In an interview with TNM, the national award-winning actor speaks on her growth from inconsequential to lead roles, her acting process, the fear of being typecast and more.

Actor Surabhi Lakshmi, wearing a black sari, stares into the cameraCredit: Facebook/ Surabhi Lakshmi
Flix Cinema Wednesday, July 27, 2022 - 19:00

Despite garnering unprecedented popularity through her role as a goofy Muslim woman in a four-year-long sitcom (M80 Moosa), Surabhi Lakshmi has refused to be pigeonholed. What more, she is currently climbing a tailor-made ladder of success, going from small, one-scene and inconsequential roles to winning the 2016 National Film Award for Best Actress and special jury mention in the Kerala State Film Awards — both for her performance in the film Minnaminungu.

With two back-to-back releases this month (Padma and Kuri), we managed to get a telephonic interview with Surabhy after much persuasion. Following a cautionary note that I shouldn’t ask her any “regular questions”, we launched into a conversation.

You have a BA degree in Bharatanatyam and an MPhil in Performing Arts. What constitutes performing arts?

All our performing arts! I used to be active in theatre from a very young age. When I was in Class 3, I started to take part in small skits in the village, playing Krishna and Subrahmanyan. Then I went to study livestock management. It was (director) Jayaraj sir who first approached me for a role in By the People (2005), after seeing me perform at a youth festival. After that, I participated in a reality show called Best Actor. Later I joined a Masters course in theatre, watched many dramas and taught theatre as well, and won the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi’s best theatre actor award. Then Kathayile Rajakumari (TV serial) happened. Working with KK Rajeev sir was like doing a second post-graduate course. He is a director who really knows how to use his actors.

How has theatre helped you with acting?

I am what I am because of theatre. I can’t really explain how it has helped me. Acting cannot be differentiated in that manner. Theatre helps you develop a character, function as a unit, and also be good human beings. It is easier to reach out to another person that way. We actors work on someone’s ego. I am not an actor by accident. I really wanted to be one.

Was it a struggle initially?

It is still a struggle. I never got this grand introduction saying ‘presenting Surabhi Lakshmi’. My career in films began with inconsequential roles, before getting promoted to interval punch characters (a character that appears with a twist just before the interval), and then the lead actor. Since I was a regular in theatre and TV shows, there was a differentiation in cinema.

Are you able to pick and choose your roles now?

So far, I haven’t had the privilege to pick and choose roles. I have said no to roles because of the fear of being typecast. But the options are few.

Has the tide changed after you won the national award?

It took another three or four years for such changes to happen. I remember my friend Musthafa (who directed Kappela) telling me that nothing was going to change for me. He said I was not suddenly going to be the heroine of a superstar, and that I was currently going in the right direction, which was why I got this award. I just accepted characters that I felt would suit me.

Besides, earlier, if I did four scenes for a film, they would retain only one. They won’t even inform you that these scenes are being cut. I will only find out when I watch it in the theatre. This has happened until I got the national award. These days, a bit more important roles are coming my way.

You have completed over 50 films. Are you still nervous before the first shot?

But in some of those 50 films, I may have just acted in one or two scenes. Besides, as an actor, you should never let go of that fear when appearing before the camera. It is the same fear you feel as you enter the stage. Be it just a scene or an entire film, that fear will always be there. I enjoy that process and take it very seriously. Acting can never be about having fun for me.

What is your process?

Some characters require homework. For Padma, I didn’t do any homework because I didn’t know the story. Anoop Menon (actor and director) said I will play his wife’s character and gave some more details. Every day, I would get to know a little bit more about my character and work around my role. Even getting a bound script is a recent development for me. Usually, the ADs (assistant directors) just hand over a page to me when I reach the sets. They will say you are the ‘receptionist’, ‘heroine’s friend’, etc. I had no right to ask for any more details. So I simply try to do that role to the best of my ability.

Which has been your most difficult role so far?

Jayaraj sir’s Aval. It required me to do proper homework, as the character is both deaf and mute. She was based on a real-life character, who worked in Jayaraj sir’s house for a long time. And while I am performing, that woman will sit in front of me, weighing my performance and giving an immediate reaction. I could not use my imagination for that role. I can only be her, and had to do so convincingly. Meanwhile, all the people who know her were sitting in front of me. It was the most challenging character of my career. 

Also, in another film, I am playing a character based on a real-life woman called Selina, who cremates bodies. I stayed with her to understand her process. This is not because I want people to be aware of the efforts I took for the role. I am doing it only to convince myself that I will be able to do that role. Actors have a job. They should come to the set with enough material, and the director will take what he/she wants from that material.

Have directors been open to your suggestions?

I do ask questions. If I get convincing answers, I will be happy. I don’t insert my politics into my characters. I am just a writer’s tool. However, if there are some things in the script that cannot be tolerated, I ask for clarity. And if the character justifies that politics, then it is fine. I choose to go according to the filmmaker's vision.

Surprisingly, you haven’t been typecast.

I am thankfully called for every kind of role. I am imageless. I am also hoping to retain that kind of flexibility as an actor. For instance, I have declined so many roles that were similar to Pathu (M80 Moosa), and I think it has only helped my career.

Do you feel that better characters are being written for women now?

Yes. Be it Manju Warrier or Parvathy, you can see (a difference). We want more such characters to come our way. It is lovely that many interesting stories are being written for women.

Which era in Malayalam cinema do you think had the best-written female characters?

I think the late 80s and early 90s, during the time of Urvashi and Shobana. Early Malayalam heroines like Sheela and Sharada have also got well-written roles. More recently, I thought Gangubai Kathiawadi (Sanjay Leela Bhansali film) was fabulous. I try to watch films in all languages to watch an actor's performance and learn.

Are you still doing theatre?

I continue to visit my theatre guru’s acting camps and improvisation sessions, and watch juniors perform theatre in Kalady. The stage is always there. It refreshes the actor in me.

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