'It’s strange when people don’t differentiate between actors and the characters they play'

Actor Lakshmipriyaa Chandramouli talks about Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, and more
Photo by: Vivek Venkatesan
Photo by: Vivek Venkatesan

About four-five years back, there was a movie screening at a small upmarket cafe-cum-art gallery in Chennai. It was attended by a small group of about 20-30 people, including me. As the end credits rolled, and the lights were switched on, the actors of this ‘small’ but fascinating film called Revelations walked up to take in the applause. I remember thinking that actors like her, doing these films, were so important for the health of this space.

For the better part of her career, this ‘small’ reach has been a constant facet of her career. “I have mostly done such offbeat films and the responses to them have been quite gratifying,” she says. Now, after the release of Karnan, in which she plays Padmini, this perception that she’s an actor who mainly does ‘small’ films has completely changed. “The film has appealed to all sections of the audience. The appreciation feels different, for sure, but it is definitely nice,” says the actor. Will this popularity determine the type of films she does next? “Not at all. My filters for choosing a role will always be the kind of character I get to play, and the impact it has on the overall scheme of things in the film.”

Though this might seem like an important filter, it doesn’t necessarily always translate to optimum working opportunities in cinema for young actors. Karnan, for instance, is her first film to get released in three years. “Lot of people seem to think that the last film I did before Karnan was Maya (2015) even though I have done eight in between. I guess this is also partly because I don’t look at myself as a cinema actor. Even in those two years when I wasn’t doing films, I was doing theatre, and attending and even teaching acting workshops. In my head, I was still working. While we wait for good work, all we can do is sharpen our skills,” says Lakshmipriyaa.

The call from Mari Selvaraj came as a pat on the back for her. “It was an important reassurance. Considering that I don’t know him personally, this invitation to take part in Karnan meant that he had considered me only on the basis of my previous work. As excited and happy as I was, I underplayed this opportunity as many have previously called me up, only to go on and cast someone else,” says Lakshmipriyaa. “But Mari sir followed through.”

Lakshmipriyaa, a trained actor, had to let go of her carefully developed style of approaching a role. “Seeing Mari sir's conviction and clarity, I just submitted to his vision. I knew if I could just deliver what he wanted, it would be enough to do justice,” says Lakshmipriyaa, who still did her research for the role. “We spent a week or two before the shoot to acquaint ourselves with the village, its people, its terrain, and even its animals. I asked women there for their marriage photos to help me understand the look and feel of the period Karnan was set in. A photo can tell many stories,” she says. “In cities, everything is documented. However, it is only through such photographs and verbally told stories that I could begin to understand the lives of these villagers. It was important to listen to them to understand why Padmini was such an important character in Karnan. I’m glad I didn’t look like an outsider in that milieu.”

The role of Padmini has also resulted in sections of the audience changing their perception about Lakshmipriyaa. From being trolled for acting in roles that were ‘morally and culturally unacceptable’, she has now been called ‘the sister we wish we had.’ “When people say they want a sister like me, I am quick to point out that their affinity is towards Padmini, and not me. I find this absence of differentiation weird. I believe that my audience can have any opinion on the art I put forward. However, they shouldn’t comment on the person that I am. If people don’t understand the difference between an actor and the character, then people in the public eye can only learn to ignore them in order to safeguard mental health,” says Lakshmipriyaa. “When it comes to judging a character as ‘good woman’ or ‘bad woman’, it is important to remember that there is no single right guide to advocate morals. We all have our rules for right and wrong. I’m careful to make sure that my films are not regressive. The intention of the filmmaker should be right.”

As I suggest tentatively that her career perhaps now be classified as ‘pre-Karnan and post-Karnan’, she agrees. “I’m happy about the possibility of more such filmmakers considering me for such roles, and hopefully, following through, like Mari did. But most importantly, I’m just happy that a lot of people now know that an actor called Lakshmipriyaa Chandramouli exists in Tamil cinema.”

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