My Movie Milestone: Sai Pallavi On Premam 

The actress talks about creating chemistry with Nivin Pauly, and how the acceptance of her character Malar helped her overcome her own insecurities about her skin condition
My Movie Milestone: Sai Pallavi On Premam 

Five years ago, everything changed for Sai Pallavi. Alphonse Putharen's Malayalam hit film Premam released, and she was forever christened Malar, after her character in the film. After spotting her on a dance reality show, Putharen reached out to cast her. At the time Pallavi was in medical school in Georgia (the country). She agreed on two conditions. First, that the film be shot over her summer vacations and not get in the way of her studies. Second, that she be allowed to wear clothes she's comfortable in.

The film would go on to become one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films of its time. 5 years on, it remains every bit as beautiful today. Premam follows the story of George (Nivin Pauly) and the three significant experiences he has with love over his lifetime. The second, in which George is a college senior and falls in love with his teacher Malar, remains the most significant. They don't end up together, but theirs is the connection that ends up defining him, because often the love that changes you most isn't the one that lasts.

Pallavi has since been in close to 10 films across Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu cinema, but admits she still gets recognised most as Malar. In this series, My Movie Milestone, she talks about creating the character that changed her life. 

Edited Excerpts:

When was the last time you watched Premam

Around 4 years ago. I watch Malare quite often, but I don't think I can watch the film. My grandmother keeps watching it over and over again. I don't want to watch it again because now that I've started doing more movies, I can see the mistakes I made, but it worked for the film. Maybe if this Pallavi was there, she would've done it differently. But I don't know if it would've had the same magic. 

 Most of us see Premam as your game-changing movie moment. Does it feel like that for you?

More than that, this film was special to me as an individual because I discovered myself. All women go through a phase where they have insecurities that they have to accept and move on from. I have a skin condition called Rosacea which I shouldn't be talking about again and again, but it's something I had to deal with. When I was in Georgia, everyone had flawless skin and I tried everything, but couldn't get rid of it. I was very conscious.

But when it came to Premam, I thought the director was crazy to let me act on screen with no makeup. I hadn't seen movies where the actors don't use makeup. I had nothing to do with films and I didn't know that in the Malayalam industry, they enjoy watching women who are as natural as possible. Premam was very important for me as a person and now I know that people look beyond your skin and you should just be yourself and be confident and it actually works. I'm a living example of that.

Did you ever get to watch it with an audience?

I saw the first day, first show in Kerala. I didn't know what it was supposed to be like because I had nothing to compare it to. I just didn't want people to boo me onscreen or walk out because you can clearly see when people are bored. I remember squeezing my mum's hand just before my first scene.

I thought people would just stare at how red my face is, but I was shocked at people's reactions. Everything was fine, the comedy worked, they laughed and started clapping. I felt so relieved. I went back to Georgia and that's when I realised how huge this had become overnight. It was a strange feeling to be loved and accepted for the way you are.

A few months later there was a flood in Georgia and apparently there were newspapers in Kerala that said 'Is Malar safe?' I had news channels call me asking if I'm okay. I was so moved when that happened because I had no connection to the industry.

Do you still get recognised the most as Malar?

It happened recently, actually. A few months ago I was with my sister and a Malayali lady spotted me and asked 'Ente Malar aano?' which means 'Are you my Malar?' My sister and I got so emotional. They don't just say Malar, they say 'my Malar'. It's different to do a film and have people appreciate it, but when people own a character even 5 years later, that's something else. That's a moment I'll never forget.

You shot the film while you were in medical school and your character Malar is a guest lecturer at a college. Did that help?

Yes, but whatever you see in Premam is just the unadulterated version of me. In my other films I've tried to bring something to it, but when it came to Premam I was as raw as possible. And Alphonse was constantly using that.

Like that scene during Malare where I say 'nice shirt' to George when he's actually wearing a kurta and he corrects me. In the script it said shirt but Nivin turned up in a kurta. I'd memorised the line and forgot to change it. After the shot, Alphonse said, 'okay great' and I said 'no, I got it wrong'. He said this worked better and that's what's in the film.

Most of the shots with Nivin and me were spontaneous and just our natural reactions. Even if I messed something up, we kept it. We didn't know how we'd react in certain scenes, it just happened in that moment. 

I remember I would blush anytime he'd look at me. I had to keep telling myself that I'm the teacher, he's the student, so I shouldn't be blushing. That's why in most of my scenes you'll see I have a little smirk or smile. That's me trying to control myself.

You have such heartfelt chemistry with Nivin. It's also two of the nicest smiles coming together to light up the screen. What's the secret to creating that connection?

I met Nivin only two days before shoot. Alphonse told me I should meet the actor and I was too nervous because I didn't know much about movies and I didn't want to be judged.

