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Almost every big name hero in Tamil cinema wants to make a film with you, and expresses no qualms if asked to share poster space with your image. You’re so in-demand that you can command an eight-figure salary.
One day, you opt to walk away from the limelight.
One day, you opt to walk away from the limelight 
You give up on the option that guarantees you multi-millions, and choose to play the lead in your own low budget films. You raise the stakes on a previously safe and secure career to risky heights, where the film’s performance at the box office can become a make or break situation, and yet, you relish this challenge.
This is N Santhanam in a nutshell. And he says, there is no space for fear in this second innings of his career in Tamil cinema .

Being the hero is a lot of work. Fear seeps in only if you limit the responsibilities you choose to burden yourself with. I believe I can do whatever and however much I wish to do, whether I like to do it or not. But if I’ve taken on the responsibility, then I better see it through. It applies to everything in life... even this interview, for example. Whether you like me or not, you must finish this, and compile a story, even if I answer all your questions wrong,” says the actor, breaking into a laugh.

Playing it right

Santhanam, 39, will be seen next in A1(short for Accused No.1) that is expected to release in July. It is only his sixth film since he made the turn as hero five years ago. 

The actor plays Saravanan, a character based in North Chennai, as can be gathered from the film’s teaser. 

How does a man who has lived all his life in the southern suburbs of the city play a polar opposite role with conviction?
“My tone may sound like that of a South Madras person, but I become the characters I play in my films, be it Paartha in Oru Kal Oru Kannadi, Kaatu Poochi in Siruthai or Nallathambi in Boss [Engira Baskaran],” he says.
The actor feels that mastering North Chennai slang wasn’t the key to playing Saravanan in A1.
“There are different modulations to playing a North Madras character. Not everybody speaks the way we think they do. There are different body languages,” says Santhanam, who played a North Chennai character, ‘Vella’ Viji, in his previous film, Dhillukku Dhuddu 2 (DD2). 

But there will be differences to the portrayal in A1 (from DD2). Look, I’ve done 150 films. There have been many sequences where I’ve played a drunk person. But I’d have brought changes to the character with the way I spoke and my body language in each of those films.”
A1 is followed by Dagaalty, a film whose first look poster kicked up a furore on social media.
It showed Santhanam covering his mouth as he lights a cigarette. While his fans saw it as a funny take on actor Vijay’s first look poster for Sarkar, the popular opinion was that it promoted smoking, and, subsequently, the actor took to Twitter to express regret.

I thought people would look at it for what it was worth — a poster. But if they think it would promote smoking, and that it is not right, we have to accept it is wrong because that’s the decent thing to do.” 

Setting trends

As an industry, Tamil cinema promotes a perennial fight between top heroes in the race to determine the king of box office.

    Santhanam, who has seen the highs and lows of the industry as a comedian, doesn’t want to get involved in the rat race.
It is why he is least bothered even after hearing the news of distributors attempting to categorise heroes in a tier system.
Three tier or two tier, yaen non-AC la irunthaalumilla without la ponaalum seri...” he says, “...only a hit speaks. If the film is a hit, you’ll be celebrated. If not, you’ll be dumped.”
He says he prefers to be self-aware. “I know what I do, and what type of audience love my work. I know my position [in the industry]. The only thing that matters is what I can do to sustain and build on it,” he adds.
Which is also a reason, he attributes, for his choice of female leads. In all his six films as hero, Santhanam has either opted to introduce an artiste, or work with a relatively lesser-known actor from another industry.

I didn’t need to work with top heroines. If I bring a top female actor on board, I’ll need to give them the screen space and story arc that their presence merits. But audience who come to watch my films are there to watch me and my comedy. And there’s not enough room to write my portions to satisfaction,” he says.

While comedy remains the actor’s strong suit, Santhanam has dabbled in roles that require a different kind of performance and screen presence, something that the artiste in him is very capable of doing.
Unfortunately, we won’t know if we would ever get to see it in our neighbourhood theatre. The actor figures that the question is about his unreleased films, Server Sundaram and Mannavan Vanthanadi(directed by Selvaraghavan).
“There is still work going on in the background. I’ve helped the projects as best as I can,” he says, adding in conclusion, “There’s no place for disappointment here. If the films didn’t release after building up expectation, then I can understand. I have no expectations at this point. It will release when it is the right time.”


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