The actor and theatre practitioner on how his character in Pa. Ranjith’s latest film was inspired from UK-based boxer Naseem Hameed
It is 16-odd mins into Sarpatta Parambarai that we see Dancing Rose for the first time. A man with a peculiar gait and a lone curl plastered over his forehead, he is unmissable. Many minutes later, he catapults into the boxing ring with multiple flips and cartwheels to face Kabilan (played by Arya) and we instantly know we are in for a treat. Dancing Rose, oozing with confidence, grooves through the ring, teases his opponent, breaks into a wave and steals the show. What ensues after is being hailed as the best fight sequence in the recently-released Amazon Prime sports drama directed by Pa Ranjith, as the hashtag #DancingRose trends on Twitter.
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Some even wanted a standalone movie on Dancing Rose.
But who is this character? Chennai-based actor and theatre practitioner Shabeer Kallarakkal chuckles through the interview call; he is still taking it all in. It has been overwhelming, he adds. Shabeer made his debut on the big screen as the lead with Nerungi Vaa Muthamidathe (2014) and has since been seen in supporting roles in movies such as Adanga Maru, Petta and Teddy. He has also been active in theatre since 2009 and is an avid fitness enthusiast with training in martial arts and parkour under his belt.
It was in December 2019 that he auditioned for this role under casting director Nithya’s suggestion. The scene he auditioned for, was a bit that comes after (*spoiler alert*) Dancing Rose is unexpectedly defeated in the ring. The viewers don’t get to see this scene on screen.
Shabeer never once sat while filming the much-talked about boxing sequence between Dancing Rose and Kabilan. He recalls, “All that what you see in the ring was what happened that day during the shoot… it wasn’t rehearsed. Of course, the boxing skills were something I learned but the style wasn’t rehearsed. I knew I had to be Dancing Rose and it worked! Maybe now if I do it again, it might be a different version.”
It is the character that essentially translated to his physicality, he adds. “This character is surging with confidence. He has never lost a bout, he is retired… he is in that space. And, when he comes back, it is to just chill,” he laughs.
Shabeer has been learning kaaladi kuthu varasai, a mix of silambam, kickboxing and muay thai but he wasn’t trained in boxing as a standalone sport. “I was put on to Thiru master who was training all the actors and I was the last man on board,” he recalls. But his fitness levels helped him enjoy the process.
For the movie, Pa Ranjith was particular about each of the actors’ boxing styles, giving each actor a reference point. For instance, Arya’s character Kabilan’s style was modelled after Muhammad Ali and Vembuli (played by John Kokken) was an ode to Mike Tyson. Similarly, Dancing Rose was inspired from UK-based boxer Naseem Hameed, known for his fluidic movements that almost mimic a dance form. “I only took it as a reference, watched some videos and got a gist of it, and formulated my own style,” says Shabeer, who also took tips from the older boxers of North Madras who were part of the large ensemble cast.
The movie was shot through the pandemic and in between lockdowns which meant Shabeer had to be in shape and character throughout. An avid fitness enthusiast and a personal trainer himself, he worked out at home and added boxing to his parkour and other martial arts practice. These fitness skills helped him layer his character. “I would take elements from these skills and use it to make the character true to what I perceived Dancing Rose to be,” he says. But it was not without challenges. He recalls the first day at shoot after lockdown. “I really struggled. Luckily for me, the next day was Sunday, I came back home and took a metronome and ramped up the rhythm and let it run in my room. One of the pointers for this character was the rhythm in his mind is fast,” he says.
Shabeer’s experience in theatre especially while working with The Little Theatre, Chennai as an actor and a hospital clown helped him keep the audience moving during the fight sequence. He tried to elicit a response from those present as spectators. “The director and the fight choreographers, AnbAriv (duo), were quite open to ideas in terms of adding my own quirks,” he says. “It was also very beautiful to experience the ‘70s North Madras. Subconsciously, it also helped me get into the character.”
Working with Pa Ranjith was a breezy experience for Shabeer. “He was friendly and jovial and very easy to approach.” As for Arya, whom he had worked with in Teddy as well, he says, “In Teddy, we were shooting in Azerbaijan and it was a fun and relaxed setting. Here, the experience was completely different. We were working for 14 to 15 hours a day, and physically demanding.”
The actor now has a couple of movies in the pipeline.