June is one of those projects that gave me complete fulfilment, says Siddharth Menon

The actor plays the protagonist Neel, an Aurangabad native who is at a very vulnerable stage in his life.

Suyog Zore

Siddharth Menon, who began his acting career with Ekulti Ek (2013), is known for choosing out-of-the-box roles. Be it a drug peddler in his yet-to-be-released debut film Peddlers (2013) or a gay man in Loev, the actor never shies away from off-beat roles.

The 32-year-old artiste will be next seen in Suhrud Godbole and Vaibhav Khisti's upcoming Marathi movie June alongside Nehha Pendse Bayas. The actor plays the role of an engineering student, Neel, who is at a vulnerable stage in his life. He spoke to about the film, the character, his acting process and his career, among other things. Excerpts:

How did you come on board June?

It is pretty straight forward actually. I got a call from producers Nikhil Mahajan and Pavan. I had worked with Nikhil just before this on the Netflix series Betaal (2020). So he was familiar with my working style. A couple of weeks after that shoot I got a call stating that Surhud and Vaibhav were directing this film. I know Suhrud from way back in my theatre days. Vaibhav was an AD on a couple of films I had acted in; that's how we knew each other.

I went in for the meeting and read a couple of scenes. Even though the premise was familiar, there was something that drew me towards the film. They also felt that I could do this part, and after I met both my directors and writer Nikhil Mahajan, I came back, saying, "I hope I get this film". I had not read the whole script but I knew there was something in that character. Also, I've known these people for so many years, we knew each other's journey.

Of course, when I got to know about the cast, I  got even more interested.  Nehha is also one of the producers. She and I started to do our workshops and every day was just a fulfilling day. There are few projects which fulfil you within. It goes beyond money and business. You make those bonds during the process which last for a lifetime. This is definitely one of those projects that gave us all complete fulfilment. There are some debutants like Resham and experienced actors like Kiran Karmarkar but everybody brought their A-game every day.

What can you tell us about your character?

My character's name is Neel. He was born and brought up in Aurangabad. He is an engineering student. He is at a very vulnerable stage in his life. He has just faced some incident that has shaken his foundation. Sometimes the place where you are from is the place you hate the most. So he is having that kind of relationship with Aurangabad and the people. He is very open about his vulnerability which is what I loved about this character. And to show this vulnerability was even more difficult. If it comes out the wrong way like anger or frustration, it pushes people away. He is also feeling alone because of this behaviour. And the basic story is about two people who unexpectedly cross paths. And both have gone through certain things. Both are at different stages of their life and are from completely different backgrounds. But they connect and heal each other.

Is there any similarity between Neel and Siddharth?

Actually, there isn't. It took me some time to understand where our writer Nikhil Mahajan was really coming from. Because it's a personal story for him. And it was a very new world for me. The things Neel has gone through, his relationship with his parents and society, all those things were new for me. The way Neel and Siddharth handle their emotions might be completely different but what we feel is the same. It's just that Neel chooses to handle or express it differently and Siddharth chooses to express it differently. 

Just a couple of days back Nehha said that just like Neel, the moment you look at Siddharth you want to save him. So I guess from Neha's perspective this is a similarity between Neel and me. Both of us need support.

What was it like to shoot in Aurangabad?

It was fabulous. For people who don't live in Aurangabad, it is a tourist city. You go there to see the fort, Ajanta caves and other historical monuments and then you exit. That was my memory of Aurangabad. But in June, Aurangabad is the character in itself. Once you watch the film you will realize that even if it is set in Aurangabad, it can be applied to any small town. Even if it's local, its content is universal. I had been to Aurangabad before but this time I got to live there. Now I realize that it has a rich history and it has a lot of future potential. I kind of fell in love with the city. While travelling in a city suddenly, out of the blue, you will see a big monument.

The people were also very supportive. It was in a way a small budget film and we needed to complete the shoot in a certain number of days and we shot many scenes outdoors on live locations, but never once we faced any intrusion from onlookers. Of course, they were intrigued and would stop and watch the shooting. They had a sense of pride that someone was finally shooting a film in their city. I'm from Kerala, was born and brought up in Pune and for the last 11 years have been living in Mumbai but I think there is an Aurangabadkar deep inside me also. Whenever I go back to the city I'm going to have a different feeling altogether. 

You also had to shoot on actual locations in Aurangabad. How did you rehearse those scenes?

