May 9, 2008. It was the semi-finals of reality show Ungalil Yaar Adutha Prabhudeva. Birthday girl and Class XI student Sai Pallavi walked onto the sets with a big smile. She entered AVM Studios in Chennai, passed the small Vinayagar temple, took a right, and then another to join other contestants. She had been doing this routine for a year, travelling from Coimbatore. By evening, she had been eliminated.
Almost a decade later, she was being driven to shoot a song for her latest release Maari 2. "I was not really looking outside, but I felt this was a familiar space. I got off the car, skipped the caravan, and ran to the set. It was the very same space. Who would imagine that a decade after the show, I would actually get to dance to a number choreographed by Prabhu Deva Sir himself?" says Pallavi.
Maari 2 also gave her the chance to work with Dhanush, whom she's admired since school. She also got to work in a song sung by Ilaiyaraaja ('Anandhi' is her favourite along with Premam's 'Malare') that too composed by Yuvan Shankar Raja. And then, there was director Balaji Mohan, who gave her a role unlike anything she'd essayed before — that of an auto driver. "The first time I met them, all I could think was that I've only seen them on screen. I was surprised they spoke like they knew me from before. The team kept my spirits up and made me feel I was one among them."
After a couple of hits across Malayalam and Telugu, Pallavi is clear about her career path. "The films have to appeal to me as a person. Once in a while, I like to make the actor in me happy, and choose projects that cast me differently. I think I owe it to the audience that has shown me nothing but love. Malar (her character in Premam) is different from Pallavi, but many still look at me as Malar. People have looked beyond what I thought were flaws. And, I have the responsibility to reciprocate that love with good films."
Today, Pallavi is known for her utterly natural screen presence, no-makeup look and casual style. Credit for that, she says, goes to Premam director Alphonse Puthren. "When I was studying medicine in Georgia, I only saw people with flawless skin and great hair around me. I never thought people would accept me and my biggest fear was that Alphonse would be ridiculed for his choice. But, like they say, some things in life help you evolve. For me, it was Premam. It helped me view the world differently, taught me that confidence is beauty and that I should be comfortable with who I am."
For a recent press meet, Pallavi charmed all with her frankness and her sari, a floral creation that was gifted by the film's designer in Hyderabad. She took 10 minutes to get ready, of which five were spent draping her sari. This nonchalance about 'looking good' stems from her deeply philosophical bent of mind. She loves to meditate and look beyond what is apparent. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is a people person. Remember Veronica, the little kid from Karu? Pallavi still calls her mother to find out how the first child who made her feel 'motherly' is doing. "I keep checking her photos on WhatsApp. I'd love for her to remember me. And so, I keep telling her mother to speak to her about Pallavi didi."
For someone as soft spoken as Pallavi, the character of Araathu Anandhi was a game changer. Though she played Bhanu, the 'hybrid pilla' who loves to speak in Sekhar Kammula's Fidaa, she was not sure if she could pull off Anandhi. "She's unlike anything we've seen on screen before. She was all about love and madness. How will someone who's loud behave when in love or when she gets emotional? Will she make exaggerated faces? These were my questions."
This film also saw her work with Prabhu Deva, known for his rigorous, graceful and meticulous dance moves. "I have a different style of dancing, and he got me to try something else because this was how Anandhi would dance. But, Sir would occasionally change the steps as the song progressed, and I was terrified I won't do well. And so, every time he went into a huddle with his assistants, I would stand in a corner and keep peeking, hoping my rehearsed steps would not change. Today, when I see the end result, I'm glad he pushed us the way he did."
As with every film, with Maari 2 and Padi Padi Leche Manasu, her Telugu film which released on the same day, Pallavi learnt something new — to drive an auto and ride a tram respectively. Among the successes sits Karu which had the audience divided on whether to love or dislike the film. "That taught me how to choose. That said, I do believe, good or bad, what has to happen will happen."
What helps her pick herself up is audience love. "People seem to look beyond the last thing I did. And that drives me to do better."
Pallavi is working on an untitled Malayalam film with Fahadh Faasil directed by Vivek and Selvaraghavan's NGK with Suriya. She's been approached for a big-ticket Telugu film, but is yet to sign up. After her releases, she usually takes a break and heads to Coimbatore and then Kotagiri, her two sanctuaries. She won't step out much, because she gets requested for photos and can't refuse, and before she knows it, a family trip to the mall has turned into something else.
And, someday, once the charm of the arc lights subsides, Pallavi would like to go back to her one-time muse medicine, and become a "helpful, good doctor".