Alice in Wonderland

Posted on July 11, 2015


Gautami opens up to Baradwaj Rangan about ‘Papanasam’, her milestone movies, and, yes, Kamal Sir.

You know how some actors look even better sitting across you than on screen? Gautami is charmed like that. She could probably jump out of bed and pose, simultaneously, for a keep-your-skin-glowing ad, a be-trim-in-your-forties ad, and one of those ads where a woman gets mistaken for a college-goer until her daughter comes running in, screaming Mummy. She speared a broccoli floret in her rice pasta and laughed when I asked if it was the genes. “I eat sensibly,” she said. That probably explained why the broccoli was disappearing faster than the pasta. She reframed that statement: “I don’t eat what doesn’t suit me.” Translation: no gluten, no lactose, very little salt and sugar. The latter is a problem, she said, because she has a sweet tooth. I didn’t believe her. Looking at her, would you?

She was in a white, cottony kind of salwar kameez ensemble. A pale blue dupatta hugged the neck. Her daughter Subbulakshmi, sitting nearby, had tuned out, preferring to listen to whatever her earphones were piping in from the tablet in her hand. It was an upscale restaurant, so people didn’t exactly stare, but you could sense them pausing as they passed by. The quick recognition. Hey, that’s… The slight hesitation that follows, whether to carry on and act cool or stop and say things like I’m a fan. This, Gautami said, is a validation of success. “If ten people don’t look at me and point, then what am I doing? It’s part of the job. It’s the path I’ve chosen.” And no, it doesn’t bother her. “It’s as normal to me as a bank guy going to his office. Of course, if people do this in a boorish manner, then I get angry. But then, I’d feel that way even if I were a girl going to college.”

She was that college girl once. She didn’t want to endure ragging during the first weeks of engineering, so when a relative offered her a part in a Telugu movie he was making, Dayaamayudu, she jumped at the offer. I looked it up. It’s some kind of Biblical costume drama, with Gautami attired like an extra from The Ten Commandments. If you believe in what the film industry likes to call “sentiment,” Gautami’s subsequent rise to fame is not surprising. Her first words on screen couldn’t have been more auspicious. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. She had a bigger role in Gandhinagar Rendo Veedhi, released the same year, 1987. “I was this sheltered, protected child,” she said. “Prim. Proper. A polite, Bishop Cotton child, all yes ma’am, no ma’am. Suddenly, I was like, Wow, let’s do this. I get a kick out of pushing the envelope for myself.”

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Alice in Wonderland. That’s how she described herself when I asked how that prim, proper, polite child, that Bangalore girl, felt on the sets of one of her rustic Ramarajan movies. “I didn’t know one side of the field from the other side. I had no idea how to wear a pavadai-dhavani.” She had no idea about Tamil either – her household was Telugu, and she spoke almost exclusively in English. So she learnt the language. The first Tamil word she taught herself to read was seidhigal, which appeared on the title card of the nightly news bulletin on Doordarshan. “I taught myself the language through a process of elimination. I’d pick up a Tamil newspaper. I knew what a word should look like. Then I’d look at the letters that would repeat. I’d look for patterns. It was like a jigsaw that I put together.” It paid off. Gautami had quite a run as heroine. “I didn’t sleep very much for about seven years, and I loved it.”

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There was a gap – almost two decades. And now, Alice is all grown up in Papanasam. The most difficult scene, Gautami said, was the one where she pleads with the boy whose actions change the course of the story. “By nature, I’m rather restrained. I’m not the kind who’ll burst into tears. It always takes something for me to step out of that natural core of reticence and perform highly emotional scenes, especially after such a long time. It was a pivotal scene. If it fell flat, then the rest of film wouldn’t work.”

Thevar Magan was another “big push.” That scene where Banu returns and finds Shakti married… Gautami called it a personal triumph. “That’s not me on screen. It’s not who I am in life.” I called the film memorable. Gautami preferred to call it a milestone. Aboorva Sagotharargal is another. It was early in her career. She was an industry outsider. She knew nothing about makeup, hair, emoting. “I was shown a particular paradigm, and I was following it.” She’d sit patiently in her chair for an hour and a half , while the makeup artist slathered her face with stuff – first, a pan stick foundation to camouflage the skin, then powder to remove traces of oil, and finally pancake to smooth it all out. One day, she asked him why he took so long. He said if he didn’t take that long, they’d think he wasn’t doing his job. Also, this was what makeup had meant since the black-and-white days, when the film stock needed heavy lighting.

