If you take Aishwarya Lekshmi’s four-year-old career, it does feel like a mystic river. Despite being an untrained actress and being panned for her repetitive performances, Aishwarya is a much sought-after actress in South India today. Be it in Manu Ashokan’s ‘Kaanekkaane’ or in the Amazon Prime Tamil Anthology, ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa we have seen an actor who was consciously trying not to repeat herself. In ‘Archana 31 Not out’, we can see her playing someone who isn’t set in the urban landscape. Aishwarya talks about her journey in cinema, friends, and politics to Manorama online candid talks.
After ‘Mayanadhi’ your career shot up like anything. It was the envy of any actor. Was it something you expected?
I haven’t really expected anything that has happened in my career. I am happy with the way it has evolved. Do you know why I never expected this success? Because I was so sure this was all beyond my reach. To this day, I am getting so much love and recognition because of my character Appu in ‘Mayanadhi.’ That film was a turning point in my career, and I think of that film every single day of my life. Even on social media, there would be some discussion about my character or the film, either as a post or reels. Every day someone is there to remind me about ‘Mayanadhi’.
I keep wondering how the film is still alive in the minds of people even after four years. ‘Mayanadhi’ shows how much a film can influence the audience. I am still seeing that today. There are a lot of my character’s dialogue memes that are being circulated as stickers on Whassup. In fact that one dialogue sticker in which I say “Ente ponnu Matha” is something, I reply back to my friends during chats.
I have heard that your parents weren’t exactly in favour of your acting career. Have they finally come to terms with it?
No. All I can say is that they have accepted it. They aren’t very enthusiastic about my acting career. My father is showing some interest now. Though my mother loves watching films, she isn’t very interested in watching her own daughter act in them. But now both are fine and happy. Right now the main issue for them is that I am hardly at home. If I had joined a hospital, I would have been home in the evening, is what they remind me. If I tell them that I miss homemade food, they ask me why I am even bothering with such a career that requires so much travelling. I tried to defend myself by telling them how much I love this career. Most people find their jobs mechanical, but I never had such issues. Even if the shooting goes till late at night, I can still get up in the morning and reach the location and continue my work with the same energy. My parents are aware of this. Ultimately, we all live to attain happiness and since this is giving me so much joy, I ask them why it is so difficult to accept this? At least now they only nag about not seeing me enough. They seem to have more or less accepted my career now.
After ‘Mayanadhi’ how did you try to update yourself as an actor?
I try to read and understand the script thoroughly before a shoot. I also have long conversations with my director. If they are really invested in the script, we will also gain something out of their insights. I work around that. It also makes my job easier. I also take part in acting workshops. Having said that acting for me is all about that moment.
Even now people discuss your kissing scene in ‘Mayanadhi’. But one can’t ignore the misogyny there since only the female actor is called out for being part of that intimate scene and the male actor is spared the auditing. Why does that happen?
From my understanding, such reactions are a mere reflection of our society. We are a society that still hesitates in showing our affection in public. And right from childhood, we have been told that kissing is a bad activity. But we need to understand that this is all part of our basic physical needs and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. We show so many emotions on screen, why is this considered taboo in cinema? You can say whatever you want but I intend to live the way I want. I will only do what my conscience tells me. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone else. Earlier such comments used to bother me, and I even decided not to be part of such scenes. I remember rejecting a similar film with Tovino. I was also scared of getting typecast. At that point in time, I had to make such a decision for the betterment of my career. But now, I won't refuse a film because it contained a scene like that. Now I have the maturity for that, and I know that there is nothing wrong in doing a scene like that for a film. Never mind if society is not able to accept it, I intend to live the way I want. That’s my mindset now.
Unlike heroes, in cinema heroines seem to have a shelf life, especially after marriage. How do you see that?
There are many reasons for that. We had this misconception that the audience won't come to theatres to watch a married heroine on screen. That was a fallacy that prevailed in cinema too. If an actress decides to give up the arch lights to concentrate on her family after marriage, then it’s her choice. There are also female actors who retire as they grow older as they feel the audience wouldn’t be keen on watching them on screen. And again, such clauses are only there for the heroine in Malayalam cinema. It’s high time to think beyond such clauses. I think some changes are being made now. Earlier, it was hard to find a leading heroine after 30. That was the age when the industry forcefully gives them retirement. Some changes are there now. I don’t think anything can be done regarding the pay parity in the industry. I don’t see a change in that department for the next 100 years in Malayalam cinema. Pay inequality is still a matter of concern here.
