"I am not under the impression that television serials enjoy higher dimensions of creativity, but they are sheer leisure modules for elderly people. It is more or less a business entity, where experimentation need not always bring results,” says renowned TV serial actor Dr Shaju, who entered the industry 25 years ago and continues to be a celebrity on mini screen. However, the dentist-turned-actor still believes it is possible to produce serials with artistic content if one is not particular about the business aspect or ratings, provided you have the requisite funds. After doing notable roles in Malayalam films and TV serials with ingenious creative content, Dr Shaju has now stepped into the shoes of a producer. The all-time popular TV actor who had entered the entertainment industry in the latter half of the 1990s has carved a niche for himself on the mini screen. His acting acumen has even gained the appreciation of stalwarts, including megastar Mammootty. Having been fortunate enough to have shared screen space with prominent actors, Dr Shaju shares his experiences and relationships in the industry that moulded his acting career, talks about his films and also gives his take on the criticism against TV serials.
You have been in the industry for almost 25 years and have earned a name for yourself on the mini screen. Moreover, you have portrayed significant characters in the filmdom. How do you perceive your acting journey?
Ever since childhood, I have had a passion for acting. I was into drama, monoact, mimicry and other creative art and literary works during my school days at Aruvikkara Government School. Earlier, I had also won prizes for monoact and mimicry at the sub-district Youth Festival while studying at Azhikode UP School. As I moved into college, I was active in doing plays during my pre-degree and BSc days at MG College in Thiruvananthapuram. I debuted in acting soon after my graduation through a TV serial 'Inakkam Pinakkam' directed by T S Saji. I joined MA in English Literature in Kerala University, only to discontinue after a year to join BDS course in Salem.
The five-year undergraduate programme at Salem unleashed my acting potential as I went on to become the best actor of the college in all the years of my study. So passionate was I about the theatre that I wore the hats of script writer and director of the skits I performed on stage. After completing my studies, I returned to Kerala and started practising dentistry, and that’s when I got an opportunity to re-enter the world of teleserials.
In 1992 noted filmactor P Padmarajan sir's relative Malloor Madanagopal had recommended my name to T S Saji for his upcoming TV serial 'Inakkam Pinakkam'. A person by the name of Basheer had wielded the camera for the teleseries. When I met him again after completing my BDS course, he asked me to be part of 'Mohanam' and 'Amavasi' serials, which he was producing. At that time, I also got a screen presence in Vayalar Madhavankutty sir's serial 'Devatha'. After we wrapped up first day’s work, the director chose me for his next project 'Jwalayayi', the first serial to be produced by megastar Mammootty. Though I was cast for a small role, it soon evolved into a full-blown character.
Was 'Jwalayayi' a turning point in your career?
Yes, ‘Jwalayayi’ featured a string of top-notch artists ranging from Nedumudi Venu to M R Gopakumar, and acting alongside them was schooling by itself for a fresher like me. My first shot was with Gopan chettan (M R Gopakumar). Venu chettan (Nedumudi Venu) and others always provided invaluable inputs, and when the initial episodes were aired, I came to know through Madhavankutty sir that Mammookka (Mammootty) and Venu chettan were impressed with my performance. Compliments from viewers also poured in. One day Madhavankutty sir asked me to give a ring to Venu chettan.
When I called him, Venu chettan was in a film shoot location in Kozhikode. He praised me over the phone and added that my character in ‘Jwalayayi’ was as complex as the roles he had essayed in films like 'Rachana'. He noted that my role demanded the actor to tread a wafer-thin line of acting and hence there was all likelihood of the actor making a mess out of the situation. I was happy to hear from Venu sir that I did justice to the character. Yes, ‘Jwalayayi’ was indeed a break for my career.
