'I don't want to settle for a bland akka or anni character'
The actor, who will be next seen in ZEE5 series Oru Kodai Murder Mystery speaks about her craft, playing her age, her identity being associated with Virumaandi, and changing dynamics of Tamil cinema
In a candid conversation, during the press meet of ZEE5 series Oru Kodai Murder Mystery (OKMM), actor Abhirami, who is famously known as Virumaandi Abhirami, admits that it has been a new experience to attend such events, which was not a regular ritual during her busier phase in Tamil cinema. Abhirami, who made her debut in 1995 with Kathapurushan as a child actor and re-entered cinema as a lead actor with Njangal Santhushtaranu four years later, took a break from the silver screen in 2004. A decade later she came back with Cheppave Chirugali and has been working in all south Indian languages, though in long intervals. Ahead of the release her web series OKMM, she confirms that the audience will see her more often on screen now.
Oru Kodai Murder Mystery is special for Abhirami for multiple reasons. The series, which marks her long-format narrative debut, also gave her an opportunity to play an author-backed role. The actor plays Anagalakshmi, a headmistress and mother of two grown-up boys.
“I have played good characters in the past. But, this character spoke to me a lot while essaying it. Anagalakshmi is closer to who I am in real life. She thinks exactly like me. I hit it off very well with writer Anitha when she narrated the script,” the actor says, adding that Anitha's writing brought in a lot of nuances, “I genuinely felt it through the interactions between the characters and the way their psyche works. For instance, the way an adolescent boy thinks about his crush in OKMM isn’t stereotypical. He is a nerd who equates uses quantum physics or Stephen Hawkings references to express himself. You need to be an intelligent writer to make such convincing references. Being a nerd myself I liked these little details. These were important for me to accept the project. The writer being a woman only made me feel extra proud."
The actor also brims with positivity when the conversation navigates towards writing ageing female characters with substance. While gone are the days when women were only restricted to being young and dancing round the trees, Abhirami stresses on the importance of writing ageing women the right way. “It is an area of a woman’s life that has never been explored, or if so, very little so far. I think in the 80s, Balachander sir did a very good job of exploring a woman’s life without putting an age bracket. I think, those roles are bing resurrected now.”
The actor also feels that OTT has taken the factors like opening collection and audience pull away from the minds of the makers. “The fact that OTT is being explored more gives me hope. And on a very personal front, it is going to bring more work for me. I don’t have to settle for playing an anni, amma or akka. Even if I play one, like here, there is a lot of depth to this character.”
While it is a common trend for female stars to make a comeback playing the titular character, Abhirami had other ideas. “It is easier to make a comeback in a titular character because all eyes and spotlight are on the actor and she will eventually get a lot of mileage from that project. But I beleive, when an actor is offered the non-titular character, the onus is entirely on them to prove their mettle. That’s an interesting challenge to face,” she shares.
The conversation veers towards her identity, which is often synonymous with her iconic film Virumaandi. Abhirami expresses mixed feelings about it. “I am constantly trying to up my game and redefine my identity, but because of names like Kamal Haasan, I don’t think I can outgrow it anytime.” But Abhirami has no complaints about it and gives an example of how Jennifer Aniston will always be Rachel, regardless of her other roles. “That’s not a bad thing. I enjoy that for sure, but I strive to show my audience that there is more to me. This gives me the drive to perform better and select weirder, quirkier and tougher characters,” she opines.
Abhirami was equally famous for her hit family dramas Middle Class Madhavan and Samudhiram. Asked if she thinks cinema is now missing that genre, she says, “In the 2000s, the directors believed family emotions were primary. But the current generation has a new set of stories to tell. I am sure family is important for everyone but we have arrived at a point where we recognise the toxicity that might come along with it." The actor welcomes how recent films point out complex relationships, instead of glorifying them. “I think it is a great sign that we have moved away from that narrative of a happy ending tale and exploring other possibilities, which are closer to reality. But at the same time, you cannot take away family sentiment from the Tamil audience. So family dramas will always be relevant, they will only refine themselves according to the times."
Going forth, Abhirami wishes to do roles that present her unique challenges as a performer. Cautious not to be boxed into a category, she says, “I always don’t want to play a bold woman, because whenever somebody makes a comeback, it is given that they do such roles. I don’t mind playing a full on comedy or villain role. It has to speak to me and keep me up all night thinking about it. I need not do 10 films a year, maybe 3-4 films that give me satisfaction is enough."