When we started doing the scenes, we shot the film mostly in chronological order. To create chemistry it comes down to how comfortable you are with the other person. There's a rhythm that comes between you and your co-actor where you both need to speak the same language physically and emotionally.

But with Nivin, it didn't feel like acting. I'd just reciprocate something he did, and he'd do the same. I didn't realise that back then, but now I'm trying to recreate that innocence in every film I do, especially the love stories.   

I remember I would blush anytime he'd look at me. I had to keep telling myself that I'm the teacher, he's the student, so I shouldn't be blushing. That's why in most of my scenes you'll see I have a little smirk or smile. That's me trying to control myself. 

Rockankuthuthe, the song where you're teaching the boys dance moves, went viral. You're credited as choreographer on that. The rehearsal scenes in the film look like your actual behind the scenes dance rehearsals.

Yes! I'm not even kidding. I was sitting on the stage and Alphonse was ready with the camera and said 'let's shoot'. I said 'are you kidding me?'. He asked me how I'd go about it if I was teaching them in real life. I said normally I'd play the song, I'd rewind it, I'd think about the steps and then I'd do it. He told me to do exactly that. So what you see in the film is what I did in real life which was so strange for me.

I jump off the stage and walk past them. There was a fly around my face which I tried to push away, and then just start dancing and it worked. But I can't take any credit, it was all Alphonse's magic.

There's that heart-breaking scene after the accident where Malar loses her memory. On paper, it sounds like a cliché, but in the film it felt so honest to the story because of how convincing you both were. Were you ever worried about getting that right?

On paper it was a very different scene. As we shot the film, Alphonse saw George and Malar's relationship develop and he didn't know if he could follow what was on paper. We went to Kodaikanal and shot a few sequences to see what worked and this one where I forget him felt right. But it was heartbreaking for everybody. 

Nivin, in particular, couldn't digest it. He kept fighting with Alphonse saying, 'you know if I was the actual boyfriend, I would wait for her and take care of her, I wouldn't just leave'. It took a long time for him to accept that George would let go of his love. But Alphonse kept saying 'trust me this is right. I'm able to see how this would turn out and I can clearly visualise Malar and George becoming very different so trust me on this'. And we did.

Nivin, in particular, couldn't digest it. He kept fighting with Alphonse saying, 'you know if I was the actual boyfriend, I would wait for her and take care of her, I wouldn't just leave'. It took a long time for him to accept that George would let go of his love. But Alphonse kept saying 'trust me this is right'. And we did.

There is a strange maturity to George in that moment, as if he knows everything they had is lost and he can't get it back. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if they ended up together? In the last scene, she admits she does get her memory back.

Sometimes you experience love that you can't have, and deep inside there's this gnawing but beautiful pain. I think that's what Alphonse wanted.

If he got back with Malar I would've been happy for the characters, but I don't know if it would have been this memorable. In the end she remembers him and could have easily come forward and told him that, and I'm 100% sure he would've left anybody and come back to her. But sometimes in life, you feel it's right for the person to move on and have a life of their own. It's frustrating not to see them together but it felt right. You know they were meant to be together, but this is just how it is sometimes.

Premam is in many ways three movies in one and yours is the one which stays with people the most. Do you think that's why your character had that kind of impact?

I'm glad because when Alphonse narrated the film, he told me there'd be two other actresses, and the third is going to get the guy and marry him. I thought she would be the main one because in movies the main actor always gets the guy.

Also what he narrated was not the same as the final film, it changed over time. Alphonse is a brilliant editor, so as he shot, he knew what he wanted it to turn into and he made the whole film on the edit table. But some things happened out of nowhere, like the butterflies you see through the film. All of that happened naturally, it wasn't set up.

I remember we were shooting a scene inside the library and a butterfly appeared. I'm crazy about butterflies. Suddenly around 100 appeared around one particular tree and Alphonse told me to stand by it and we shot. It felt like nature's blessing.

Do you have a favourite scene?

I wouldn't say favourite scene but I have memories behind the camera which I will cherish forever. When we were shooting Malare, there's that sequence where I'm wearing a red hoodie. I remember just after that we passed this golf course and I told Alphonse I wanted to go inside because it looked beautiful. He agreed and I remember it was pouring and full of fog. Nivin came in and said 'Alphonse wants us to shoot something around here'. So they started rolling and the fog covered both of us and I held his hand. When the mist moved, we saw cops standing around because apparently it was private property!

We just told them we didn't shoot anything, and we sat in the car drenched and shivering. The three of us went to a café to share a hot chocolate. It's just in the film for a second but it was one of the sweetest memories.

Also my last scene before I had to go back to Georgia. It was the last scene of the film where I tell George and his wife, they look great together. After I walked out and they said cut, I came back in and everyone was clapping for me. They had a cake and there were people playing Malare on the guitar. It was so beautiful and I cried so much. It was one of the best days. So I think what happened behind the scenes stayed with me the most. 

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