Fondly addressed as Muscle Aliyan, the handsome Unni Mukundan found his calling in films. But because he couldn’t complete his studies given his early trajectory in films, the determined Unni, is now studying towards completing his graduation. Unni has a million dreams and he wants to achieve them all. Apart from acting, he’s a lyricist and a singer as well. For him it’s always been about working on your limitations and emerging triumphant. Whether it was a stammering problem or enhancing his fitness levels after suffering from prolonged asthma in childhood, Unni doesn’t view anything as an obstacle. Rather he turns them around into opportunities. And after playing the macho hero in several films, he’s now game to play a woman in Chanakya Thanthram. Reportedly, Unni will be seen in four looks throughout the film, one of which is Karishma. Chanakya Thanthram, a romantic thriller, directed by Kannan Thamarakkulam, has Sshivada and Shruthi Ramachandran playing the female leads. Unni, a true-blue actor, enjoyed it all – the woes and the wonder of being a woman in the film. Excerpts from an exclusive interview…
Tell us about your journey so far.
I was born in Trishur, Kerala. But I did my schooling and college in Ahmedabad. I was good in literature and loved storytelling. As a teenager, I was totally into cricket. But soon I realised the difference between being interested and passionate about something. So, I backed out. I realised I enjoyed storytelling much more and movies is something that I should consider.
How did films happen?
I did odd jobs before I entered movies. I’ve worked as a customer care executive for a mobile brand. I’ve worked for an online shopping brand. That’s where I met friends, who introduced me to theatre. I was into direction mostly but for one play, where I played the side kick. I was surprised to realise how much the audiences loved my work. That’s when I found the confidence that I could become an actor and entertain people. That’s when I wrote a letter to the late producer and director, Lohithadas, also a prominent scriptwriter, who was instrumental in shaping the careers of Mammootty and Mohanlal. On reading my letter, he called me up and told me that he liked my handwriting and that he’d like to meet me. The only lie I had written in that letter was that I was 5.11 feet tall when I was 5.7 feet! It was an innocent lie.
So, I met him and assisted him for almost three years after which he passed away. I had quit studies to get into films. It was quite a difficult decision. I was keen to complete my studies. Given that, I’ve just completed my second year and intend to complete my graduation soon.
How did your family take to this decision?
Thankfully, my parents were supportive but in my entire family, no one believed the fact that you can earn in an acting profession. I come from a middle-class family and for them it was never a profession. Acting was always a hobby. But I’m glad that my parents allowed me to venture out.
So how did your first film, Seedan (2011) in Tamil happen?
I got an offer to act in this film and I did it just for the heck of it. I needed money. All my friends were MBAs and I hadn’t even started earning. I was paid around 40,000 for the film. Today after 25 films, I’m grateful to the entire team of that film as it got me started as an actor.
You’re not just an actor. You’re also a singer and a lyricist. Tell us something about that.
When I saw Sachin Tendulkar playing cricket, I wanted to be Sachin. When I read about a doctor excelling in the field of medicine, I wanted to become an actor. Every profession would attract me as much. I was a curious kid wanting to do everything but utterly confused. But literature was something that gave me the freedom to think and explore. Just as I enjoy animated films. I’m a complete VFX guy. Something beyond reality gives me a kick. So, literature gave me that boost and helped me understand that if I become an actor, I could do so much more. If I make films, I might be able to create what I want to. Since I enjoy music, I was sure I would end up dabbling with it professionally. I just finished singing a song for my film.
You’re called the Muscle Aliyan by your fans?
(Laughs) I played that character in one of my films (Vikramadithyan) and the name stuck on.
How important is fitness to you?
That is one of the most important aspects of my life. I was born asthmatic. When I shifted to Gujarat, I somehow managed to work on the disease but all the medication that had gone into my system had made me a weak child. My mother insisted that I work on my fitness levels. I started working out since I was in school. Somehow that helped me with my physical as well as mental fitness. I grew better in my studies and my confidence level increased as well. That entire fitness regime has helped me in my film career also.
What were the other challenges you faced through your journey?
I had a stammering problem. By the age of 22, I overcame that hurdle. Also, coming from my background, I didn’t have the kind of exposure that actors today get with acting classes, workshops etc. Today they come prepared to face the camera. It wasn’t the case with me.
What would you advise youngsters who aspire to gain a body like yours?
My physique is my biggest USP. Not many in Kerala follow fitness as a regime. They don’t see it as a necessity. But nowadays youngsters are becoming conscious about the way they look. I just keep reminding them that a great body is not something that can be achieved overnight.
What have been the biggest milestones in your career?
