Tamil cinema audiences have a fondness towards women character artistes, remembering them as the amma (mother), akka/thangachi (elder/younger sister), anni (sister-in-law), and so on. In most cases, being a character artiste might mean minimal performance space in addition to being stereotyped. Actor Sriranjani, however, is most content playing such roles, being a part of the family’s heart on the big screen, as she puts it.
Introduced to us as Madhavan’s anni (sister-in-law) in his 2000 breakthrough film Alaipayuthe, Sriranjani’s latest role will be as Amala Paul’s mother in her upcoming thriller Aadai. In less then two decades, her graph as a character artiste has been steady, appearing mostly as the mother or wife in over 100 films so far.
Yet, one cannot refrain from discussing her performance in House Owner, a role that showed us just how much more mettle the actor has. As Radha, a patient caregiver to her husband who has Alzheimer’s, Sriranjani undoubtedly won hearts. Ask her about the responses she’s received for it so far and the actor laughs out loud, half in apology and the rest in happiness.
“I’m not a very social media friendly person. I don't use my phone for browsing the internet very much either, I use it to listen to songs on YouTube mostly,” she chuckles. “But it has been quite interesting from what I’m hearing. It was a pleasant surprise for me, I’m thrilled,” she adds.
This role, in fact, came to her in the last minute. “Lakshmy (Ramakrishnan) herself was supposed to do it. But there was a bit of back and forth before it finally came to me. I kept telling her that it was her film and I’ll be happy with anything she chooses. I was glad to be on board ultimately,” she tells us.
And Sriranjani took every leaf she could from Lakshmy’s book to bring the character to life on screen. “You must know that all her stories are extremely complex. And I love to be a director’s artiste. I was obsessed with Lakshmy, observing her always. I was very happy to watch the outcome,” she says.
The actor was not completely unfamiliar with the role. “My mother-in-law is an Alzheimer’s patient. She’s 89 now and remembers very little. So I personally know how it is to take care of a person with Alzheimer's. I’ve been through all the traumatic stages. It will creep up on you suddenly. You won't know when the next stage will come. You have to take it all in your stride,” she shares.
Is this how she approached acting too? It is here that she surprises us with a revelation. “I've never thought of acting as a profession. In fact, I had a shining athletic career before I got married. I was a sprinter, a junior national champion in the 100 metres. I’ve played hockey too,” she says.
With no experience in acting or any contacts in the industry when she started, Sriranjani still wonders how it has all worked out for her. “The neighbourhood I stayed in, Saidapet, was a place where a lot of shoots took place. They used to film a lot at Rekha’s house and it seemed to me like my entire neighbourhood was conspiring for me to become an actor. My mother was encouraging because I had already done plays and skits in school and won awards but I wasn't mentally prepared for cinema,” she admits.
In the beginning, when in her early 20s, Sriranjani took up ad and TV commercials. “I had to make sure my family was okay with it too,” she laughs.
Does she regret not being able to pursue sports? “Priorities change. I have beautiful memories from my athletic career. Sometimes when I meet my friends who were my fellow sportspersons, they ask me why I changed tracks. But I’m happy where things are. Everyone can’t have everything in life,” she adds, smiling.
Sriranjani says that her acting career has been kind to her so far.
“I started my career with K Balachander sir’s Kaasalavu Nesam, a TV serial where I played a ghazal singer. In fact, I was so unaware of what I was doing back then that I never used to watch my own series. Only recently, after KB sir passed away did I watch it on YouTube and I was moved beyond words. Such a great platform he has given me! I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to act with many experienced actors like Lakshmi ma’am and SPB sir so early on in my career. I’d call myself lady luck to have worked with such people,” she says.
On her upcoming film, Aadai, Sriranjani tells us she will be playing the typical mother. “I’ve not seen the full film, but what I’ve done is a typical mother character who goes ‘Eat on time’, ‘Why are you wearing clothes like this?’, ‘Drive carefully’… When kids get into trouble they think of what their amma had said. A similar scenario plays out in this film,” she reveals.
While she might have played the average mother in the film, the actor is all praises for Amala’s role in Aadai. “Knowing what Amala has done in this film, kudos to her. Extremely brave to have done what she has done. Everyone has their own set of limitations for their own reasons. Sometimes they might not be willing enough to take up daring roles, but kudos to her,” she adds.
Now filming for Vijay Sethupathi’s Sanga Thamizhan, in which she plays Nasser’s sister, the actor tells us that she was quite oblivious to the prank calls that the ‘amma’ number from Aadai received after the film’s trailer was released. “No, it’s not my number but I didn’t know about it at that time. I heard about it only during the audio launch,” she says.
As someone who thoroughly enjoys playing the amma on screen, Sriranjani explains that such roles bring her joy.
“South Indians are emotionally driven. All films will have a home in it and it is a very important part of everyone’s life. Family is irreplaceable. To be a part of that important place… I feel very lucky especially when people say they want an amma like me. There are many aspiring actors who are waiting to do any small role they can get in the industry. Sometimes, they spend their whole lives with the heaviness of not being able to get into the industry. Here I am doing the heart of the film, meeting more people and at the end of the day going back to my own home and a very supportive family. It’s a lovely thing,” she smiles.