Kamal Haasan was present at the look trial of Aboorva Sagotharargal. He did the makeup very differently. No foundation. No eyeliner. Very light makeup, to suit the new kinds of film being used in that period, which needed less light. Gautami kept goggling at the mirror. For the first time, she saw a person in there. She told herself, “This is what I want. This is what feels right on my face.” From that day, she began experimenting. “I made mistakes, but I found what I was comfortable with.” Another milestone: Dharmadurai. She spoke of the scene where, after a separation, Rajinikanth comes looking for her and finds her washing clothes for a living. “I had done heavy scenes before. In Enga Ooru Kaavalkaran, I had to break down at one point, and for the first time I really burst into tears. But this scene took me to the next level. It was a solo shot, a close-up. It tapped into something deeper. It wasn’t just about crying. It was about acting. I wanted to do this more often.” She also spoke of Nee Paadhi Naan Paadhi. “I let go. I’d go to the set and become the character. It was about ease of performance. It was just me with a clean, scrubbed face. No tricks.”

Gautami found that she had to undergo a “period of readjustment” when she played Rani, the character from Papanasam. “I wanted her to look natural. But the makeup you see in the mirror is different from what shows up on camera. I’d do it differently today.” I said there was this other thing that seemed out of character: Rani’s manicured fingernails. Gautami grinned. “I noticed that too. I whacked myself mentally and said, That’s unforgivable. That should not have happened.” But the rest of the look worked – the gold chains, the glass bangles, that purse, the clothes. Given that Gautami is credited as Costume Designer, I asked how one went about “designing” costumes for someone like Rani, someone so next-doorly. “It’s common sense plus an instinctive understanding of the character,” she said. “I got my saris from the places we shot. Chennai. Thenkasi. Thodupuzha. The sari you see me wearing during the first song… that was the most expensive. It cost around 1800 rupees. The others cost some 300-400 rupees.”

When the budget is “kind enough,” the saris get fancier – like the ones Andrea Jeremiah and Oorvasi wore in Uttama Villain. “These days, there are duplicates for everything,” Gautami said. “But there is an innate difference. The difference comes from the lustre, the fabric, the quality of the embroidery. Most importantly, it’s about how the sari makes the wearer feel. You carry yourself differently when you’re wearing a real Kanjeevaram.” In Kamal Haasan’s forthcoming Thoongavanam, Gautami has given Trisha a “stylish, very feminine look. It looks like designer wear, but it’s very approachable, very wearable.” She spoke about a suit she got made for Kamal. “The tailoring is different. I keep playing with cuts and fabric and lining. It adds so much to the character, whether he’s seen in silhouette or is in motion, running and jumping.”

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Speaking to Gautami can sometimes sound like speaking to Kamal Haasan. There’s always that – what’s the word for it? – hyper-intelligence, hyper-awareness, hyper-articulation. When I asked if I should refer to her as Gautami or Gautami Tadimalla, she said, “Just Gautami. There was a time people kept seeing my surname and they were confused. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. A name is born of a need to regulate society. It’s like having a voter ID. It’s like DNA. People probably started using names to avoid inter-marriage…” When I asked if heroines had it better today, she said, “Definitely. It’s still hero-centric, but the arena is open to experimentation with so many platforms for content delivery…” When she spoke about losing her parents, she said, “I was forced to step out, but I was ill-prepared to face the rocks and boulders of life…”

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I asked if it was easier acting with Kamal Haasan now. “Yes and no,” she said. “Personally, I am more attuned to him. I can read him as an actor, which is needed when you’re doing a scene. Otherwise, it’s the same. We have a very strong personal equation, but on the set we are just two actors.” She started her career in awe of him. She still is. “I’ve seen every side of him there is to see, and yet the pedestal hasn’t faltered. The innate honesty with which he lives his life is amazing. He is what you see.” Even as an actor. “I feel that Kamal Sir’s performance comes from the mind and heart. It’s an intellectual and emotional exercise.” And what about Mohanlal, who played the protagonist in Drishyam, the Malayalam film on which Papanasam is based? “I find with Mr. Mohanlal a certain analytical, clinical approach.” That sounded similar to how the two legends interpreted their parts. “I don’t think one can’t do what the other does. They’re more than capable. But at first glance, this would seem to be the difference.”

