In Rahul V Chittella’s Gulmohar, Simran paints that familiar portrait of an Indian homemaker, walking from one room to another, giving out instructions and making sure everyone’s needs in a joint family are taken care of. From dealing with a slightly dotty mother-in-law to adult children who have their own baggage, and a husband who is struggling with an identity crisis, Indu’s busyness is at the heart of Gulmohar, a Hindi family drama that was released on Disney Hotstar recently. While the film received mixed reviews, the praise for Simran’s performance was unanimous.
The glamour girl of Tamil cinema in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Simran was known as much for her extraordinary dance skills and ability to emote as her style statements (remember the fandom for the Simran kondai?). In a career spanning nearly 30 years, Simran has acted with several superstars, from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vikram. In this interview, she talks about why she identified closely with Indu, her love for comedy and how she hopes to do an action film like Mad Max Fury Road someday.
I loved all the little things about Indu in Gulmohar. From how she slips into Tamil when she’s annoyed to that scene when she casually hands her husband his pill and then swallows one herself. She’s constantly on the move but there are also moments of quiet reflection. What was your reading of her character?
I could relate to Indu very much. A woman who has been a supportive wife, mother and daughter-in-law of the Batra family. What women do behind the scenes as homemakers gives strength to each member of the family. When I heard the narration for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the story and the character.
Women like Indu tend to have very little time for themselves. It’s only when the kids go to school that they can relax a bit. But even then, they have to think about preparing food and planning the rest of the day. When I’m not working, I do the same. Women who are full-time homemakers have to do this 24X7. They are completely immersed in the family. They have to run up and down, inside and outside the kitchen, taking care of everything.
You're a Punjabi yourself but you played a Tamil character in a Punjabi family in a Hindi film. And you were very convincing too! Did you find that ironic at some level?
I’m a Punjabi but I was born and brought up in Mumbai. Then I worked for more than 25 years in Chennai, so I’m very familiar with the language. Indu is a Tamilian who is a bahu in a Punjabi family, and I felt that added a nice south Indian flavour to the film. The character background for Indu is that she’s a Tamilian who was born and brought up in Delhi, so she knows both the languages. I enjoyed the lines in Tamil that I had to speak to Reshma (Santhy Balachandran) and of course, Manoj ji (Manoj Bajpayee) also speaks to me in broken Tamil. It was fun.
I watched an old interview of yours when you were just 21. When asked what your future plans are, you said that it is to “do some good films, find a nalla payyan (good boy), get married, get settled in life and live without any tension”. You’ve now been in the industry for close to 30 years. What would you like to tell 21-year-old Simran?
I think 21-year-old Simran has done just what she said she would do! All that she mentioned has happened. She never said that she wouldn’t work, if I remember right. So I don’t have any advice to give her (laughs).
But is there a difference in your approach to cinema over the years? What made you say yes to a film then and what makes you say yes now?
I’m always driven by the story. When you hear a narration for the first time and it stays in your mind, then that film is likely to do well. It’s very rare for such a film to fail. I always listen to a story from the audience’s point of view. I also watch a film from an audience’s point of view. So then and now, it is the story that makes me say yes.
People love you for many reasons, especially your dance skills. But I've always loved you in comedy – films like Panchatantram (2002), Pammal K Sambandam (2002). Does humour come naturally to you?
Yes, humour does come to me naturally, and it’s my preferred genre too. I love pucca entertainers. I love to laugh and clap when I’m watching a film. I like to cry too! I like to feel all the emotions that a character is experiencing. There’s no point in coming out of a theatre without going through that. But humour is what I absolutely love. It’s a stressbuster – some films, scenes or a favourite comedian that you can keep watching again and again. Apart from dance, which drives me, humour is what keeps me going.
You're among the rare heroines back then to have played a mother when you were still at the top of your career. Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) is among your best performances. Did you think of it as a risk at all?
I just closed my eyes and went for that role. There were so many shades to the character. She’s a young mother and a newsreader. She’s very progressive, and is ready to adopt a child even before she gets married. I like such bold characters, characters that show the strength of women, whether it’s throughout the movie or just a scene or two. I think of such roles as an opportunity to do good work.
After your break, you came back in a romantic film like Vaaranam Aaiyiram (2008) , acting with Suriya. Yet, we hardly got to see you in lead roles after that. Why so?
Frankly, I don’t know why. But whatever I did after that, like my role in Petta (2019), I was noticed. I think it’s important to strike a balance between work and family. Out of about 100 films that I’ve done, 80-90 have done well. It happens that some films fail or you may miss out on some good ones, but I should say that I’m happy with my career graph. OTT platforms have now brought the world together, and I was able to do a film like Mahaan (2022). Though the film doesn’t revolve around my character (a Gandhian who takes the ideology to the extreme), it was a prominent role.
I would say that we should have writers who write roles specifically for artists who can perform. That would make the audience more involved in the film because the roles have been written with their favourite stars in mind.
You ruled the Tamil film industry, and also did movies in Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada. Then you took a break and came back with TV. And now we get to see you more on OTT. Has it become easier to find good roles for someone of your profile now?
It’s not that easy. There are many things that you have to consider when you listen to a story, and it’s difficult to find good roles. In fact, it is difficult to reach out to people in the first place.I don’t have a manager, and I have to wait for things to fall in place. Mostly, it happens through word-of-mouth. Whenever I do a prominent role – like with Gulmohar, Mahaan or Rocketry (2022) – even if it’s once a year, it helps me find another good film. So no, it isn’t easy, but I’m happy with what I’m doing. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Are there any roles that you keep getting but you absolutely don’t want to do?
(laughs) I should say that writers and directors have been good to me. Probably because they know that I won’t do a role that I’m not convinced with. I would love to do more humour and family dramas. Also, action films!
Yes, you did Kovilpatti Veeralakshmi way back in 2003…
Yes, that was a long time ago. But now you can do great action films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). I would love to do something like that.
You’ve worked in Tamil cinema for so long, and you’ve used a dubbing artist for most of your films. Are you comfortable dubbing for yourself now?
Savitha has been my dubbing artist for a long time, and Deepa Venkat has also done a few films. Filmmakers somehow prefer to have the same voice for an actor – I guess because it connects better with the audience. I dubbed for myself in Rocketry because we shot it in multiple languages. I’ve also dubbed for films with live sound – in that case, filmmakers have to bear with my Tamil (laughs). But seriously speaking, my Tamil is good only! It’s my voice in Gulmohar and I’m really proud of it.
You and Jyotika did two films together, Valee (1999) and 12 B (2001). The first film was her debut and by the time the second happened, both of you were big stars. Would you consider doing a film together again? Just as a fan wish!
Yes, of course, if there’s something very meaningful and a good story that can bring us both together, I would love to work with her again!