Although luck has a lot to do with the way R. Madhavan first broke into the Indian film industry, his rise as one of India's most bankable multilingual movie stars is best attributed to his strategy of playing the long game in a business tied to the fickleness of fame. And so he hadn't planned on entering the world of streaming television quite yet – until he read the script for Breathe, an eight-part series about a father desperate to find an organ donor for his dying son, and a cop battling his own personal demons as he looks into a string of seemingly unconnected deaths.
Breathe is Amazon Prime Video's second original Indian series, after Inside Edge (from this past July) offered a 10-episode look at the politics of cricket played out against a fictional Indian cricket league. The first four episodes of Breathe launch on Jan. 26, while the remaining four will become available weekly going forward. The show is available to an international audience in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu languages, along with English subtitles.
"I knew that [streaming] is the medium of the future, but I was not sure that India was ready to come up with content like this," Madhavan says over the phone from Mumbai. "Then I heard the story that the director [Mayank Sharma] told me. And I thought this is the type of digital content that one should make an entry with."
Madhavan's entry into the Indian film industry is the stuff of a Bollywood story – albeit with a slight detour into Canada. The actor grew up in Bihar, a province in eastern India, in a middle-class home; his father was an executive in a steel firm and his mother worked as a bank manager. In Grade 12, he came to Stettler, Alta., as an exchange student through Rotary International and "studied among cowboys."
"My first impression was that it was freezing, it was minus-30 when I came. For a guy coming from the East it was a life-changing experience. I am still friends with some of the people I met then," he says.
Later, while pursuing a bachelor of science degree in electronics, Madhavan was enrolled in the National Cadet Corps and aspired to join the Indian defence forces, perhaps even return to Canada on another exchange program. However, he ended up in England on a military exchange. Based on his experiences abroad, he started to offer classes in public speaking that became so popular that he enrolled in a postgraduate course in public speaking in Mumbai. And then, well: "One day I was walking down [the tony Mumbai suburb] Lokhandwala and this guy offered me a role in a TV soap."
That guy turned out to be Vivek Bahl, then an executive with Zee TV, India's first Hindi satellite television channel, and the soap was called Yule Love Stories. That show led to others, including Sea Hawks, about Indian Coast Guard officers, and TV advertisements. One of the ad campaigns that Madhavan starred in was shot by Santosh Sivan, the cinematographer for famous Tamil director Mani Ratnam, and introductions followed.
In 2000, Ratnam cast Madhavan in the Tamil film Alaipayuthey, and the film became a critical and commercial success. Madhavan worked with Ratnam on several other Tamil films, including Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), about a Sri Lankan Tamil girl adopted by Indian Tamil parents who wants to meet her birth mother amid the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. More recently, Madhavan has been seen in Hindi films such as Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), where he plays a mild-mannered doctor married to an unconventionally feisty woman; both films were critical and commercial hits. In 2016, he also produced and starred as a washed-up boxing coach in a film called Irudhi Suttru, which was released in Hindi as Saala Khadoos.
He's lucky to have learnt on the job, working with masters such as Ratnam and Kamal Hassan, another Tamil cinema stalwart, but he's also been driven by a distinct sense of insecurity. "I was completely unaware of the world of cinema," he says today. "What helped me was the fact that I did not know as much as I thought I did. That the world was changing vastly, and I had to work hard to keep myself relevant."
Now, that means tapping into the world of digital content and entertaining a perhaps more discerning audience that's used to watching extraordinary work from unexpected places, whether that's YouTube or via Netflix and Amazon's streaming services. "Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Patriot, I watch everything. It's probably easier for me to name the shows I have not seen," he says. But it's not just English-speaking audiences he's talking about. "You have guys in [a smaller city like] Kolhapur reciting lines by Jon Snow in their local language [Marathi]. It's unreal."
For Breathe, Madhavan tapped into his own experience as a father besides researching the complexities surrounding organ donation. In the series, he plays Danny Mascarenhas, a soccer coach and the father of a young boy with cystic fibrosis, who will die in six months unless he has a lung transplant. Although Madhavan's last film, the Tamil crime drama Vikram Vedha (2017), presented him the occasion to portray the moral dilemma of a police officer tasked with getting rid of a fearsome gangster, the lines weren't so blurred in that role. "Whether a father will cross the norms of accepted society and law to save his son's life, it's quite a predicament to be thrown in. I've never done anything like this," he says of Breathe.
Besides Madhavan, Breathe also features TV star turned Bollywood actor Amit Sadh as Kabir Swanat, a Mumbai Crime Branch police officer dealing with the accidental death of his daughter with increasing amounts of alcohol. Unable to keep a handle on his disintegrating personal life, Kabir is nevertheless able to grasp the small details of cases that come his way.
While the series isn't completely able to escape certain Bollywood tropes that will likely leave some viewers rolling their eyes on occasion, it sustains the sort of tension that's become more common in contemporary Indian cinema.
"I'm confident that India is able to create content that can be considered world-class," Madhavan says. "Audiences across the world know that Indian films aren't just about dancing around trees any more. We can make spectacular drama, and [web television series] is an exciting new space to explore."