On the road with Dulquer Salmaan

As the actor gets ready to drive a blue van to Bollywood, he opens up on why he feels blessed about his fourth ‘debut’, why a good script matters, and why he would love a biking holiday

Six years and 25 films later, Dulquer Salmaan is being ‘introduced’ once again — in Karwaan, his first Hindi film. But he does not mind that ‘Bollywood’ has overlooked his past work; in fact, as he recently told film critic Anupama Chopra, he feels blessed to debut for a fourth time, in the fourth Indian language he is working in (after Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu). Ironically, the possibly career-boosting film that takes him from the South to the North, tells the story of three people driving a blue van from the North of India to the South.

Did the format of a road movie, a sub genre that the motorhead has always seemed to enjoy — with hits such as Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (2013), Kali (2016) and CIA: Comrade in America (2017) — help? Perhaps. However, as Dulquer sees it, it is the combination of the work he has done so far and his schooling (which gave him access to Hindi) that led to Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan. And, of course, his ‘gut feeling’. “It’s a film I enjoyed seeing, as the director was narrating it. I would have done it in any language,” he says, on a patchy phone call from Hyderabad.

Making his way up

As the actor, who is on the cusp of superstardom in Malayalam, makes his entry into Hindi, he stands to achieve a feat even his father Mammootty was unable to star in a successful mainstream Hindi film. But Dulquer, who turns 32 on July 28, does not look at films as stepping stones to consolidate nationwide stardom. If he had, he would have chosen to do the many Hindi scripts that came his way before this. To him, it is about doing his bit to become a part of good cinema. Dulquer says the decision to say yes to Karwaan was an easy one to make. “You don’t doubt the credentials of a director who has already convinced Irrfan Khan,” he laughs.

How did Bollywood train its lens on him? Khurana says that he was not looking for anyone from any particular region; just “a good actor and a good person”. “I could see his acting range when I watched his films Charlie and Ustad Hotel,” says the director. “In Karwaan, there are scenes where you can spot him hitting the right notes even without using words. It isn’t an easy part to play because he needs to counter Irrfan’s quirkiness with expressive subtlety. He also needs to match an actor of Irrfan’s stature. That’s what has translated to their wonderful chemistry in the film.”

First ride

Dulquer has always depended on his gut feeling — even while choosing his debut film (in Malayalam, in 2012). Second Show’s release did not feel like the launch vehicle of ‘Megastar’ Mammotty’s son. It was not directed by someone of the stature of JP Dutta; it was not a remake of a hit from another language; and it was not set in a Raj Kapoor-esque universe (read Saawariya) to remind the audience of its hero’s rich cinematic legacy. It just felt like the release of a fresh film made by talented newcomers.

On the road with Dulquer Salmaan

“I think he’s always aimed at being considered a serious actor,” says director Balaji Mohan, who directed him in Vaayai Moodi Pesavum in 2014. “His choice of films is a direct reflection of that. Why else would he chose an experimental, partly silent film like Vaayai Moodi Pesavum as his Tamil debut?” The stardom is incidental, a responsibility Dulquer uses to fuel films like Kammattipadam (2016) and Parava (2017), where he easily plays a smaller role. But the same cannot be said of things that fall outside the purview of his movies. He has stayed clear of controversies, including the recent one in Kerala between the WCC and AMMA (of which he is a member), over the reinstatement of an actor accused of sexual harassment.

When asked about his silence, he told film critic Rajeev Masand, “I’ve generally tried to steer clear of any kind of politics. It’s also a little tricky because… I’ve known all the parties involved since I was young. I don’t know if it’s my place to speak.” He does break this diplomatic silence when a film of his is criticised. Defending Solo, the actor had written a Facebook post ‘explaining’ its intention, and stating that “dark comedies are meant to be awkward. So booing it in theatres, just because you didn’t get it, just kills it.”

