‘Acting is like breathing to me; how do I not breathe?’

Actress Sheela during an interaction with The Hindu Metro Plus in Kochi

Actress Sheela during an interaction with The Hindu Metro Plus in Kochi   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Veteran actor Sheela looks back on bygone times in cinema and her new role in ‘A for Apple’

Dressed in a green and gold Kanjivaram, jasmine in hair, bangles and nose pin, Sheela, ‘Sheelamma’ to her fans, sits listening, smilingly at her gushing fans. They tell her about their mothers being her fans, of watching Chemmeen and her other films.

Half a century, 56 years, under the arc lights sit lightly on her. “Convey my regards to your mother,” she tells her fan.

She is also tired, after a whole day of promoting A For Apple, “How things have changed! In the olden days there was nothing of this sort; you did your job and the film released. Now it is so much work...publicity was the posters. Earlier ₹2 lakh was a huge amount to spend on a film, today a ₹2 crore film is considered small budget,” she says laughing, in response to a question how the business had changed.

Equal pay

“The changes are many — technical advances have their advantages, also some very good stories are being told.” At a time when the conversation is about equal pay for women, it would come as a surprise that in her heyday she earned as much or more than her male colleagues. She was one of the busiest actors of her time, often leaving one set to get to the next. “Yes, that is true, I was paid as much. I don’t know how but that is how it was.”

The actor, who was awarded this year’s JC Daniel Award for her contribution to Malayalam cinema, made her début with the Tamil film Paasam opposite MG Ramachandran (MGR) in 1962. She made her Malayalam début the same year with Bhagyajathakam. By the time she took a break from films in the early 1980s, she had acted in more than 450-odd films, Telugu and Kannada included.

She returned in 2003 with Sathyan Anthikad’s Manassinakkare and in 2005 won the Kerala State Award for Best Actor (second) for Akale. Sheela had already been honoured with the Kerala State Award for best actor a few times earlier. Of her role in A for Apple, she says she plays grandmother to a young woman estranged from her family. “Nedumudi Venu is my on-screen husband. The film is one for the family; there is fun, suspense, drama, emotion...there is no melodrama.”

The Chennai-based thespian picks her roles solely based on her character, she says. “The character, first and foremost. Then whether the producer has it in him to see the film made. Films get canned because producers run out of money and interest in the film. The director matters, but the purse strings are in the producer’s hands.”

Way back in the 1970s she directed two films, Yakshagaanam (1976) and Sikharangal (1979), making her, possibly, the first woman to direct a feature film in Malayalam. She says it wasn’t difficult nor did she have any self doubt, neither were eyebrows raised. “By then I had been acting for a long time, so I had enough experience to direct a film.”

She has authored two books Pathamathe Cheque and Kuilinte Koodu (a collection of short stories). Will she be directing soon? “Let’s is too soon to commit. These days you need huge stars for a film to make an impact. It is not all that simple.”

Not limited by her role as actor, she is also a writer and an artist. So, if not an actor what would she be? “I have not thought about that...acting is like breathing to me and how do I not breathe?”

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 10:06:56 AM |

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