Nearly two decades ago, as a child, Sheela Rajkumar delighted in taking part in her local church's fancy dress competitions for Christmas and Easter. She'd choose a character from The Bible and prepare diligently for the show. Even then, she knew her love was the performing arts. Today, two of her movies, the National Award-winning To Let in Tamil and the award-worthy Kumbalangi Nights in Malayalam are running to packed houses. If she's the soft Amutha, who learns to adjust in any situation but yearns for a comfortable house in To Let, she's the graceful Sathi, the lady with a newborn who enters a house full of men and lends it a certain tenderness in Kumbalangi Nights.
How did Sheela, who grew up in a devout family in Saveriarpatti near Jayankondam land in Chennai, do stints in theatre across groups, including Koothu-p-Pattarai, engage herself in travelling theatre and workshops and land To Let, her ticket to television and films? "I think it all began in Trichy, where I studied Bharatanatyam in Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts. Somewhere in 2013 or 2014, I got the chance to star in a tele-film directed by Thambichozhan; it never released, but I found my life-partner in Chozhan, an acting coach," she smiles. Her family did not agree to the wedding, and the couple went through trauma before finally shifting to Chennai.
Amudha goes through a similar trajectory in To Let, where she has to fend for her husband, child and herself, without any help. "When Chezian sir narrated the character to me, I saw so many similarities in my life and Amudha's. I'd experienced all that Amutha was going through. Likewise, in real life, Santhosh (who plays her husband Ilango) is an assistant cinematographer and the film rang true for us in so many ways," says Sheela, who, at one stage, even taught dance in schools.
Aval Vikatan featured her and To Let producer Prema Chezhian happened to read it. She was roped in for the film, and told it was a festival project and that it might not release in theatres. "I still cherish the rehearsals. I love the scene where I grind the idli batter, and the one where there's fleeting romance between the couple. Sir told us that only our shadows would be seen and that we had to plan to execute it. We were afraid how it would turn out; but the romance amidst falling vessels came through very nicely."
After moving to Tamil cinema's capital, Sheela worked in short films for Naalaya Iyakkunar and was on the lookout for more, when To Let happened. This was followed by the Zee Tamizh serial Azhagiya Tamizh Magal, and Kumbalangi Nights. "I think I've entered the industry at the right time; performers are being sought and it feels good to have roles to choose from," says Sheela, who is known for her economy of expressions. "I think I have, over the years, learnt to express myself differently depending on whether I'm on film, dancing on stage or working in theatre. Each calls for a different skills set. In theatre, even the person sitting in the last row must be able to see your expressions. In cinema, you have to internalise the character. Each character has a story within and you have to showcase that, within the boundaries of the character. Only then will it appear real. It's not always possible to put yourself in the position of the character to get into the zone. I believe actors have an udal mozhi (body language) and an ulla mozhi (soul language). Both have to be in sync for a good performance."
Once the buzz around both films settles down, Sheela hopes to be able to tap into the vastness of Tamil cinema. "We have many layers even within commercial films; then, there are art films, documentaries…I would love to be part of films where characters are spoken about because of the story, not the stars."
Sheela has also been very honest about her marital status. "How can I think of not speaking about it? I've travelled so much in my life, why hide it? I'm proud of what marriage did for me. And, I believe there is a time for everything in life. Seeing me, if someone is encouraged to enter the industry after marriage, I'll be very happy. Imagine if Chezian sir had wondered if he should cast me because I am married, I would not have been part of To Let. Sometimes, you have to chase your dream."
Sheela is also part of Draupadi, a crowd-funded indie film directed by Mohan of Pazhaya Vannarapettai fame. There have been many calls from Kerala too, and once she is convinced about the character and director, she'll sign up for them. For now, she's reveling in all the kind words coming her way.
What keeps her going is the knowledge that she got a rare opportunity that must not be squandered. "Many of my classmates have three or four children, and have not had the chance to showcase their ability. They tell me I'm living their dreams and flying for them too. That's bittersweet, but they are my inspiration."