At 9 in the night, his voice is exhausted. Long distance calls have come one after another since a little after 4 when the 45th Kerala State Film Awards were announced. Along with Nivin Pauly’s name was his, both winners of the Best Actor award. His green-eyed face was splashed on television screens — Sudev Nair, it said, won the award for his performance in My Life Partner. Friends had seen the news scroll first and sent messages to Mumbai, where Sudev was editing a web series he has just finished directing. “I was surprised,” he says again, with renewed enthusiasm in a 10 pm phone call. He had no idea he was even nominated. But then My Life Partner has been a surprise package in many ways.
For one, it revolves around the lives of a gay couple. And two, it has won the Best Second Film Award. That shows acceptance of a mostly-taboo subject. In fact, it appears a lot of actors had turned down the role, director Padmakumar offered, only for fear. But Sudev had no doubts. “It’s a good challenge. And as actors you don’t judge your characters,” he says. “My character — of Kiran — would have the same emotions as a heterosexual guy.”
In the film, Kiran starts a relationship with his friend Richard and problems crop up when the two try to adopt. Kiran goes through a lot of pain before Richard, and after. “There is a dream sequence where I break down and helplessly wail. That took everything out of me.” These devastations of the character had affected Sudev as a person. “That’s where the training helps, you know where to draw the line.” The training he talks about had begun at the acting course he did in FTII, Pune, soon after finishing his engineering at NIT, Nagpur.
“Even when I was doing engineering, I was more interested in dance and drama, taking part in intercollegiate festivals. I was bored with engineering, and in those hostel days, I went through a period of self-discovery. I realised I wanted to be an actor, and my parents have been very supportive of my decision.” He went straight to Kerala from his Mumbai home. He had never lived there, only visited. His mother was from Aluva, and his dad, whose roots were in Palakkad, grew up in Mumbai. So Sudev had always spoken Malayalam at home and grew up watching and loving Malayalam cinema. “Even now I do. I have watched Drishyam ten times just to watch Mohanlal perform, and understand how he does what he does.”
But that first stint in Kerala had not been successful. He looked too north Indian with his overly fair face and green eyes. Even in the many short films that he had acted in at FTII, he was cast a villain. “And here I was, thinking, the green eyes would help me be a hero,” he laughs. But it helped when after the Kerala stint, he walked into the auditions for Gulaab Gang, and got cast as a villain in a film with stars like Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla. “They are so professional, they come to the sets on time, before anyone else.” It’s different in Malayalam cinema, he observes, like in the new film he is doing with Prithviraj – Anarkali. “He is so friendly and approachable and he knows cinema in and out.”
It was before Anarkali that he did My Life Partner, which came in his second stint in Kerala. “One of my instructors at the FTII — Sajeev —who runs Act Lab, an acting school in Kochi — connected me to director Padmakumar.” The crew had been small, and friendly, the shooting in Thiruvalla. He dubbed for himself. And once it was over, went on to direct a web series called Not Fit, ten episodes of a team of struggling actors (‘like myself’) who go from one adventure to another. He wrote the script too. Because like a Kamal Haasan he wants to have command over every aspect of cinema....