The route less taken

What is fascinating is his script choices. “It’s his selection of scripts, and how it reflects his personality, that has won him so many fans so early on. It’s a combination of uncompromising hard work and sensible choices that has helped him shake off his father’s shadow,” says Mohan.

Talking about his decision to act in Solo (2017), an anthology film where he plays four roles, its director Bejoy Nambiar says, “He’s a star who doesn’t believe in just doing ‘what works’. His mindset is to support a different kind of cinema. And as long as he is open to that, there will be filmmakers out there willing to push the envelope.”

In the driver’s seat

  • Your dream vintage car?
  • It is really difficult to restore vintage cars in India. It’s already difficult to import cars and parts for them, and the people who have them don’t ever want to let go of them. But it would be a dream to restore an old Jaguar E-Type.
  • Cars that are in the works?
  • I’ve got a couple of old BMWs that I’m currently restoring.
  • Other interests?
  • I love to travel, but that too in some way is connected to vehicles. I try to rent an interesting car to drive on the trip.
  • Touring a new place — on a bike or a car?
  • I would prefer touring on a bike, but my family would say otherwise.

Yet, his ascent to become a ‘second generation superstar’, in a State that has famously denounced dynasties in both cinema and politics, is no coincidence. The difference is in how effectively he has separated his career from that of his father’s and vice versa. Mammootty is seldom seen at Dulquer’s film events. He has never promoted his son’s films or made a cameo appearance in any of them (remember Chiranjeevi’s dance moves in Ram Charan’s Magadheera?).

Interestingly, Dulquer has also repeatedly acted in films where the character of the father is seen as an antagonising force. If his father in Ustad Hotel (2013) looked down on his choice to become a chef, his father’s political ideology in CIA is the opposite of its hero’s Marxist leanings. Add to these films such as ABCD (2013), Bangalore Days (2014) and Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi, each with Dulquer having a troubled or problematic relationship with the father, and it becomes easier to separate the young star from Mammootty. Ironically, it is by cutting the umbilical chord that he has managed to further the ‘dynasty’.

Not born to be wild

Much of this is because Dulquer never saw himself as an actor meant to take over his father’s mantle. “I studied business in the US and later worked in Dubai. For an outsider, my life seemed very comfortable. I had friends, a good job, a nice apartment. Yet my life had started feeling like a ticking time bomb… I was stuck.” The “9 to 5-ness” was taking a toll on him. He sensed that it was these “comforts” that were causing his discomfort. “If I hadn’t taken a risk then, I would have regretted it down the line,” admits the father of one-year-old Maryam. “Even people who had no industry background were taking the leap. I just needed to do something creative.”

On the road with Dulquer Salmaan

He admits he is not always so easily convinced to sign a new film, as he was in Karwaan. “There are times when I want to say yes immediately, but then I’ve learnt to sleep over it. The problems start when the I film I visualise is nothing like the one the director ends up making,” he shares. “I remember being blown away by a narration, but I wasn’t sure the team could pull it off. When I then discussed the idea with a friend, I was told it was the plot of some foreign film. How does one keep track?”

Uncharted territory

As for Karwaan, Dulquer says Hindi is not as alien to him as Telugu, in which he just completed the hit Mahanati (where he played the role of Tamil hero Gemini Ganesan) — that too in sync sound. “It’s not that I’m super confident about anything. I need to rely on the director’s confidence and what he sees in me,” he says. And yet, for the successful actor with hits in three languages, he has remained grounded. “When I was growing up, I wasn’t particularly great at anything. I was in my own world and my teachers felt I’d never reach my potential. Even in sports, I’d only play team games because I felt I was not good enough to outshine anyone,” he says.

It is cinema that has opened him up. “People from my father’s generation didn’t have the luxury to be unhappy in their job. But our generation is different. After I got into cinema, I’m grateful for the challenges it’s thrown at me and how I’ve grown by overcoming them. A lot of people who knew me from before are still surprised I succeeded!” concludes the actor, who already has his next Hindi film in hand — The Zoya Factor, with Sonam Kapoor.

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