'Mainstream films are absolutely unbearable'
The agonised muddy face of Aishwarya Rai stares down at us from a poster of Mani Ratnam's Raavan. Another poster features a pensive woman, against the backdrop of a larger photograph of a Kathakali dancer. This is Suhasini Mani Ratnam, and the poster is from her award winning film Vanaprastham.
After wrapping up a meeting with an NGO involved in the welfare of single women, Suhasini is ready for a chat in the conference room of Madras Talkies, the office of south India's most powerful filmmaker couple — Suhasini and her filmmaker husband Mani Ratnam.
Usually seen in saris and salwars, Suhasini is wearing a sleek, black skirt. With her hair tied back in a pony-tail, the 53-year-old looks years younger.
Caught up with caring for her parents, her husband and son, she accepts an occasional good role or pens scripts for her husband's films. A year ago, director Gnana Rajasekaran approached her to play the role of Srinivasa Ramanujan's mother in his Tamil biopic on the mathematical genius. Suhasini accepted, having had a life-long fascination for the mathematician.
After 34 years in the film industry, this cinematographer-turned actress-director-writer says that she regrets not interfering in or controlling her dialogues, in the way today's stars — such as Kamal Haasan (her uncle), Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan — do. "I think women should also start controlling their films. I was especially capable, having studied cinematography and directed films," she tells Kavitha Shanmugam. Excerpts from the interview:
Q.What was your reaction to being offered the role of Ramanujan's mother?
A.Ramanujan's mother was probably the most important person in his life. He hardly spent time with his wife. He lived most of his life in the UK, and he died at just 32. Director Rajasekaran showed me her picture. She was not an appealing or an attractive woman.
Q.Have you played "mother" roles before?
A.After 30, people think you are fit for just mother roles. Yes, I have done Amma Chepindi (Tell me mother), a Telugu film. I was recently asked to play sound engineer Resul Pookuty's mother — yes, he is acting in a film. That was bad enough but they also wanted me to play Mamooty's son's mother in a film. Let Mamooty act as his father then I will play his mother, I told them. No, no, he will not, he is still a hero, they say.
I am not into the mother sentiment, really. My heart is not into this ideal mother role; it does not work for me.
However, I was really interested in playing Ramanujan's mother. She had five other children but concentrated on Ramanujan because she knew he was special.
I told music composer A.R. Rahman that he should see the film. After his father died, his mother was responsible for his success. I told Rahman — it is your mother's story.
Q.How did you approach the role?
A.Being a Tamil Iyengar myself, I could identify with the role completely. I sourced jewellery and nine-yard saris reminiscent of what Brahmin women wore at that time. I combined the personalities of my mother's grace and talkative nature and my grandmother's way of getting things done quietly.
Often our onscreen personas are different from who we are. Actors like Kamal Haasan, who is such a genius, has never played a role close to what he is in real life. Telugu actor Chiranjeevi has a great sense of humour. You will constantly laugh if you sit beside him. But he has done just serious roles.
Q.Tell us something about the film you are working on with former cricketer Venkatesh Prasad.
A.The film is bilingual. In Kannada, it is called Sachin! Tendulkar Alla. It is about a boy who is autistic and wants to be a cricketer like Sachin. I am his older sister in the film. The film is about including autistic children in society. I have a son who is 22 years old, and here I am playing an elder sister to a 12-year-old boy. I had to lose weight and look athletic, while for Ramanujan I had to look like a 32-year-old mother.
Q.What is your opinion about the rise of independent cinema in India?
A.The Tamil film industry started making such films a long time ago, with films such as Nenjitha Killathai, Palaivanai Cholai, Sindhu Bhairavi. It's only now that Hindi films are trying to be regional. They have a typical Punjabi family wedding or a film like Shahid which is about Mumbai and being a Muslim. Otherwise they make only pan Indian films like a Kal Ho Na Ho or Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.
I believe, it is the heroes of any film industry who resist change. Thank god, we had a Sivaji Ganesan who was not averse to tragedy and knew that a good performance — rather than a big production or a big heroine — could bring in the audience. Kamal too accepted different films. That is not true in other industries.
Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan are still doing stereotypical roles. I don't think Amitabh Bachchan attempted anything different — except the angry young man image — in his time. Independent cinema still has to fight with mainstream films. I stopped seeing mainstream films 15 years ago. They are absolutely unbearable.
I feel I am middle aged in that sense. I only like non-fiction — after 30 pages of fiction, I think: what nonsense are they trying to write.
I do chat shows on TV or motivational speeches. At a recent film festival in Melbourne as a jury member I talked about the power of dialogue. I conducted a master class for 60 people. I am going to do a master class with the country's best actors. It will be held in Mumbai and Amitabh, Kamal, Mohanlal have agreed to be there. It will be a big project.
Q.Today small town girls are hitting big time in cinema. How has your small town upbringing helped you?
A.I don't pray; I am a non-believer. But in Ramanujan, I was able to recite the slokas with ease. In our small town, we had no TV or any distractions. We were given pongal (sweet rice) and taught slokams at the temple as young girls. Our traditions during festivals, the togetherness of people during festivals, gave a depth to my roles. I feel privileged to have come from a small town.
Q.How is it living with and working for Mani Ratnam?
A. I write for Mani on my own terms. When I am free, I help him with scripts. Living with him is more exciting than working with him. Both working and living with him can be difficult. When people say they want to work with Mani, I say please go ahead, but I don't want to.