20 years of Trisha: How life comes full circle with Kundavai and ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Trisha looks back at completing two decades in films, some of her iconic characters, and on Kundavai in Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus being a ‘woman of today set in the 10th century’

Updated - August 29, 2023 04:58 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2022 09:09 am IST

Trisha as the Chola princess Kundavai in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Trisha as the Chola princess Kundavai in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

A few weeks back, a short video clip from 2000 suddenly went viral on Twitter; that of a teenage Trisha — fresh from being crowned Miss Chennai — appearing on a talk show hosted by actor Yugi Sethu. 

A 12th grader at Church Park, Trisha, who was all of 17 back then, looks aghast when asked about films. “No, no, not all! That is not my cup of tea. I’m going to stick to modelling at most; I’m very sure I won’t get into acting.”

22 years and 50-odd films later, she is most amused when reminded of that first interview. “That really was my state of mind. My family wasn’t keen on me setting foot into the film industry. In fact, that was their only condition when I started modelling; that I shouldn’t become an actor. This just goes to show how the best laid plans…” Trisha grins.

Today, she has sustained two decades in films as a leading actor with proven mettle and box-office success across languages. From her debut in Mounam Pesiyadhe (2002) opposite Suriya, to now headlining Mani Ratnam’s all-star cast of Ponniyin Selvan (2022), Trisha’s really been there and done it all. 

Trisha with her co-star Karthi at the ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ audio launch

Trisha with her co-star Karthi at the ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ audio launch

Her ubiquitous popularity still persists. Most recently, the PS-1 launch saw the star make her first public appearance in years — though she is sporadically active online — which was greeted buoyantly by fans. “I still value a certain level of privacy, and I’m very old-school when it comes to my social media interactions. It’s good to have a platform to voice out my opinions, but I really don’t feel I’m a very good influencer or anything. My film promotions or endorsements expect me to post once in a while... besides those commitments, I think it’s good for actors to maintain a certain element of mystery about their lives, no?” 

From ‘Aayutha Ezhuthu’ to ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’ into the world of Mani Ratnam

On to her latest project then; it’s been 18 years since Trisha first worked with Mani Ratnam, but the actor says there always remains a “certain aura” about the filmmaker that nothing can diminish.

“Working with him or Kamal sir is like going to basic school for cinema. It’s just something that fulfills your career trajectory, irrespective of what else you have accomplished. Mani sir has become calmer, yes, but his passion for the medium hasn’t changed at all. Every day is day one for him, and he makes you also get into that groove. Ponniyin Selvan was shot during peak pandemic, with all of us wearing masks and suits, before being vaccinated, and living in a bubble. But nothing could dampen his excitement,” she recalls.

Trisha adds, “Even though I just finished the two Ponniyin... films with Mani sir, I’d be ecstatic to work with him again. This film is his baby through and throughout, and I’m honoured he chose me.”

Her enthusiasm was evident at the film’s audio launch, where she and Siddharth ensured that Arjun-Meera from Aayutha Ezhuthu remains etched in our minds with their impromptu Yaakai Thiri jamming session. 

Trisha and Siddharth at the event

Trisha and Siddharth at the event

“It was a goosebumps moment that felt straight out of a music concert! We love Rahman sir and I totally went into that zone from the minute he started performing. I didn’t even realise how excited I was, until I saw the pictures and videos from the event the next morning.”

She says that even before she signed the project, Ponniyin… had been a big part of her life. “Thanks to my mom and grandmom who are avid fans of the novel, and were rooting for me to get cast as Kundhavai when the film adaptation was announced.” 

“Mani sir actually asked me to stop reading the books — I was in the middle of them — before coming onto set. He didn’t want me to start shooting with any preconceived expectations of what my character would be like. Think of it like the Harry Potter books and movies; fans love both, but there are obviously differences between the two, and portions that haven’t been filmed. PS is exactly like that, Mani sir’s loose adaptation of the five volumes by Kalki. We have chosen what we think will work for audiences in today’s time and age; so please don’t compare the movies to the novel.”

Kundavai, up close and personal

In the two-part film series, the actor takes on the role of Kundavai, also known as Ilaiya Piratti, who is the Chola princess and daughter of Emperor Sundara Chola. Touted as one of the central protagonists around whom the entire plot revolves, Kundavai is as important as (if not more than) the male characters, and Trisha says she’s actually a “person of today set in those times.”

