As he prepares for his Hindi debut Karwaan, which released today, Dulquer Salmaan admits to having felt a slight twinge of fear before he began working on the film. One of the things that worried him was how he would hold up alongside Irrfan Khan, his co-star in the Akarsh Khurana film, but the bigger question was whether his Hindi diction would be good enough for a film in the language. “While I am fluent in Hindi, I was a little worried about my accent. So when I was approached for Karwaan, I told them they need to first listen to me speak in Hindi, in case it sounds off,” he says. Clearly, Salmaan passed his self-administered test with flying colours — he is not only one of the three leads (besides Khan and debutant Mithila Palkar) in the film, but its publicity too highlights his Bollywood debut.
For Salmaan himself — who is already a star in Malayalam and Tamil cinema and who debuted in Telugu cinema this year with Mahanati — Karwaan is important because he believes its a great film, regardless of language. “I’m not trying to ‘cross over’ into Hindi films,” he says, “I felt that I fit the role and that it is my kind of film. If you’re getting interesting offers, then why should you restrict yourself.” The only catch here, however, are those unavoidable moments of disorientation, as he goes from films in Malayalam to Tamil to Telugu to Hindi and then back to Malayalam. “It has happened a couple of times, when I’ve come to shoot a Malayalam film from films in other languages, that I’ve had to ask the writer to read out the line again, because I’m scared of mispronouncing a word, even in Malayalam,” he says. It’s a minor inconvenience, though, and one that he is willing to put up with for the privilege of breaking through the linguistic barriers that distance India’s different film industries. “I have the luxury of balancing and juggling films in different languages. Between Karwaan and The Zoya Factor, I did Mahanati, which was in Telugu, then I did Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal, which is a Tamil film and Oru Yamandan Premakatha, which is a Malayalam film. And after The Zoya Factor, I’ll do another Tamil film, and then more in Malayalam. I don’t think anything should limit me. I don’t think any industry should be disrespected or looked down upon,” he says.
Salmaan made his acting debut with the Malayalam film Second Show (2012), but it was Ustad Hotel (2012), where he played an aspiring chef, that won him acclaim. His next few films failed to have much of an impact, until his turn as the rebellious biker Arjun in the 2014 blockbuster Bangalore Days. This was also the year that the actor made his Tamil film debut with Vaayai Moodi Pesavum. His second Tamil film was Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani in 2015. While he admits to having played some variations of the urban millennial in many films — including Ustad Hotel, Bangalore Days, O Kadhal Kanmani, Charlie (2015) and now Karwaan — there has been the occasional turn in movies like Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam (2016), in which he played a former gang member, and Mahanati (2018), where he portrayed the Tamil movie icon Gemini Ganesan.
Talent apart, one reason why Salmaan has such crossover appeal is his natural charm, which translates well on screen. He’s also cultivated an unflappability, which remains strong even when confronted with questions about the controversy that erupted when the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) reinstated actor Dileep, an accused in last year’s high-profile abduction and sexual assault of an actress. “If we’re discussing women’s empowerment and equal rights, then yes, I support it. But I don’t understand why there is a divide. AMMA is an organisation that does a lot of good work and I don’t believe it should be judged on what is happening right now,” he says.
The actor thrives on challenges, linguistic or otherwise. As the son of one of Malayalam cinema’s biggest stars, Mammootty, Salmaan technically had an easy entry into the world of films, but he found his way to films only after a detour in Dubai, where he had a regular nine-to-five job and where, he says, he had everything a young man like himself could have dreamed of, including a fat paycheck, a nice apartment and a fancy car.
“But I just wasn’t motivated or excited. I would keep watching the clock, waiting for the weekend. I was 23 at the time and I even wondered whether I should get married,” he says, laughing. It was while working on a short film with friends, during one of his breaks back home, that the way out of his ennui occurred to him. “It just didn’t feel like work, I didn’t care how many hours a day we worked. I remember entering a short film competition and working for five days nonstop to meet our deadline. I don’t remember eating much or sleeping much, but I remember enjoying every second of it and thinking that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”