Later, I was the lead actor in serials such as ‘Angadipattu’, ‘Alakal’, ‘Sthreejanmam’, ‘Sparsham’ and ‘Pakalveedu’ that were aired on various TV channels. I was also fortunate to work alongside Ummukka (K P Ummer), Madhu sir, Thilakan chettan, Mamukka (Mamukoya), Sukumariamma, K P A C Lalitha chechi, Kaviyoor Ponnamma chechi, Asokan chettan, Riswabavakka, Sivaji chettan, and writers such as M Mukundettan and Balettan (Balachandran Chullikadu). In a serial of Thampichettan (SreekumaranThampi), KPAC Lalitha played the role of my mother, Sivaji my father, Kaviyoor Ponnamma my grandmother and Sukumari amma my great grandmother. I feel blessed to have worked with such legendary actors.
Since you have acted in Tamil and Kannada, what's the approach of the industry in other states towards actors from Kerala?
Tamil Nadu accepts good actors from Malayalam industry. We get a lot of respect from them. I had done the lead role in a Tamil serial opposite Devayani for four years, and another one 'Ishtadanam' with Kasthoori. I was part of two other projects –‘Muhoortham’ and ‘Chandrakumari’ produced by Radhika Sarath Kumar. ‘Chandrakumari’ was my last serial in Tamil. I had also associated with the Kannada remake of ‘Chandrakumari’. Actors get better recognition and remuneration in other states. For instance, if you are the hero of a Tamil serial the crew will address you as 'sir'. In Kerala it is more of a friendly atmosphere. The shoot location in other states is professional and the viewers give us more respect and recognition.
You have acted with veterans such as Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Madhu, Mammootty, Sukumari, KPAC Lalitha and M R Gopakumar. How did they shape your acting skills?
Working with such great actors is an opportunity of self-realization. It is an eye-opener that actors like me have a long way to go in perfecting the histrionic skills. The experience of working with such thespians has moulded my character to such an extent that even after 24 years of acting I give respect to my directors, and obey their instructions, no matter how junior they are. It taught me to be humble to the core and I don't mind asking the director if everything was fine after every shot. Most of the directors with whom I work now had been assistant directors in my earlier projects. Though they call me 'chetta', I address them as ‘sir’ in the sets. These qualities and timing in acting could not be imbibed without working with great actors.
In 'Jwalayayi', Venuchettan (NedumudiVenu) and Gopanchettan (M R Gopakumar) would point out even the minutest of the flaws in my acting. Venuchettan would take the liberty only with persons with whom he is close. They would give tips on expressions, voice modulation, dialogue delivery etc. I have greatly benefitted from these timely words of advice.
Unlike these tutorials, Sukumari amma would plainly point out the mistakes during the shoot. I was also lucky to get offers from renowned writers and directors. It is nothing less than sheer blessing that a small-time actor like me was able to work in five serials of bigwigs like Sreekumaran Thampi sir and three serials each written by P F Mathews and P R Nath.
You have been very close with Nedumudi Venu?
I took the tentative baby steps in acting with NedumudiVenu. We worked together in ‘Jwalayayi’, which was the turning point of my career. We were co-stars in several serials including P R Nath’s ‘Pakalveedu’. Right from my first shot, he used to correct my mistakes. During intervals, he took the pain to explain to me the nuances of delivering dialogues. The first write-up about me appeared in an article on Venu chettan. I played son to the character donned by Venu chettan in the film ‘Neelachola’ in which Mukundan chettan (M Mukundan) also acted. Venu chettan was the hero in the serial ‘Pushpakavimanam’, which I produced. He had also made creative interventions in the story and screenplay. When we were getting ready for telecast after six or seven episodes, he contracted COVID-19, and hence we could not go ahead with the project. He had promised to continue the shoot after he recovered. We shared a strong bonding.
You have done notable roles in films as well. After sharing screen with prominent actors like Mammootty and Jayasurya, why couldn’t you have a strong presence in film industry?
