Keerthy Suresh: I promised my mother I would win the National Award for her
The actor speaks in detail about her thought-provoking lawyer role in Vaashi, taking on emotionally overwhelming characters in Mahanati and Saani Kaayidham, winning the National Award, and more
Keerthy Suresh's debut as a lead happened in Priyadarshan's Geethanjali (2013)—roughly a decade ago—but you could say she possesses the arsenal of someone who has been in the industry for two decades, having begun as a child actor in Pilots (2000). The path from Geethanjali to her impressive National Award-winning turn in Mahanati (Telugu, 2018) wasn’t easy, but perhaps coming from a film family helped her deal with initial setbacks? "There are both advantages and disadvantages," she says. "It’s a bit like social media. When amma and I started out, there was no social media… no such thing as an online troll. But then again, we can now use social media to create a brand for ourselves, which we couldn't do earlier." She points out that hailing from a film family is a double-edged sword. “You are burdened with proving to both your family and outsiders that you have what it takes.”
The actor, who is coming off her critically acclaimed performance in the Tamil film, Saani Kaayidham, talks about playing a lawyer for the first time in Vaashi, the thought-provoking discussions engendered by it, and her experiences in Mahanati and Saani Kaayidham.
Close to the release of Vaashi, you posted a picture of yours in the dubbing studio, exhausted.
(Laughs) Yes, it was taxing because even though I converse in Malayalam every day, it has been a while since I did that on screen. More than that, we got into the courtroom on the second day of the shoot, and I realised the difficulty of dealing with that jargon. People on the set might have thought I didn't know Malayalam, but after a point, they understood. Today’s filmmakers don’t have a problem with improvisation in dialogue, but such alteration is impossible with courtroom dialogues. Even the English they speak is complicated. And then, we have all the Malayalam dialogues as well. It's satisfying when we act well, but then comes another barrier called dubbing, where you need to be conscious about variations, speed, and what not.
Not working with sync sound made things easier then?
Oh, yeah, sync sound would have made things way more complicated. Thankfully, they didn't opt for that. (laughs)
When Jana Gana Mana came out, some were critical of the loud and cinematic approach to the courtroom scenes. The treatment in Vaashi is semi-realistic at best. Was any other method considered during the discussion stage?
Vishnu (G Raghav, director) was particular that we keep things as realistic as possible, with provision allowed for a few cinematic liberties. He wanted it to look new. It was not about delivering punch lines. The costumes, interactions, people... I believe Vishnu spend time inside real courtrooms to get a clear sense of how things function there. But we must also remember that it gets boring when we replicate reality faithfully. We didn’t want to make it too realistic; at the same time, we didn’t want it getting too cinematic. He wanted it to be somewhere in between, and I believe he has done that beautifully. He asked us to stay away from looking for references and encouraged us to come to the set and imagine ourselves as recently passed-out law graduates.
As a relationship drama, Vaashi doesn't go overboard with emotion—even when Madhavi (Keerthy) and Ebin (Tovino) get into arguments.
It makes sense from the characters' point of view because both are mature and sensible but in different ways. Ebin is probably a bit more mellow, whereas Madhavi is more reactive. Aside from that minor contrast, they share pretty much the same characteristics. Both are professional and bold, apart from having their own lighter romantic side. Maybe that's why those scenes felt a bit mature.
Did you have any apprehensions about playing a female lawyer defending a male accused?
Isn't that where the oomph factor is? That contrast between Ebin supporting the woman and Madhavi supporting the man… I think that’s where the kick of the film is.
Was including the closing shot of the judge's family photograph part of the initial discussion—or was that added later to provoke discussions?
We included it for the latter reason. It was the director's call—to keep a poetic shot... Perhaps he wanted to keep a balance and keep the questions coming. A lot of my friends have asked me the same. Some of them liked it while some didn't. There are also those who didn't understand it. It was done with the knowledge that there would be varied perspectives and debates. From the director's point of view, that shot was very aesthetic.
There is also a dialogue about everything being about perspectives, about how there is no right and wrong. Is this applicable to real-life situations?
We make it clear from the beginning that it's not about right and wrong. There are only perspectives, which vary from person to person. When we look at these two characters standing on opposite sides of this particular case, their motive is simply to win. That's all. Ebin and Madhavi both want to win the case, and things get complicated because they are both in a relationship. In the end, if Ebin wins, it doesn't necessarily mean he is right. And if Madhavi fails, it doesn't necessarily mean she is wrong. There are two possibilities. I think we have given the best climax for the film because a balance is maintained everywhere. I saw Vaashi with my friends, and later that night, I got a video from one friend showing two other friends engaged in a heated debate. That is what we wanted.
My favourite performances of yours are from Mahanati and Saani Kayidham. Both are dark roles, and I read that you found the role in Mahanati to be particularly depressing.
Yes. Saani Kaayidham was a breather, in fact. It was relatively easy, although it doesn't look like that from the outside. The experience of Mahanati made me cautious about going into Saani Kayidham. With Mahanati, I felt, after a point, that the character got into me. Shooting for the film went on sporadically for close to a year. It was a lot of work and stress. It only dawned on me later that I had done something huge. But to do that character beautifully, I had to go through a lot. At one point, I got very stressed that I couldn't figure out who I was.
Towards the end of the Mahanati shoot, when I cracked a joke, one of the assistant directors told me that he saw me in a good mood after a long time. There was that moment of self-realisation when I saw that I had forgotten myself somewhere along the way. I used to get depressed when shooting those dark portions. I would sometimes sit alone in my room, look at the wall and cry for no reason. And I think that is the worst stage of depression because you don't know why you are crying. For me, it was all stress.
So, when I went to shoot Saani Kaayidham, I was a bit concerned, given the intensity of the character. I thought I would go through the same problems as I did with Mahanati. But this time, I made sure that I signed out when they said 'cut.' I would enjoy a few episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, go to sleep, get up in the morning and do my yoga. I guess Mahanati helped me survive Saani Kayidham.
Some actors alternate between serious and lighthearted films, as a coping mechanism.
That makes sense. When you are working on a lot of films at once, that helps too. In fact, when I was working on Mahanati, I was also doing five films simultaneously. I think alternating between these films lessened, to an extent, the heaviness of the Mahanati character. Had I done only Mahanati for an entire year, I might have turned into another person—given my emotional investment.
What got you into acting?
It was purely because of amma (Menaka Suresh) and achan (G Suresh Kumar). Since they were already part of the industry, I felt the urge to get into films too. As a child, when I used to enjoy watching amma's movies, I thought the prospect of being watched by many people on screen was so cool. One night, like a bedtime story, amma told me that she had expected to win a National Award but didn't, and I told her, "I will get one for you." So, there was always this vaashi growing in me from those days to win a National Award—and I did.