Trisha as Kundavai and Vikram as Aaditha Karikalan in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

Trisha as Kundavai and Vikram as Aaditha Karikalan in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

“She’s an incredibly progressive character; someone who is an integral part of the administration of the kingdom, but can’t ascend the throne because she’s a woman. At the same time, she’s not a rebel, but only wants the best for her family and people, so there are several layers to her. I could relate to some parts of her for sure. Women empowerment and gender equality are such oft-discussed topics now, but it was unheard of back in the Chola era. Now imagine the king (played by Prakash Raj) going to his daughter for advice? Him giving her the autonomy to make decisions? If you’re watching House of Dragon currently, you’ll know what I’m talking about,” she quips.

Trisha on how the film industry has evolved in the last 20 years:
To use the cliched ‘pan-Indian’ expression, it is true that today streaming platforms and films operate parallelly. That’s why I accepted my first web-series, even though I was really apprehensive about it initially. 
Tamil cinema too, has really upped its game over the years. Audiences are now accepting of heroine-oriented films, roles are being written for women, and heroes give female leads equal space. There is no concept of ‘shelf life’ anymore, and I feel lucky that we have such a huge body of work to choose from. If I had entered the industry 40 years ago, would I have managed to stay afloat for 20 years? I don’t think so.
Take even big superstar-driven movies like Vikram; every single person had a role to play in it. I like the fact that we still have such mass films that can bring people to the theatres to whistle and clap. That’s cinema to me, and it never should be taken away.

Trisha and Mani Ratnam worked extensively on developing the character’s personality, looks and costumes (“hair and make-up took four hours everyday,” she sighs), but the most nerve-wracking part was getting the diction of the senn Tamil dialogues right.

“I’m not even going to sugarcoat it… as someone who didn’t grow up speaking too much Tamil at home, even regular ‘Chennai Tamil’ took me a while to get right after I became an actor. But the dialogues in Ponniyin... were a whole different challenge. I worked on it for three months, just going to Mani sir’s office and reading all day long. So by the time the shoot began, the dialogues and pronunciation were etched in my mind. Plus, we had several tutors helping us out, and working with so many veterans came in handy. We all worked double shifts, and though we didn’t sleep at all, being part of a multi-starrer like this was so much fun.”

Kundavai’s epic face-off with Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is set to be one for the ages; how did Trisha and her co-star decide to play it? “This is where reading the book came in handy, as we already have an idea of the characters’ backgrounds. All of us actors sat together, while Mani sir gave us his take on how they would confront each other. You won’t see Kundavai and Nandini pull out their swords or engage in shouting matches. They remain stoic and stone-faced in appearance and posture, but the conversations are hard-hitting and brutal,” Trisha explains.

The actor says that the most nerve-wracking part of the shoot was getting the diction of the senn Tamil dialogues right

The actor says that the most nerve-wracking part of the shoot was getting the diction of the senn Tamil dialogues right

Jessie, Jaanu and beyond

So Kundavai has the potential to become as iconic as the likes of Jessie (Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa) or Jaanu (‘96)? “You can’t predict it at all! Those characters became popular well after the films were released. You really have to let the audience decide. But somewhere I’ve started believing sentimentally, that when I don’t end up with the hero and it ends in unrequited love, the film does well,” she laughs.

Ghilli. Saamy. Unakkum Enakkum. Abhiyum Naanum. Yennai Arindhaal. Kodi. Ask her which character she relates to the most from her biggest hits, and Trisha pauses for a minute. “Obviously, some of my more urban characters, but there’s definitely a bit of myself in any role I play. Having said that, I wouldn’t live my life like Jessie or Jaanu. I wouldn’t listen to my parents, end my relationship, and marry someone else. I’d always fight for the love of my life,” she says breezily. 

Trisha with Gautham Menon on the sets of ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’

Trisha with Gautham Menon on the sets of ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’

Currently working on a Telugu web-series, a crime thriller titled Brinda, Trisha says she’d be open to a VTV encore too — especially after Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn — but… “When it comes to people like Mani sir or Gautham Menon, I don’t even question them. I’m sure Gautham will do a fantastic job with the sequel, and I’d absolutely be game for it. But if you ask me personally, do I want to see Karthik and Jessie get together? I’m not sure, maybe they should be left alone.”

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