The reason is that I don't get frequent offers to act in films. Though I contact my friends in the industry for roles, nothing materializes. Honestly, I should admit that I don't take much effort towards that end. Since I am not an established actor in filmdom, I seldom get any queries. I have acted in a handful of films such as 'Bhaskar the Rascal', 'Thrissur Pooram', 'Oru Second Class Yathra', 'Pokkiri Simon', 'Fukri' and ‘Captain’ most of which were small roles. However, my characters in 'Bhaskar the Rascal', 'Ayaal Sassi' and 'Captain' were quite good. Last year, I was assigned a prominent role in a feature film, but it got stuck midway. But a handful of good projects are in the pipeline. I have got good roles in two films - 'Adoorum Thoppilum Allathoru Bhasi', 'Lasagu Usagha'. Their post-production works are almost over and I am waiting for them to get released.
You have acted in two serials produced by Mammootty, and also acted in a film with the superstar. Can you share your relationship with the actor?
When Mammookka started the work for 'Jwalayayi', I had cordial ties with his brothers and mother. Whenever he comes to Thiruvananthapuram, Mammookka would be staying at Pankaj Hotel, and I will be going to meet him along with my brothers. He would engage in a pleasing conversation. "Dude, you have got a big fan base", he would tell me. That remark from him was more than an award for me. I was cast the hero in his second production 'Manavatty'. That was a huge recognition as far as I am concerned. For the first time, a poster was printed for a Malayalam television serial. Mammokka insisted that my photo should be in the poster and I was called for a photoshoot. I also shared screen space with the megastar in 'Bhaskar the Rascal' where I did a notable role and my character in the film calls the hero Bhaskar, a rascal. There is a scene where I would be receiving blows from Mammootty (Bhaskar). Off the camera, an anxious Mammootty would rush up to me to enquire if I was okay. He is a superbly caring and loving human being.
Do people in the film industry dislike serial artists?
I don't think so. Film actors such as Biju Menon, Anoop Menon, Manoj K Jayan have all started their career in TV serials.
You took a long gap in Malayalam. Why was it so?
I was in Qatar for quite some time, but that doesn't mean that I was away from acting. I was busy with Tamil serials and used to frequently fly to Chennai for work.
Why did you choose to enter production?
For a long time, I dreamt of becoming a producer. It is not because I had loads of money. Basically, I have a genuine interest in production. My earlier attempts did not work out. The one project which I got through Vayalar Madhavankutty sir to work with Nedumudi Venu chettan did not materialize due to the pandemic situation. Then I chanced upon the script of 'Sasneham', which had a unique storyline. The story is about the bonding between an aged father and mother, who were classmates, and how their families perceived this relationship. It was well-received.
There's widespread criticism against the diminishing quality of contemporary television serials. Even the prominent personalities in the miniscreen industry admit that the serials do not maintain the quality of serials telecast during the 1980s. Is it true?
It is a topic that needs to be discussed elaborately. Certain serials such as Nedumudi Venu-starrer 'Kairalivilasam Lodge', 'Scooter' directed by R Gopinath and 'Jwalayayi' by Vayalar Madhavankutty and 'Shamanathalam' were roaring hits. Jwalayayi was a well-crafted project that dealt with the endearing friendship between two settler farmers of Kerala, complemented by a beautiful love story. Such was the merit of the storyline of the serial dramas that was telecast in Doordarshan and other channels in those days. Another reason could be attributed to the trend of renowned filmmakers like Shyamaprasad and Sreekumaran Thampi sir foraying into miniscreen industry to deliver television serials of supreme quality. Undoubtedly these storylines had held the audience also in their thrall.
Today the audience appreciation level across India is more or less uniform, mainly because serials telecast in Hindi and other language channels are remade into Malayalam. They turn out to be huge hits not just in Kerala but in other states as well. Though I am not under the impression that these serials are at the heights creativity, it should be acknowledged that viewers are, after all, interested in similar storylines. The enduring popularity of serial dramas in small screen underscores that they are entertaining for sure. Let's perceive them only as an evening entertainer that keeps many hooked in front of televisions.
This time the Kerala jury found no TV serial worthy of a state award. Do you agree?
