It’s not every day you hear someone say they became an assistant director to learn the nuances of acting. Hakkim Shahjahan hoped he could tackle his debut acting stint in Martin Prakkat’s ABCD (2013) on the strength of a few workshops he attended. But once he got into it, he realised it was not a cakewalk. “My first take took around 20-22 attempts,” he recalls with slight embarrassment. “In cinema, things don’t move the way you expect them to. So I realised that it’s necessary to have an idea of what goes on behind the scenes. That explains my becoming an assistant. Unlike other mediums, movie acting is very technical; various factors come into play — lighting, focus… you have to act in a way that favours the camera. Strangely enough, I got the urge to direct in the process, following which I got hit with an existential crisis, and decided to stick to acting.”
There was, of course, a dark and difficult phase which lasted a decade. “There have been times when my friend and I relied on mangoes to satiate our hunger. Many cinema aspirants in my circle backed out during that period due to various issues, but I was resolute that I would make it. In between, my focus kept shifting. I was into travelling for a while. Then I had a failed relationship. But at the end of it all, I circled back to movies. It was a constant throughout.”
Fast forward ten years, Hakkim has established himself as an actor worth taking seriously, owing to his remarkable performances in films such as Pranaya Vilasam, Teacher, and the cult Tamil hit Kadaseela Biriyani. In a long conversation with team TNIE, Hakkim reminisces about his experiences, explains the nitty-gritty of his craft, and more…
You started in theatre, and some actors who began this way tend to bring the influence of theatre into cinema and get typecast at times. You don’t have that problem.
Perhaps the lack of clarity makes it difficult for those actors to adapt after devoting three decades or so acting in plays. That was not my case, though, because whatever I did was all of a much smaller variety. Amateur work, mostly. Most of these professional plays require one to deliver exaggerated expressions to be visible to the person sitting at the back. We didn’t have to do any of that. We were trained in the cinematic style. That said, it’s essential to have much clarity, irrespective of the medium. One doesn’t necessarily have to transfer the approach they used to follow in one medium to another.
You said in one interview that your experience in theatre helped in some way in Kadaseela Biriyani. Since you played an intense psychotic character in it, do you feel the theatre experience helps performances of this ilk?
I wouldn’t say that. It’s the cumulative effect of everything I’d done so far. Though it’s been 6-7 years since I did Kadaseela Biriyani, and since I don’t have much clarity on the processes I adopted back then, I can’t say much. But I remember enjoying the experience a lot. I had no references, be it any other performance or movie. Just the character’s detailing that the director gave me — and it was a lot. The director had a clear idea of what he wanted.
Did he leave you to your own devices?
Not quite. There was a particular path on which to tread, and when necessary, the director would slightly fine-tune the performance when we slightly strayed from that path; it would work only when we stayed within the confines of the character sketch given to us. To be precise, I couldn’t move out of the perimeter of the camera’s gaze. By nature, I’m not someone who can be bound to a fixed position; in that sense, I’m not ‘natural’ in such a limited setting. When acting in Kadaseela Biriyani, I was asked how I intended to approach this character, and when I conveyed my ideas, the team figured out how to adjust the camera positions accordingly. If I were in the opposite scenario, I would get the sense of being trapped.
Your character in Kadaseela Biriyani must have had some compelling backstories…
Yes, for my referral, not for use in the film. This character’s perspective, quirks, filters, how all these look to us… things like that. In the absence of lines, he had to switch on his attitude. My grip on the character is reliant on the atmosphere of the set and the way the crew treated me. On the first day of the shoot, it was the roundtable sequence, and from thereon, everyone treated me as the character — they would move aside in ‘fear’ when I arrived on set — and they maintained that mood without disturbing my rhythm for a month. All these factors fanned my character’s ego.
Did you get a similar treatment while doing other movies, where the entire crew behaved in a way that helped you internalise the character?
No, that’s not possible on every set. I cited Kadaseela Biriyani because it was an indie movie, and the crew had an idea of the working style. I cannot expect such liberty and demand the set to treat me like the character every time.
From the filmmaking point of view, Kadaseela Biriyani has a naturality to it, especially from the technical side, be it the lighting, frames…
That’s true. While taking night shots, we used only headlights. Even in the morning, we heavily depended on natural light.
Has Kadaseela Biriyani opened doors for more offers from Tamil?
Yes, I did a film under Vetrimaaran sir’s production and another with RJ Balaji. Sidharth, a former associate of Pa Ranjith, directs the latter. It also has other Malayali actors like Sharafudheen and Saniya Iyappan. It’s an exciting project.
People often talk about the differences in work culture between Tamil and Malayalam film industries. Thoughts?
Of course, there are differences. The treatment you get in the Tamil industry is unbelievable. They’ll ensure you get all the comfort you want. They won’t let you stand even for a while; someone will come running with a chair. But in Malayalam, I don’t think it’s that organised. I’m not saying artists should be treated like that. I don’t want such treatment. I like to be free on my own.
How vital is a relaxed atmosphere for actors?
You can’t make an artist perform forcefully or by yelling at them. Their ego gets hurt, and they won’t be able to perform. I’ve seen many filmmakers hurling abuses. Imagine being humiliated in front of 300-odd people. That trauma will stay with him for a long time, and he just won’t be able to perform after that. Even if he manages, it won’t be organic. If you’re angry, you should vent out your frustration in your room, not at others. I won’t ever work with a filmmaker like that, reputation notwithstanding.
