Life Comes Full Circle For Unni Mukundan !


Unni Mukundan speaks of his very first production ‘Meppadiyan’

A young teenager travelled all the way from Ahmedabad to Kerala with dreams of becoming a film director. His love for literature, fantasy and animation was what drove him to Cinema, for he believed he could weave wonderful stories through films. Director Lohithadas took him under his wing, but just when his career was about to  take off, his dreams came crashing down.  Indeed destiny had other plans. His struggles and disappointments didn’t break him, but they only made him stronger and more determined to take on the reins. As the industry gets back on track after Covid, he is back with a vengeance! Today he is an actor who has carved a niche for himself, a playback singer who has written and crooned his own songs and now, has his own production company, Unni Mukundan Films! Ritz catches up with the ever evolving and dashing young star Unni Mukundan, who is basking in the success of his first production ‘Meppadiyan’ that features him in an all new avatar! 

Interview: Riya Sonny Datson

Photography: Shafi Shakkeer

Costume: Byhand

Accessories: Malabar Gold and Diamonds

Styling: Arjun Vasudev

Makeup: Arun Ayur

Location: Port Muziris Kochi

You are in a space where you get to call the shots! How does it feel looking back?

I have realised that at the end of the day, you are on your own. Everyday is a learning and that is a constant process. Art is very subjective and I have come to understand that Cinema is not solely about art or talent, there is a commercial angle to it, which is what drives it to a great extent. It took me some time to find that balance. I have grown organically, responding to the environment around me and I feel my career would have been less chaotic if I had someone to guide me. But isn’t life all about learning from your mistakes? I am glad that ten years down the line, I have carved a niche for myself. I have explored my capabilities, working in multiple industries, trying my hand as an actor, a lyricist, a play back singer and now, even as a producer. I would have laughed at the thought of taking on these roles ten years ago but today, am confident about myself. For me, Cinema feels new every time – full of surprises.

Having spent your childhood in Gujarat and having no background in Cinema, what was it that attracted you to a career in films?

I have always been fascinated by English literature, fantasy and animation. Through Cinema, I felt I could explore a different world that was beyond my imagination. So when I spoke about it to my father, he agreed to let me pursue my passion unlike a regular career. My parents have been extremely supportive from the start, so much so that there were times when I felt bogged down by their love and support. When things didn’t go well, I would feel miserable that I am letting them down but thankfully, after a brief period of uncertainty, it all fell into place. 

From wanting to be a director, how did you choose to face the camera instead?

I understood very early on that a director is the captain of the ship and personally, I felt I was a good narrator. So that’s what attracted me to direction. But when I met renowned director Lohithadas Sir, he was the one who suggested that I take up acting initially. Apart from being a great learning experience, he said It would help me financially as well, as I had no foothold in the industry. I was supposed to start work with him, when he passed away unexpectedly. It was after his death, that reality hit me that the one person whom I was completely dependent on was no more. From then on, it was a period of struggle for nearly three years until ‘Mallu Singh’ happened. A lot of people warned me about doing the film, telling me not to take up a role that was rejected by a star. But I had reached a point where I felt it didn’t matter anymore.  I had nothing to lose and I decided to give it my best. After the film became a hit and the audience accepted me, things completely changed and it has been magical journey for me from then on. I will never say that I am a self made actor. All through my journey, there have been individuals who have helped me and given me opportunities to work and grow. Neither would I call myself talented, I am a slow learner but a good learner. I have tried to live up to the expectations of my audience and have managed to leave a mark on the characters I have portrayed. 

Cinema is a field that is full of uncertainty. How do you handle the stress?

I remember one of my producers telling me on the first day that only if the film is a hit, I am a successful actor. But the truth is there is no proven ‘formula for success’ in films, which may be the reason why not all good actors are successful. I can’t deny the fact that a career in Cinema is very stressful. I have been through it all – auditions, rejections, flops, hits and popularity and have reached a point now where things don’t affect me as much as it used to. The pressure of getting work and ‘work pressure’ are two different things. With my production house, UMF, I feel more confident about exploring myself as an actor, it gives me the freedom to take the right decisions for my film, keeping only the audience in mind. There will always be stress but I think I am tuned to work well under pressure.

Your general perception is that of a romantic or action hero. But your latest release Brahmam with Prithviraj and Mamta Mohandas had shades of grey. Did you have inhibitions doing the role?

Not at all. I am not worried about the roles I play. I have always played different shades of grey right from the very start of my career. I feel secure in my space now and being the bad guy doesn’t scare me. This is the age where the ‘Joker’ wins the Best actor award. Times have changed and more importantly, I want people to see me in a different light. 

Does it bother you that there is a tendency for people to stereotype your roles based on your looks?

Yes, I would call it a kind of body shaming to stereotype people based on their looks and physical appearance. I want to break the stereotype that if you have a good physique, you must be an action hero or the hero’s sidekick. For an actor, their body is a prop. I think I belong to the new age of actors who are focussed on fitness.  Working out and maintaining a healthy physique is an important part of my lifestyle and I don’t want to restrict my craft because I choose to live my life in a certain way. Today the film industry is very fashion conscious but it is a fact that fashion goes hand in hand with fitness. So it is only a matter of time before people accept that fitness is important, especially in Cinema.