Ultimately the whole thing revolves around ratings and business opportunities. There is no point in comparing the quality of TV serials with that of films. It is not necessary that a serial, which has been made with a conscious effort to raise the bar of audience appreciation level, would keep the viewers glued to the TV. The ratings would head south and the producer would suffer a huge loss. But quality stuff can be churned out if channels like Doordarshan allot slots regularly and release requisite funds for production. From the business perspective, the product may flop if we try to raise the bar of so-called quality and hence it won't be wise to venture into such experimentation. A significant aspect here is that television channels can make a creative intervention and can decide on a time slot to exclusively air stream handpicked quality TV dramas with creative content. Such a practice did exist some time ago and the viewers got to see critically acclaimed TV serials. Scores of literary works had TV adaptations that ran to many episodes. For instance, renowned actor Murali chettan won the award for his performance in 'Aranazhikaneram'. Earlier, the most-read stories of M T Vasudevan Nair and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer were serialised on miniscreen. Since I have been part of both genres, I can categorically state that serials with ingenious storylines could be produced without bothering about ratings or profit, if we get the required fund. Malayalam TV industry is rich with excellent serial directors, technicians and actors. Some of them are competent enough to take even 16 scenes at a stretch in a single day. Hence we cannot underestimate them in terms of talent. The whole point is that they are not getting the right opportunity. That's all.
There has been a growing demand for imposing censorship in TV serials. What is your take on that?
The public is unaware of the fact that a censoring system is in place in channels before the serials are aired. Any scene that breaches the contours of dignified language towards women and children or depicts atrocities towards them is bound to be scrapped. Neither should there be explicit scenes of murders. So there are strict regulations. If they break the rules they won't be telecast. For instance, there were a number of scenes in many of my serials that had to be removed due to the strictures. Each TV channel has a dedicated team to scrutinize the content to match with the guidelines. Another factor is the merit or the quality of a serial. You see, it is an undisputed fact that TV serials are no big art forms like Kathakali, plays or films. It is more of an entertainment module. So it is quite natural that notable figures in the film industry, who are part of the judging panel to select the best TV serials, are not happy with a "substandard product". But that doesn't imply that TV serials are bound to be despised for their below-average content. The fact is that they miss out many series that boasts of a laudable storyline and character base.
You have been a constant learner. After trying your hands at acting you did your BDS, and have a diploma in acupuncture. Later you went on to do courses in Journalism and Communication, Hospital Administration etc. Why this never-ending thirst for learning?
Well, this is not because I have a deep enthusiasm for studies. Earlier, I used to read a lot. But as life got busier I don't get time to read, which creates a strong drive to forcefully push myself into some kind of writing, reading or learning. That's how I end up doing courses. I love going through books and jotting down notes. I took post-graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication from Kerala University. Almost simultaneously I was doing Masters in Hospital Administration (MHA). But since there were a clash in exam dates I could not take the MHA exam, and that dragged on for a while due to my busy schedule. Currently, I am pursuing MBA, and have plans to take an LLB degree as well.
Two films 'Adoorum Thoppilum Allathoru Bhasi' and 'Lasagu Usagha' are awaiting release. I have done good roles in both these films. I have got a good character in another film too. Hope it will come out well and I am keeping my fingers crossed. The production work of serials is under way.
Family support has been the key to my successful career. My father Mr Shams is an ex-serviceman, and mother Jameela a homemaker. My wife is Dr Asha Shaju and we have a daughter Ivana who is studying in Class VII. My brother Shani is staying abroad with his wife Dr Asha and children Neha and Salmu. Though I am the only person in my family who has made a career out of acting, the undaunting support and encouragement of each and everyone in my family is the key to my success.
You continue to retain the status of a popular actor for 25 years. How do you consider this a big achievement?
Over the past 25 years, I was fortunate enough to work with legendary actors and commercial hitmakers and also be part of excellent projects with artistic value. I was particular that I concentrated on one project at a time rather than being part of every random TV serial. I was able to portray lead roles in the longest-running top television serials in Malayalam. Currently, I am foraying into production to bring out some good serials. Happy that I got the opportunity to deliver my fullest to the television entertainment industry in every possible way I could.
What about cinema?
My efforts and wait continue.