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Young and restless

Her background in street theatre helped, says Semmalar  

Two years ago, when we spoke to Semmalar Annam, a journalism and mass communication student in PSG College of Arts and Science, she was a young aspiring filmmaker and actress who was dreaming of making it big one day. Today, the 25-year-old is thrilled as her phone has not stopped ringing since the movie Ammani was released. She plays the frustrated daughter-in-law of the main character, Salamma , a hard-working government hospital worker.

Semmalar says she has watched the film many times in the theatre just to see the audience’s reaction to her performance. “I can’t get enough of it. Some have complemented me on my comic timing,” she says.

The film was shot in 30 days within a budget of Rs. one crore. It is a must-watch, feels Semmalar. “It is about sons and daughter who are in a mad rush to inherit the family wealth. Once they acquire it, they disown the parents.” A song, featuring a dream sequence of Salamma’s death, is one of her favourite segments in the film. “It is a very unconventional death song, treated in a humorous vein, with a funny Yama played by Robo Shankar. The lyrics are by the late Na.Muthukumar.”

Her teacher at Stanislavsky Acting School in Chennai, Arunmozhi Sivaprakasham, suggested her name to Lakshmi Ramakrishnaan, the director. “She liked my expressions and felt that I would suit the character. She just told me to eat a little more and put on some weight because I had to play a 35-year-old character,” laughs Semmalar.

But, the others on the sets were not very convinced that she could do justice to the role of a middle-aged woman. They even tried talking Lakshmi out of it, and told her to pick someone better known. But, Lakshmi stuck to her guns.“Lakshmi ma’am liked my expressions. I think my training in dance helped me there.” Semmalar also feels her base in street theatre helped her in creating an impact.

On the first day of the shoot, Semmalar proved her director right. People were impressed with the way she essayed the old of an older woman. Semmalar says it was easy for her to slip into the role, she got into the costume of her character. The high kondai, the sari and the bindi made her look every inch a married young woman bogged down by her husband’s alcoholism. “Lakshmi’s main instruction to us was not to act or perform, but just react and behave,” recalls Semmalar.

Two years ago , Semmalar and her cinematographer husband packed her bags to Chennai to fulfil her dream of becoming an actress. They knocked at the doors of Koothu-P-Pattarai and approached many senior professionals. Nasser was one of them. She says he was upset that the young couple had come all the way from Coimbatore to make a future in cinema. “He asked us why we were wasting our youth. And, that cinema was not half as magical as it looked from outside. There is a lot of struggle and pain involved.” But, when they told him that she was interested in serious cinema and acting, he softened. And, later advised one of them to keep their jobs, so that one can support the other’s film ambitions.

Semmalar feels Nasser’s anger was justified. “People can be mislead by the glitz and glamour of masala cinema. But he knew our interest was genuine. And, he has stood with us as a mentor. I am interested in cinema as a serious career.” In fact, her husband wants her to come up like another Smita Patil or Nandita Das. She is working on her next film, based on the plight of farmers, directed by Sabapathy, a débutante. Semmalar has acted in around 15 short films and wants to venture into direction. But, that can wait, she says. “Direction needs a lot more practice and learning.”

New faces are replacing familiar ones in Tamil films now. And, many of these are from the theatre field. A bunch of new wave actors such as Vijay Sethupathi began their stints in Koothu-P-Pattarai. There is a popular notion in the industry that actors from the theatre background are only good for melodrama. That’s changing, says Semmalar. “ More number of theatre actors are proving that they can be good at subtle acting too. But, they must be given the right opportunities.”


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 1:10:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Young-and-restless/article16082316.ece

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