Gautami’s first shot for Papanasam was the one in the bus stand where the family meets the character played by Charlie. “It felt good. It felt familiar and new at the same time.” She was never really away from cameras, after all. She was on TV –  serials, a talk show, reality dance shows. She was on film sets. She was designing costumes. But as part of the crew, she had gotten used to looking at the whole picture, what everyone was doing. Who’s doing what off of whom? Who needs what kind of support? She caught herself thinking about all this when she began to play Rani. “I was stepping outside the character’s skin and taking in a panoramic view. Then I remembered that as an actor your perspective needs to turn inwards. You need to develop tunnel vision. Once I realised this, on the third or fourth day, I was fine.”

I asked her if the things she’d been through – life, basically – had made her a different actress, maybe even a better actress. “The older and wiser you get, you become a better actor,” she said, and spoke of her battle with cancer. “It’s not that that experience is going to help me play a cancer patient better. But you become more… self-aware. It adds to your personality, how you look at things.” At one point in her life, one thing caromed into another. She married. She separated. She became a single parent. She lost her mother. She lost her father. And then, cancer. She called it “the finishing touch.”

That changed everything. “I was always dealing with issues, anticipating the next blow. But now, something within me gave me a kick in the back and said, ‘Get out of this constant crisis-management mode.’ I started looking at where I wanted to be, how I wanted to spend my mental and emotional resources. If you give me a negative review or if someone else doesn’t like my face, that’s your problem. That’s not my problem. I don’t want to focus my energy on that. I want to focus on goodness, the right kind of life, filled with smiling people…” Being a parent has been another teacher. “Children are so sensitive. They get their baggage from us. So when Subbulakshmi was around, I never said things like ‘My hair does not look good today’ or ‘I’m looking fat today.’” Fat? She saw my eyebrows shoot up and said she had toxaemia during pregnancy. She ballooned up to 200 pounds.

These life experiences, she said, changed her approach to performing. It’s now a technical and intellectual exercise rather than psychological and instinctive. She reads a lot. And when she reads, it’s an audiovisual exercise. “I have a movie running inside my head.” It’s the same thing with a script. “But now, I can also bring an intellectual approach to the character. What are the other angles to this scene? What is the deeper implication of this action? I am enjoying that. Twenty years ago, I was an actress with potential. I have the confidence now that I can deliver on that potential.”

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I asked Gautami if she felt there were deeper implications – maybe something misogynistic – in the scene where Rani’s husband comes home and says he’s in the mood for sex. Only, given his tendency to filter life through the movies, he playfully says he wants to enact a “rape scene.” Gautami gave me an I-don’t-believe-this smile. “This is a man who’s overwhelmed by oestrogen. He’s supremely indulgent with and protective of his wife and daughters. There’s a strong, secure relationship between man and wife on an intimate level. So it’s a private joke. So many people make inappropriate jokes. It’s just that. Anyone who can even infer such a horrendous meaning from one light, barely-there statement, made by actors and filmmakers with this kind of credibility, can see anything terrible and horrible in the most innocuous things. At the end of the day, it’s a character.” She did concede, though, that “in India, the line blurs a lot between character and actor.”

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Gautami got the Papanasam part during the Theyyam-makeup trials for Uttama Villain. Jeethu Joseph, the director of Papanasam, showed up for a preliminary meeting with Kamal Haasan. After a while, they called for her. She thought they were going to ask her to help with costumes for the film. Instead, Jeethu Joseph said he’d like her to play Rani. Gautami asked him if he was considering her as an actor, or because of the curiosity factor that would arise from casting a real-life couple. She agreed only when he said he was interested in her performance. “In any case,” she told me, “I know Kamal Sir…”

Sir. I asked if she called him that because that’s what she used to call him when she was his co-star. “It’s not habit,” she said. “ It’s a very conscious decision born of respect that has been earned consistently. When I refer to him in public, in any kind of context, that’s how it is.” And in private? “Even then, I do not call him by name. I’m a traditionalist in some ways. That respect is always there.” Anyway, she continued. “I know Kamal Sir. I know who he is. I know about his integrity. At the end of the day, despite his personal feelings, the actor has to be right for the role.” She shrugged. “So it does not bother me.”

The defensiveness was directed at some journalists who asked her, before the film’s release, if her personal equation with Kamal Haasan fetched her the part. (She hasn’t signed any film after Papanasam.) She spoke of the uncertainty on the part of the industry. “Most people think I’ve done this movie only because it’s Kamal Sir’s movie. In that case, he’s done so many other movies. Why wasn’t I in them? I did this one because it was right. I did it because of the film. The fact that it was with him was icing on the cake and the cherry and everything.”

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil