A few days ago, during the pre-release event of the Telugu film Virata Parvam, produced by and starring Rana Daggubati, the sudden downpour did not dither the crowds that had gathered in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. They chanted lead actor Sai Pallavi’s name and stayed put till she addressed them, as Rana held an umbrella to shield her from the rain. This outpouring of love is not new to Pallavi. It has steadily increased with every film since Premam (Malayalam, 2015) and Fidaa (Telugu, 2016). Early this year when she was a chief guest for the pre-release event of the Telugu film Aadavallu Meeku Johaarlu in Hyderabad, the rousing welcome she received prompted director Sukumar to call her ‘lady Power Star’ (Pawan Kalyan). A few industry colleagues reckon that she is “everyone’s favourite”.
Sai Pallavi takes in all this admiration with gratitude. During this interview in Hyderabad days before the release of Virata Parvam on June 17, she says, “When people express their love, I am overwhelmed and grateful. There are times when women who are my mother’s age come and hold my hands at the airport and tell me how much they like my work. It moves me to tears. But I don’t let that feeling linger. I get back home and lead a normal life.”
The Coimbatore-bred Pallavi did not envision all this when she entered the cinema. Neither did she choose her projects — in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam — with the spotlight in mind: “I chose projects instinctively and with a sense of individuality. I genuinely need to like the script to put forth my best. When people like my work, it becomes a validation.”
Indie film vibe
She came aboard Virata Parvam, a drama based on true events in Telangana of the 1990s during the Naxalite movement, when it was presented to her by writer-director Venu Udugula as a raw, realistic film: “I have enjoyed watching a few indie films and this project had that vibe. The film grew bigger when Rana stepped in.”
One of the film’s promotional posters features her hugging a faceless writer (Rana). In the film, her title card will precede that of Rana. It is a rare gesture in the male-centric film industry. Pallavi credits it to Rana. “His gesture comes from a place of security. In the early stages, when Venu garu told him that no one had been signed to play the writer, Ravanna, and that heroes hesitate to take up such a part, Rana came forward to do it. On the first day I met him, he told me that chivalry was not dead. He has lived up to it. I will never forget how he held the umbrella as I addressed the audience in Kurnool. I have met a lot of people but there are very few like him. Alongside Virata Parvam, he has also been promoting the Kannada film 777 Charlie, which he is presenting in Telugu. He just wants to be part of good cinema.”
Did you know?
In 2013, on International Women’s Day, Shah Rukh Khan pledged to credit the female lead’s name before his in the credits in his films. He made the move with Chennai Express when Deepika Padukone’s name appeared first.
Pallavi plays Vennela, a girl who is besotted with the writings of Ravanna (Rana), whom she has not yet met. She embarks on an adventurous journey. “I used to wonder if Vennela is crazy. I am not a social person and do not interact with many people. It is through films that I understand and enact varied characters. Venu garu’s writing fascinated me and I realised that had I been in Vennela’s shoes, I might have done what she did.”
Pallavi looked at video clippings of people who were part of the Naxal movement to know their points of view: “We use social media to raise small grievances, even if we are unhappy with a restaurant. For us, it is tough to understand why people formed groups and fought with conviction for what they believed in.”
Virata Parvam has a talented cast — Nandita Das, Priyamani, Zareena Wahab, Easwari Rao, Saichand and Rahul Ramakrishna. Pallavi emphasises that each of them contribute to the film in the form of powerful characters. “I never thought I would get to work with so many talented actors in one film. I liked the innocence with which Rahul Ramakrishna portrayed his part and Nandita garu’s part comes from a place of power and she befits it.”
Seven years since Premam, with a career that includes projects such as Fidaa, Diya, Maari 2, NGK, Love Story, Shyam Singha Roy and the poignant Paava Kadhaigal in between, Pallavi is a name to reckon with. Does she choose projects with an intent of looking back with pride at, say, 60? “That would be nice,” she says and puts forth a wish — that more filmmakers would have worthwhile characters for women of all ages in Indian cinema: “Stories are written for Meryl Streep in Hollywood. In Hindi cinema, it was so good to see what Neena Gupta ma’am got to do in Badhaai Ho. I grew up watching Tamil cinema and wanted to see more of Jyothika ma’am and Simran ma’am, which is happening now. I wish more such projects would get made. When I see Malayalam films such as Home or Kumbalangi Nights, I am filled with joy that characters, not heroes, shine through.”
Post Virata Parvam, Pallavi looks forward to the Tamil film Gargi directed by Gautham Ramachandran, glimpses of which were revealed recently to coincide with her birthday. “I am proud to be a part of the film because of what it speaks about. I am not allowed to reveal the details now, but I can say that I wish men, women and children would watch it.”
Then there is the project produced by Kamal Haasan, co-starring Siva Karthikeyan, and directed by Rajkumar Periasamy. When she talks about what it means to act in a Kamal Haasan production, from having grown up watching his films, Pallavi recalls a childhood moment: “I remember my mother telling me that there are 64 arts (as specified in ancient Tamil texts). I loved to dance and wanted to learn to play the veena like my mom. Come to think of it, Kamal sir is an expert in so many forms of art. When I met him, it was humbling to just be in his presence. I try to be as neutral as possible when I meet such remarkable people so that I can learn from them.”
She watched the actor’s latest filmVikram, accompanied by her sister: “As an actor, when I watch a film I try to second guess the story. In Vikram’s case, it was three hours of entertainment. My sister and I screamed when the identities of the agents were revealed. I liked Kamal sir, Vijay Sethupathi and the mature romance between Fahadh Faasil and Gayathri. I walked out of the theatre satisfied that I had watched a good film.”