Rohini talks to Baradwaj Rangan about life as an actor, dubbing artist, television host, social worker and mother

Some heroines slip into glamorous careers that require them to smile through pancake-painted faces and wear tiny, tight dresses and look good on the hero's arm, while others are drawn to the more gratifying job of embodying life as we know it. Rohini, at first, challenges this notion, arguing that no actress arrives with the ambition of being arm candy, that everyone wants to be taken seriously, that everyone wants to be appreciated.

And then she softens her stance. “Frankly, it's all decided on one's looks. I'm not very tall, not very fair, not very beautiful in the glam-heroine sense.” This is not an outburst of self-pity; simply a statement of unvarnished fact, backed by the quiet confidence of having been groomed into the kind of actress who is approached when the part cannot be played by just anyone. You could call her brain candy.

The men who groomed Rohini were the great directors of Malayalam cinema, “men who recognised that part of me, men like Padmarajan, Sibi Malayil, Bharathan, Sethumadhavan. In Malayalam cinema, the preoccupation of an actor is ‘what I do' and not ‘how I look.' And when I started doing Tamil films, that's what I sought out.”

As an example, she doesn't offer “Marubadiyum”, perhaps her best-known dramatic role, but “Magalir Mattum”, a comedy where she played a maidservant “without a second thought. It never crossed my mind that I was playing a non-glamorous character.” If the decision to take the part was easy, playing it was easier. “I have grown up around these women and that's all I needed to play the part. It was such fun.” She says she's not one for reaching deep inside for emotional memories. She also says, with a smile that betrays the barest hint of embarrassment, that she loves watching herself on screen.

Rohini became an actor by accident. It was her father, Apparao Naidu, who dreamt of stardom, and when he called on a director who was planning a mythological named “Yashoda Krishna”, the latter's eyes fell not on the adult but the five-year-old child in tow — the director had found his Krishna. The film was a huge hit and an unforeseen career was launched.

“I hated being on the sets,” says Rohini. But she kept getting offers, and Apparao Naidu continued to realise his dreams through his daughter. “I used to ask him why I was doing this. I wanted to go to school, to college,” she says. He replied that she could study privately, but not many people got this opportunity, not many people were as talented. “He really believed I was a special child,” says Rohini, as if absolving her father of blame for a childhood denied. “Today I think I got the best education possible, in the field I was destined to be in.”

Rohini's parallel career, as a dubbing artist, was also an accident. An associate of Mani Ratnam suggested her name when the director was looking for a voice for the heroine of “Geetanjali”. She has, since, voiced six characters in five of his films, with Aishwarya Rai in “Iruvar” providing two parts to dub over.

“All of them sound different,” Rohini says. This isn't a boast — merely her delight in the process. “‘Geetanjali' was the raw me. That's exactly who I was then.” But by the time “Bombay” happened, Rohini was able to situate herself inside a married woman with twin children. “What comes out is not designed,” Rohini says. “I discover new things about the way my voice emotes. Every time I dub I am waiting for that surprise.”

Still, after “Geetanjali,” Rohini had no plans of continuing to lend her voice to other women's faces, and when a young filmmaker named Ram Gopal Varma wanted her to dub for the heroine in his first film, “Shiva,” she said no because she did not want to be branded a dubbing artist. “They said he was different, but I wasn't convinced,” she says. “I was so arrogant that I said I wanted to watch the film.” Two or three reels in, she knew they weren't exaggerating and that she'd become Amala's voice.

She has dubbed, since, for Shankar and Gautham Menon, “more directors I've not worked with as an actor,” and she says they've all taught her something and that the experience of dubbing has helped her performances on screen.

Rohini has led a busy life with only two extended breaks. The first came when she was about 12, too old to play the child of on-screen parents and too young to pass off as heroine. During that time off, she qualified for admission to fifth standard. “At the beginning, I did not know how to write a sentence,” she says. By the end of the year, her father knew she was good enough to sit for seventh-standard entrance exams.

The next year, however, Rohini was back on the sets, this time as the heroine of “Kakka”, opposite her future husband Raghuvaran. (Later, she completed her matriculation, and she is currently doing an M.A. in English.) The second break came after her marriage, which ended when the couple decided to separate.

“I was getting back into films after a long time,” says Rohini, “and I got the offer to host the TV show ‘Kelvigal Aayiram', which dealt with issues close to my heart.” In her latest show on television, ‘Rohini's Box Office', she reviews the latest releases with the empathy and the understanding of a long-time insider.

“A lot of money and effort and aspiration go into the making of a film,” she says. “No one starts out wanting to make a bad film. It just doesn't work out sometimes, and I am only interested in pointing out how it can be better. What do you do when a child fails? You don't condemn him and throw him out. You encourage him so that he will not make the same mistake the next time. A review should be healthy.”

Somewhere in between, Rohini squeezes out time for social work, which she is enthusiastic about and which began when someone invited her to participate in a blood donation programme, “because film stars bring about more awareness. I saw people who were not just talking about issues but actually doing something. They are the real heroes and heroines.” Reading about issues and rallying to implement them take up a lot of her time between shoots, but at some point Rohini switches off and heads home to her 13-year-old son Rishi.

“Sometimes my child needs to be with me,” she says and then laughs at the realisation that perhaps she's the one who needs to be with him. “He's gotten to a point where he hates me looking over his shoulder.” Rishi is a normal kid whose life, now, is very different from the life his mother led at his age. “But I'm happy with the way I've turned out,” she says. “If the things that happened to me hadn't happened, I would not be the person I am today.”

Keywords: RohiniKollywood