Tell us about your production ‘Meppadiyan’. How was the experience juggling the role as an actor and a producer?

Meppadiyan was a very challenging film for me personally. I have acted, produced and even designed the film. Though Covid kept us on our toes, we completed the film ten days ahead of schedule. The whole experience has changed me as an individual. It has been like a dream to have finished my own film. We had an extensive star cast with over thirty actors and I am very proud that we, as a team could pull it off inspite of the pandemic.  I got the opportunity to introduce newcomers to the industry which is a big achievement for me personally. Vishnu Mohan, who is the script writer and director of the film is a newbie but I decided to work with him because he has the same conviction that I had when I started out ten years ago. As a producer, UMF gives me a sense of freedom and I absolutely enjoyed it. I had it all well planned as I didn’t want the actor in me to take a beating. All those who have watched the film have given me rave reviews.

The poster of the film featured you as a character unlike any you have portrayed so far. How difficult was it for you to step out of your fitness regime?

As an actor, it was a very challenging role as I had to put on almost 20kg to look my part in the film. But even while putting on weight, I consciously stayed away from junk food. Yes, my character in Meppadiyan is unlike anything I have portrayed till date. Thanks to Covid, I had to stay in that physique for almost one and half years, which was very taxing for me, as I am very conscious and focussed about my fitness. After I finished the movie, it took me some time to get back in shape. Psychologically it scares me when I am not fit. More than my physical appearance,  the health issues and fear of a physical disability is what worries me. Being on a diet comes easily to me and hitting the gym is an indispensable part of my lifestyle.

As a producer and actor, how do you see the influx of OTT platforms?

I would say OTT has helped Malayalam Cinema to a great extent but I also feel that its not the ultimate platform. Having watched films in theatres, I feel the whole experience of watching a film in a theatre can never be compared to an OTT. There is a lot of investment that goes into creating the sound and visual quality, which can never be experienced on a small screen. I see  OTT as a new platform, where people from around the globe watch you perform and that definitely excites me as an actor, but I would want my films to release not just in theatres but in as many platforms as possible. If one has a story, it has to be narrated in the best possible way. We need to be open to new platforms but let’s not compromise on what we have.

You have worked in Tamil and Telugu industries as well. How difficult was it learning the languages and working in other industries?

Though Malayalam is my mother tongue, I never knew how to read or write the language. I grew up in a multilingual society in Gujarat for twenty years, which gave me the opportunity to learn different languages including Tamil. Though I am a Malayali, I believe that you can never take the Gujarati out of me! For the same reason when I started out, my accent, body language and style were very different from my peers. I was often criticised and written off saying that I won’t be able to fit in. It hurt me but it also pushed me to a point where I decided that I am not giving up. I learnt how to read and write the language and worked hard to perfect it. When you don’t give yourself a choice, you will do whatever it takes to get it right – be it any industry. In fact, it gives me a high to achieve things that seem hard or impossible. I consider every film as my last film and give it my best. I like to explore and experiment with new things as well. For example, since I have always loved poetry, I started writing songs in Malayalam and doing play back singing – which amazed even my immediate family as they knew my background. So, working in an another industry or learning another language was never a challenge for me. 

Tell us about your upcoming projects. 

I am working on a Telugu film called Khiladi that is directed by Ramesh Varma and we are working together again in another action film that will be releasing pan India. Am also starting another Tamil – Telugu project soon. In Malayalam, there is 12th Man with Mohanlal, Ek Din, which is a children’s film, Bruce Lee and two films that I am doing with Director Jayaraj Sir. He is one of my favourite directors and it was a wonderful experience working with him. His film, Deshadanam is one of my personal favourites. I had to do sync sound while shooting for his film, which again was a totally new experience for me. 

Would you be getting into Direction next as it was your dream?

Yes definitely, Covid has taught me that I must not put off my plans. Besides, UMF will help me accomplish all that I have dreamt of doing. Direction will definitely happen very soon. 

Actors are the main targets of trolls. How do you handle that part of your popularity?

I am humane and there are times when I do feel hurt on seeing insensitive posts on social media. Sometimes, I type out a huge reply and then delete it. That way I feel I am able to take it out of my system. But when I feel the need to address the issue, I reframe it and do try to communicate my thoughts. Cinema is just a part of my life and once the camera is off, I don’t see myself as an actor.  I don’t want my passion to burden me as an individual. There are a lot of things that excite me apart from Cinema. One part of my life should not define my personality or individuality. I do have my opinions and I have the right to express it.

What is the one thought that keeps you going?

When I am low, I remind myself about how I started out ten years ago and I get a high when I think of what I have accomplished today. There have been times when I have travelled by train for five days to meet a film maker for just an hour and he would turn me down and I have had to travel back another five days to get home. Since I was working then, I would lose ten days of paid leave just to be told ‘NO’. I know what patience is all about. I also know that if you create good content, people will watch your films. I compete with myself, trying do better each time I face the camera. I want people from across the world to see my films and that is what I hope to achieve through UMF.



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