Sekhar Kammula, Vetri Maaran, Alphonse Putharen And Sameer Thahir: Sai Pallavi On The Directors Who Moulded Her
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Sai Pallavi has been receiving much praise for her turn as Sumathi in Vetri Maaran’s Oor Iravu segment of Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal. In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, she speaks about how her directors have influenced her performances. Excerpts.

What was Vetri Maaran’s process on the sets of Paava Kadhaigal?

He was a very cool man, surprisingly. I imagined him to be intense and have everything sorted. I was very nervous when I walked into the sets the first day, because I literally didn’t know anything, we just knew the outline. So I asked him, ‘Sir, what are we doing? I’m in my costume and I don’t have the dialogues’. He said, ‘Let’s sit and discuss’. And I said, ‘Sir, but I need dialogues’, and he said, ‘Just call it uraiyaadal’ (conversation). 

Because I’m working with Prakash Raj sir, and he gets it in a second, I wanted to be prepared. He didn’t give me that time, so the first day was a little scary. It was scary because he (Vetri) was too cool. And suddenly he’d say something, someone would write it down and give it to me saying, ‘Shot ready’. 

Vetri sir doesn’t tell you what he wants, he’ll narrate the premise and this is what’s going to happen, and tell you to go on and do whatever you feel like. Sometimes, after doing a few shots I’d go and tell him what I could do better. He hasn’t seen my films except for Premam. I’d tell him, ‘I can cry better’, and he’d say, ‘The emotions came through enough, and don’t try after this’. We shot the portion in the village first and then moved to Bengaluru. I was already emotional from the baggage from previous scenes, and the minute dad (Prakash Raj) walked in, I started to cry. That is when Vetri sir came in and said ‘I don’t want you to do this right now, because people are watching, they’ll never know what’s coming’. He’s like that, he doesn’t interfere with what we do and our expressions. He only did that just once or twice.

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What about Sameer Thahir in Kali?

He’s very cool, he was afraid for me when we did that one scene where the antagonist [Chemban Vinod Jose] knocks on the car’s window. I felt that scene, because we would have had such encounters from the past. I felt that I was a tiny person overpowered by someone, so I tried to bring it out at that moment, and it became too much and they thought they should cut. After that was over, Sameer ikka said, ‘I feel bad bringing a small girl here and torturing her. There are men all around her. I’m so uncomfortable’. So, he’s sensitive when it comes to me. I think he was more considerate about how I felt. It was my second film, and a year after Premam. I was still this naive kid watching and going around. He was protective of me and tried to bring out my best without exerting a lot of pressure.

What about Alphonse Puthren in Premam?

Alphonse is crazy, you won’t know when, what is rolling. Nivin and I would be talking and he’d say let’s go to the next location. He’ll go put us there and do a take and say let’s go to the next location. He’s not someone who has everything figured out and needs to go by the book. He goes by what inspires him at that time. He saw the butterfly and followed that. He’s more like a child. There’s a part of him that communicates with Nature, and he’s very receptive to what’s going on around him that he tries to draw to him. 

Even with the expressions, we’ll be talking and he’ll know what will induce that. For example in the scene where I say, ‘Shirt nalla irukku’, he corrected me that it is a kurta. I ended up saying, ‘Sorry, kurta’. He okayed it and moved on. I told him I’d made a mistake. He said ‘I like mistakes. I like it when you make the mistakes and it’s not the dialogue I gave you’. 

When he met me first, he asked me what my talents were. He knew I was a dancer, and he asked me to sing and cry. I tried very hard to cry, I was under a lot of pressure. I hadn’t acted before and don’t know how it worked. I tried something and one tear came out of me, and he said, ‘You know Pallavi, personal advice, never cry in movies’. In the next film [Kali], I cried throughout. He must have thought I never took his advice. 

5 Years of premam sai pallavi nivin pauly malar

And finally, Sekhar Kammula. 

Sekhar garu is more than a director to me. He’s shaped the way I look at life right now, at least in the work environment. When I’m in a difficult situation, I usually walk out of it. He taught me to fight for what is right. He taught me to be a woman on the sets of Fidaa. Otherwise, I was this gullible little child walking around, and I don’t know how it happens, because on the sets I’m always the child. On any set, even if there’s someone younger than me, they think I’m younger. Sekhar garu taught me to stand for my rights even if appears unprofessional. If you think someone has hurt your sentiments, you need to put it across, and if they do not accept it, you need to wait for an apology. He said this so many times. 

There was an instance. A caravan has two sides and you’re sharing it with another actor. Varun is pretty tall  and needs the bigger side. But once, I had to change into a sari and there was no space in my caravan. The person draping it for me was literally standing on the steps. I went to Sekhar garu and said, ‘You give me something that is equal, because Varun also needs the caravan. There’s one person going to the restroom, one going down to the steps, it’s uncomfortable. Or, can you give me a room. Don’t put me in a spot where I think I’m less’.

He said, ‘If you feel this way, don’t get dressed. Put on your clothes and sit here until you have another caravan. I don’t want you feeling this way. The set will wait and it’s okay’. Sekhar garu has always spoken for equal rights, so when I asked him why he’s so different. He said, ‘Sometimes, when you give both people equal importance, the other person feels that they’re given less’. In society, men get the bigger role. May be, because they stay in the industry longer. I don’t know how it all works. I was new to the industry and he educated me. And the best part is I worked with actors who gave me the bigger space. 

When Varun got to know about this, he said he’d like to swap rooms and that he doesn’t want me to go through this. He didn’t think twice. I worked with the best heroes and directors, but sometimes, you come across a stray incident, but you have Sekhar garu, Varun and Rana. They have all made me comfortable, so that’s why I’m able to talk about it confidently right now.

I’m glad you said this, because this quality of Sekhar is in his films. 

Yeah, and what shocked me more was that it was not just because I’m his actor. There were two costume designers who did brilliant work, but for some reason there was some kind of rift.  Generally, the crew gets paid by the end of the film. But they said they would not give costumes until they were paid, because they needed the money. Sekhar garu should have been afraid, because we would not have been able to shoot. But, he said, ‘I applaud them. I can’t believe these girls did it, I salute them’. I realised this is how he feels about  everyone.  His set is the only set where I’ve seen more women working. We have six to seven women working, and that is huge.

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