He’s one of the biggest stars of Malayalam cinema and walks in unescorted to the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. As we settle down for coffee, we start conversing in Tamil, a language he is extremely fluent in. What follows is a conversation laced with laughs, guffaws and then uncontrollable laughter. He even enacts a scene to add to the laughter riot he has created. As people around start turning around to look at us, I know that this is an interview that I will remember in many years to come! Dileep married Kavya Madhavan recently.
Is that you real name or your screen name?
Well, both! My uncle who is a huge big fan of Hindi cinema named all his nephews after top actors of his times, the ones he loved. My cousins are called Manoj Kumar and Pradeep Kumar and I got named Dilip Kumar. In fact as per tradition, you take your grandfather’s name, so I am also named Gopalakrishnan after him. In fact my first bank account that was opened when I was in Class 7 in Dhanalakshmi bank is under the name P Dilip Kumar (laughs)
Are you a Dilip Kumar fan?
Yes of course. Everything that Hindi cinema does today has already been done and attempted by the legend that is Dilip Kumar. He had style, power, and charisma and never ever over-acted. I have bought his autobiography too but haven’t had a chance to read it. Right from his black and white films such as Milan and then Shakti to Saudagar, I have been a fan of Dilip Saab.
You wear so many hats, which is your favourite one?
I like acting the most. The rest is a lot of management including time, money and people. Acting has lesser risks than being a producer, director or a distributor. If you are an actor, you have many people to manage your schedules etc. I have 250 people working for me and one family usually has at least 3 people – now all of them have become my extended family. I am happy.
How does fame keep you grounded?
We are human beings and we are all special in terms of the skills we possess. I cannot do your work and you cannot do mine. This knowledge helps me understand and accept people for that they are. We are all equal. I belong to a regular family and have had a middle class upbringing. If I use luxury today, it is more to do with safety rather than style. As actors I am a product of the industry I work for and the producer depends on, so luxury follows. This is what I feel.
Is spirituality part of your life?
Spirituality is part of my life. My father taught me to never lie or cheat and believe in God Almighty and have a lot of faith. In all turning points of my life, I see God who has always been with me. My father passed away in 2008 and his blessings are there as well.
As an artist, sensitivity is natural, how do you protect your inner core- your craft?
I worked here for 25 days and will be taking a 5 -day break to rejuvenate and de-stress. We need to collect new things for a new role.
You won your first Filmfare award for Meesa Madhavan?
Filmfare is the biggest and the most coveted award in the film industry. It is like the State award or the National Award. There are many award functions where you are invited because you are a hit in the box office. If you are not available, you see the next person attend the award and win under the same category (laughs) and you wonder what happened. The audience knows what is right. It is all part of the game. Actors have become legends because they have won love from the audiences. Awards are an extension of the same ideally.
How do you define success?
I have travelled through ups and downs and I believe that success is like an accident. Like the game of cricket, we don’t know when we hit a four or a six or get clean bowled. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin. Success begets tensions because you are only as good as your last film. Your next film has to be better you always feel and you compete with yourself. I started my career in 1991 and I am 25 years into the profession.
Do you miss your mimicry days?
I imitated all well -known Malayalam actors for 9 years before I started my onscreen acting. Two senior actors in Malayalam cinema including Nedimudi Venu had advised me to stop mimicking people and develop my own style.
I took their advice. Today I can’t be as good as I was then – at that time I was unfettered and raw. Today, I don’t have the freedom to mimic. People will read it differently. In fact I grew closer to everyone by mimicking them. Now I am afraid
(Smiles). I have been an assistant director and could watch them perfectly. Now I am an actor mimicking other actors. It will look like Dilip is mimicking his peers or seniors. I ‘d rather not do that.
Children comprise your fan base? Do you ensure you are creating cinema for them as well?
In my head I am still in my college going years. I loved jokes and liked to talk. I like people who laugh and make you happy. Most of my films are family entertainers and my audiences have told me that many of my characters have made people laugh and release tension. Not just children, youth is central to a film. Many children who grew up watching my films are now teenagers and the teenagers are not in their 20s and they are all loyal film goers. If they are your fans from childhood usually, they stay fans for life.
Tell us about your film 20 20?
I made the film to raise funds for AMMA. The association had helped me in my struggling years and when there was a chance to make a film with them, I did. The Association was short of funds and there was a meeting where the committee decided that if any one of us from the fraternity makes a film, its proceeds would go to AMMA. Lal ettan (Mohanlal) asked me to take it up and so it Mamooka (Mamooty) and said that they will support me. That is when we decided to cast them together. People hadn’t seen them together onscreen for 19 years. I stopped working on everything else and put all my energies in that film. Madhu sir encouraged me a lot too and advised me to start the project and everyone will then join in. That is exactly what happened.
What is your kind of cinema?
I love entertainment movies -people oriented cinema. People want to laugh and see what we do. They want to play with you as audiences. I watch Hindi cinema as well. Salman Khan has a mass following and so is Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan’s movies are intellectual and massy. Salman Khan’s Bodyguard is one of my favourite films. I met him during the CCL matches in Cochin and he hugged me and told my daughter Meenakshi, who was with me, that her dad is a fabulous actor. There is a photo of him and my child looking at him with great surprise. For her, I am her dad and an actor but when Salman Khan tells her I am a fabulous actor, her respect for me increases (laughs)
There is something specific about the Malayali sense of humour?
It is very difficult to get a Malayalee to laugh. In their heads, they are assessing you. You cannot fool that audience with one hit – they are observing you. They’ll say, let the next one come and we will see. The audience is the hero when it comes to Malayalam cinema. They have created ladders within themselves and only the actors that win their hearts are allowed to climb the next rung of the ladder. They are discerning and informed and that is why it is a challenge to please them. Also Malayalam cinema has had the tradition of some truly brilliant actors who have set the bar. The thespian Tilakan, Unnikrishnan, the one and the only Jagadee Sreekumar who is recuperating from an accident, Udayulu Unnikrishnan and so many others who cannot be replaced.
How was it working with Jagadee Sreekumar?
Jagadee Sreekumar or Ambily cheta as we all know him is a legend. He has played a zillion characters and his sense of timing is so perfect that you cannot go near it. But the most important quality in him is that he has no sense of ego when he is performing with a junior star. He is ready to absorb your suggestion and will give you cues at all times so that the entire performance is a hit. I was petrified to work with him because I had mimicked him too but he was extremely supportive and drew out my best performance. That is the touch of a genius – they don’t just look at their own work, they ensure that the entire work is well done.
From then to now, how has the evolution in cinema been?
The digital revolution has affected film making as well. Ironically speaking, anyone with a phone is a photographer and anyone active on social media is a journalist. But professionalism is something else. Entertainment is serious business though it sounds flippant and easy. Talent comes in various forms. There are many youngsters whose work blows your mind and you admire their talent. Some are foolishly over-confident and you admire them for that quality of theirs. I have known assistant directors, who after three films have launched their own film and have done well and some who haven’t. If you have cinema in your mind, you will make it. It might take a while but passion never goes unrewarded. I consider myself a student of cinema.
How would you define script sense?
I always look at the script as an audience. For me, that perspective is of utmost importance. It is very difficult for me to say no, especially to a friend who approaches me with a script. But I have learnt the importance of saying no. Relationships are fragile; they need to be nurtured despite two friends not working together.
You filmed King Liar in Dubai. How was the experience?
Throughout the world, the growth of Dubai is cited as role model. It is a city of the future. I am a big fan of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His dream has come true and he is forever bettering the city. The last time I came to Dubai is not the same this time, that is how dynamic the city has been. A desert has been made into paradise.