You feel a tug at your heartstrings when cricketer-turned-actor Vishnu Vishal says that he stopped watching cricket as it could trigger all that he carries for letting his dream go. “Somewhere, in a corner of my heart, it’s still there because I had invested almost 15 years of my life in cricket,” says Vishnu in a candid conversation.

It is common knowledge that Vishnu’s segue to cinema came following an injury that ended his cricketing career. Fortunately, Vishnu has made peace with how his life has turned out, and with the cricketer who still lives in him. That he has picked up a bat whenever he got the opportunity — Vishnu famously plays for the Chennai Rhinos team in the Celebrity Cricket League — is proof. “I believe it was the cricketer who helped the actor in me evolve. If I have survived for over 15 years in cinema, it is because of all the lessons I learnt playing cricket. For instance, cricket teaches you how to come back from adversity because sometimes you might be on a purple patch, hitting back-to-back centuries, but lose your form all of a sudden.”

Vishnu Vishal in a still from ‘Lal Salaam’

Vishnu Vishal in a still from ‘Lal Salaam’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Teamwork, a never-give-up attitude, handling criticism and politics are some other qualities that Vishnu credits cricket to have given him. “You also learn about handling pressure because, in both cricket and cinema, people will know your successes and failures. You not only have to be successful, but also be a public personality.”

He also wonders if he would have been the first choice to play a cricketer, in his upcoming political sports drama Lal Salaam, had he not been a cricketer to begin with. “This is also why I believe that nothing goes to waste in life provided you do it with dedication. It isn’t restricted to cricket; my MBA degree has definitely helped me in administration as a producer.”

Ten years after his cricket drama Jeeva, Lal Salaam, directed by Aishwarya Rajinikanth and co-starring Vikranth, brings together both of Vishnu’s passions — cricket and cinema — to drive home a timely social message.

Of late, Tamil cinema has been witnessing films, like Sarpatta Parambarai , that use sports as a lens to look into the crevices of the social fabric of our times. Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw Blue Star use cricket as a tool to look at casteism, and now, Lal Salaam promises to show how bigotry seeps hatred into the hearts of sportspersons.

“This isn’t a trend, but just coincidence. Through sports, you can drive home the message in an engaging fashion because sports itself is an engaging activity; that’s why sports dramas leave you with a high. Storytelling-wise, it helps if you keep sports at the centre of something and build a story around it,” says the Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu actor.

Vishnu Vishal

Vishnu Vishal
| Photo Credit:
S. Shiva Raj

However, Vishnu is at such a crucial point in his career that a film being a cricket drama isn’t enough to convince the actor in him. A lot is riding on his shoulders already. The actor has been stressing about how he looks at this post-2022 phase as the second inning of his film career. It’s a phase that not only marks a redemption for Vishnu — after all the professional and personal battles he waged since the release of his Raatsasan — but also a slightly different approach to acting; the actor whom we had come to know for his subdued performances, only occasionally showing some pep, made a conscious shift to do relatively louder roles and films that are bigger in scale.

Lal Salaam is both, but the film being a dual-hero project would not have been easy for Vishnu to sign on, given his history with multi-starrers; 40 minutes of his portions were cut off from his 2021 Tamil-Telugu film, Kaadan. “This time, I wanted to be very clear. I didn’t want to lose out on a good story just because it’s a multi-starrer so I ensured that I prevented whatever went wrong in those earlier films from happening again.”

However, all that said, it was not the role or the scale or cricket that made him seal the deal for Lal Salaam. There is something beyond all this; a factor that makes all these calculations null and a phenomenon that has defined Tamil cinema in the last 50 years. “When they informed me that Rajinikanth sir is doing a cameo, doing Lal Salaam became a no-brainer. Acting with Rajini sir is a dream for many, yes, but acting as a hero under his wing is something you don’t even dream of. That was a huge opportunity that I couldn’t pass on.”

Vishnu says he was eager to see how Aishwarya would bring in those ‘Rajini’ elements that fans naturally expect in his films. “Even I’d have felt disappointed if those elements weren’t present but Aishwarya has done a good job at that. I am very confident the film will satisfy the expectations of Rajini sir’s fans as well.”

Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Lal Salaam’

Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Lal Salaam’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Usually for Vishnu, on days inching towards the release of the film, anxiety tends to set in on how the film would perform on the opening day. “Throughout my career, this is how my Fridays used to be — I would get a small opening; more people would choose to go to the afternoon shows; evening shows would see more crowd and night shows would usually go full; and then we don’t have to worry about Saturdays and Sundays. This is the norm for an actor like me.” This time, he need not worry about the opening day collections. He says, “There’s a huge force that will bring in all the footfalls — Rajinikanth — so I can go to bed peacefully.”

After Lal Salaam, Vishnu will re-start working on Mohandas, a mystery thriller that has been in production for over three years. “Mohandas was a film tailor-made for streaming but unfortunately, just as the film was being readied, OTTs stopped buying films and it isn’t a film that was cut for the big screen. So, now, if the film has to come to theatres, we should have a different cut, so we had to re-edit it,” Vishnu explains.

A film with Ram Kumar of Raatsasan fame and Aaryan, a cop film, are next in his line-up. Vishnu signs off saying, “These next few years will either break me or make me. I am preparing myself for the long haul; my approach has changed and I am very clear with what I want to do.”

Lal Salaam releases in theatres on February 9



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