Dulquer Salmaan on his upcoming Hindi film, parenting and trying to keep things real in four industries.
A year after Karwaan, your second Hindi film, The Zoya Factor, is ready for release. What are your expectations from it?
Eight years into my career, I have got the opportunities to work in four industries — Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Compared to Karwaan, The Zoya Factor is more commercial. While Karwaan is a sweet road-trip movie, The Zoya Factor will appeal to a wider audience. It is about love, luck, superstition, cricket and so many things that the Indian audience can connect with.
Did you have anything in mind when you picked these two Hindi scripts?
I choose from what’s offered to me. There have always been enquiries about my interest in Hindi projects. Some wanted to remake my movies in Hindi. I am not so keen on remakes — I have nothing new to do. I want to work on original content, even though I’m flattered when my movies are being remade. There was a lot of discussions around remaking Bangalore Days (2014). (But) the investment that I make in terms of time, when I am not working in my core industry — Malayalam films — should be worthwhile. I should be part of very good movies in Tamil, Telugu or Hindi during that time. Interestingly, last year saw the release of Karwaan in Hindi and Mahanati in Telugu — both were industries I hadn’t worked in earlier. But the scripts connected with me and I enjoyed the experience of working in both.
How did you end up doing almost 30 movies, including some upcoming ones, in eight years?
That’s not much. My dad (Mammootty) has around seven releases in a year. In the ’80s, he had more than 30 movies releasing in a year. I have contemporaries who have done 10-13 movies in a year. They might not play the lead character in all these movies but take up interesting roles. The Malayalam industry is small and movies get made much faster. People expect around five movies from a popular actor in a year. I have not done that many movies.
You have played a range of characters — from (actor) Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati (2018) to a bereaved son in Karwaan and four different characters in Solo (2017). How do you choose your projects?
I go with the makers and the script. I listen to the full narration. If I don’t agree with something and suggest changes, I want to listen to the final version. I can gauge if someone is making something special or trying to tell an inspiring story. When Mahanati was offered to me, my main concern was that I don’t know Telugu. They tried to convince me saying that they would coach me. I knew it’s a good role, yet I asked them to get someone who speaks the language. They refused. I completely believed in this team even though everyone was below 35 years old.
How tough was it to slip into the role of Gemini Ganesan for Mahanati?
Director Nag Ashwin and I discussed that we don’t have any off-screen footage of him in the ’50s. People only see him on screen. Those days everyone was doing exaggerated, almost theatrical acting. Actors were loud. I didn’t want to play him like that when we were showing his life off screen. I wondered how would I be if I were a superstar of that era. We asked his family about his mannerisms. We got to know about certain things such as how he often sat on a chair facing the backrest; how he used to put his hands in the pockets of his trousers. We cracked the look and styling early on. After that, my focus was on the language. Because I didn’t try to imitate him, it became more believable.
Has your father’s stardom and the expectations that come with being his son been intimidating?
It was not easy in the beginning. I felt there is this monster right behind me. While doing my scenes, I was trying to match up to these expectations. Then, I realised I was putting too much energy into that and not my character. While working in my first couple of movies, the fear of not spoiling his reputation or disappointing his fans was there. Then, I decided not to obsess over it. Instead, I focussed more on the characters I was playing and put more effort into delivering my lines. Still, there are days when I feel nervous.
You must have been exposed to the world of movies since childhood?
Not so much. My dad was working like crazy in those days, especially till I was about 12 years old. He was trying to establish his career. He used to return home in the middle of the night and leave early in the morning. He probably saw us (sleeping) but we didn’t get to see him much. When we were a little older, he sent us to Chennai so that we could, at least, have a normal life since he was not very well known in Tamil Nadu. Every year, he used to find time for one family vacation. My parents were quite keen on keeping us away from it (the film world). There were not many instances of second-generation actors succeeding in the Malayalam industry. So, there is no nepotism there (laughs). My friends in school and college didn’t have any idea that my dad was an actor.
Then, how did the movie bug bite you?
In Kerala, there is not much nightlife. But you are not frowned upon if you go for a late-night movie. We watched movies together with our extended family. I watched movies in Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil. My dad has a huge collection of international titles. Even though he was busy, he would find time to watch them. Even today, he checks if I have watched a certain Oscar-nominated movie.
How are you balancing work and fatherhood?
My daughter (Maryam) is two-and-a-half years old. It has taken me at least as much time to establish some kind of role in her life. Earlier, when she woke up, if my wife (Amal Sufiya) was not in the room, she would look for her even if I was around. After we spent some time together, she is comfortable with me now. Since I am starting two new projects and they involve outdoor shoots, I was scared it would be a step back for us. These days, even my dad finds it hard to leave home when my daughter is around. Kids change your life and you rediscover what love means. It’s amazing to be a father, especially to a girl.
Some excellent movies are being made in Malayalam. What has led to this?
Every industry goes through such phases. Regional cinema is not known at the national level, so we end up discussing only the best movies. So, definitely you are watching our best work. We are making more content-driven movies. The only difference (between the Hindi and the Malayalam) film industry is our audience. It is so encouraging to know that you can make a small-budget movie without a song-and-dance routine and yet make money. This inspires filmmakers to make realistic cinema, tell original stories. The audience (in Kerala) has an appetite for good cinema. Even when a non-mainstream movie like Kumbalangi Nights (2019) releases, it does well commercially.
Is Solo the most challenging film for you so far?
Solo is challenging as I was playing four different characters and it was shot in two different languages. Mahanati was challenging as I did not know Telugu. The Zoya Factor is challenging as I play a cricketer. I try to make it difficult for myself by not picking the easy ones. I get annoyed when people say this is easy for you as you have done this before. Sometimes, I don’t want to miss out on a good movie just because I have done a similar role earlier. Once or twice a year, I do roles that challenge the actor in me.
People often had difficulty pronouncing your name. Has that stopped now?
All my life, I have had to face that. It happened in every new class or school. I was angry with my parents for not giving me a conventional name. Now, I have come to realise that it is a very unique name. It is an Arabic name — another name for Alexander or Sikandar. Some people are even naming their kids Dulquer now.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘I am not keen on remakes’