Naveen was just about 20 years old when he acted with Ramya Krishnan in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019). Imagine the scene – a teenager is watching a porn film with his friends and discovers that the lead star is his mother, Leela. He rushes home to kill her, but ends up stabbing himself accidentally. The horrified mother, who has no idea that her son had seen her in the film, is taking him to the hospital in an auto when he looks at her and utters a terribly abusive expletive. She is taken aback but has no time to process what she’s just heard.
“The director had told Ramya ma’am that I would be using such a word but he didn’t tell me – not until we had to shoot the scene. I was terrified. This was an actor who had played powerful characters like Neelambari and Rajmata Sivagami and I absolutely couldn’t bring myself to say such a thing to her,” recalled Naveen.
Noticing his anxiety, Ramya Krishnan called the young actor aside and reassured him about what was to follow. “She told me that we’re all actors here and that it didn’t matter what I said to her in a scene. I still ended up mumbling the word in the first few takes, but she was patient and encouraged me to get it right. I apologised to her all through the shoot and she laughed it off,” said Naveen.
Veteran actor Nadhiya was the original choice for the role of Leela, the porn star mom in Super Deluxe. Krishnan bagged the role after Nadhiya left the film due to creative differences. Her husband, acclaimed Telugu director Krishna Vamsi, has watched Krishnan make several such unconventional choices in her career spanning nearly 30 years.
“She is not at all judgmental. She has to get a kick out of every role she plays, and she makes quick decisions. She didn’t hesitate for a moment when Super Deluxe was offered to her and she played the role with a lot of dignity,” said Vamsi. That perhaps explains why Ramya Krishnan is so difficult to slot as an actor – heroine, villain, goddess, sex worker, she’s done them all, but you’ll hardly ever see her in the conventional mother roles with which most women actors her age are saddled.
The formidable villain
Krishnan’s latest Telugu release Ranga Maarthanda (2023), directed by Vamsi, is a remake of the Marathi drama Natsamrat (2016). The film revolves around a veteran theatre actor (Prakash Raj) and his forbearing wife (Ramya Krishnan) who find themselves in a difficult situation as their adult children distance themselves from the elderly couple. Other than Ranga Maarthanda, Krishnan has acted in two other films directed by Vamsi – Chandralekha (1998) and Sri Anjaneyam (2004) in which she made a guest appearance.
“I cast her in Ranga Maarthanda because the role is opposite to what she has been doing in the last few years. We’ve been seeing her in powerful roles with fiery dialogues, but in this film, she’s a very docile and submissive wife. She hardly speaks,” pointed out Vamsi. The emotions had to be expressed through her eyes, and Vamsi said that even though he knows the actor so well after 20 years of marriage, she still managed to surprise him. “She carried the film with her eyes and brought a lot of weight to the scenes with her expressions,” he said.
Veteran actor Nassar has acted with Krishnan in some of the most significant films in her career – the Tamil film Padayappa (1999) and the Baahubali (2015 and 2017) films in Telugu. In the first, he was her brother while in the second and third, he was her husband.
“Ramya Krishnan played Neelambari in Padayappa with such conviction that I don’t think it’s possible to see anyone else in that role,” said Nassar. In the KS Ravikumar directorial, Krishnan was the antagonist to Rajinikanth’s titular character. Neelambari is a woman who lusts after Padayappa but after he spurns her, she is consumed by a terrible vengeance. She shuts herself in a room for 18 years, repeatedly watching a video of Padayappa marrying another woman (Soundarya). She finally emerges from her self imposed exile when she senses an opportunity to wreak revenge. Any which way you look at it, it is an over-the-top role and considering the actor on the other end was Tamil Nadu’s biggest superstar, Neelambari was written to fail. But Krishnan was so fantastic in this role that she nearly upstaged Rajinikanth in their confrontation scenes.
“The strength of a film is decided by how powerful and believable the villain is. The conflict is all about the opposition that the hero faces. When it’s a female villain, it’s all the more challenging because it won’t look good if the hero physically overpowers her,” said Nassar. In Padayappa, Krishnan exuded a brash sensuality and arrogance that ought to have made her instantly dislikable, but it’s hard to hate the actor as she struts around in a short red dress and boots, totally owning absurd lines like, “Shut up. Maatukku pudicha colour ellam ennala poda mudiyadhu. Enakku pudicha colour dhaan ennala poda mudiyum! (I can’t wear clothes in the colour that the bull likes, I can only wear clothes in the colour that I like!)". Neelambari might have been written as a caricature but Krishnan succeeded in making her entirely real and entertaining to watch.
“As a director, I can tell you that this wasn’t simple to do, not opposite a phenomenon like Rajinikanth,” said Vamsi, who rates Neelambari as one of Krishnan’s best performances. “But she was able to match his presence with her own. She commanded respect for the character. I’ve often felt that she’s like water, adapting to any role with ease.”
