For the last 15 years, Saiju Kurup has been an indispensable part of Malayalam cinema. Meeting singer MG Sreekumar was a life-changing moment for Saiju Kurup who used to work in a corporate company. He didn’t have to think twice before saying yes to MG Sreekumar’s question of whether he was keen on acting. From debuting in Hariharan’s ‘Mayookham’ to playing Unni Mukundan’s confidante in ‘Meppadiyan’ and the psychologist in ‘Bhoothalakam’, Saiju Kurup has really come a long way. Today you can give him any character and he will ace it. Having begun his acting career from a veteran like Hariharan has not only helped him gain some invaluable acting lessons but is what eventually helped him to play various characters with elan. He has also worked in the capacity of a scriptwriter and dialogue writer in Malayalam cinema. As he completes over 100 films in Malayalam cinema, the actor gets candid about his journey in Malayalam cinema.
I am happy that it worked at the box office. I first heard this story three years ago and I really liked it. I was curious to see how it is going to develop. When I heard the story, I realised that a well-told story can be as gripping as a crime thriller or a murder mystery. But for various reasons, the shooting kept on getting postponed. Eventually, the shooting commenced after two years. Since I was confident that this was going to be a good film, I was super keen on doing this film. In between, I had to abandon two or three films due to date clashes.
Since ‘Meppadiyan’ was the first film I committed to, I gave it more priority. During the shoot itself, I had an inkling of how this film will be received by the audience. Having said that I didn’t expect it to be such a big hit. We were skeptical about the theatre footfall since it was releasing during the time of Covid. But once people started coming to the theatres, we knew it would be a hit. It was heartening to see people braving covid and high TPR to watch ‘Meppadiyan’. Not only was ‘Meppadiyan’ a good film, but I was also extremely satisfied with my character.
During the shoot, we did have some difficulties at the location only to go back to the same location and discover that it had become a containment zone. There were scenes that required a huge crowd. But due to Covid, we couldn’t bring enough people to the location. We had to shoot with minimum people. Though it isn’t apparent when you watch the film, Vishnu wasn’t able to make a film according to the scale he had in mind. Then there was the fear of the virus infecting us, so we were constantly sanitizing and had our masks on. That also sort of restricted us from mingling freely with each other.
Had to withhold certain projects for ‘Meppadiyan.’
Initially, I was supposed to do Sharfuddin’s character in ‘Aarkkariyam’. But my dates got clashed with ‘Meppadiyan.’ That character required 30 days. Since it was a film written and directed by Sanu chettan (Sanu Varghese) I was really keen on doing the character. But it was impossible to do two films at the same time. Then Sanu chettan told me to do the friend’s character since it required fewer dates. That’s how I did that character. In ‘Nizhal’, I was supposed to do the character played by Dr Rony. Again the same issue surfaced. That’s how I did another character which required fewer dates. I couldn’t do a film called ‘Jibooti.’ I had to abandon certain films and characters like that. I really loved the character in ‘Meppadiyan’ and when I see the reactions to it, I am glad I did it.
When Unni Mukundan became the hero and producer
Another high point of ‘Meppadiyan’ was its well-run production team. Unni Mukundan was the producer and hero. I have wondered how one can balance such important roles so well. Not only do you have to do the job of a producer, but also mug up dialogues and play the main lead. Somehow Unni seemed to be comfortably balancing the two. He was so cool on the sets. I was impressed by how a hero can don the role of a producer so smoothly. Also, Unni’s production team was solid. Be it Executive producer Harris, Vipin Kumar, or Ranjith, they were extremely supportive. Their teamwork was what helped in bringing out a film like ‘Meppadiyan.’
How ‘Bhoothakalam’ scared my friend
If you ask me about ‘Bhoothakalam’, I want to tell you about an interesting message I got from a friend in Dubai. His name is Mithun Vikraman. After reading the reviews of the film, he messaged— “Saiju, I am alone. Should I watch ‘Bhoothakalam’ at night?” I laughed and told him— “You should watch the film alone at night. Just like we watch a comedy film to laugh, we should watch a horror film to get scared. Make sure you keep your speakers in good volume and watch it alone.”
‘Bhoothakalam’ is getting good reports. This is the first time I am acting in a horror film. It was a great experience, and I am also sharing screen space with Shane Nigam and Revathy for the first time. Whenever I see Revathy chechi I am reminded of ‘Kilukkam.’ At a time when it was rare for female actors to dub for themselves, I found it impressive that she dubbed for the character. It was exciting to hear her voice in person. I feel truly blessed to be part of two successful films of 2022.
MG Sreekumar asked me if I can act in films
When ‘Mayookham’ was offered to me, I had no idea that it was such a big deal. Though I watched films, I never wanted to become an actor. When I was working in Airtel, I went to MG Sreekumar’s house to discuss the possibility of taking an Airtel connection. Strangely, on my way to his house, I had felt this strange connection to cinema. Not that I will become an actor. But something was definitely in the air.
During the conversation, MG sir asked me— “Will you act in films.?” I said yes, without thinking. All that was running on my mind at that point was that with one film I will be a more familiar face and I will get more appointments for sales on the basis of that. I had no prior acting experience. In school, I was neither good at academics nor extracurricular activities. My childhood was spent in Nagpur. Our neighbours Girly aunty and John uncle were there. I still remember Girly aunty once telling my mom— “Once Kurup retires and settles in Kerala, Saiju might get called to act in films.” I felt quite happy to hear that and really wondered if I had the looks to be an actor. But auntie’s prophesy came true. I even spoke to auntie about this later. She is settled in Australia now and watches all my films.
