For the uninitiated, the actor who played Umayal, the upright police officer in the second season of Raj and DK's Family Man, might seem like a major discovery. But for those who follow Tamil content, Devadarshini has been a much-loved fixture across television and cinema for decades. Yet even for seasoned viewers, Umayal may have come as a surprise and a detour from the roles we'd come to expect her in. Explaining the events that led to this role, the actress opens up about "one of the most exciting phases" of her career. Edited excerpts:
Let me begin with an obvious question. Had you seen the first season of Family Man when you signed this role?
Not at that time. We started shooting in August 2019 and the first season was out only in September. Of course I binged on it when it came out. My decision to join the show, though, happened before it became a success.
As someone who works predominantly in movies, were there any doubts or nervousness before taking the leap to a relatively new platform?
More than nervousness, there was this disbelief. It began with a call from Mukesh Chabbra's office. He is one of the biggest casting agents and naturally, I felt someone was trying to fool me. This feeling only doubled when they said it was for a show starring Manoj Bajpayee. It is very rare for a South actor, that too a character artiste, to get a call for a Hindi series. I started understanding the seriousness of it only later when they persisted. They came down for my audition and the other processes followed right after.
In the South, auditioning for a role isn't common. Even more so for a trained, regular actor like you. How do you feel about going through that process after so many years on the job?
Auditions, like you said, aren't too common in the South. I haven't had to audition for a movie yet, but I knew that this is how the Bombay industry works. I've auditioned for commercials before so I wasn't taken by shock when they asked for one. They gave me a scene beforehand and asked me to perform that. After a certain amount of time, I was told that I was selected. Simple.
Did you ever ask the casting team about why they reached you for the role? Was there one particular performance they watched to see you as Umayal?
I wanted to ask them in the beginning itself. But I took my time thinking they would reconsider me if they sensed that I wasn't sure (laughs). There are many Tamilians who were a part of the crew, including Suman [Kumar], the writer, who had seen my work before. Raj and DK had seen me in 96. But that's where you really have to give it to them. I played a very soft role in that. If they had no idea about my earlier work and then chose me for this role, then it makes sense. But despite having seen my films, they felt I could do something that is so different and unusual. Sometimes, an actor needs creators like them to see beyond what you yourself or others can.
But your role itself is that of a Tamilian in a Hindi show. Did that present a set of fresh challenges?
Almost all my dialogues were in Tamil, except for a few in English. So learning the dialogues, per se, wasn't difficult. But the format was interesting for other reasons.
So if all my co-actors are speaking in Hindi for a scene, I had to remind myself that I should react like I didn't understand a word of what they were speaking. In other scenes, like the one where we are eating idli, I shouldn't react at all when they are speaking. Because Devadharshini understands Hindi, I shouldn't forget that Umayal doesn't. So I had to constantly behave like I'm clueless, even though I could follow what they were saying.
I didn't just mean the language but even the shooting pattern is different on Family Man right? There are many long stretches of single-takes shot with handhelds and of course many action set pieces…
Yeah those long sequences are a lot of fun to work on. It really is a rush. If you make a mistake, it means that everyone has to do the whole thing again. There's no 'one more'. So it gives you the feeling that you're on a stage play, with a high level of alertness. As far as the action was concerned, the brief Suman gave me that I was going to play a 'rowdy police'. With a little bit of training, I knew I could pull off the stunts. I had done a few in the start of my career but not much since.
Character roles in movies seldom get the kind of time and the arc a long-form series can afford. The amount of screen time Umayal got would not have been possible in a film. Is that another advantage of the format?
In movies, stereotypes are easy. It is easy for the actor to play a stereotypical character. For the director, it's a time-saving method to convey the purpose of that role. Usually, when I come on screen, people assume that I'm playing a funny character. This can help the movie but as an actor, doing something experimental is the most exciting thing there is. We feel like we are growing and it keeps us going. Even in terms of screen space, characters artistes like me and my husband Chethan, get so much more in such a format.
Did you predict this advantage when the OTTs started taking off?
Yes yes. Both my husband and I were really looking forward to something like the OTT. We started off as actors doing weekly shows on TV but somehow that space receded to become something else. So when we binged on shows like Delhi Crime and Breathe early on, we sensed the potential it presented to character actors. We knew it was going to be good for us.
What about the acting style? Is the pitch very different from movies and television?
I can speak from my experience that a show like Family Man requires a realistic style of acting. Be it anger, or a smile, it needed to be very real. It's a bliss to work like that. I don't want to think about my make up after every shot and I love that my character was accepted in a raw way. In cinema or television, I have done roles that require slapstick, on a higher pitch, apart from a few realistic characters. Personally, I enjoy realistic acting and I feel I'm 'really' acting when I do such roles. But I also have a lot of fun when I do those slapstick comedies.
You started acting on television, at a time when Tamil TV serials were going through a golden phase. But somewhere along the time, the quality dropped and it became something else. Do you think the OTT will provide that space for that quality to return?
I hope it does. Like I said, when I started in the 90's, we were making weeklies. Which means that you were making only four episodes a month. The writers got enough time to come up with 80 minutes of content for the whole month. But soon the boom, we switched from weeklies to dailies. From a handful, these serials went into hundreds of episodes. Naturally, the writers too didn't get enough time when they were asked for one episode to shoot everyday. That dilution is bound to impact the quality in the long term and that audience too became different.
But that's the beauty of OTT. The effort is to make one season through the whole year with a limited number of episodes. And when you already have an audience after the success of the first season, there's no need to do anything overly dramatic. If a series works, the OTT space is the best to maintain that quality.
Let me ask you a hypothetical question. If you now get a great script for a movie and a great script for a series, which one will you choose?
The decision will be a tough one. OTT is a longer commitment. For me, a movie is at utmost 15 days of work. I get amazing characters in movies too but very rarely. So I can only choose from the best I get. But cinema remains my bread and butter. With OTT's, because I'm not going to depend on it completely, I want to wait only for the best scripts. It's a longer time commitment so it should really be worth it.
How exciting has the response been for your performance. It feels like the whole country is talking about the show. When was the last time you felt so excited with a film or a role?
Not too many times but I remember the churning in my stomach when I watched my first episode of Marmadesam on TV. Then I remember feeling extremely excited to watch Khaakha Khaakha, not just because I was acting in it but also because we knew it was going to be a great movie. I will also never forget watching a show of Kanchana. The joy you get when people are laughing at your jokes is unmatched. And most recently, it will have to be the phase of working on 96. It was special right from when I heard the script. I was almost in tears when I heard it and that impact translated to the screen as well. It was also special because my daughter acted with me in it. A similar excitement is now with Family Man and that feeling doesn't come too often.