There is a certain pause, a reflective stance that makes him stand out.

It’s the very factor that brings a sense of deliberation and nuance to each and every character he plays. From Anandam to Moothon and Choked and all most every virtual screen this quarantine, Roshan Mathew has enchanted us and how! It makes for an extremely interesting pursuit to know what are the things that lead to the illumination of sensibilities of a thinking actor of today.

While on his way to stardom, Break a Leg! caught up with Roshan and he indulged us with some incredibly fascinating and sincere insights about his journey in the world of storytelling that started with theatre, to the charming reveries of being a seeker, the power of affecting perspectives and the sheer, ironic decadence of being an actor.

From directing your first play No Exit to acting in films like Anandam to now in Moothon, in the past few years your work has transgressed typical bounds of language and form. As an artist, what part of this journey invigorates you the most?

In the last couple of years, I have realized and gladly made peace with the fact that I am not going to be happy doing just one thing. When I moved to Mumbai to do theatre that’s all I wanted to do, and then I got into acting in front of the camera through a web series and eventually Anandam happened. After that I immersed myself in Malayalam cinema and moved to Kochi. But in each of these instances, I was never entirely happy and would crave theatre when doing cinema and vice-versa. 

I would judge myself, put myself down saying “This isn’t cool, you’ve got to focus on one thing” until I realized – “but why?” maybe I don’t have to choose. Maybe I can continue to pursue all things I like and that’s absolutely fine. I realized that’s my deal and saying that to myself gave me a lot of peace. Now I know that every time I get busy with a film, its quite natural for me to miss theatre. And this only pushes me to constantly look for a play to break into, squeeze in a few shows and keep the love for the craft going. 

You have been extremely eloquent about your love for theatre. Could you tell us something about your earliest experiences? Instances that moved you enough to convince you that theatre is what you wanted to do.

I’ve gotten so much out of theatre that it’s very difficult to pick one thing. It’s almost like a marriage or a strong-bonded relationship, and with time I am falling more and more in love with it. It sounds really corny, but it’s true. When I started out in Chennai, theatre gave me companionship, the feeling of a community. Ever since school, I have been the kind of guy who had 15 close friends in a class of 40, I’ve always been like that, I like people. And I found several people to like in theatre. Soon the sheer joy of performing and making theatre got to me. I was terrible when I started, but I had so much fun doing it.

Back in the day, I was going through a major identity crisis, not knowing who I was. I was constantly trying to be ‘other people’ and theatre in its own way reassured me that it was okay to do so. Theatre made the idea of ‘wanting to be other people’ seem acceptable and that gave me a lot of comfort as I could keep seeking and discovering. It also gave me a sense of identity. Who are you? I am a guy who does theatre!

Theatre somehow puts you in a position where it tells you that change is great! So you accept
all that is changing and you stop judging it. Life is very similar to creating a play. The best kind of plays are the ones that start with an idea and a group of people who believe in that idea work together. In a process like that, what you see on stage is nothing close to what you had first imagined. It’s a beautiful evolution. Theatre shows you how in a play or in life, change is an important part of the process and theatre also teaches you to accept changes. There’s a lot of comfort I get out of this thought. 

Tell us about the importance of collaboration and how much of it influenced the making of your play- A Very Normal Family. Does the Malayalam theatre scene exude a clique or campy notion?

I don’t think I am a part of Malayalam theatre as yet. If you ask artists from the Malayalam
theatre community about me or ‘A Very Normal Family’, I’m pretty sure not many would know. We managed to pull it off independently by tapping into our own follower base. But this isn’t the most ideal way. When I make theatre in a city, I definitely want to be part of its larger community. Otherwise you just end up in your own comfortable bubble and that doesn’t leave much scope for growth. 

With AVNF, we fortunately found the right people outside of our initial group and did not stick with artists we already knew. I have always insisted on including people who are not from my immediate group, because that’s how the play evolves. As soon as I got in more people, the process got exciting, the writing changed, more characters were added, I worked with actors who perform for the love of the theatre making process. And it was just the right balance of ideas from outside and within. It was a very collaborative process with a beautiful sense of belongingness and overall creative satisfaction.