I love Hariharan sir’s ‘Sargam’ and I have seen it multiple times. I have only seen 2 or 3 of his films. Is there a Malayalee who doesn’t know Yesudas? To think that I got an opportunity to be part of a film that features all these greats! Since I got an offer, I thought I will finish with one movie and get back to my job.
Though I gave my nod to MG sir, I was not getting leave from the office. So I decided to opt out of the film. When I called him to inform this, he told me— “Saiju, this is an opportunity that doesn’t come every day. To be part of a film directed by a legend like Hariharan is special. You are the chosen one.”
I eventually left my job a year and a half after the release of ‘Mayookham.’ My boss at Airtel, Alex James told me it was difficult to get leave. He was skeptical about my film offer and wondered if it was a smart move. But I told him I only wanted leave for this movie and that I have no intention of doing more films. He was very helpful and got me leave after talking to his Chief. Not only did he transfer me to Ernakulam but also did my share of work. There was no need for him to do that. I do call him now and then and he is very happy with my success.
All thanks to Hariharan sir’s blessings
My greatest blessing is my Guru Hariharan sir. Whatever I am today is because of him. I had called him just two days back. When I buy a car, when I had children, when I purchased a new house or whenever I get a new character, I call him and share my happiness. I had called him after ‘Meppadiyan’ and ‘Bhoothakalam.’
When I acted in ‘Mayookham’ I was very raw. I am sure he might have faced difficulties with me. I have been scolded thrice. But he really cares for you. I felt like it was my father who scolded me; besides, I was old enough to be his son. I had no clue about film shooting then. He would tell me to go and stand somewhere and all I could see were stones and mud there and I would ask him if I can stand somewhere else. Then he would tell me that’s not what he wants. So I was someone who would make comments at the most improper moment. But when he realise that we might have got hurt, he would pat us on our back and compliment our acting. Then I would forget everything. I feel lucky to have made my debut in a Hariharan film.
A character I am dying to do
There is no such character. If this question was asked five years ago, I would have given you a list. But now I have done so many types of characters. Whatever I got was a bonus. I don’t have many big dreams. I am just taking each day as it comes. I should have enough films to run my family and whatever roles I take should entertain the audience. It’s always wonderful to hear others say that you have done a fabulous job. I have rarely got any awards as I was never a bright student in school or college. To get some award you have to do something, right? Though I never aspired to be an actor, as a child I always wanted to see my face featured in newspapers and be famous. Once I made a few alterations to a cricketer's name in a newspaper—I turned Sajid into Saiju. I even thought of running away from home to get my name featured in a newspaper. This was when I was in 4th grade. But now I am enjoying fame and money. God was always kind to me. He rewarded me abundantly.
My moral support team
My family was skeptical when I became a film actor. But thankfully my wife and her family were very supportive. They always told me to do what I like and do it with a lot of passion. I was tired of my corporate job. I told them I am beginning to enjoy acting. After the first film, it was a struggle to get more films. And let me remind you that I never minded asking anyone for roles. Mithun Manuel is a close friend and I have been part of most of his films. But even then, I make it a point to remind him whenever I call him— “Mithun, is your next film ready? Don’t forget to call me.” I know Mithun will never forget me. But this is my job and asking for roles is my duty as an actor.
My father was also anxious about me. But he left us only after witnessing my success with ‘Theevandi’. He had heard others say great things about my performance. That’s some relief. Not that he has ever told me anything. I learned this from my mother. When they went to watch ‘Theevandi’, they didn’t get tickets in two theatres, and I am told it made my father ecstatic. “What if we couldn’t watch the film? His film is running in packed houses!” he told my mother. He has also seen the success of ‘Aadu Oru Bheekara Jeeviyalla.’
He would have been even happier if he saw me now. I am sure he is watching all my triumphs happily from heaven. My biggest source of happiness is my wife, Anupama, and children (Mayooka and Aftab). My daughter’s name was in remembrance of my first film. She is in 11th grade and son is in 1st grade. Anu was a Corporate Trainer. She was working as a Personality Language Development Trainer at a Multinational company. She sacrificed her career so that I can concentrate on mine. After all, it is always women who sacrifice their careers for their children. It is only because she is managing the family so well that I am able to concentrate on my career.
There are so many people who helped me in this journey. MG Sreekumar sir, Hariharan sir, Alex James, VK Prakash, Anoop Menon, Jayasurya, Mithun Manuel, Vijay Babu—it would be unfair not to mention their names. They have played an important role in my career. I didn’t achieve this alone.
Some of my upcoming films include, ‘Upachara Poorvam Gunda Jayan’, ‘Anthakshari’, ‘Lalitham Sundaram’, ‘Theerppu’, ‘Prakashan Parakkatte’, ‘12th Man’, ‘Gold’, ‘Rajni’, ‘Barmuda’ and ‘Paloti’. I play a police officer in ‘Anthakshari’. He is a CI who loves to play Anthakshari. This isn’t a comedy though, but a psycho-thriller. All my upcoming films are good, so are my characters. All these films will be released this year and I am really forward to them. Just think about it, for someone who came to the cinema without any ambitions, getting 120 films is no small feat. I am a contented man. Whatever happened was for my good and whatever is going to happen, with God’s grace and luck, will also be for my good. Thank you, God!