Interview
In an exclusive interview to TNM, actor Parvathy speaks about her childhood, misogyny in the Malayalam industry, films and more.

Actor Parvathy recalls a time when after a film shoot, she could not remember what her house looked like at all.

She’d become so involved in the character and the film that she’d grown disconnected with her own life.

“So I changed a little bit, for the sake of my sanity,” says the first actor from Kerala to win the prestigious IFFI award. “But I still know how to get a kick out of my job.”

At the age of 29, Parvathy has established herself as a force to reckon with in the industry. With her win at the IFFI for her performance in Take Off, the actor has accomplished what she always wanted to do – put Malayalam cinema on the international map.

On childhood and growing up

Parvathy made her debut with the 2006 film Out of Syllabus. Since then, she has acted in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi films. However, she has been very selective about the kind of cinema she does.

Known for speaking her mind, the actor says that as a child, she was full of questions. Her decisions as an adult now on whether or not to do a certain film, her refusal to be part of a consumerist culture, all stem from a desire to understand the world around her.

As a child, she says, when she was prevented from doing certain things because “girls don’t do this,” she would ask why not.

“I would give them the benefit of doubt. Was there a biological reason why girls shouldn’t climb trees? Something to do with the limb structure? Then I realised that we’re all the same but it’s just that they didn’t want me to do it,” she says.

Her questioning spirit is something she carries with her to date, as a citizen and an artist.

“I used to really get on the nerves of my uncles and aunts,” she says with a laugh. “But it is important to ask such questions and not everybody did. I’m not sure if I was much of an outspoken kid in school. I was not part of the debate team or anything, you know. I was not out there. But when it came to close friends and family, I had a million, million questions to ask. I still do that.”

It was Parvathy’s mother who encouraged her to apply for a beauty pageant conducted by a TV channel towards the end of her schooling. Parvathy was a big fan of Miss Universe Sushmita Sen in her school days, admiring the diva for the kind of work she did. The young girl won the pageant and this paved way for a stint on Kiran TV as a VJ.

From there, Parvathy entered the world of cinema.

“There was no such discussion with my parents on whether I should be doing this. The offers started coming in and before I knew it, this had become my primary profession,” she says, adding that all three of them, however, were keen that she pursue her education.

P for Principles, P for Parvathy

In earlier interviews, Parvathy has spoken about her decision not to endorse any brand and not do stage shows or “item” numbers. The films she has done reflect her conviction.

However, does she feel we’re harder on films that revolve around women protagonists, examining each to see if it makes for a “feminist” film?

Parvathy, who calls herself a proud feminist, says that when she watches films, she does wonder why a woman protagonist did a certain thing.

“But I have learnt to shush that voice. Cinema has to be extremely reflective of society. It needs to be aspirational, too, yes. Let’s say there’s a family where there’s extreme domestic violence. The father beats up the mother a lot in front of the kids. And the mother is just bearing it, the kids grow up watching it. The kids turn out to be a certain kind of people because of what they’ve seen. Maybe one kid becomes a feminist, the other becomes exactly like the father (even if she’s a woman, she could believe abuse is love). I would applaud such a film because it reflects society and says this is how it happens,” she explains.

Parvathy points out the distinction between representing a certain reality and glorifying it. It’s the latter, she says, which is regressive.

The actor is happy about the response her first Hindi film Qarib Qarib Singlle has received but the film also got its share of criticism from certain quarters for showing Irrfan Khan to be younger than he is while Parvathy played a woman older than her real age. Why would a woman like Jaya be attracted to a man like Yogi, was another question.

“Tanuja and I had many discussions about my character, what her life with her ex-husband would have been like. She was an army wife who was used to a certain way of life and here she was with a man who was telling her she must suck and eat a mango, go by business class. You suddenly see a woman, who never thought this could be her type of man, open up to such people too. She becomes sensitised to people of varying frequencies. That is an openness that I want to see in films and on TV,” she says, noting how judgmental we tend to be of others who are not like us.

