Swati Reddy, two films old in Malayalam, says the language is a challenge

The shoot of North 24 Kaatham is on near a temple. In the scene, Nedumudi Venu, Swati Reddy and Fahadh Faasil, mingle with a small girl. Painstaking silence is ripped apart by the devotional song that bursts out of the temple speakers. It appears to be business as usual for the cast until Swati breaks into the bhajan mode leaving director Anil Radhakrishnan Menon in splits. Effervescence is characteristic Swati. She gave much of it to the spunky Shoshanna she became in Amen.

After her lyrical debut in Malayalam, Swati is firm-footedly playing Narayani in North 24 Kaatham. But, success and experience, she asserts, do not lighten her task. For the urban, Telugu girl to be working in a language she doesn’t know and portraying the intricacies of a culture she is unfamiliar with is a complex challenge. “It is terrible,” she jokes. “Acting in Malayalam keeps me on my toes. I don’t sleep and breathe properly until I go back.”

Swati strives to tide over limitations by being studious at work. She recalls pestering Amen’s director Lijo Jose Pellissery for her dialogues well in advance. She is glad to have got a bound script of North 24 Kaatham before the shoot. Getting to know her words is Swati’s golden key into her character and the film’s timbre. About Shoshanna she says, “I am not a Christian Malayali girl. I have no idea what magical realism is, nor the chatta-mundu. I am an emotional person. I am on a high when I get my lines right.”

Swati came on board North 24 Kaatham a trifle late, after another actress withdrew from the film. But Swati says that it has not eaten into her preparation time. Films are destiny. “Lot of films are destined like that. It goes through a process before the eventual casting happens,” she says.

With her latest Malayalam movie, Swati travels a journey diametrically away from Amen. IfShoshanna was rich, spoilt and rustic, Narayani happens at another level. “Shoshanna was almost like a period film heroine. Here, I just have to get up, go and be Nani. If Shoshanna was the guy in the relationship, Nani is more thoughtful, helpful and sweet. She doesn’t care about her hair or her clothes. She is bindass, a working class girl,” explains Swati.

However, the actor popular in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and now Kerala with well-remembered characters in here repertoire, from Subramaniapuram to Ashta Chamma, saysshe has never played a character that is close to the person she is. “I have not played a single character that is close to who I am. I am never as bindass as Narayani. A bit of me will be in every character I play, but that comes subconsciously.”

Swati’s touchstone to fame varies depending where she is. In Andhra she is still Colours Swati. For Tamil Nadu, she is Subramaniapuram Swati and here, for now, Amen Swati. In her hometown she continues to be known by the show she hosted on television as a teenager. “I was 16 then.” She is surprised by the enduring popularity of her first show. “It was 10 years ago and I did it just for a year, half an hour every Sunday. It was part of my childhood.” About the name that stayed on, she says, “Earlier I used to be embarrassed and frustrated about it. Then I grew indifferent. But now I am at peace with it. It did me good. It was not a scripted show and I interviewed stars like Chiranjeevi and Venkatesh. Actually, I am scared of that girl, she was so confident.”

As she stepped into films, Swati’s world changed. Despite early success and awards, her career went through a lull as she refused many roles. “I was saying ‘no’ constantly. I was being given either a Madurai girl or a Dindigul girl and Tulasi (Subramaniapuram) had drained me.” The wait for roles she desired was frustrating, but at the same time, it cleared her mind. “I got a lot of time to sort out my head. It gave me positive energy and helped me decide what I want.” Early experiences steeled her desire for films and with time she also knew why a “no” is taking so badly. “Cinema is a serious business where lot of time and money in invested. The stakes are high. I do not know why it is called the glamour industry, it is all about blood and sweat. Now I respect my job and at peace with it.”

Apart from North 24 Kaatham, Swati is part of a film each in Tamil and Telugu. As she flits from one industry to another, she says the bottom line remains the same — “A hit film or a flop film, that is the bitter truth.”