Getting the opportunities, being able to do some good work and receiving all the love and appreciation has been the biggest milestones. I’m not satisfied yet and there’s so much more still to achieve. Also, the fact that I could extend myself to other departments like writing lyrics and singing. The pleasure of working with some great filmmakers is unmatched. Also, I’ve been lucky to have entered the films at a time when celluloid films were in vogue and then the transformation happened towards digital medium. I’m lucky to have worked with both. I started off as a villain in Malayalam movies with the film Bangkok Summer (2011). I got the Best Debut Award for that film. I played a character role, which was well received critically. My first major film was Mallu Singh (2012), a blockbuster in which I played a Sardar. I went on to do Orrisa (2013), which won state awards. I played a 60-plus Oriya speaking police constable. My movie Vikramadityan (2014) was a super hit where I played the title role of Vikraman fondly known as Muscle Aliyan. Muscle Aliyan has now become my nickname.
Later, I did KL10 Pathu (2015), wherein I play a footballer, who falls in love with a girl elder to him. It was a romcom. Then a fantasy movie name Oru Murai Vandhu Parthaya (2016), a unique rom-com where I fall in love with a beautiful witch. The thriller titled Style (2016) became the most viewed films on YouTube. I went to on do two major Telugu films, Janatha Garage (2016) and the recent Bhaagamathie (2018), with NTR and Anushka. Both were super hits. I also did Achayans (2017) for which I also wrote the lyrics and sang songs. I was part of the film Clint (2017) based on the real-life story of Edmund Thomas Clint, the child prodigy, who left the world at the age of seven, leaving behind around 25,000 drawings and paintings. I played his father Joseph. Playing the police officer in Masterpiece (2017) has been one of my best accepted roles. This year Ira, fortunately, was a superhit. I’m awaiting Chanakyathntram this April where I play a detective and will be seen as a woman character on screen as well.
With such an impressive spectrum, any plans of entering the Hindi film industry?
Definitely. Being raised in Ahmedabad, Hindi language is not a barrier. I want to cater to a larger audience and entertain as many more people as possible. That’s the biggest reward for any actor. I’m sure Hindi films will happen somewhere down the line.
Does nepotism work in Malayalam cinema?
I believe it’s quite normal and fair for a father to support his son. I might also do it in the future if I have a boy or a girl. I don’t have an opinion on that. It’s fair enough. I cannot blame them. Yes, it’s a fact that you get an opportunity a bit earlier, or maybe a better launch. But eventually everyone has to prove their mettle to survive here. You also have Shah Rukh Khan, you also have Akshay Kumar, who didn’t belong to the industry but made it so big here. That’s great. Even in Malyalam cinema there are so many actors, who have followed their father’s legacy but I wouldn’t call it nepotism or anything negative. They have an opportunity and they’re utilising it. Only if they are good, will they survive.
Okay Mohanlal or Mammootty?
Both are my favourites. I’ve had the opportunity to work with both.
Nivin Pauly or Fahadh Faasil?
They both are good friends of mine.
Which Indian actor do you look upto?
I plan to direct a film and I hope Hrithik Roshan features as the lead. I like Akshay Kumar as well. And like any other kid, I’ve grown up being a Salman Khan fan. Seeing him, I was motivated to pursue fitness.
A Bollywood actress you have a crush on?
Deepika Padukone. She come across as warm. She has a middle-class girl kind of innocence although she’s a superstar.
What attracts you in a girl?
A sharp nose to begin with but for me it’s not about beauty as much as it is about the overall personality, the attitude. She could be the most beautiful girl but if she’s not a good person, she cannot be attractive. I believe no one can and should not judge any other person based on any attribute.
One secret about you no one knows…
I’ve no secrets. I am an open book.
What has success taught you?
Success is a subjective term. I’d like to say that I am not successful as the kind of success I’ve dreamt for myself. I still haven’t achieved it. Also, success is something that’ll make you work harder. Also, the other side to success is that you might have to lose out on time with family and friends. It’s one of the sacrifices you make. Also, success, if any, has also made me a better guy. I’m humbler. It detoxes you from all the negative feelings. Humility is the best thing one can offer.
On a light-hearted note, a hot actor like you will be seen as a woman in your next, Chanakya Thantram. How was the experience?
Throughout my career, I’ve been going through physical transformations for my roles. And now for C Chanakya Thanthram I’m playing a woman. (Smiles) Normally, people call me handsome but now I believe I’m beautiful as well. (Laughs) It was the first time my mom ever visited me on a film set and it was for this film after she was told I was wearing a saree and a blouse. Threading is dramatically painful; I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The artificial nails irritated me because I couldn’t hold anything. But after a point I felt like a woman and behaved like one. I’m grateful to my director for offering me this challenging role. It will remain an unforgettable experience.