homages for people in your performances or in the choices you make as a producer, even if they are not part of the narrative of the film?

Tovino Thomas: I grew up watching my senior actors. So, even if I don’t want to imitate them, there will be influences of them in my acting or maybe even in my real life. When I want to ask someone, ‘Enda mone?’ I’ll tend to ask it by imitating Lalettan. That’s because I grew up watching them. So, definitely, there will be an influence.

But in movies, I try my best not to purposefully imitate anyone. I try to do it in my own way. In Godha, I had a small bit in which I’m imitating Lalettan. That scene demanded that. If any particular scene demands such a tribute or homage, I’ll definitely do it.

I may have unknowingly invoked people who aren’t a part of the narrative of cinema in my life, but I don’t think I have ever done it knowingly. Unknowingly, yes, I may have done something like that. Like, whenever I choose a character, I try to find someone who is very similar to that character, so that he will be my reference. I do that. Most people won’t know it because it could be anybody from my father, grandfather to my brother as a reference.

Tehseen: Is there any Malayalam movie from the ‘90s that you’d like to remake?

Tovino Thomas: I’m a huge fan of ‘90s Malayalam movies. I don’t want to remake any of those movies. I love the original. If the original is still there, then why do we have to remake it? An adaptation or taking inspiration from an old movie is fine. But I don’t find a point in remakes. I don’t want to remake any movies. But getting inspired from a movie, making a different movie is fine. Why do we have to do the same movie with the same shots? Let the original be there.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Tovino Thomas in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

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