Actor R. Madhavan has a way of portraying his roles to such a degree of perfection that he often makes his audiences and fans forget about his real-life persona. These days, in the wake of the spectacular success of his web series Breathe, people often stop him on the streets and call him by the name of the show’s lead character, Danny Mascarenhas. He speaks to Latha Srinivasan.
Q. Breathe, your recent web series on Amazon Prime Video, is a game-changer in the Indian entertainment industry. How does that feel?
A. I am going to accept it graciously because I’ve seen the kind of numbers that have come in and the reception it has got around the world. It feels really good to be a part of that change. We just got news from Amazon now that Breathe has done exceptionally well, but more than 35 % of the returns are from overseas. That is a huge success. Indian films make about at best 12-13% of their revenues from overseas, and this has made 35% without any publicity. We are very excited by the prospects that it presents for us in the future.
Q. As an actor, how did you prepare for this particular role? And how different was the process, given that here you were part of not a 120-minute-long feature film, but a web series that clocked some 300 minutes?
A. What I had to do was understand the story and how I had to play the character over a period of four hours of screen time and bring it down to the pixels. We were playing it very real and not prone to dramatics, which would have made it less believable. We wanted the audience to actually feel the fear instead of excitement, and that was the whole idea. In terms of acting, I had to prepare expressions within a very small bandwidth of emotions, and that was the exciting part!
Q. Were you apprehensive about doing a web series?
A. I was apprehensive about doing a web series here, as the standards set by international web series have been very high. The kind of subjects I was getting at that time… they were being given to me by people with an attitude like, “Ok I have some time before my next film, so let me make a web series”. I knew that was a disastrous attitude to approach a web series with. So I was very sceptical about the kind of offers that were coming to me in India. But when Vikram Malhotra of Abundantia Entertainment approached me with Breathe, it changed my perspective completely.
Q. What are some of the things an actor must bear in mind when doing a web series?
A. First and foremost, underestimating the medium is the last mistake the actor makes. Secondly, it can completely destroy your career—people invest a lot of time and money to see you and they are ready to pause, fast forward and skip while they are watching you. And if you make the huge mistake of undermining them and thinking they are not as important as the theatre audience—honestly, that will be the last mistake you make.
Q. The reaction from your fans has been fantastic. How did this response differ from the kind of response your films generate?
A. The reaction from my fans, and from the fans of the series, has been far more intense, more involved and far more committed than I’d expected. I didn’t expect to be called Danny Mascarenhas on the streets of India or of Dubai. That’s been too much for me. People usually call me by the name of the character I played in my last film like Vikram or Farhan Qureshi from 3 Idiots. But for this to percolate down to the audience on the streets within a month of its release is astounding. The autorickshaw guy is calling me “Danny bhai” when I am out in my car—that is unprecedented. The recognition and adulation people are continuously giving you are spectacular.
Q. Television, films and now a web series. You’re an actor who likes to experiment and push the boundaries. Where does that come from?
A. It just comes from trying to look around the corner. When we were doing television, films were a big thing. And when I was doing films, I knew the digital medium was going to be the next big thing. India is now the biggest digital market and the fastest growing digital market for Amazon and any other company as of now. The rate of growth in India is spectacular and people are underestimating what a web series is capable of giving in terms of returns. Hollywood actors have become far richer by doing web series, and actors have done so much more for their career by doing web series. It is a medium that’s going to be in everyone’s face and they’ll become a discerning audience very soon. Experimenting with your career is one thing but being prepared and going in with your guns blazing into the situation is another, and I’ve been trying to do both.
Q. Your last Tamil film, Vikram Vedha, was a superhit. Breathe is now a pioneer in the digital media space. What next for you?
A. I cannot take away from the fact that films have given me a great deal and being on the silver screen is priority for me right now as well. My silver-screen commitments for the next two years are packed—I have six films back-to-back. Because of my injury, it got delayed a little bit and I had to let go of Aanand L. Rai’s film which was a big regret. I am really looking forward to all the other ones in my kitty right now.
Q. You’ve now spent more than 15 years in the Indian entertainment industry, attaining tremendous success on TV, films and now the online space. What is it that keeps you going?
A. When I had taken a sabbatical, I realised I had so many stories to tell based on my life experiences. My biggest fear at that time was—what if I was a non-starter post the sabbatical? There were so many stories I wanted to tell, but couldn’t at that time. What keeps me motivated is that there are many experiences to share, which are still totally relevant to the youngsters of today. And that’s what keeps me motivated completely.
Q. What does success mean to you?
A. The ability to reach my end game, where I’m completely satisfied with everything that I’ve done. The biggest curse is unrealised potential. So if I’ve fulfilled that obligation to myself, then I think I’m the most successful person I could possibly be.
Q. And on the flip side, how have you looked at failure?
A. As with success, failure too is a passing phase. If you have the ability to look at it as a passing phase and learn the lessons, it becomes very easy to grow. When you identify the state of mind that led you to make that mistake, then you try and avoid that.