Playing the mother of two boys in Manikandan's Kaaka Muttai was a role Aishwarya Rajesh chose to do when she was just getting started. The role was anything but glamorous, and the setting was impoverished. Common logic would suggest that it was career suicide. But the risk-to-returns ratio is finally looking up, with the actress having signed a series of films that ride on her shoulders. Edited excerpts from what was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation but lasted two hours:
When was the last time you watched Kaaka Muttai?
Not too long ago. I watched it even during the lockdown, but not entirely. In bits and pieces.
When you watch it now, do you see it as a film or do you focus on your performance?
Mostly, just as a film. But I can't help being bothered about my performance. Apart from these, it's the memories of the shoot that keep coming back. We shot the film in a slum near Saidapet and we didn't have a caravan. I had to keep going to a lodge next door to change or for makeup. When I watched it recently, I was reminded of the day when we were shooting that scene where Simbu inaugurates the pizza place. From the lodge, I kept looking down to watch the shoot. There was so much excitement because he was coming and the roads got blocked. When I drive past those places today, I'm transported to that time. Remember that empty ground in the film where all the kids play? It has become a petrol pump now. It's just five or six years ago, but a lot has changed, even in me.
In a recent TedxTalk, you described the film as a game changer. But you added how offers totally dried up following its release.
I still consider Kaaka Muttai a game changer. I was working in the industry for about five years before its release, but the kind of appreciation I was getting after that was unlike anything I'd experienced before. They kept praising me and people kept saying how natural my performance was. I started flying and I kept telling myself, "Aishu, nee thaan adutha superstar."
But nothing happened. Kaaka Muttai wasn't just critically acclaimed. It was also a hit. But I was still sitting at home waiting for my next chance. The reality was that I wasn't even getting a meaty role, let alone play the heroine in a big film. It didn't make any sense.
Have you been able to figure why?
I don't have an answer for it. I'm still confused. Maybe I didn't have "market value" or, maybe, I wasn't in that top league of actors. But this is something that's happening to a lot of Tamil-speaking actors. Nivetha and Dhansika are from Madurai and Varalaxmi is from Chennai. But how often do we get well-written roles? Dhansika for instance, can even do an action film. But no one writes roles like that for women.
I met Jyotika maam recently and asked her why we rarely get roles like hers in Kushi or Simran's in Vaali. In Hindi, just see the variety of roles actors such as Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut and Taapsee are getting. We're not here just to make money. We're also hungry for good roles. But it doesn't happen. It's like we're cursed or something.
But you're that rare actor who got to work in the films of Vetri Maaran, Seenu Ramasamy, Mani Ratnam, Manikandan, Ranjith and Gautham Vasudev Menon…
Whatever I've achieved today is because these directors believed in me. It's because of Manikandan that I got the confidence to keep improving and that's what eventually led me to a female-oriented film like Kanaa. Even when people compliment my performance in Vaanam Kottattum, I feel my base is still Manikandan.
What was different about him as a director in Kaaka Muttai?
In one of the early days of shoot, I finished performing for a scene and Mani called me aside and said, "Why are you acting so much?" He asked me to reduce it by 50 per cent. We shot it again and then he said, "Now reduce it by 30 per cent." Next take. "Now reduce by 10 per cent." Another take. "Now, five per cent". And finally, when I did nothing, he said, "Cut. That's what I wanted."
That's when I realised the difference between behaving and acting, especially when we are in the midst of a shoot. We were on a tight budget, so we were practically spending the whole day on location. It made me understand how the space and people can subconsciously contribute to your performance.
When you look back, are you reminded of the hardships of such a shoot?
No no. I would never call it difficult because we enjoyed it thoroughly. An aayya would come in the morning and cook delicious breakfast for us on the sets. Ramesh Thilak, Yogi Babu and I would sit together during meals, and I remember joking to Yogi saying he would soon be in very high demand. "Indha moonji vechukitta?," he would reply. He didn't take me seriously, but see where he is now.
What about the people and the place?
I've mentioned this before. I met a woman living with her family of four in a 6x6ft house. She was washing clothes inside the house in the same place where they would eat and sleep. But she was happy, and this taught me a lot. Usually, working in a film teaches you a lot about acting or filmmaking, but Kaaka Muttai changed my perception of life. More than as an actor, it helped me as a person.
That was during the filmmaking process. But the decision to play a mother of two so early on in your career must have been a tough one.
I struggled a lot to start getting roles in the first place. Even though my appa was an actor, he passed away when I was eight. So, I had no one to tell me about the film world and how to go about things here. When Mani offered this role, it really confused me. I didn't want to do such a de-glam role so early on and I didn't want to play the mother of a boy who was almost as tall as me. Though I declined it at first, I never forgot about the role. I kept thinking about it, and a month later, I went back to Mani and said I would do it. But then he said, don't do it. "I want someone who is sure of it, because if the film doesn't run, you'll not get movies after that," he said. Instead of his film, here was this guy who was watching out for me. He was so genuine, and I knew I was in safe hands after that. And I'm glad I agreed, because I got my Malayalam films and my Hindi film because of Kaaka Muttai.
