Keerthi Pandian-starrer Anbirkiniyal, a remake of the Anna Ben-starrer Helen, is set to release on March 5. She talks about how she started off as a dancer before acting in theatre and films while simultaneously running a film distribution business with her father, actor Arun Pandian. She also talks about why she took her time before getting into films with Thumbaa and the rejections she faced in auditions because of her appearance. Excerpts…
Acting is not your first brush with cinema. You’ve distributed a lot of films.
I’ve been involved in distribution since 2012, right after I stepped out of college. The first three films we distributed were Soodhu Kavvum, Nagaraja Cholan, and Gouravam. Soodhu Kavvum turned out to be amazing. I personally love the film. Right after that Singam happened. After that we’ve grown a lot. Dad has been funding and monitoring the whole thing. I’ve learnt what goes into releasing a film overseas.
You started off as a ballet and salsa dancer. Then you did film distribution. You did theatre. You’re doing a movie now. Can you take us through your journey?
I’m certified in both ballet and salsa by the Academy of Modern Arts. I didn’t have time to go back to dancing once theatre happened. Simultaneously, or even before that, I started taking care of my dad’s business. We started a film distribution company, based out of Singapore. All through this, I was also listening to scripts and giving auditions.
Whatever I’m doing today is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child. It all happened simultaneously, as you’ve framed it.
Did theatre training help you as an actor?
Of course it did! I’ve been doing theatre for over three years. It really breaks that wall for you… the inhibitions you sometimes have go away. I changed as a person. I became more disciplined. A lot of things like that. It changed how I looked at life. Theatre really helped.
Do you choose scripts for a play and a movie differently?
Theatre works very differently from films. With films you go by the script unless a director is open to improvisation. With theatre there’s the skeleton of a story, but as actors we have to devise the whole thing. A director would merely guide the actors. So, they’re very different.
Is it instinct that drives you to choose a particular script?
I’ve dived into everything in theatre. I don’t know much Hindi but I’ve done Hindi plays. I’ve pushed myself. Theatre broke a lot of inhibitions. It’s okay to make a fool out of yourself because that’s what you’ve come here for. I was going crazy with everything that came my way.
Cinema is very tricky, though. Growing up watching my dad act in and produce films, getting into films was a dream. But, I wanted to take my time to find the right thing to work on.
If an interesting film script like Thumbaa hadn’t come by, would you still have continued to do theatre?
I would have. Films were always something that just kept coming to me. Even though a lot of people approached me, I attended auditions too. I had sent my profiles to directors across India. I didn’t receive responses. I had been rejected in auditions, and a lot of painful rejections, too. I kept trying. When someone approached me with something, I would think ‘not this one’. That whole journey took a while until I found something that wanted to do.
Can you talk about a couple of techniques you learnt doing theatre that helped you in films?
When someone is explaining a character, I ask them questions. I’m sure a lot of people do it. What is the backstory? It’s not going to be depicted on screen, but I need to know all the baggage that a character is carrying. It helps me figure out how the character might respond to something. That’s the kind of homework I do for both theatre and cinema.
You could bring in detailing. Habits, quirks, mannerisms… like breaking your knuckle. Things like this are common to both films and plays. Whatever I’ve learnt from theatre really helps me build the character in my mind.
Did you have to unlearn anything that you picked up in theatre?
Nothing, really. We can reshoot a dialogue but if you miss a line in a play you’ve just missed the line. I really miss performing in one go. In films, there’s a close up shot where you’re asked to say just a part of the dialogue. I would want to say the whole thing. I’m so used to learning pages of dialogue that when I go on sets, I learn others’ dialogues too.
Coming from a film family, you might have had access to opportunities in films. Why did you want to go through the grind to get your first film?
It’s not like the right opportunities were coming my way. My dad had no involvement in what I did. I do not see my path as a struggle at all because it was rewarding. There are days I’ve cried when I was rejected, especially because of the reasons. I can speak about it today, but I felt ‘why me’ when it happened. It was mostly because I’m on the thinner side.
I’ve had big directors come and tell me that the south Indian audience wants to see someone curvaceous and plump. I didn’t know how to respond; that really broke me. Colour has been a problem too. I was too dark for some places and too fair for some. I wish people would make their minds up!
How interesting is the distribution business?
I find it very interesting. When I was doing it, I didn’t find it interesting as I wanted to be an actor. But I’m thankful I did that. I now understand the business side of films. You also need to know how to sell films. I have some experience doing that. I still discuss numbers with my dad. I read daily reports from Singapore.