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Thursday, January 11, 2001

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Power-packed performer

SHE HAS unconventional looks and an avant garde histrionic style, but she definitely is an actress of substance who comes up with power packed performances. That's stage and film actress S. S. Kalairani for you. (Kalai for short and appropriately named so). Showing promise at a very young age Kalairani, an avid cinema buff, was the entertainer doing perfect take offs on MGR, Nagesh etc. in between classes. Spotting her talent, her parents sent her to the Film Institute, Chennai. Though Kalai wanted to study editing, she enrolled for the acting course with cold feet. "When I was outside the Institute I never thought acting was a big deal" but once inside the Institute, she was riddled with fears and doubts if she was "right" for films. So she decided to study at the Adyar Music college and completed a course in Cosmetology.

It was her friend, actor Nasser who convinced her that the canvas was wide for an actress and suggested she could try theatre instead of films. At his insistence she went to Koothu-p- Pattarai. She almost backed out "on hearing their screams and shouts on stage" but she was persuaded to try one play. Kalai made her debut with "Kattiyakaran", written by Na Muthusamy, a play which went for the South Zone festival.

She featured in other Koothu-p-Pattarai productions like "Vellai Vattam" and "Guruvamma" and in 1988, joined them full-time once they started their Repertory group. But it is with solo performances that Kalai really came into her own. And the seed for this was sown by danseuse Veenpani Chawla with whom Kalai worked on a network programme. "We had planned to do something on Draupadi. I was rather diffident about a solo work." Borrowing movements from Silambam, a form of martial art and stringing together a series of expressions worked out through theatre exercises, Kalai put together a graphic account of a woman struggling to overcome self-doubt and emerging as Shakti or Kali incarnate. This later evolved into another solo work titled "Penn". Soon director G Hartman De Souza who saw "Draupadi" asked her to work with him in "Song of Lowino", one of her best known works to date. In "Song of Lowino", an adaptation of the poem by the Ugandan poet, Okot P. Bitek, Kalai stunned the audiences with an intense and emotion charged performance.

Next came "Varugalamo ayya", a padam by Gopalakrishna Bharathi describing the yearning of Nandanar to see Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram, imaginatively adapted to theatre. "I was very heartened when other artistes said they got a lot of images from my presentation. Solo performances give me the chance to check my own energy. To direct myself I have to be more disciplined" says Kalai. She performed the piece in varied locations - a quarry, a pond, a field, just to prove that theatre artistes can use any space.

After five years of hibernation her latest solo work in progress is "Ezhindiri" which is about the mind being willing but the body not cooperating. Meanwhile, she has worked in several Koothu-p- Pattarai productions and recently graduated to films. She has, meanwhile, used the long gap to do research and think about her project. On "Ezhindiri" she notes, "Unless I wake up, I can't think of society. There was something inside me that was sleeping and needed to be woken up. I feel like a Plus Two student who is yet to graduate. I prefer doing a little at a time. I am often asked why I haven't done a solo in a long time. Even talking to friends is like a performance."

Describing the creative process, she says, "For `Varugalamo Ayya' I was given ten days time. I slept for four days because I didn't know what to do. Then I started going to the beach to do my voice exercises and just as the sun would set, I would sing `Varugalamo Ayya.' Then for three days the sun just vanished into the clouds. On the fourth day, the joy of seeing the sun after a gave me fresh ideas."

Of her foray into films she says, "I studied film and when I wanted to do films I didn't get opportunities and so I took to theatre. And when I wasn't looking for films, I started getting offers". She has featured in Nasser's "Devathai" while she played Arjun's mother in "Mudhalvan". Currently, she is also playing Madhavan's mother in "Dum Dum Dum", Mani Ratnam's Madras Talkies production, directed by Azhagar Perumal. Other noteworthy roles include "Ennavale" directed by Suresh Krissna in which she played Sneha's mother, "Kutti", an art film directed by Janaki, "Karuvellam Pookal" in which she played a woman agent who scouts for child labour and "Azad" (a Telugu film) directed by Tirupati Swamy, in which she played Nagarjuna's mother.

Her style has evolved over the years partly influenced by the people she has worked with. "In theatre, the approach is to usually pour out one's heart and soul into the role and overplay. But Anmol Vellani of the India Foundation for the Arts (with whom she worked in productions like "England", "Macbeth" etc) told me to feel what I am doing and render the dialogues musically. Once I did that, my speech pattern changed. While earlier there was a lot of movement, I learnt to sit in one place and talk to the audience."

"I realise how challenging cinema is, now. We get to practise for a month for plays, but cinema is on-the-spot creativity." Kalai also helps out in management workshops for corporates and teachers where she handles theatre exercises. "Workshops are very exciting. I present exercises that I learnt in a certain way and when it gives them something more than I intended, it makes me happy."

But working with children is something that is close to her heart. Not long ago, she worked with corporation school children and helped them produced a street play on issues such as education of the girl child and a clean environment. Working with children keeps my energy levels high.

Experimental productions (lending voice for dancers), helping backstage with make-up are all in a day's work for Kalai. "I'm not apologetic about being an actress though some actresses feel that way. To me it is a job that I do and something that interests me."


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