Urvashi is among everyone's favourite on-screen mothers, who can manage to make you laugh and shed a tear or two. This Deepavali, she stars in two films, both premiering on OTT — she's the matriarch in RJ Balaji's Mookuthi Amman on Disney+Hotstar, a woman trying to keep her family afloat, and she has an important role in Sudha Kongara's Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru, on Amazon Prime Video. Excerpts from her conversation with Baradwaj Rangan.
Everybody thinks that your performance is effortless. But how much effort goes into that 'effortlessness'?
There is a lot of effort by my directors, writers and other experienced artistes. All of their combined efforts helped me get to this place where my acting feels effortless.
RJ Balaji told me a very interesting thing from the sets of Mookuthi Amman. He would give dialogue sheets to everyone, but to you, he'd explain the scene and you'd come up with your own lines and reactions without looking at the dialogues. How do you do this?
I got a bit of this habit from the Malayalam industry, because over there, we, of course, had to learn our dialogues, but we were given the freedom to express them naturally, from within us. Even at an early stage, directors would ask me, and I would tell them I felt the character should talk a certain way. If it was good, they would agree to it. My nature is such that, even for other languages, rather than writing and learning my dialogues, it is more convenient for me when I am on the spot with other artistes. We speak, interact and get a few words here and there. This freedom helps me a lot, and this is the process I enjoy. If I just have to follow the written notes, somewhere, I'd feel that I have no freedom.
Even with Balaji, we had almost 35 days of shoot, and he never gave me any dialogues. I would ask him and he'd only tell me to naturally talk, because it is a family story with a mother and her four children. If there are too many dialogues, it would look dramatic. I loved that atmosphere.
So, it is something that you got from Malayalam cinema…
Yes. These days even Tamil cinema has become that way. Young directors want our performances to be more alive, and dialogues to be conveyed naturally. In the earlier days, directors were like teachers; we had to stick to the script, because we couldn't waste any reel. These days, we have the resources to take more time. Earlier, every roll of film had its own value. If we did two takes, for the third take, the producer would come and stand near the camera. A huge part of the money was spent on film alone. Now, even if we take more time, it's on a hard disk.
When you acted in Mundhaanai Mudichu, did you learn by rote the dialogues that Bhagyaraj sir gave you or did you get a little freedom there as well?
Sir did not give me any dialogue sheet. He is the one who introduced me to this school. He would tell me what to say, but if there were minor changes, he would not correct me. I felt that freedom and I stored that experience in my mind. After a few Tamil films, when I went to Malayalam, I was able to understand that Bhagyaraj Sir's films and his style are very similar to Malayalam films.
You started by doing serious roles, but if you ask the Tamil audience, they'd say, "What a great comic actress". How did this image come about?
When I decided to not act in any roles that had glamour, double-meaning dialogues or intimate love scenes, in Malayalam it did not make much of a difference. But, in Tamil, they would ask me how I could do a heroine's role by avoiding all this. I was in a state where I didn't know what to do. But, thank god, Michael Madana Kama Rajan happened, and Kamal sir started a nice trend where very innocent characters showcase humour, without them really being conscious about it.
Even the love scenes were such that we wouldn't feel awkward; it was child-like. Kamal sir knew I was not comfortable saying certain dialogues and wearing a certain kind of costume. So, he asked me to consider this, saying I was a good actress and there were very few female actors who did comedy. He said that if I chose humour, I would be able to continue with it even after marriage and at any age. He was also the one who compelled me to dub for myself. He said that my voice and my smile were my plus points and made me dub in Michael Madana Kama Rajan.
This is the 30th year of Michael Madana Kama Rajan, and like you said, it is one of your most memorable comic characters. Could you speak about any one memory of yours from the film?
I started my career in Tamil and still consider it to be my base. After Mundhaanai Mudichu, I did not get a character that I felt satisfied performing. I did a lot of Malayalam films and came back and did Michael Madana Kama Rajan. There were four heroines in that film, but when Kamal sir specifically mentioned my character, people took notice of me. I felt like I was being welcomed here all over again. Everything about the movie remains a good experience. Thinking of it now, I can't believe that we did a film like that in a house that was in constant motion, and with so many artistes in it.
Another important film of yours, Thalayana Manthram turned 30 this year. That is a remarkable role, and Sathyan Anthikad said it was his most memorable Onam release. He said that this film showcased the range of a superb actress like Urvashi. What are your memories of the film?
You're exactly asking about my milestones (laughs). For Thalayana Manthram, my uncle had heard the script at the time of finalising the dates, and when I went to shoot, Sathyan sir told me the entire script and asked me if I felt positively or negatively about my character. I said it is a negative character, and that there is a lot of scope for performance, because for a positive character, there is always just one expression. When we think of a villain, there are a few expressions that would stick to mind like the way she looks, walks and speaks, but he wanted me to erase all that and said that just like the other actors, I had to perform very naturally, and that in all of us there is a hero and a villain and that would eventually come out in my performance.
At that time, all my friends and anybody who knew me asked why I was shifting to negative characters when I was a top heroine. I told them that my parents hail from a theatre background and that I wanted to do performance-oriented roles. I knew that people would not judge me based on my characters. Even if I felt that I had to roll my eyes or express myself some more, Sathyan sir would remind me that this is a normal village woman with her small problems. Before Thalayana Manthram, I was a part of Sathyan sir's Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, in which my character again had a slight negative touch, where she cheats on a goldsmith, marries a rich NRI and acts like everything is normal. According to me, such characters offer a lot of performance scope.
