Films stood for rebellion during his teens. When his father refused to fund his habit of wanting to watch a film every day, P Samuthirakani sold murukku at Krishna Theatre, one of the cinema halls in his hometown Seithur in Tamil Nadu, to pay for his ticket. After his board exams in Class X, Samuthirakani even ran away to Chennai to chase his dream of becoming an actor and returned after a week like the proverbial prodigal son. When his father convinced him that he would support his acting ambitions on the condition that he get a degree, Samuthirakani graduated in mathematics. “I even sat for the IAS preliminaries, but knew my calling was in the film industry. I applied for the easiest entrance exam to get into a college in Chennai,” he says. As a student of Dr Ambedkar Government Law College in Chennai, Samuthirakani barely attended college since he had begun assisting filmmaker K Vijayan. When he did attend college, he felt that every court case had a story to tell.
Years later, when he finally moved to acting, it was this urge to share unheard stories that took centrestage. There is a decisive moment in the film Visaranai — when an influential political aide dies in custody due to police brutality and it is covered up as a suicide — that establishes the true nature of the policemen. One cop, Muthuvel, a Dalit, is seen struggling with his demons and his switch to the dark side is filled with genuine remorse and shame. The role of Muthuvel, who seems to be as much a victim of the system as those who suffered police violence in the film, won Samuthirakani his first National Award this year. Vetrimaaran, Visaranai’s director, says Samuthirakani’s brilliance was in traversing the greys of his role. “It’s easy to be the bad guy. It’s very easy to be a good guy. The role that Samuthirakani played was not easy at all, but he did it very convincingly,” says the filmmaker.
Muthal Mariyathai, P Bharatiraja’s groundbreaking film on caste politics and love, was the first film that Samuthirakani watched as a gawky 12-year-old that turned him into an avid fan. He laughs when he remembers how he was never given the time of the day to meet Bharathiraja, a filmmaker who has hugely impacted his life. His initial years in the industry were far from smooth. When he moved back to Chennai in 1994, “I was driven out of most studios,” he says. Instead of backing down, Samuthirakani turned his attention to direction and has to his credit hit TV serials in Tamil such as Anni and three films. He won a Tamil Nadu state award for best story writer for his directorial debut Unnai Charanadaindhen, a romantic drama.
One of the biggest turning points of his career was when legendary filmmaker K Balachander took him under his wing. “It was for a short while, but those were the most unforgettable days of my life. He was a friend and a brother. Unbeknownst to me and him, he became a part of me,” says Samuthirakani. He went on to render cameos in two of Balachander’s last films Paarthale Paravasam (2001) and Poi (2006). Two years on, he played one of his most memorable roles of Kanugu, which blurred the line between a doting family man and a barbarous perpetrator of murders in the brilliant 2008 release, Subramaniapuram.
While no role has been too small or too challenging, Samuthirakani is on familiar ground as a tough cop, having played one since 2010. He’s done about half-a-dozen such roles — as an assistant commissioner of police in Easan (2010), an encounter specialist in the Malayalam film The Hit List (2012), a cop killed during an investigation in Sandamarutham (2015), as a hard-nosed deputy superintendent in another Malayalam release, The Reporter (2015), a righteous cop in Kaaval (2015) and as a cop who has been suspended in Kaadhalum Kadanthu Pogum, the comedy film that released this year. “I don’t think any of my previous films could hold a light to Visaranai. It is a film that can never be remade. We’ve all worked very hard on it,” he says.
Samuthirakani says Vetrimaaran sounded him off about playing a cop before narrating the story for about half an hour. The actor in him was immediately hooked. “The story was gripping, but I had no idea how the plot would build and suddenly, it seemed like it was centred around me once shooting began,” says Samuthirakani. He tells us that all the research that went into the film was entirely Vetrimaaran’s. “I did nothing. I usually don’t prepare for a role. I eat well, go to the gym and show up on the set. But it’s different when I’m directing a film — I don’t sleep the entire night before the shoot,” he says.
There’s no need for sleeplessness as far as his acting career is concerned. Samuthirakani has established himself as an actor who can shoulder the weakest of scripts — recently, he caught the attention of Tamil superstar Dhanush, who sought him for the role of his father in his home production Velaiilla Pattadhari. “I’ve just wrapped up Amma Kanakku, another Dhanush production. I didn’t even ask what the role was about when I was approached for the film. I don’t have to read scripts. I choose my films based on the people I want to work with,” says Samuthirakani. Also coming up is a film titled Appa, which he has acted in and directed. “It’s a film that everybody can relate to and presents three different kinds of fathers,” he says. How does he choose his scripts as a director? “I read. You can make 10 films when you read the papers every day.”