Sai Pallavi first burst onto the scene in Alphonse Putharen’s Premam as Malar. Five years on, she’s a qualified doctor and a rising star with close to 10 films across Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema.
With a natural charm and a smile that can light up the screen, she has an endearing presence which demands you feel what she feels. From all her characters, she says Malar (Premam) and Bhanu (Fidaa) remain closest to her heart. “With the films I did after those two, I was trying not to be that, so there was always this calculation that was running in my head. But in those I was just natural,” she says.
Having built a body of work across the three industries, she now feels she can go after the kind of work she wants, rather than projects she feels she needs to. That’s what led her to choose two upcoming Telugu films. In the first, Virata Parvam, she’s rumoured to play a Naxalite with Rana Daggubati as a cop. In the second, the much-awaited Love Story, she reunites with Fidaa director Sekhar Kammula and shares screen space with Naga Chaitanya for the first time. There’s also a Netflix anthology film in which she stars in the segment directed by Vetri Maaran.
On her fifth anniversary in the industry, she spoke to me over the phone about her career so far, being typecast in love stories, creating Rowdy Baby and the unique experience of working with Vetrimaaran.
Over the last 5 years, you’ve done films across Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema. Do you feel pressure to maintain a foothold in all three? And are the kinds of roles you get offered from each industry different?
All three industries have their own flavours and audiences. In the Malayalam industry, they’re much simpler. We would shoot a film in 30 days. Kali was shot in 35 days. But in the Telugu industry, a single schedule can be 35 days, so it’s much bigger and you can feel intimidated and get lost in it.
But I’ve realised that the scripts that I get from each are different. The Malayalam scripts are completely different because those audiences prefer to see real-life characters who are as raw as possible. In Athiran, I played an autistic girl, and I had to make it look as natural as possible. I don’t know if that would’ve worked in another industry. In the Telugu industry, I realise they’re much happier and escapist films like Fidaa. Or they want to be taken to another world like Baahubali. But there isn’t a pressure, it’s not like I feel a need to do my next film in a specific language. It’s always just about the characters.
You’re most known for doing love stories like Fidaa and Premam. Is that genre your comfort zone or do you get offered those the most?
It’s just what I’ve been offered most. Out of a 100 scripts I’ve read, I’d say about 75 are love stories but in different settings obviously. But I’ve also realised that it’s challenging to do love stories. You can’t do the same thing every time and each character needs to have a different energy.
In Premam I had a totally different energy, in Kali I had a totally different energy, in Fidaa I played a loud character, and I’m nothing like that in real life. I’m surprised that Sekhar Garu (director) saw that in me.
It’s really difficult for me to change the way I emote so I have to do a lot of homework before I start a film to get the energy right. Now I’m doing another film with Sekhar Garu which is Love Story and like Fidaa it’s in the Telangana dialect and our worry is people shouldn’t see Bhanumati from Fidaa here. I think we shot for a week over and over again just to see that we were getting it right and to see how mine and Naga Chaitanya’s energies match. So love stories really are difficult.
When I saw Fidaa I remember thinking I can’t remember the last time I saw a love story with a female protagonist.
That’s all down to Sekhar Garu. He’s so much of a feminist and does more for his women than his male characters. I haven’t met a man who is that sensitive. There’ve been times when I haven’t put my foot down about things I wasn’t comfortable with on set and he’d speak for me and encourage me to speak up and not to be intimidated by people even if they’re bigger than you. That’s why I feel like after Fidaa I transformed into a woman. He made sure he gave me and the other women on set that support. I think he’s the only filmmaker who has so many women on set.
You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of getting dubbing right, especially in languages you’re not familiar with like Malayalam and Telugu. There’s even a 1-minute YouTube video of you dubbing for Fidaa which has 15 million views. Has it got easier over time?
I was so embarrassed when that went out (laughs) I didn’t even know if my pronunciation was right. But Sekhar Garu found it adorable and put it up.
I think I learnt about that in Kali because in Premam I spoke my language, Tamil. It’s tough because in the script you have the complete words but when you speak, it’s more conversational and words blend together. So the dubbing was really difficult. I decided that next time I did a film in another language, I wouldn’t read it off the page. I’d have someone speak in the exact same way a girl from that region would and send me audio notes. That’s how I got it right for Fidaa.
When we watched the first day, first show and saw people react to it, I was so freaking happy. But I hate dubbing. I just can’t stand it. When you act it’s a very physical thing, but recreating that same emotion in a dubbing studio is very taxing. I’d get more tired after 30 minutes of dubbing than I would after a whole day’s worth of shooting.
Maari 2 was your first larger than life, out and out Tamil masala film and your first time doing comedy. You even got your own masala entry scene. Was that as fun to do as it looked?
I blush every time I see that entry scene because that character is just not me, so it’s fun to watch. Dhanush and my co-actors would keep giving me tips on how to make it look even more hilarious. All my life I’ve tried to be a very elegant person and this time I had to be crazy. We used to laugh so much during shoot. I had a blast.
In most commercial films like that, the female character rarely has that much impact. Was that what drew you to the film?
Yeah, when I choose scripts, it might sound selfish but I feel I should either be the plot or influence the plot in some way. If my character is not able to contribute anything to the story or primary character in any way, It wouldn’t feel right to do.
