Back from a trek in the Himalayas, Amala Paul talks about surviving the demands of cinema and rediscovering herself at an altitude of 5,000 metres.
AMALA Paul is just back from the Himalayas. It’s her ideal detox retreat. Every time she feels she is losing herself in the glamour of cinema, she goes on a backpacking trip, with just a few like-minded friends and a pile of books on spirituality. This time, she is feeling rather empowered—she trekked a distance of 110 km at an altitude of 5,000 meters. And she is the only girl in her group to achieve this. “I like doing it the hippy way. Read, explore, understand new things—it’s like a rebirth, an urge to live life more. I want to look at my job as a job—we actors are always pampered and worshipped, surrounded by people who decide our lives. Travel helps me get in touch with myself, the true me,” she declares.
Finding ‘Shanthi’ through meditation
In a way, her next release, Amma Kanakku, directed by Ashwani Iyer Tiwari (produced by Dhanush and Anand L Rai), a remake of Nil Battey Sannata, is very close to her heart. She plays a mother. When I tell her that for a mainstream heroine, she has taken up a daunting task, Amala isn’t amused. “I think, we should look at it as a character, not a mother. I don’t know why an actress is only expected to be a hero’s eye candy or run around the trees or dance in the rain. Frankly speaking, I am bored with such roles. I want to take up different kinds of films. If you see my Malayalam films, they are always deep. I believe every actress should show the courage to do such roles.”
She recalls how, when former co-star Dhanush approached her for this role, her apprehension was more about whether she would be able to look the part. She liked the fact that her character, Shanthi, goes through various transitions. It wasn’t an easy role for the otherwise bubbly, energetic actress— “I did meditation and yoga to calm myself. I think the emotion of a mother is something you can understand only once you become one. It was uncanny; I started seeing a lot of ‘Shanthis’ on the road,” she admits.
She thinks there is enough space for great writers and directors today, and that many female directors are venturing out. “A good writer results in a good audience for me. I think, today, along with great talent, we do have a very receptive audience.”
Travel and a change of scene
For the last three years, she has consciously tried to move away from the “commercial space” in cinema. “It’s great to have such a position in this industry. I don’t want to waste it by doing commercial films. Having said that I think there are only two kinds of cinema—good or bad.” Does the industry react differently to her, post marriage? “I don’t think marriage brought any change. I still get the roles I want. For me, personally, it was about taking some time off for myself. I have been working since the age of 18. I travelled, saw the world and found myself.” Amala confides that lot of people still call her Mynaa (after her role in the 2010 movie of the same name). That’s because they can’t differentiate between the actor and the character. “When I choose a character, I should be able to emotionally relate to that character at some level,” she admits.
Women meet realistic cinema
Does she think an actress can be a feminist too? Strangely (and thankfully) she finds nothing odd in my line of questioning. “Feminism, for me, is a feeling. I think the word is getting overworked these days. For me it boils down to how you perceive a situation and also about who you are—it’s not about fighting the men. It’s about how independent you are. I don’t think it has anything to do with the industry.” After a long pause, she continues, “Let’s face it, we live in a male-dominated country. The discrimination will always be there. Left to me, I am happy in my space as an actor. Let’s just bring more women directors and greater women-oriented films.”
Having done her share of films in all South Indian languages (nine in Malayalam, 13 in Tamil and three in Telugu), Amala says there is a world of difference in how cinema is perceived in each industry. “In Kerala, they want films very close to real life; in Telugu, they prefer larger than life, the dreamy kind; and Tamil cinema is slowly gravitating towards realism.” That said her Shahjahanum Pareekuttiyum in Malayalam is scheduled for August.
As real as it gets
It’s a widely known fact that she takes her red carpet appearances very seriously. “I have always loved dressing up as a child. I would collect fashion magazines, insist on wearing the latest designs even at school functions. It’s great to see lot of my peers being fashion forward on the red carpet. But fashion is also very personal. You shouldn’t be under pressure to follow it. I make it a point to pick up my favourite designer labels when I go abroad. Ultimately it’s about the way you carry it off. You can be a show stopper even in a sari.” It is this affinity for fashion that makes her sit with her costume designers for a film. She loves the entire process of it—sketching and finding references. “I am completely involved in bringing out something new in every character. For my Kannada film, Hebbuli (release date to be confirmed), I play an MBBS student and I made sure the designer scouted every college in Bangalore to get an idea of what’s in vogue now.”
The importance of fear
Amala recalls being a drama queen as a child. She was part of every competition in school. Smiling contest, dance, music, beauty contest — you name it, she’s done it. She was so obsessed with cinema that, everytime she left the movie theatre, the character would stay with her for weeks. “I used to dream a lot and still do. I was lost in my own world,” she giggles. Has acting become easier for her? “I think I am more confident. But yes, that nervousness is always there before each shot. Fear is important.” That said, she isn’t too thrilled about letting someone else dub for her in Amma Kanakku. “Unless I dub for myself, I am dissatisfied with my performance.”
Amala admits that she is extremely hard on herself. She doesn’t mind pushing herself physically for a role. She also gets bored easily, and that could be why she has stopped signing too many films in Telugu.
“I got tired of this whole song and dance routine. I was sitting inside the vanity van and cooling my heels. I would get insecure. When I sign a film, I expect myself to be involved in it completely. It’s my film. I should take responsibility. Anything else is boring.”
She is in awe of Mohanlal (Run Baby Run and Laila o Laila) for his ability to bring out the best in her. Each shot with him gave her the goose bumps. “He is such an unpredictable actor. A superman. When there is a good actor, it always helps your acting.” She says she felt the same way with Dhanush (Velayilla Pattadhari). Though not a regular on the social networking sites, Amala doesn’t deny the great connect it has with her audience. And if they mean well, she gives their advice due consideration.
Amma Kanakku releases today.
Connect with co-stars: It’s veryeasy for me to get along with actresses. I don’t see them as rivals, just fellow human beings. They have a space in this industry. I don’t mind going that extra mile to appreciate people for their work.
Actors as social commentators: I think it’s their choice. But they have this amazing platform to influence society. How about taking up one film a year that will inspire people to make a better world? Something like Amma Kanakku or 36 Vayathiniley?
Getting spiritual: I do attend the Sunday mass at times. But I like going to places where I can feel spiritual. My next trip is to this Buddhist monastery in Lahore.
Current read: Bhagavad Gita. I am a fan of mythology, inspirational books and fiction.
Guilty pleasure: Pazham pori (banana fritters)
“I am very easy going but I want my space. I love the vagabond life and dream of going back to the hills—a home on the mountains. Has marriage changed me? I don’t think marriage changes anybody. I don’t like that tag. But I can say it has liberated me more— there is a lot of space to invent and reinvent myself.”
By Neelima Menon