Your role in Pranaya Vilasam fetched much notice. The film travels back and forth in time, and you got to play two characters—a cocksure youngster and a middle-aged man enduring inner turmoil. Could you please explain the process of how you adapted both roles effortlessly?
During the process, I realised that playing a character effortlessly is the hardest thing for an actor. Also, the middle-aged character developed only with the onset of the shooting. I believe getting to play two characters, especially when one is 20 or more years older than the other, is one of those rare opportunities an actor could get, especially at the start of their career; in that way, I feel fortunate. To date, I get feedback from people that Vinod and the movie had left them with some degree of grief. Knowing that the audience took something from the movie made me feel satisfied.
Did you look to any characters for inspiration—fictional or otherwise—before playing Vinod?
Not really. However, initially, Vinod was one such character that I couldn’t relate to, considering his age and life experiences. Since Vinod also has a side much similar to the middle-aged people in our villages we see daily, I picked up some traits, including their body language and the zest these men have in their 40s.
You are now acting alongside Mammootty in Bazooka. How did that happen?
Mammukka watched Pranaya Vilasam and liked my performance in it. That’s how Bazooka reached me. I was a replacement for another actor who had date issues.
Could you share more about your experience with Mammootty?
After watching Pranaya Vilasam, Mammukka might have thought this guy has some potential. But I sensed he was slightly disappointed with how mechanically I delivered my lines during the shoot. He quickly corrected me, giving me suggestions as to putting special emphasis on a particular word or imparting a rhythm to certain areas—one can see a change in meaning and depth depending on the style of delivery. We get such takeaways in every film.
Have you received similar guidance from any other senior actor?
Every co-star has been of some help in bettering my craft. I try to have a good rapport with everyone. As an outsider a few years back, I heard many stories about ego clashes and other internal issues. But I have mostly found people to be genuine.
You had acted as Dulquer Salmaan’s dupe in Charlie. That must’ve been a novel experience…
Being an assistant director in Charlie, I was expected to do all sorts of work. There were a few suggestion shots in the film that didn’t need Dulquer’s presence. So I would be his body double with the camera filming my back or shoulders. In a few scenes, say, where Tessa rides on the back of a scooter with someone, Martin sir felt it would add to the mystery by having the audience wonder if that guy is Dulquer. And since the latter had also sprained his leg during the shoot of the ‘Chundari Penne’ song, I did those portions where he runs. The legs you see are mine (laughs).
Your first film ABCD was also with Dulquer…
I still remember how excited I was to act opposite Dulquer. But when my first scene didn’t land as expected, I felt dejected, and DQ came to me and said, “Watch your back, boy.” But I didn’t understand what he meant. It was only later I realised that he had asked me to look after myself because there won’t be anyone else to help.
How much has your experience as an assistant to a versatile director like Martin Prakkat helped you better as an actor?
Martin chettan gives much freedom, and we constantly discuss different types of storytelling and acting. I often ask him why he takes such a long break between each project, and his theory is he needs sustained excitement throughout a project to be involved completely. He believes he can’t work otherwise. Now I’ve started thinking along similar lines too. Even if a subject doesn’t excite me throughout, I need some degree of excitement.
How involved was he in Pranaya Vilasam, which he co-produced?
He was there during the shoot of the younger portions featuring Anaswara and me. For my older version, I think he came for only one day. But even otherwise, his involvement was there on the creative side. He would never force anything on us. He would just give some input. If it works, good; if it doesn’t, he would ask us to do what’s comfortable for us. He would never disturb us.
You are one of those actors who have tried different roles. For instance, your character in Teacher is a husband conditioned by patriarchal ideologies, so how did director Vivek convey the idea?
Vivek ensured that Amala and I had an icebreaking session, during which I got the idea that this character is an insecure man, so Vivek wanted that quality to stand out. I gave a more passive-aggressive tone so that the viewer gets the sense that ‘Devika’ is the one who runs the house.
How did you come to a subject like Freedom at Midnight? And there were many criticisms against that short film as well. How was the process and the result?
We didn’t start the project to change society. It was not even in our plan. But I felt that it will be good if we develop this content. Shan and I discussed this many times. I planned to land this project safely without commenting on patriarchy or feminism. We never expect society to change once after watching this short film. We haven’t boosted or glorified patriarchy. We have only represented it. Let people view this as a reflection. Measuring political correctness isn’t for me. If my character needs to say something, he should. Also, once something is released, it is up to the audience. It’s beyond our control.
Do you pick your roles based on a brief of your character or the full story?
In the last 2-3 years, I’ve been getting full story narrations without me demanding it. But that was not the case a few years back. I’ve done films without knowing where the story is heading. It depends on the maker. He’s the one who decides whether this guy should know the entire story. Some makers don’t want to divulge plot details out of concern they might get leaked. Even for Kadaseela Biriyani, I was only aware of my character and his equation with others in the story. I didn’t know much about the script.
After every film, do you reflect on whether you could have done the character better, or are you satisfied with what you deliver?
There’s always the nagging thought I should’ve added some more elements to enhance my performance. So when a person compliments me, somewhere deep down, I know where I went wrong or what I did. Though I try to be fully involved to get the character’s true self out, it comes with some repercussions later. For example, when I used to do theatre, in the process of becoming a character that would last for days, it became so ingrained in me that some traits would be left behind, impacting personal relationships. At that time, I feel, I shouldn’t dedicate myself so much that it disrupts my personal life.
(TNIE Team: Sajin Shrijith, S Neeraj Krishna, Anna Jose, Satish Suryan, Vignesh Madhu, Mahima Anna Jacob)