How old were you when you decided to play this middle-aged woman?
You can't call her middle-aged because a lot of women I saw there were young mothers. Even if they were 25, some of them would have two kids. When I was doing the film, I was just 22 but I had to play a character that was in her early 30s. I had to put dirt under my nails and my hair needed to look unkempt. Not exactly the look I had dreamt about (laughs).
But apart from the external, there was this genuine tiredness to your face throughout the film. The face of someone with a sense of resignation. It's like your character wants to give her kids everything but she's simply not able to.
That's the beauty of that character. People still refer to me as the mother from Kaaka Muttai even though mine's actually just a supporting role to the two boys. In the film, she doesn't even have a name. She is just amma. Yet, we all see bits of our own mother in her.
In the Tedx talk, you spoke so beautifully about your mother's struggle to raise you and your brothers. Did she inspire your performance in this film?
I didn't want to speak about my journey until now, because I didn't want people to think I was fishing for sympathy. And perception is everything in our world today. So, I wanted to reach a certain level of success and independence before I spoke about these things.
After my father's demise, my mother sold saris, worked as an LIC agent and dealt in real estate to put us through good schools. Just when things were looking up, my elder brother passed away. Two years later, my second brother died. It destroyed our family and my mother had to fight through that pain. And, she wasn't even formally educated. Even today, she hasn't accepted that she has lost her two sons. We don't speak about them at home because that makes my mother really emotional. I haven't even hung their photos in our new home to avoid people asking us about them. I don't want to explain everything but almost every mother from that generation has sacrificed so much. And I've grown up seeing that, so it's only natural that her reflection seeps into my performance when I play a single mother.
What does she say about your performances now?
She loves them. She has seen my films at least 10 times each. She watched Kanaa for the 25th time, and she was like, "Enough. You've done everything." She has that perumai and she's happy…finally. But that LIC agent in her is still alive. When we were shooting for Namma Vettu Pillai, she was trying to sell a policy to Sivakarthikeyan. I joke about it now, but it was that income from LIC that sent us to good schools.
Do you always draw from your life for performances?
I do when I can. I grew up in a slum behind the housing board in T Nagar, so I know what life there was like. So when we were shooting in Saidapet, it's not alien to me at all. In Vaanam Kottattum, for instance, the role of Mangai is practically me. I behave just like her, and my relationship with my brother is similar to the one I share with Vikram Prabhu in the film. But in Namma Vettu Pillai, I was actually crying in that scene where I talk about my older brother. In my head, I was thinking of how different my life would have been, had he been around. But not all films present you with that scope.
Can you give me an example?
Kanaa is one. Beyond a film about a girl wanting to make it in cricket, it is essentially a father-daughter story. But I only have very few memories of my father, that too from when I was just a kid. I recall an evening when it was just me and him at home. My mother had gone to Coimbatore and my brothers were in their hostel. In that house in T Nagar, water would seep in each time it rained. On that day, he had to carry me all the way to my aunt's house to make sure I didn't get scared. I would not walk, and would act like a jolt of current passed through me if my feet touched the ground. Now, I have this memory but I don't know what the love of a father feels like. So, when Sathyaraj sir is playing my father, it's just me trying to stitch together whatever memories I have left onto him to make me feel like he's my dad. Like he's back. Movies give you a chance to do that.
Were these the kind of roles you wanted when you got started?
Not entirely, but I remember dreaming about being able to do roles like what Urvashi maam does. She is funny but she's also innocent. I love the bold roles Manorama amma used to do. Apart from these, I was a huge fan of Simran. I still think there's no role she cannot do. Even a role like Shalini's in Alaipayuthey was a dream. But I still haven't done a love story yet. And time's running out to do one (laughs).
Did you always have as much clarity about your roles and your career as you do now?
No no. I was really dumb then. I knew nothing, and it's been a long process to get here. I didn't know to choose a script. I've even suggested other heroines for scripts that came my way. Good female-oriented scripts are coming now, but it took a lot of time. Strangely, I also keep getting offered caste-based films, but I've always rejected them.
You said that your initial phase was filled with a lot of pain and rejection…
I've been rejected for my complexion several times. People said very hurtful things to me. I was even asked to not even try. But, honestly, there's no bitterness. I was trying to get the heroine's role and I didn't even know how to apply lipstick. I also wasn't such a great actor no? So I can't blame them. I too have made mistakes. From that to people writing films for me…it takes time but it really does happen.