Aishwarya Lekshmi: I aspire to be Poonguzhali

The actor discusses her admiration for the character she played in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan - 1
Aishwarya Lekshmi: I aspire to be Poonguzhali

Kalki Krishnamoorthy's Ponniyin Selvan boasts of many strong women like Kundavai, Nandhini, and Vanathi, who all battle internal conflicts within the confines of royalty. And then, there's Poonguzhali, an ordinary boatwoman with a heart of steel. It is said she's so strong she can row across oceans, and she is so brave that she can take on a leopard. Aishwarya Lekshmi, who plays Poonguzhali in Mani Ratnam's adaptation of the novel, admits to being nothing like her, and in fact, calls herself a 'nerve-wreck' and definitely not as 'sexy' as Poonguzhali. In this conversation, Aishwarya discusses how she found her calling as Poonguzhali, among other things.


There have been plans to adapt Ponniyin Selvan even before you were born, and now, you are an important part of it. Do you believe in destiny?

Yes, I do. I never dreamt of becoming an actor. The only ambition I had was to become a doctor. My parents also wanted that for me. Imagine a person like that being a part of Mani Ratnam sir's dream project. God has pre-written it for me.

How did you learn that you had been finalised for Poonguzhali?

I first auditioned and got selected for the character of Vanathi (played by Sobhita Dhulipala). But while reading the book, Poonguzhali kept attracting me and I somehow wanted that role. During the shoot of Jagame Thandhiram in London, my manager called and said, "Listen, I've good news." Before he could even complete it, I asked, "Did Mani sir offer Poonguzhali?" I just knew it. I then prepping for the role. Sir wanted me to be physically strong, but for Jagame Thandhiram I had put on weight to look mature and slightly older. To get into the role of Poonguzhali, I worked out, put on muscles, learnt swimming, and also got myself trained in the basics of double sculling.

What attracted you towards Poonguzhali?

Poonguzhali is the woman I aspire to be. She is strong, both physically and mentally. She is aware others are looking at her, but she doesn't care. Mani sir first used the word 'sexy' to describe her. I was apprehensive because I don't think of myself as sexy. I didn't have that image and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But I trusted Mani sir and he assured me that he would take care of it.

Poonguzhali's next

“I have Kumari in Malayalam and Ammu in Telugu that are ready for release this month. In Malayalam, I'm part of B Unnikrishnan sir's Christopher. It's a small role, but I wanted to do it just for the experience of working with Mammukka. I will next start shooting for King of Kotha with Dulquer Salmaan.”

Ponniyin Selvan is the biggest film you have been a part of. Was it intimidating to work with such an ensemble cast?

I don't have combination scenes with many of them. It was during the promotional tours that I got to interact with them up close. With Vikram sir, he spoke about his preparations for each role. Even in Ponniyin Selvan, he worked closely with each artist during the dubbing in different languages and helped them understand nuances. Karthi sir knew the book inside out. He was thorough with not just his dialogues, but that of others as well. With Aishwarya Rai ma'am, I noticed her learning her lines like she were preparing for her board exams. Like me, she is not too familiar with the language, but she put in a lot of effort. After wrapping up the shoot, she would discuss her scenes with Mani sir. Trisha is the coolest among the lot. Despite adorning heavy ornaments and costumes, and shooting in taxing conditions, she was unfazed. Jayam Ravi sir might come across like a last bencher who has no idea about what's happening, but during the take, he will ace it. His body language—his walk, his smile, his demeanour—everything about him was like a king.

What do you think makes Mani Ratnam different from other filmmakers in terms of extracting performances?

I'm not a trained actor. It was Mayaanadhi that moulded me as an actor. When it came to Mani sir's sets, everything was different. Every scene was difficult. The film's shoot started with my intro shot. The brief given was, 'Poonguzhali comes out of the water looking sexy and jumps into the boat.' But every time I jumped, the rocks underneath hurt my feet. I also had to ensure my dress was in order, and I was holding a fish in my hand. When you see it on screen, it might look like an ordinary scene, but it took us around six attempts to pull it off.

There was this other scene where I had to cry while rowing the boat along with Ponniyin Selvan (Jayam Ravi). We got it perfect during the rehearsals. But on the day of the shoot, it was hot, and my back was burning. I just couldn't concentrate, and I couldn't reproduce the scene from the rehearsal. Finally, I did what came to me naturally and he accepted the improvisation. Mani sir puts you in dire situations and lets you perform. You need to be brilliant to keep your focus intact and emote. It was challenging, but by the end of it all, I became a Mani Ratnam veteran. Also, a lot of credit should go to Brinda master and Eka Lakhani. If not for their constant support, I might have been sent packing halfway.

There was some criticism about your monologue in Gargi climax. How do you take such opinions?

I value criticism a lot. Even when people are rude and harsh, I try to find something of value. I also get affected by it, and my friends remind me to take it easy and stop reading comments. But when I'm getting so much love, I should also be ready to value the criticism that comes my way. In Gargi, my character was intended as a Malayali journalist living in Tamil Nadu. Hence, the accent. But I guess it didn’t come through. I'm working on my Tamil. 

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