No, actually Nehha and I never rehearsed scenes keeping in mind the setting. But we did a lot of workshops during which we kind of asked a lot of questions, spoke about the past of the characters and how they have arrived where they had arrived. There would be a lot of discussions about what the scene was rather than how we were going to shoot it. 

That was something the directors and DOP did on the site and neither Nehha nor I got into that discussion. We just wanted to be in a space where we knew our characters. Our DOP is so flexible that even if he had to be in between two walls that had very little space, he would still somehow pull it off and make it look beautiful. All that we actors had to do was just surrender to the moment and see where the scene was going.

Nehha and I are very grateful to have directors like Suhrud and Vaibhav who kind of let us flow. They would simply guide us in the direction they wanted us to go. At least for me, it was the most collaborative effort. Sometimes Nehha and I would get some sort of Idea and there would definitely be an incorporation of that Idea by our directors and wherever we were going wrong there was always someone to steer us in the right direction. Rather than just blindly rehearsing I think there should be some sort of unpreparedness because when you rehearse too much you risk losing spontaneity.

You are someone who can play romantic hero type roles but it seems like you have always steered clear from such roles. Why is that?

I haven't steered away from anything actually. In fact, I entered into films with the intention of playing the charming romantic hero. I'm a trained dancer, singer so I always used to think this is something I would fit into perfectly but somehow it never happened. When it comes to films, I have never restricted myself to a genre. If there is a typical Bollywood [Hindi cinema] romantic movie or South Indian masala movie, I'm completely down for it. I would like to mould myself in whatever way possible. Of course, I'm very grateful for what I have got, because that helped me hone my craft, tell important stories and meet people who are like family to me now, which is the most important thing. But yes, I have never restricted myself to such roles. I really wonder why I haven't got those chocolate boy romantic hero kind of offers.

Every Marathi leading man, be it popular experienced actors like Ankush Chaudhari and Swwapnil Joshi or your contemporaries like Amey Wagh and Vaibhav Tatwawadi, have worked on television, but you seem to have no interest.

The reason I have steered clear from TV is that it takes a lot of time. And because of the films I was doing, I knew that I couldn't give sufficient time to TV. If you are doing a lead or prominent character on a TV show, you have to give them at least 25 days of your month and I couldn't do that. I'm also fond of stage and film more than television. I knew that if I had gotten into television I would not have time for films or stage. I'm open to doing limited-episode shows but whenever those offers came in the past,  I always had some date issues.

Before the lockdown happened you were also doing the English musical play Aladdin. What was that experience like and have you resumed rehearsals?

Aladdin has been the best experience on stage for me. When that Broadway-style musical came to me, I was not quite content about how my career was shaping up. In the previous year, I had done two films, Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) and Karwaan (2018). And in both, I played a small guest role so I was required to shoot for only a couple of days for both films. I completed my year's work in just those four days and then I had nothing significant to do for the rest of the year.

At that time I started seriously thinking, 'Where am I? What am I doing? Am I not aiming for the right thing?' When I was going through this low period, I got a call from Disney for this role. I just jumped on this opportunity. I have never seen the actual Broadway show in New York but I know the level of work they do. It was a big commitment because I couldn't do anything else for next year and a half. It took six months to set up the whole show. We did three seasons, two in Mumbai and one in Delhi. I got proper training in western classical singing and dance. Working on this play changed me inside out. We would do eight shows in a week. Performing in front of 1,500-2,000 people every day just opened me up and changed me completely. I felt like I had gone to the London School of Dramatic Art and came back.

But I'm very grateful for that opportunity and I don't regret not accepting any film offers in that period. We still don't know when we will be resuming the play though. It depends on the producers. It's also a very complicated play to run. You need 5-6 days just to set up that whole set. So you have to park yourself in one theatre and perform at least 35 to 40 shows there and then move to another theatre. 

June is the first Marathi movie to be released directly on Planet Marathi OTT.

I'm very excited about it because OTT gives you reach. This film is very close to me and our whole team. Ours is a small film and given the situation we were really not sure what would happen to it. So we are really grateful to Planet Marathi because they are launching their platform with our film. So for them to feel that June was the right film for the launch of their OTT service means a lot to us. They treat June like their own and what more can we ask for? They also believe in telling good stories. They want to make this platform for Marathi filmmakers and storytellers. I think it was the need of the hour. The Marathi audience really needed a platform that is solely dedicated to Marathi content.

What are your future projects?

There are a couple of exciting projects but it too early to talk about them now. If things become normal by July-August, I will probably make an announcement.

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