You are among the few artists who have a formal training in theatre, why did you feel the need to seek that? Do you think you are a better actor because of the training you received?

With every passing year, the value adds and meaning of formal training keeps evolving. At this moment the most important takeaway of training is a ritualistic method of working, especially when working on a play. Not so long ago, I was just a theatre actor trying to get cast in a production. But theatre training has provided me with a sense of initiative and a lot of confidence to create work.

Things I thought that were impossible to achieve on stage, now seem do-able thanks to drama school. Formal training gave me specificity, taught me how to critique rather than criticize, it showed me to how to recognize an opportunity or identify when something wasn’t working. It truly empowered me as a theatre maker.

If there was one thing that you could change about the Indian theatre scene with a wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

I would like to see more spaces dedicated to theatre. Spaces where we can perform, create and learn all things theatre. When I was in Bombay and Chennai, I never had to struggle but when I wanted to make a play in Kochi there were hardly any spaces we could rehearse at. It’s simply a matter of infrastructure and it would serve a larger purpose of having more  facilities for theatre.

I feel we’ve taken it for granted that theatre is a dying art form. There is a certain sense of complacency which implies that theatre will get by, but it doesn’t work like that. We need to shift our focus to ensure theatre survives and thrives.

Do you think the current transition from live to virtual shows will affect how we perceive theatre? Are online plays taking away certain nuances from the craft?

I probably believed exactly what you said until a couple of weeks ago. And then I happened to watch two theatre productions online. These productions were simply outstanding and so well executed that it blew my mind. They made me feel things, while I was sitting in front of my laptop, in my bedroom. I was genuinely transported.

Within a few months, artists have figured out a way to  stimulate our senses and create experiences close to live shows. With all these restrictions, not having people in the same space, it still made me feel and reminisce about things from my life, took me on a journey with the characters. That’s what we’re essentially doing in a space together. At the end of the day, if I am moved by a performance the medium takes a backseat. In one of the shows I could actually see other audience members weeping and laughing and smiling. It was so beautiful! The virtual world has infinite possibilities and just like always, we’re going to figure out a way to continue to do theatre.

In Moothon we saw you play a gay man with speech disabilities. You essayed the role with much tenderness and conviction. Do you think as an artist, there is a certain responsibility that comes with portraying such relevant characters that obviously need more representation? 

Yes! I do think there is a certain responsibility as an actor and the chosen roles must be of social or societal relevance. Having said that if another actor doesn’t feel the same, I wouldn’t blame them because a lot depends on the filmmaker’s vision. As an actor there is also a responsibility to be honest to the story.

I don’t imply that as actors we must have all the answers. If artists could offer solutions the world would already be a better place. But if you have the power to recognize a problem, then the least you can do is hold a mirror up to society and shed light on subjects that need attention, put it in perspective for others. Just create awareness around that problem. And if I can do it while still being entertaining and staying honest to the story, then why not?

After Moothon released, the immense love and support I received from the LGBTQ community made me more mindful of my responsibility. And this realization has definitely made me more aware as an actor where I am going to be conscious about the sensitivity associated with a character.

The empathy that you talk about, do you think it’s easy for you to disassociate once you are done with a play or a film? 

I don’t think I have had experiences where I cannot disassociate from my characters but I have always learnt a lot from them. There have been several instances where I felt like I had a certain perspective that didn’t necessarily come from me. It came from having known a particular character. It’s like having a close friend who shares their experiences with you in such detail that their experiences become your own.

Neeraj Kabi once said as an actor when you’re out of work, you still need to keep working on something and to get better, just shop for life. He said, ‘living’ is the best thing that you can do. Get out there and gift yourself more and more experiences. Do things you have never done, things that aren’t a part of your world. Enter someone else’s world and discover. That made so much sense. 

And finally, what’s your favourite food from a theatre/auditorium canteen across India?
Oooh! suddenly so many things are coming to mind. Definitely the chutney-sandwich at NCPA , and cold-coffee at Prithvi Theatre.The Alliance Francaise Chennai has the Edward Michelin auditorium and they have this lemon tea that’s lovely. I am not a tea person but this tea, is THE tea.

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