There is an old saying that goes…”Jack all trades, master of none.” But it does not end there… “Oftentimes better than a master of one.” This idea resonates with those people who excel in multiple fields. The ones we call ‘The Renaissance Men.’ From Leonardo Da Vinci to Kanye West, it is this belief that one can be limitless in their capabilities that have influenced artists over the epochs. An actor, a rapper, a dancer, and a performer… Neeraj Madhav aspires to be a Renaissance Man of his time and is making steady steps toward realizing this dream by breaking out of labels and blazing new trails.
The Malayali actor, who rose to fame with his performance in the Hindi web series, The Family Manrecently made his Tamil debut with Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (VTK). Apart from essaying the role of Sreedharan, he also collaborated with AR Rahman for a rap utilized in the interval.
Beginning the conversation by dropping a couple of bars from that rap, Neeraj says, “Usually when an artist excels in more than one field, there will always be naysayers waiting to put them down. I faced a lot of them when I started rapping. This collaboration with AR Rahman sir is a big validation for my craft.” A go-getter by nature, it was Neeraj’s performance at the film’s audio launch that made Rahman take notice of his rapping talent. However, the call from the composer about a collaboration for VTK just days ahead of the release came out of nowhere.
“Rahman sir wanted to try something new in the interval portions and decided to go for a Malayalam rap to add color to the scene. I got to write the song too, and the verses conveyed the struggle and emotions of Muthu. The idea was to express Muthu’s thoughts in the language of his attackers. Porattamthe track will be released soon,” says Neeraj.
Even though VTK is about the journey of Silambarasan’s Muthu, the importance of Sreedharan is not lost on the audience. Sreedharan draws a subtle yet compelling parallel to Muthu. Fate brings both of them to Mumbai, but destiny has different plans for each. One picks up the gun to survive, and the other is unable to opt for a life of violence. “I always crave to come out of my comfort zone and experiment with such challenging roles. The writing ensured Sreedharan had the necessary impact. Having grown up watching Gautham sir’s films, it now feels like life has come full circle. And…. you will definitely get to see more of me in the sequel,” says Neeraj, who reveals that it was The Family Man that introduced him to Gautam.
Apart from being an actor, and a singer, Neeraj is also a trained dancer, and it is this facet of him that laid the foundation for the other aspects of his artistic side. Naming AR Rahman and Prabhudheva as the role models for his art, Neeraj says, “Exposure to classical dance and Hip-hop gave me the confidence to put myself out there as a performer. This, in turn, translated into my interest in acting. Unlike in Malayalam, separate dance tracks are still relevant in Tamil films, and I would love for the audience here to see this side of me too.”
During the pandemic, it was this hunger to put himself out there that pushed Neeraj to combine his love for hip-hop and knack for writing to produce mix tapes. With excellent reception, he went on to make more than ten culturally integrated rap tracks, including Netflix’s South Anthem and even performed live concerts. “Creating music is very liberating. As an artist, I get the space to express my thoughts through rap. However, I have to constantly push myself to break out of typecasting. I am an artist and I want to perform everything that I am capable of,” says Neeraj, who also states that this conscious effort to be distinctive reflects in his film choices too.
Following the success of The Family Man, Neeraj recalls getting a slew of offers for villain roles. But his urge to choose distinctive roles made him go for light-hearted roles in Netflix’s Feel like Ishq in Hindi, and Sundari Gardens in Malayalam. “Irrespective of the screen time, if a role excites me and I get to play an impactful character, I will take it up,” says Neeraj, who is now in talks for a couple of Tamil films, Ayushmann Khurrana-fronted An Action Heroand the Malayalam multi-starrer RDX, Neeraj is now co-writing scripts with his friends and also harbors directorial aspirations.
From being unceremoniously edited out of films to missing out on opportunities due to the lack of an industry godfather, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Neeraj, who first stepped in front of the camera in 2013. But he remains unfazed about the struggle to find his place in this competitive world and rallies forward to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. “I have faced disheartening moments in my professional life. I openly spoke about it, but I never wanted to use the victim card to move forward in my career. Instead, I invested that energy into creating my art, and it is my art that has kept me going… as always.”