Kangana Ranaut plays late Tamil actor and five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, in Thalaivii, directed by AL Vijay and also starring Arvind Swami as MGR. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, she talks about how she puts a part of herself in each performance, the process of entering Jayalalitha's character, and what made Jayalalitha's strength unique. Edited Excerpts…
When I saw Gangster in Chennai when it was released, my mind just exploded. And it's continued over the years, through a series of your performances. Woh Lamhe is also an excellent performance of yours. It's as if you take a piece of your soul and give it to the audience. How do you do it every single time? Is it exhausting?
I think with every artform, say, even when you paint, a part of you has to come on the canvas. It's what makes it striking because there's a piece of someone there. Same thing with something as basic as embroidery. I think it is my job as an artist to indulge in the people I portray. That's also the fun of it. There's no other high to it. It's a difficult job. You have to be consistent and disciplined. And people judge you, say, if you are out of shape or if you look sleepy. I've been at it for fifteen years now.
Part of it is to find these various characters and be one with them. Some characters you feel superior to. Like the character in Judgemental Hai Kya; I can look at her and feel "poor her". And there are characters that are larger than life like Jaya Ma, or Rani of Jhansi. It's very awe-inspiring to blend into them. I always say that being an artist is such a gratifying job. In some traditions, we are worshipped — especially in Tamil cinema. For them, an artist and a work of art is deep-rooted in spirituality, so they still have that ancient approach to artists. Whether it be literally worshipping the grounds they walk on… because in the purest form they can rise to those heights.
I do get exhausted, there's no two ways about it. I get emotionally drained and need long breaks after my schedules. I do make some distance. I fall back on my family to remind me of where I left everything and I need to catch up on everyone and everything — and they helped me through that.
You've played a lot of strong women and Jayalalitha was a very, very strong woman. What aspect of her strength do you think was unique?
She was undoubtedly very strong. She had the strength of a thunderbolt harnessed within. She said that her emotions weren't for the public. She was an absolute introvert. Whatever plans she had for herself or even for you, you'd never know (laughs). So, that kind of subtle demeanour combined with that kind of ferocious power… she's not known for outbursts or threats or things that put her immediately in the list of the biggest feminists. She was subtle in her approach to everything, which is commendable.
Could you walk us through your process of entering Jayalalalitha's character, the mannerisms and the person herself — the act of possession?
It's a very personal process that I wouldn't recommend for anyone but the psychology of a character is very important to me. To know the missing link in their psyche to figure them out, put the dots together. What were their deep desires and what were their weaknesses? What were the soft points and strengths? It's a very psychological approach to begin with and it leads to the traits that are dominant in their personality. Even though I haven't studied much, I have a very scientific approach to my character. I don't like to dissect or talk about them because it's really disrespectful to anybody.
Having said that, your job is still not complete. It's just one percent of your job. You have to fall in love with the character and their deepest, darkest truths. You've got to love them more than yourself. And you find that you have manifested them in more ways than you would have thought. I think somewhere, you tap into a consciousness and that too guides you. I am a very spiritual person, it's actually uncomfortable, because there are so many kinds of minds online and they can twist these conversations to look gross. But I have a spiritual approach to my character. Eventually it's all about how deeply and dangerously you can love the characters that you play.