So when I read Maari 2, I just focused on my character to see how she’s influencing the story and I felt it had more meat than the other scripts I got offered from the Tamil industry. I’m so glad that I did it, I really enjoyed the character.
I have to ask about Rowdy Baby which became this massive sensation. It has 850 million views on YouTube and the choreography and the way it’s shot are just bursting with imagination. Did you ever think it would get this kind of response?
I know, it’s crazy (laughs). Sometimes I just call Dhanush sir and we talk about it. He knew that people would like it but we never knew it would become so big.
And we owe it all to Prabhu Deva master because he choreographed it. We did three full days of rehearsal but when we turned up on set, he actually scrapped all the moves and gave us new steps on the day because he said ‘in this location, these steps don’t gel so let’s try something else’. The way he does it is he’ll choreograph steps and say ‘the step is ready. Pallavi learn it and we’ll shoot’. It was so much pressure. So whatever you see in Rowdy Baby is just pure fear and for some reason, I would shiver every time Dhanush sir would get it right (laughs). He’s a phenomenal dancer. That guy’s like a ball of energy and the whole time we shot the song I was just praying that I’d be visible on screen.
Your character in Athiran was very interesting. It was a psychological thriller in which you played an autistic person who’s trained in Kalari martial arts and you had almost no dialogue. Is that the film you feel you gave the most to?
Physically, yes I think Athiran took a lot out of me. I had bruises all over my body after that. I never knew I could fight. I always thought I was a fragile puny person but Athiran taught me that I can kick ass (laughs).
But out of my released films, I think mentally I went through a lot of pain and trauma during NGK (Nandha Gopalan Kumaran). When I look back at all my films I remember laughing and enjoying myself but during NGK I was psychologically traumatised. Every film has been me playing that character. I’ve been Sai Pallavi as Malar or Bhanu or Anjali. This time I had to do exactly what I was being told. Selvaraghavan (director) would show me the expression and say ‘You need to emote this way for so many seconds. You need to yell at this decibel. I need to see your veins when you scream’ and I am not a person who gets angry. I can’t stand a fight so it was really traumatic for me. In one scene I had to scream at Suriya sir, and after they called cut I just stood there and cried because it was too much for me to take. That film wasn’t me, it was Selvaraghavan in my body.
I’m not going to talk about how the film was received because what was on paper was very different to what was on screen. But the film taught me a lot about restricted acting and it’ll help me at some point in time.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””](Laughs) I’ll tell you something, being a doctor is very scary when you do a film because you know the facts don’t match. When I did Maari 2 and Padi Padi Leche Manasu or even Athiran, I tried to sit the directors down and explain to them that I shouldn’t be doing this and that’s not how it works. But they always say ‘no people wouldn’t know this’ and I’d say ‘but doctors would know!’ [/perfectpullquote]
For someone who’s a qualified doctor, is it weird how often you play a patient on screen, and how often your characters end up getting injured?
(Laughs) I’ll tell you something, being a doctor is very scary when you do a film because you know the facts don’t match. When I did Maari 2 and Padi Padi Leche Manasu or even Athiran, I tried to sit the directors down and explain to them that I shouldn’t be doing this and that’s not how it works. But they always say ‘no people wouldn’t know this’ and I’d say ‘but doctors would know!’
I had to explain to Balaji Mohan during Maari 2 that I’m paralysed from the hip down so I can’t just sit up like that and he said ‘okay we’ll give you a few pillows to prop you up’ (laughs). Because I am a doctor, I can’t do something that doesn’t make sense. I’m blessed with great directors who are very patient and they did remove certain scenes.
What can you tell us about the upcoming Netflix anthology where you’re in Vetrimaaran’s film? What was it like working with him?
It’s me and Prakash Raj Sir and Vetrimaaran. We shot for about 5 days and I think it’s going to be out in August. I can’t reveal much about the story, but I think Vetrimaaran is crazy in how he works. I like knowing what my character is going to say and do before I go on set but when I went into this, I didn’t even have my dialogue. So I called him and asked about the dialogue and he just said ‘we’ll write it on the set’. It’s very difficult for me to just be in the moment and deliver on the spot. I’m too nervous.
But he basically creates the scene on set in a very organic way. I asked him why he does that when it’s so much pressure on the actors and he said ‘I can’t sit in a concrete room and write dialogues that are going to be said in a hut’. When we started shooting, I realised Vetrimaaran had put us in that zone without us even realising it and we became the characters just through the conversation we had between the scenes. But by the time we finished shooting, Prakash sir and I were traumatised. We were so quiet it was scary. There are scenes that were so intense that I had physiological reactions in my body.
It’s a very different way of working. Until then I never believed I could do something without preparing a lot beforehand. But Vetrimaaran gave me that confidence and I’m grateful. It’s a huge lesson I’m going to take back about how I seep into a character.
While shooting Kali, there was a scene where I have to be jealous of Dulquer’s (Salman) boss who has a crush on him. I didn’t know how much to exaggerate it and Dulquer said, ‘Pallavi you just have to feel it within you. If you try to show the emotion, people won’t be able to feel it’. I finally realised what he meant when I did this anthology.
It’s been 5 years of you in the industry. Looking back, is there any advice you’d want to give to the Sai Pallavi from 5 years who was just starting out?
I’d tell her to just be the same. I wouldn’t change a thing because growth is gradual, and everything I went through made me who I am today. I’d just want her to breathe and be in the moment. So no advice, she’s fine on her own.