Unni Mukundan is by far the fittest man in the Malayalam film industry. He leads an extremely disciplined life and is a fitness freak. Sometime in the future, Unni might just consider fitness training as an alternative career option.
Just scroll through his Facebook account and you’ll see it is filled with followers posting their daily workout regime and the actor commenting on how they’ve fared and egging them on to do better. “Fitness comes first before anything for me,” he said as we begin the conversation.
Unni is many things — handsome, intelligent, down to earth and quick witted — but as that story reveals, one characteristic he is good at is being philosophical. He wanted to retire at the age of 30 and wanted to be a philosopher.
“You know when my teacher asked me what I wanted to become, this is what I said — enjoy my freedom at 30, both mental and financial,” he said with a smile. Unni laughs a lot after saying things you suspect are uttered with complete conviction. In his native Kerala, Unni has garnered huge popularity; he has appeared in close to 20 films and has now entered Telugu film industry.
In this interview, Unni talks extensively on why he gives scripting the first priority, about his films, fitness and the road ahead.
Experts from the interview:
Are there any short cuts to building your body?
You need to be patient; you need to experience your muscle growth. These days people just want to pump up their muscles in three months. That cannot be done without resorting to many artificial and harmful things. If your forearms are growing, experience them growing slowly. How can your body swell like a balloon in three months? I am happy that I never got tempted, as I know it is unreal.
Since the beginning of your career, you were heavily criticised for your cold acting skills. How did you take those criticisms?
It was tough initially. I must admit the fact that I am an outsider. When I started off, I never had any previous experience of acting and I never came from a family with a film background. So in the beginning it was quite difficult when I used to hear such criticism.
People used to say I cannot act. I used to get hurt and you know at one stage, I thought of quitting films but that’s when I realised that the biggest challenge in acting is patience. If you run away, you will only continue to do that. If you want to achieve success, you need to be patient and do roles that are best suited for you. That’s when acclaimed Director Lal Jose offered me a role in Vikramadithyan and things began to fall in place soon after that. I have learnt that there are lots of people who don’t have extraordinary things happen to them and who still live quite intense lives. So that is something quite inspiring for me.
In the beginning, it must have been a difficult phase in your career?
Yes, that was quite a difficult time. I must say, I was on a journey. A journey in which I learnt about failure and its side effects. You know, failure can be a spur. It is harder to grasp that success is not necessarily easy either. For obvious reasons, people are less likely to talk about it. That is my discovery. What I have understood over a period of time is that, if your movie is a hit, people consider you as a good actor and if your movie fails, then they see you as a bad actor.
You could have certainly become a philosopher.
(Laughs). You won’t believe, when I was in school, a teacher asked what I wanted to become. I told her I wanted to retire at the age of 30 and enjoy my own freedom. Philosophy was in my mind then.
Why do you think the actor gets all the blame when a big film flops?
Today, if an actor opts to do a film and it flops, it becomes the actor’s fault. No actor in his right mind chooses a film believing that it will be a disaster. When a film flops, actors get confused. Where you want to go, you don’t know. When you hear a beautiful script that has elements of action, romance and comedy that makes you almost fall off your chair, you must do that film, but again it all depends on how people accept that.
Have you learnt to take this criticism in your stride? How do you feel when people come and talk to you directly about a movie flopping?
People always speak to me regularly. Some say why not another Mallu Singh? When I say it can happen only once, the next response will be you should have done more films. You should do more of this, more of that. You can be more successful if you do more films, but it’s all relative. It all depends on your definition of success.
The road to success is harder. It’s never easy. Moving forward is more important. For me, success is about not greed; that you should not be greedy. Success for me is to be able to be yourself.
What is your definition of success?
The road to success is harder. It’s never easy. Moving forward is more important. For me, success is about not greed; that you should not be greedy. Success for me is to be able to be yourself. Success for me is to be able to change people’s lives through my work, through my deeds and through my thoughts. When my movie is a box-office hit, that is success for me. Like I told you, I come from a non-film background, and I have fought it, survived it and if I have reached this stage, then that is my success.
You made your debut in 2011. It has been six years since you are in the industry. Looking back, how was the journey?
I could have done more films. I think I acted in close to 20 films in the last six years. It could be because I used to take a lot of time doing one film. Pathiramanal took around eight months, so did Orissa and other films. It was more of a learning stage for me. If you look back, in the last two years, after Vikramadithyan, the pace at which I started to do films has increased.
I come from a non-film background, and I have fought it, survived it and if I have reached this stage, then that is my success.
Ever since then, Vikramadithyan, I must say you have brought a lot of originality to your acting. You have done some meaningful roles in the last two years. How much effort do you put into building a character?
That is a compliment from you (laughs). In the beginning, I was termed as an actor, who cannot act and from there to reach this stage where people praise for my work is an achievement. You know, I always give my 100 per cent while doing a film. KL-10 Pathu is a movie that is close to my heart simply because I learnt this particular Malayalam slang and it took some time from me, but it was worth studying it and then experimenting with it in front of the camera. More than that, I feel that an actor shouldn’t think much of the box office results. That is something, which can go either way. You should always keep expecting good results. My idea of doing a film is to connect with the audience and to get everyone involved and participate. If you do the same kind of roles then it becomes a cliché.
That is why films like Premam, which is a love story, go on to become the biggest box-office hits?
I think for a film like Premam, you need to give full credit to its Director Alphonse Puthran. Only a person, who is so passionate about cinema, can make it. Alphonse has created a classic out of Premam and it will be in our minds forever. Films like Premam can only happen once.
You have worked with the two big Ms of Malayalam cinema—Mohanlal and Mammootty. How was that experience?
Working with Lalettan (Mohanlal) in Janatha Garage was like a career high moment for me. Despite being a superstar, he is so humble and supportive. He is a textbook for any aspiring actor. During the shooting of Janatha Garage, he complimented my acting. I had the opportunity to work with Mammukka in two films and I must say it was a lifetime experience. You get to learn a lot from him. In fact, I am blessed to have worked with both the legends.
What are your upcoming projects?
Avarude Raavukal with Asif Ali, Vinay Fort and Aju Varghese, a Telugu film entitled, Bhagmati and Achayans with Jayaram in Malayalam.
In the next five years, where can we see Unni Mukundan?
Maybe in the director’s seat. (Laughs). Not soon, but I aspire to become a director. It’s not an easy thing but this has been in my mind for quite some time and I am working towards that too. I know it’s not going to happen over night. It’s not easy but I am trying to take that risk. Actor Prithviraj has been my inspiration and I was excited seeing him announce his first directorial debut. When I started my career, I had my own dreams but I never took a count on the number of films I did. Over a period of time, if I find I am a stable actor and confident enough to direct a movie, I will. But it’s definitely on the cards. So keep your fingers crossed.