Neelambari became so iconic that Krishnan played a cameo, essaying the same character, in Rajinikanth’s Baba (2002). Nassar also reprised his role from Padayappa for a comedy scene where Neelambari is still obsessed with Padayappa and her hapless brother tries to convince her that Baba isn’t Padayappa. When Krishnan forayed into the television serial space in 2008 with Kalasam on Sun TV, her character was called Neelambari.
The glamorous goddess
If there is a role from Krishnan’s filmography to rival Neelambari, it is Rajmata Sivagami in SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali films. “Rajamouli considered quite a few actors for the role but it was Ramya who fit the bill,” said Nassar. “Sivagami is pivotal to the plot. She’s the one who names Baahubali and orchestrates the whole story. The team greatly trusted her to pull it off.”
Terming Sivagami as a contrast to Neelambari, Nassar said that Krishnan was equally comfortable playing the powerful queen mother who calls the shots in the kingdom. He played her husband who nurses a grudge against her for not encouraging his ambition to grab the throne for their son. “Her eyes are her greatest asset. She brings a certain aura to these roles because she knows how to express feelings through her powerful eyes,” he added.
In the Nineties, Krishnan’s famed aura landed her several roles as the fierce folk goddess Ammoru or Amman in Telugu and Tamil films. She played the goddess for the first time in the Tamil devotional film Sarvam Sakthimayam in 1986, but it was Kodi Ramakrishna’s Telugu film Ammoru (1995) that made her synonymous with the righteous guardian deity.
“She had played several glamorous roles since the Eighties when she made her debut, and doing Ammoru was a big decision because people see you differently when you play a divine role. They need to accept you. But she did so well in Ammoru that people started seeing her as the real goddess,” said Vamsi.
The Amman/Ammoru films typically revolve around a female devotee who is caught in difficult circumstances, and the goddess descends on earth to help her out. The vigorous dance of the avenging goddess is a key sequence in this genre, sometimes even inspiring the audience to go into a fervid trance. But though Krishnan played the goddess in many such movies, she continued to play sensuous roles too.
In fact, Rajakali Amman (2000) and Pottu Amman (2000) came out just a year after her indelible performance as the lustful Neelambari in Padayappa. She also did quite a few item numbers in the early 2000s, such as ‘Thoothu Varuma’ in Kaakha Kaakha (2003), ‘Chikubuku Pori’ in Anji (2004), ‘Jantanu Vidadeese’ in Adavi Ramudu (2004) and so on even as her contemporaries began doing reserved for “older women” (read 35 plus). While male actors have always enjoyed the luxury of playing characters with negative traits or moral ambiguities without this coming in the way of them playing the hero, the audience hasn’t been so generous towards female actors. That Krishnan could traverse the spectrum and still be liked is testament to the conviction she brings to her performances.
Though she’s known for her dance skills and commanding roles, Krishnan also has great comic timing. In KS Ravikumar’s Panchathanthiram (2002), she plays Maggie, a sex worker who steals diamonds and attempts to hoodwink a group of married men. With her tinkling laugh and sarcastic one-liners, Maggie emerges as a villain you want to like though she’s pitted against the hero (Kamal Haasan).
“When we act, we have to match the metre of our co-actor. If someone is portraying anger, I have to read the level at which they’re doing it and respond to it. The same goes for comedy. Ramya is someone who understands her roles instinctively, and she has no problem delivering what a scene requires,” said Nassar.
The porn star mom
In Super Deluxe, an important sequence is Krishnan’s scene with Myskkin – who played her husband – at the hospital where their son is admitted. While the mother is desperate for her son to be treated, the father insists that he can be healed by prayer. Pushed to the end of her tether, the mother slaps her husband. It’s a long single take focused on Krishnan and was shot over two days till Kumaraja was satisfied with it. It’s a moment when everything the audience would have fantasised about a porn star’s personal life is dismantled, and the character is humanised. “I was lying on the hospital bed and watching these two actors give everything for the scene. Myskkin sir insisted that Ramya Ma’am really slaps him because it won’t look realistic otherwise. I lost count of how many times she had to slap him. His face was swollen by the time it was done,” said Naveen, adding that the sequence was a lesson to him on professionalism.
Her willingness to experiment means that Krishnan has found work across languages and on different platforms. As she continues to do mainstream cinema in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi, she has also built a career in television – her Vamsam ran for four years and crossed over 1,000 episodes – and headlined Queen, a web series where she played a character inspired by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.
The actor will next be seen in Nelson Dilipkumar’s Jailer that’s slated for release on August 10th. While Rajinikanth is playing the lead, Krishnan’s role has been kept under the wraps. Is she going to be the heroine, the antagonist or a bit of both? That we can’t guess the answer is the reason why Ramya Krishnan remains a force to reckon with, a star who shines with her own light.