Have you discussed with your colleagues regarding this pay disparity?
We do have healthy discussions. But what is the solution? You have to keep in mind that you have a lot at stake if you talk about this openly. We have only seen those who talk about this being silenced so far. Or else they get a negative image. Or we are branded selfish. That’s why I have decided to keep silent. You can’t blame the ones who refuse to talk about it as everyone wants to preserve their careers.
I have never really gone to my colleagues and asked them regarding their payment. That might come across as rude. There are some superficial discussions going on. If everyone is silent, the situation will remain the same. It should be a thought that should come from everyone. From what I understand, if you can bring in a business worth Rs 4 crore, your salary should be a quarter of that. You need to be able to bring in at least four times as much business as you earn.
There are more women-centric films coming now. Don’t you take that as a positive sign?
Yes, and producers are finding profit in that. Even if it is a small profit, just the fact they are able to find some profit in such films is a positive sign. It also means there is an audience for such films. When we say women-centric films, we are immediately thinking they are survival thrillers. In the current scenario, we would rather watch happy, feel-good, entertaining films. So if we make women-centric films around such happy themes, there will be an even better audience for such films. That also translates to better business. And it will also help in shortening the disparity in payments. Manju Warrier and Nayanthara are doing this beautifully.
Are you particular that your films should be politically, correct?
I have a slightly different opinion here. Art isn’t a medium to preach and bore the hell out of you. The public needs to be a bit more sensible here and learn to see cinema as cinema alone. We cannot view commercial cinema through an academic lens. I am not saying that we should overlook the films which portray women in poor light. We should learn to think independently. We are all equal. And we should think above caste, religion, gender, and economic status. It is not by watching commercial cinema that we should learn political correctness. You should learn it from where it should be learned. A maker's thoughts will surely be reflected in his craft.
Do you agree that cinema influences public perception?
No. Neither a film nor even a scene can influence the public mind. I think cinema reflects what happens in society to a large extent. Just as cinema is offering so much for society, cinema is also taking a lot from society. You can't blame everything on the cinema. It is because such things are happening in society that you are able to see the same in cinema. Or we can say that such things are being shown as there is an audience for it. If there is no audience for a certain kind of cinema, they will soon fade away. The change should happen in society first, not cinema.
How difficult or easy is it for a director to sell a project to you? Are you someone who asks a lot of questions?
I have lived outside the industry for a larger part of my life and that has had a positive influence on me. That has helped me to look at a story from the point of view of the audience. I listen to a story not as an actor but as an audience. I try to see if I like to watch the movie as an audience. I have said instant yes to only three stories so far—‘Varathan’, ‘Archana 31 Not out’, and a Tamil film which is going to start in Feb. I said yes immediately after listening to the narration.
After listening to the narration, do you seriously think about how to approach the role?
The first thing that crosses my mind when I listen to a story is if I like that story. Then I like to know about the production team. When it comes to ‘Archana 31 Not out’, the director is Akhil, and this is his first film. I derived strength from the fact that Martin Prakkatt and Ranjith are the producers. I am confident that they will only pick the correct technicians for the film. I might not know much about cinema but there is always an advantage in being part of a technically sound team.
Sometimes you are not able to gauge the scale of a film by just listening to the story. It was only after I started shooting for Nirmal Sahadev's ‘Kumari’ that I realised it was such a big film. Also, I have always been criticized for only taking urban roles. Therefore when a rural character comes my way, I do show a lot of interest. ‘Archana 31 Not out’ is one such film.
You seem to have great chemistry with directors. Are you learning the most from them?
Yes, since they know the character fully. Currently, I am doing a Telugu film, directed by Charukesh. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to him before the shoot. It’s a theme we are familiar with—domestic violence. For this film, I did speak to a few survivors of domestic violence. Since I felt too much homework might make my performance mechanical, I didn’t do much. But when I came to the sets and started talking to Charukesh, he started adding more layers to the character in every scene. That really helped my acting. I gained a lot more from that conversation than from researching much about the character.