For someone like you who is interested in performance-oriented roles, when a typical 80s film like Andha Oru Nimidam came about, which Kamal himself will say is a bad film, would you just mechanically go to shoot and come back?
I think I was around 15 years old when I did that film. I couldn't judge the story at that time, so I did not listen to it. While performing, the director would tell us what to do and his influence was very prominent. Major Uncle had directed that film and Kamal sir also taught me a lot in our combination scenes. So, I couldn't really understand what the film was like at that point but during shooting, Kamal sir would tell me that I should work with directors like Balachander sir and Bhagyaraj sir, because he knew that I had a lot of hesitation, and they would give me performance-oriented roles. He also suggested that I go to the Malayalam industry, where I could do more female-oriented characters.
After so many films with Kamal, how did it so happen that you didn't do a Rajini film? Even in the 1986 Telugu film Jeevana Poratam, I remember you did not have any combination scenes…
I did get an offer for Nallavanukku Nallavan, and my sister Kala Ranjini, an upcoming heroine, was approached to play Rajini sir's daughter. But because akka was busy, that role was offered to me as well. In those days, there was an opinion that if one acted as an actor's daughter, she would not be able to pair opposite him. By the end of 1985, I was doing more films in other languages. I again got a few offers including, Thalapathy, but I was busy with Malayalam films at the time.
I even got an offer for Muthu. After the script was completed, Rajini sir called and told me that after developing my character, his character was not even in the picture (laughs). I asked him what is the point if he is not there in the film. He then told me that if my character is reduced, there won't be any value to it, because it is a commercial film. That is when I said no to him, because if I were to act with him, what matters to me is not the number of scenes but the scope of performance. I am a huge fan of Rajini sir's performance and style. There is not even one film of his that I have not seen. But, not everything happens as we plan it, right?
There is Michael Madana Kama Rajan on one side and Thalayana Manthram on the other. One is a comic role and the other a serious one. Which comes naturally to you? Is one easier than the other?
I always think of how I would behave if I were a certain character. It is easier when I become the character, because when I try and become someone else, drama will get added to it. I always make that character's smile and mannerisms my own. We all have these traits in us. And, I enjoy doing humour. I'll tell you a secret, if we are funny, we won't age quickly (laughs). Take anyone who is funny, and you'll see that they have a charm to them. S Ve Shekhar sir says that his voice and mannerisms are not like that of an elderly person, and that is why he is unable to do father roles. I cry without glycerine. So, when I pick such roles, personally they affect me a lot. In Soorarai Pottru, one scene was shot for an entire day. After crying a lot, I had some trouble breathing even the next day. But when I do humorous roles, I become as happy. That is why I love humourous roles.
At some point, when you are not in a good place in life and a humourous character comes to you, is it hard to come out of that personal situation and perform the character?
It surely is a hard thing to do.
I've heard that you're like a female Kamal who reads a lot of books, who knows a lot about movies. Sudha Kongara said that most actors ask for their scenes alone but you looked through the entire script and gave superb suggestions. How did this whole cinema interest come to you?
My parents, sisters and brothers — all of us are stage and cinema artistes. I was the only one who felt that this won't suit me and had a lot of inferiority complex. Because of that, from then on till my latest film, I keep asking my directors a lot of questions. I consider them my teachers. Even with Sudha, I had a lot of doubts and kept clearing them too. At times, I am even part of discussions of films that I am not a part of (laughs). In those cases, we can freely talk. Reading stories, discussing films, giving feedback from an audience point of view are all very interesting to me.
I never look at a script from my point alone. I always think of how the audience would like it while watching the film. And, it is wrong to say that I know everything about movies. I heard the word 'mood out' after many years in the industry. When I used this word at home, they'd laugh at me. Even if I used the word 'shirt' instead of 'sattai', my mother would ask me to go and use that in my school and not at home. How much ever technology grows, an Indian's heart is always the same and that is what we use in the script as well.
There is nothing for you to prove, and it is almost like you have acted in all kinds of roles over so many decades. At this point, what makes you say, "I have to do this movie." Obviously, script matters, but let's take Soorarai Pottru where you are doing a mother's role. What makes you decide about any film?
If it is a humour-based film, every role in that film will be humourous. But when we take a regular film, every character cannot always be smiling or crying. The expressions will be mixed and that is what makes a character. This is Mookuthi Amman's specialty. There is humour, innocence and very emotion of a character.
Does it make a difference when you do a film with a star actor like Suriya and other non-star actors?
Nothing. In front of the camera, there is no Suriya, Vijay or Dhanush. It is my son whom I am looking at. In fact, I myself am not Urvashi in front of the camera.
You've acted in Tamil and Malayalam films. What is the basic difference between Tamil audiences and Malayalam audiences?
Both the audiences have given me the same love. They always treat me like their next-door neighbour in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. Audience-wise, in Tamil, they are more considerate when I am on screen. It is always, "Namma Urvashi thaane." But, in Malayalam, there is always healthy criticism, which is a good thing for an artiste.