The actor acknowledges that it is a problem when 30 plus and 40 plus women actors don’t get an opportunity to be on screen but feels that the age gap between Irrfan and her in Qarib Qarib Singlle wasn’t quite the same. She points out that Jaya goes on a trip with Yogi in the film because he mentions Gangtok as a destination, the place where her ex-boyfriend stays.

“A person who has actually watched the film for the content would have understood this,” she says. “When I read reviews that asked why Jaya went with Yogi, I was like... watch the movie again! All the answers are there in the screenplay.”

On the Women in Cinema Collective

The Women in Cinema Collective which was established by prominent women in the industry (including Parvathy) after the Malayalam actor assault case does not have the unanimous support of women working in Malayalam cinema. Some have gone on record to say that they don’t see the need for it.

Responding to such statements, Parvathy says, “If somebody has not gone through it (harassment), I genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, congratulate them on the beautiful life they’ve had. There is no sarcasm in this, absolutely none. I have two women in my circle who have never been groped or harassed or treated badly in any way. They have the best partner, the best mother-father, who’ve treated them as equal. So they don’t understand it when I speak of my experiences. They see it and they acknowledge it, but they don’t know what it feels like to be treated like that. I don’t want to scoff at these women.”

However, she adds that the truth is that the majority have and are going through such instances. “That cannot be discounted. And it’s not mutually exclusive to another person’s experience in the industry,” she says.

“We don’t have a culture of supporting each other when we go through horrendous experiences,” says Parvathy.

“And we never will. It is difficult – the survivor is always alone. And I’d like to state this in this interview – this question that several people have asked me, why don’t I name those who have molested me. Because I know I will be the only one standing. Everyone will go behind the curtain. Until I create that army for us to come out, I can’t. Because I don’t have proof, do I? We need people to come out and say yes, this man is a repeat offender. And we do have many repeat offenders in this industry. So there will come a time. And those repeat offenders should be scared at this point.”

Parvathy recalls a time when the offers in Malayalam cinema dried up because she was seen as an “ahangari” for wanting to see the script or quoting a certain sum. At one point, she was even considered to be a bad omen.

“But you cannot stop a true artist. You cannot stop art. This is a cocky arrogance that an artist should have,” she asserts. “For how long will people fight you? They will find other people to fight!”

Smiling like Sarah, snapping like Sameera

Parvathy is a shape-shifter who transforms into every character she plays on screen. And this is something the actor consciously works towards.

On the list of actors who’ve inspired her, from Shabana Azmi to Nedumudi Venu, is Canadian actor Tatiana Maslany who plays 11 characters in the series Orphan Black.

“She plays clones of herself. In one scene, there’s two or three of her. So she’s just acting with herself. And with each character, she makes us feel completely different emotions towards them. I’m an actor and I tried to find loopholes but I couldn’t! So for me, the possibilities for an artist to make that illusion happen, to make people suspend their disbelief and believe that I am that character, is a beautiful power to have," she says.

Parvathy says both abhinay and alankar are important for her to get into the skin of the character and achieve a metamorphosis. She works closely with her make-up artist and costume designer to achieve a certain look for her films. This involves immersing herself in the character to the extent that she knows what kind of books she reads or if her lips should appear dry and cracked because she hasn’t been in a mood to apply lip balm.

Till Maryan, Parvathy says she used to get very absorbed in the lives of her characters. When she played Maari in Poo, for instance, she would listen to the songs that Maari would listen to, not Parvathy. By the end of Poo, Parvathy was so attached to the character that she broke down.

The actor has since realised that she can’t go on in this vein. However, Parvathy still retains a bit of something from the characters she plays.

“Sameera (Take Off) is… I wouldn’t say mean... but an extremely assertive woman,” she says with a laugh. “I was talkative and open about saying things in public, but I didn’t know how to be curt and to the point. Each of these characters has left a mark on me. Each of them has made me.”

From RJ Sarah of Bangalore Days, Parvathy says, she learnt how to smile from ear to ear. The smile of a woman who has come to terms with her life and has embraced it. Parvathy, the person, would give only half-smiles before this.

Ask her what’s in store in the next Anjali Menon film she’s signed and Parvathy says her lips are sealed.

“I’m absolutely not allowed to talk about it!” she quips.