Age is just a number: 71-year-old Viji Venkatesh shatters age barriers in the film industry

Viji Venkatesh
Now, people recognize me at airports and theatres and call me Ummachi, says Viji. Photo: Manorama

Meet Laila—the uber-cool Ummachi who wore sneakers with a sari and carried pepper spray while travelling. Director Akhil Sathyan had to move heaven and earth to find this stylish Ummachi in Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum, and he eventually found her in Viji Venkatesh, the Max Foundation Asian Regional Head. Akhil had the help of casting director Gayathri Smitha for this endeavour. Viji Venkatesh shares her dream debut with Manorama Online.

Those days were like a dream
I am going through some beautiful moments in my life. That word in English is 'surreal'. It can be called a dreamlike or strange situation in my life right now. It is both a reality and a dream for me - a heartfelt experience indeed! My granddaughter is even happier than me. "Paatti... it is fantastic, and I feel proud of you," that's what she said. Now, people recognize me at airports and theatres and call me Ummachi. Such things are happening for the first time in my life.

Life so far
My real name is TR (Thrissur Ramakrishnan) Vijayalakshmi. My father hails from Thrissur, and my mom is from Thiruvananthapuram. My husband, Krishnaswamy Venkatesh, is from Tripunithura. Since my dad worked in Delhi, I was born and brought up there. I got married soon after my studies, and I have two children. My husband worked at Mumbai's Oil Refinery.

Later, we shifted to Venezuela, but our business incurred losses there, and one fine day we lost everything and had to move to the US. We did several jobs there. Back in India, I got a job as a Max Program Coordinator, and right now, I am the Asian Regional Head.

I fell for that smile
It was casting director Gayathri Smita who called me. Now I am 71, and I work with cancer patients full-time. It was impossible to take time out to act in a film. Though I am a Malayalee, I don't know how to speak Malayalam fluently. But they were determined to cast me, having seen my photo on Instagram. Director Akhil Sathyan had my image in mind for his character.

Finally, I decided to meet Akhil in person. I still remember his beautiful smile. Akhil is the magic lamp of this film, he infused confidence in me and also hinted at the other actors involved. I was excited when I heard the names of Fahadh Fasil, Vineeth, Mukesh, and Innocent. I am a huge Fahadh Fasil fan, and I have been seeing Vineeth in films for the longest time. It was indeed exciting to be in a film with them. That's how I became Laila Ummachi.

My tears were real
Vineeth's exceptional acting skills are evident in certain scenes where he raises his voice, and it would frighten me naturally. The power with which he played his character was remarkable. During the combination scenes with Vineeth, I shed tears without using glycerin. While filming those scenes, I made many errors and cried as there were many retakes.

Since it was a sync sound film, Akhil had already recorded all the dialogues and sent them to me. I learned my lines by listening to them. However, the emotional scenes had several dialogues, and I had to put in a lot of effort to deliver them perfectly. Vineeth would hold my hand and reassure me, saying, "Deedi, don't worry, everything will be alright." After filming the scene, I would rush to the washroom to cry. It makes me happy to hear that the audience appreciated that scene.

Cool star of Insta
I am fond of social media as it is a powerful and efficient platform. Being someone who works closely with cancer patients, I feel there is a lot to be shared about their journey, and social media allows me to do so. Moreover, I have a deep love for sarees, especially Kaitheri sarees, and I use Instagram to showcase and promote them, especially among the younger generation. While many believe Instagram is only for the youth, I have proven that even senior citizens like me can have a following on this platform.

Mom is my rock star
My mother, at 96 years old, continues to be my inspiration, possessing more general knowledge than I do. It was from her that I learned the importance of being well-dressed regardless of age. When I acted in a film, my mother was even happier than I was. I strongly believe that all women should have the opportunity to work and become financially independent. While housework is a choice, women should pursue activities that bring them joy.

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