It was from Mani Ratnam that I learned not to say no to anything. He was the one who told me to attempt everything no matter how challenging it might be. He approaches each scene with an open mind. He isn’t someone who lives only for cinema. He knows there is a world beyond films. So I learn different things from different filmmakers. My ‘Archana 31 Not out’ director Akhil is only 24 but has the maturity of a 44-year-old. He has a great vision. He wants to make more films. Each director is a different school of learning for me.
Each director behaves differently on the sets. Some are calm, some temperamental, some talkative. Which one do you find more comfortable?
I prefer someone who expresses their anger freely. I don’t think it's healthy to keep your emotions bottled up. Especially if you are not happy with a shot or scene. You will get the best output in the working space if you are very transparent. I might get briefly upset if someone criticizes me but that will soon tide over. Director Charukesh has no qualms in shouting over the mike if I was out of character in a frame.
How did you get Mani Ratnam’s dream project, ‘Ponniyan Selvan’?
He called me after watching ‘Mayanadhi’ and expressed an interest to meet me. Even there ‘Mayanadhi’ came to my rescue. There was an audition. After the audition and look test, they had selected me for another character initially. Later they gave me a more prominent character. That’s what I have finally done in the film.
Have there been instances when you have felt you won't be able to do certain characters, and have you rejected a film because of that?
I will immediately say no to a character if I think I won't be able to show full justice to her. In real life, I am a prankster. But then I am not confident of pulling off such characters on screen. So I make it a point to avoid them. I also avoid characters that require a lot of emotional investment. It took me two weeks to come out of my ‘Varathan’ character. That is not deliberate. After each film, I might go through a blank phase.
Have you asked your co-actors for help?
I don’t really take these concerns so seriously. I talk to my close friends about such issues. If I am doing a highly emotional scene, I try to detach myself from it soon after the shot gets over. Sometimes it will be a difficult scene to do. I will give it a lot of thought. A portion of it remains with me. The rest of it flows out as stress. We are humans after all. During such instances when I confide to my friends how difficult was for two days, I will get some relief. I need that sympathy and I will be fine.
It's natural that the audience would love to see you in different roles. But when you say that you are not comfortable exploring certain emotions aren’t you restricting yourself as an actor?
Of course, I am dying to do roles I haven’t done before. But that will take time. I am not a trained actor. I am learning with each film. I might not be able to pull off loud comedy at this stage. It might turn out to be a half-baked attempt. I don’t know for how long I will be able to survive in this industry. Very gradually I would love to do those kinds of characters, but I also need the right directors for that. Someone you can trust as well as instill that confidence in you. I was least confident about ‘Kaanekkaane.’ That character is in grief for the entire time. In fact, I have asked the director if I can do the character played by Shruti Ramachandran. But he was adamant that I play Sneha and said they were very confident. That’s how I played Sneha.
Is Ramesh Pisharady your closest friend in the Industry?
There are many friends. Ramesh is one of them. He is someone who is there if you are in any kind of crisis. Though we knew each other before ‘Archana 31 Not out’, we became closer during the shooting. I think he is someone who thinks a lot. His thoughts and conversations are beautiful. Though he cracks comedy frequently, he thinks very profoundly. There isn’t a dull moment when he is around. You will get fresh perspectives about a lot of things. He gives me a lot of confidence. The kind of friend who will constantly boost your morale with a “You are going to rock” pep-up talk.
Are there friends who criticize you defiantly?
Costume designer Stephy Xavier who has been my closest friend from the time I came to the industry is also my biggest sounding board. She will always be there for me, no matter what! And she is also a mean critic. She might even tell you that you have done a terrible job. So I don’t ask her opinion of my film to be on the safer side.
You have also branched out into production. What’s the motivation behind that?
I became a producer purely by chance. My friend was doing a film and it had a beautiful story. When that story came to me, I had rejected it saying I won't be able to pull it off. When there were some roadblocks for the film’s production, a few of our friends came together and decided to produce it. It is a Tamil film, and I can’t give out more details.
What are your new projects?
‘Archana 31 Not out’ is all set for release. Made on a minimum budget the film has a very young crew. During the shooting of the film, the director was 24 years, and the cinematographer was 23. I think I was the senior-most in that set. Though they were all young, they had great insights and were very confident about what they were doing. The film deals with a relevant topic, and it has been made like an entertainer.