The tides were gentle at the Kodikkarai beach. Little boats and fishing boats were inching towards the shore that was spread with white sand. As you walk beyond the sand, you can see a forest. Dark clouds were forming in the sky.
On the sea, a tiny boat is wobbling. There Poonkuzhali is crooning a beautiful melody. Chenthan Amudhan was right about her—when she sings, the sea and the wind go silent to listen to her song.
Aishwarya Lekshmi thoroughly by-hearted the Poonkuzhali portions in Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel before auditioning for the Mani Ratnam film. Her preparation was keeping in mind the pure gems the filmmaker created in Indian cinema. It was while shooting for ‘Brothers day’ that she got a call from Mani Ratnam’s manager. When she googled Mani Ratnam's latest project, she realised that his new film was 'Ponniyin Selvan'. Aishwarya immediately grabbed Kalki’s book and started reading. And that journey led to Poonkuzhali.
“When I reached Chennai for the film’s first look test, there was a big lineup of artists. A lot of technicians like Thotta Tharani, Ravi Varman, Ekalakhani were present there along with Mani Ratnam. The look test for a film that Mani Ratnam nurtured in his mind for 40 years was nothing less than an emotional moment for me. People around me were narrating a lot of stories. I had read that he had even visualized it keeping MGR in mind. All these things were in my mind, and it was overwhelming,” recalls Aishwarya.
“At first they took my look test for the character called Vanathi. They gave a very intense dialogue scene in which my expressions and body language had to align accordingly. What if you stressed something with a forward head posture? It will have better results was what Mani sir told me. He also said we can improvise further when we shoot it. That set my heartbeat racing. Does that mean I am in the film? And here I was prepared to be part of a Mani Ratnam film even if it was just a passing shot. Finally, sir said I was selected as Vanathi. I will never forget that moment. Then came the actual climax for me. After that look test, my mind was telling me that “Vanathi is not your character.” That somehow lingered in my mind. When the shooting of ‘Jagame Thandhiram’ was happening in London, I got a call from Mani sir’s Manager. He started the conversation by saying he had a piece of good news for me. Immediately I asked him if I was Poonkuzhali. I was that excited. I was so eager to do that character. Though they said I only need to do the look test after coming back to India, I was impatient and flew down to Chennai.” That was the thrill of doing an important character in the biggest (400 crore budget) film of Mani Ratnam’s career.
“After Poonkuzhali’s look test Mani sir told me. "Poonkuzhali is sexy and confident about her beauty. That’s the only way to shoot her. Are you comfortable with that fact? I will be shooting you.” That was hardly an issue for me. By that time, I had transformed into Poonkuzhali. She is a strong woman who single-handedly ferries through the ocean in a small boat from Thanjavur to Lanka in a single night. Though many men are in love with her, she is only in love with Ponniyin Selvan. Poonkuzhali isn’t really bothered about how society perceives her. To me, she seemed like one of our earliest feminists. In real life, I didn’t even have half the courage of Poonkuzhali,” observed the actress, clearly enamoured by her character.
Later she made efforts to physically transform into Poonkuzhali and also learned swimming and rowing.
The master craftsman called Mani Ratnam
I learned discipline from that set. We are entering a humungous film set where all the artists have immense respect for each other. It was a very collaborative process, not like a hero was doing his own thing and the heroine was doing her own stuff. Everyone worked together for the betterment of the film. They worked as a single unit. Mani sir is a master class! In my mind, Mani sir is my guru. I have never seen him postpone a scene or shoot for the next day owing to time or other issues. I don’t know whether I will ever be able to do another film with him. But I will always carry with me the invaluable lessons I learnt from him.