No success story in Tamil cinema is devoid of blood, sweat and tears. In actor Soori’s case, there was biting hunger as well.
I meet the popular comedian at his Saligramam office a few days prior to his recent release, Namma Veettu Pillai, that has Sivakarthikeyan in the lead. The interiors of the space strikes you from a distance — it is all white. It reminded me of the time I walked into Sivakarthikeyan’s office in Alwarpet, which, too, was all white. “This was my thambi’s idea only. He told me that the colour white radiates positivity,” begins Soori.
Throughout the interview, the actor refers to Sivakarthikeyan as his “thambi” — a pointer to the bond built over the course of working six films together. But back to the office… Soori tells a backstory on how he adamantly purchased this particular space, going against his wife’s wishes in the process. “She told me I was overpaying but I had my reasons,” he says.
Survival of the fittest
The year was 1996, and Soori had just stepped off the train that brought him from Madurai to Chennai. It would take him another 13 years (Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu in 2009) to catch that big break in Tamil cinema. The intervening years stretched his mind, body and soul to the limits. Says Soori, who credits his father for nurturing comedic abilities in him, “Hunger started to get the better of me; so I took up a conservancy worker’s job while pursuing my dream of making it in cinema.”
Around this time, he gained the acquaintance of a soft-spoken junior artiste, whom Soori can only identify as “Sumathi akka.” “She was a kind-hearted person. Sumathi akka used to feed me and my friends. She introduced us to an agent supplying junior artistes to film crews, and after months of hitting a dead end, I found myself in a film set,” he says. That film was Marumalarchi (1998). “I was made to stand in a crowd,” he recalls.
In a few months, Soori hung around film sets to convince a member of Thotta Tharani’s art team to take him on as an apprentice. From 1999 till 2003, he had gone on to work as a set assistant, photo plate apprentice, and even an electrician. In fact, he was handling the switchboard while director Sundar C was filming Winner (2003), when he convinced the dialogue writing team to include him in a scene. The scene: Kaipulla (played by Vadivelu) is caught by the antagonist’s family for destroying their crops. “I was over-enthusiastic and clumsy with my body language,” says Soori. This caught the attention of Vadivelu. “Thalaivan (Vadivelu) asked me if I saw a tamarind tree in the distance. I said yes. He asked me to run towards it fast, touch and turn around while they reworked the scene. As I turned around, he told me to stay right there!” adds Soori, laughing.
Zero to hero
These days, the grin on Soori’s face tends to stay on a little longer. Weeks ago, he was revealed to be the lead in National Award-winning filmmaker Vetri Maaran’s next project. He has listened to a one-liner from the director but he is quick to make this distinction: “The first hero of that film is Vetri Maaran. The second hero is the story. I only rank third in the order of importance, and that is by virtue of playing the male lead.”
- Soori remarks on working with Vijay Sethupathi in Sangathamizhan, which is scheduled for release on October 4. “People always asked me why I was doing films only with Sivakarthikeyan and not with Vijay Sethupathi. That’s because an appropriate film did not come along,” he says, adding that he was a bundle of nerves on the first day of shooting. “Because he is a great actor.” In the film, their real-life roles are reversed. “I play the hero, and he plays a comedian,” says Soori, leaving us guessing on what is on offer when the film makes it to the theatres.
The news took the industry by surprise. Soori was not an exception. “I had been clear that playing the hero was not my intention. Still, I used to think that if ever I was to play the hero, I would perhaps choose a script that has not been made into a film for two years or more,” he says, adding, “But if I overlook Vetri Maaran’s offer, there wouldn’t be a bigger fool than me. This is a director who many big names in the industry have been eagerly waiting and hoping to work with.”
Vetri Maaran, though, is known for a particular style of filmmaking — Polladhavan, Aadukalam, Visaaranai and Vada Chennai offer proof. “But how can you be sure that he would only make a similar kind of film with me? As far as I’m concerned, you can choose to work with a director based on their success ratio. Then there are people who you must work with no matter what. I told Vetri Maaran when I met him that I’m coming to work for him as a fan,” says Soori, adding that the shoot for this untitled film is set to begin after the release of Dhanush-starrer Asuran (which Vetri Maaran helms).
A full circle
The actor is also an entrepreneur, having stepped into the restaurant business with Amman Hotel. He has his reasons: “I started the restaurant to provide good food at an affordable price. I still remember those days when I went to sleep on nothing but water,” he says. Today, the actor-entrepreneur has six branches of his restaurant operating in Madurai, and is set to open one more near Madurai airport. “We are scouting for a location in Chennai as well,” he adds.
The conversation on food brings us back to why he purchased his office. “I was still going around directors’ offices seeking opportunities. It was in this office where I fainted after hunger got the better of me. The people inside just made me sit in one corner, and went about their business. I’m sitting and speaking to you from the exact spot where I collapsed,” he says, stretching on a cosy couch inside what is now a preview theatre. “My wife did not understand at first why I was ready to pay over-the-odds for this space. When I told her the reason, all she could do was cry,” he remarks.
Not one to forget his roots, Soori informs me that he tried to track down Sumathi akka as well. “This was two years ago. But I could not find her. So, I reached out to Nadigar Sangam (the union of South Indian cine artistes) for help. They got back to me after a week to tell me that she had passed away. She had no next of kin,” adds Soori, his eyes almost welling up, as he concludes our conversation.