Dulquer Salmaan talks about his second Hindi film, The Zoya Factor, how he connected with the character of Nikhil Khoda, working in multiple languages effortlessly, being a secure actor and his efforts to catch up with his superstar father, Mammootty, who continues to do more films a year than him.

How was the response to your Hindi cinema debut Karwaan?

The biggest takeaway for many was my Hindi language skills. It was very important for me that they didn’t hear my accent. It’s reassuring because I guess I have the potential to work in all languages. Many were like Why didn’t you do something commercial? More of an entertainer?’ But Karwaan had so much heart when I first heard it. I don’t think I am entitled to any kind of debut launch in any industry. I didn’t do that in Malayalam. Why should I change that trend for Hindi? With The Zoya Factor I am hoping people can see that this guy who played Avinash can be Nikhil too.

Tell us about Nikhil Khoda. Did you have any references for him?

Anuja [Chauhan] has put a bit of all captains in him from Virat Kohli to MS Dhoni. I think we have captured the essence of the book. It’s a nice adaptation and smartly made into a film and Anuja [Chauhan] was a part of it too. Zoya and Nikhil keep locking horns. He’s stubborn about his beliefs and principles which I get because when people tell me why don’t you do a remake of your dad’s films or sequels or major hardcore commercial cinema I find myself having to explain that that’s not what I want to do. I really got where Nikhil is coming from. But he’s portrayed as very cool, brash and suave which is not me at all.

You come across very secure as an actor. Be it the multiple National Award-winning Mahanati or Karwaan or going back to Bangalore Days, you are happy to take on roles where you may not necessarily be the central character.

I came in the industry full of insecurity about myself. I was a shy, awkward teenager. I used to die on stage, words wouldn’t come out, my voice would break, I would sweat and forget my speech. I have taken communications 101 in college three times and I went from C, C to a B in public speaking. I have come here from that to acting in front of hundreds of strangers at times out in streets. That’s big for me.

Once I made it into films media would pit me against another actor. It’d be his films are doing better, he’s got an award and this director is offering him this film. I’d lose sleep over it and get worked up and this would continue with every new actor that came into the industry. Then I’d meet this actor and get along with him and discovered he’d have the same insecurity as I do. Now I have decided I am going to be happy for everyone and sleep in peace at night.

Every time I work with a co-actor I am happy to play down to you even if it is a newcomer. It is easy to work with someone when their defences are down. You have the best time working, you push each other, a collaboration happens and it becomes a happy experience.

With Mahanati the challenge was to see if I can speak Telugu well. My takeaway was that I’d get the script, translate and understand the meaning. I realised I don’t get lines like this in Malayalam and Tamil. I am learning a new language with which you can express so beautifully so what’s so negative about it.

Do you think you have a leg up over other actors because you can do a film in all languages?

It’d be presumptuous of me to say yeah, I do. But yes, I don’t have much of an accent when I speak Tamil. On some level, I have been lucky. I entered the industry when there was a nice sort of change happening in Malayalam cinema. There were a lot of young filmmakers who wanted to tell real stories, with real people and real conflicts. That was resonating big time with our audience. Suddenly work was taking our audience outside the state too. So now everyone is exchanging notes on these movies. I was at the right place at the right time. A lot of movies travelled outside of Kerala. Bahubali opened the market more for Hindi dubbed films. But let’s admit my dubbed films have not done any numbers.

Films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are now crossing the language boundaries thanks to platforms like Amazon Prime, Netflix and HotStar. There was a lot of social media chatter around Kumbalangi Nights and why don’t we make films like this in Hindi.

It’s amazing and I am like, why am I not in that film in some way. I am so angry. I love everything about it. When we watched Hindi cinema we were like why don’t we make Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai. Films like those inspired a lot of young filmmakers in Kerala. Our films are small so we can churn out a lot more number of films. So what you guys see is definitely the filtered best of the lot.

One director I’ve been waiting for you to collaborate with is Lijo Jose Pellissery.

We just haven’t had that dialogue. We haven’t connected to each other. I hope it will happen soon. Hope the stars align soon. I am giving out those energies.

Is there a conscious effort on your part to have a Hindi release every year?

I do five films and I am like I have to catch up because dad [Mammootty] is doing seven films. What upsets me if they are like you don’t want to hear scripts in Hindi so we should not get in touch with you?’ and I am like Oh My God what if this amazing Hindi film comes to me and takes me to Cannes and I don’t want to miss that’.

There are some things that some languages afford you. Like Tamil is so expressive. I can’t do a love story in Malayalam as convincingly as I can do in Tamil. To answer your question yes you may be interviewing me same time next year.

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