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Santhy Balachandran: It's interesting to play characters who have a unique worldview- Cinema express

Santhy Balachandran: It's interesting to play characters who have a unique worldview

The actor speaks about her Bollywood debut Gulmohar and the importance of box-office success 

Published: 21st March 2023
The actor speaks about her Bollywood debut Gulmohar and the importance of box-office success 

Santhy Balachandran started her career in cinema by playing the role of a kleptomaniac in Tharangam (2017). In her next release, Jallikattu (2019)—a film that explored hypermasculinity—she was the lone female presence. Her Sophie was a sly woman with an agenda of her own. She followed it up by playing a bride with psychological disorders in Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte (2020). It was a hilarious-yet-moving portrayal of a traumatised person. With her first three films, Santhy successfully managed to establish herself as a promising actor. It is impressive how Santhy got to cherry-pick such diverse roles in such early stages of her career. "To be honest, the offers I get are limited, and I choose from whatever little comes my way. But that said, I do have a liking for characters with grey shades. It is interesting to play characters with a unique worldview. As an actor, it's always exciting to explore different psyches." 

Santhy is fresh off the success of playing one such character in her Hindi debut, Gulmohar, which is currently streaming on Disney+Hotstar. Powered by an ensemble cast, Gulmohar tells a heartening tale of a dysfunctional family from an upper-class Delhi neighbourhood. Unlike other films of the genre, where the focus is solely on the family members, Rahul V Chittella's directorial debut is refreshing with how the camera also trains on other inhabitants of the house. Santhy, who plays a housemaid in the film, recalls her first reaction to the script. "After getting through the auditions, I had access to the complete script. It was remarkable how each character was treated as a separate individual with their own conflicts and desires. Later while interacting with Rahul, it became clear that they were trying to create a realistic world of a Delhi household, which includes the house staff. They are an important part of that ecosystem."

In Gulmohar, Santhy plays Reshma Saeed, who has been with the Batra family for several years. It's a well-rounded character who, as Santhy puts it, is both feisty and sensitive. She understands her position in the family, but is also aware of the religious discrimination from the extended family. She is commanding with her fellow workers but is also coy about expressing her romantic feelings. "I loved how sensitively and respectfully Reshma's character was treated in the film. If you see, Reshma is someone who has access to all the places in the house. She is a constant presence during all the major happenings in the narrative. Even when there are some heated conversations happening, you can see the camera moving along with her. There were a lot of things that Rahul wanted to incorporate to add depth to the character. Like how Simran's Indu and Reshma speak in Tamil. It was not just a random decision; there were lots of discussions going behind."

Santhy shares the screen with incredible talents like Manoj Bajpayee, Sharmila Tagore, Simran and Amol Palekar, and it is not every day that a debutant gets such an opportunity. "Once I learnt that I'll be working with such big names, a sense of excitement engulfed me. It was a huge opportunity to just be around them and watch them perform from close quarters." The actor credits the film's director Rahul for creating a 'lovely environment', which, she says, helped in creating a sense of community among the actors. "He put in a lot of effort to ensure all the cast members felt at home and spent time together. We all stayed in the same hotel, hung out and had a lot of open-minded conversations. A sense of warmth developed between us organically."

This rapport was evident on screen as well. Since Gulmohar is the story of a joint family, most of the scenes in the film involve 10-12 characters, and this is something that Santhy felt was quite the challenge. "The entire schedule was around 36 days, so a lot had to be achieved in such a short time. We went about the shoot with a mix of on-set improvisations and choreography. For example, in the all-important will-reading scene, the camera moves from one character to the other by following me as I pass water to each of them. It was done after a lot of rehearsals. The acting workshops we did also came in handy. One of the sessions was conducted by Manoj sir," remembers Santhy fondly.

Besides acting, Santhy is also planning to explore other avenues in cinema. She had earlier assisted actor Archana Kavi in a web series and also scripted a music video, Oblivionwhich was helmed by Tharangam-director Arun Dominic. "Right from childhood, I've always been a creative person. Writing is something that I'm passionate about, and I'm now collaborating with a friend on scripting a feature film. We are trying to get someone to fund the project." Direction? "I'm not looking at becoming a director anytime soon because I think it's a job that requires a lot of responsibility, which I'm not ready for yet. I don't have that kind of clarity of vision either," laughs Santhy. 

Getting back to the dearth of offers coming her way, Santhy believes it's a result of doing experimental films that didn't really set the box office on fire. "For one, to get new projects, it's important to have box office hits. In my case, most of my films have catered only to a niche audience. I think it's Gulmohar that has had the widest reach," says Santhy, who hopes this good luck continues in her upcoming Tamil debut too. "It's an 8-episode Prime Video series titled Sweet Kaaram Coffee. I play one of the leads in it along with Lakshmi Ma'am and Madhoo Ma'am. It's a story about three women from a family belonging to three different generations who go on a road trip together. It's a feel-good family drama." Like Gulmohar, I ask... "Just like the beautiful Gulmohar," she signs off with a smile.

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