Aishwarya Rajesh made her debut in the Tamil industry in 2011. But Aishwarya, who recently acted with Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly, the two top young stars of Mollywood, has struggled to find her footing in the big league in the Tamil industry.
Though she has time and again proved that she is an excellent actor, it's only now that she has signed big projects like Vada Chennai and Dhruva Natchathiram. Ironically, Aishwarya is among the few heroines who can speak Tamil fluently in Kollywood.
The News Minute caught up with the actor for a candid chat on her films, the difference between working in Kollywood and Mollywood, and how difficult it is for a newcomer to establish herself in an industry where the "casting couch" is considered to be the norm.
You've done only two films in Malayalam but both have been with big stars like Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly. How did you bag these films?
The first film I signed was Sakhavu. I signed Dulquer's film later but it got released first. It was George, the cinematographer of Sakhavu, who called me. If you notice, in both films, the characters Janaki as well as Vaidehi have a Tamil touch. Vaidehi works in a Tiruppur factory and she's a Tamil-Malayali girl. And in Sakhavu, the region where Janaki works...hill-towns like Idukki and Thekkadi...have a lot of Tamil people working. There's a lot of Tamil influence in the culture. That's the reason they cast me in these films.
How challenging was it for you to work in a language you don't know?
I didn't know any Malayalam. I've done a Hindi film (Daddy) but this was not so difficult because I've watched many Hindi films. Malayalam was very difficult...the language is like a tongue twister! And both my directors, Sidharth and Sathyan Sir were very keen that my lines are proper. That's the reason my lip sync for both the films are perfect. They didn't compromise on anything. So I had to first learn my lines, then get into the character, then perform...there was so much going on for just one scene. But now, I'm used to Malayalam, so it's not as tough.
In Malayalam, you've acted with two top stars straightaway. But in Tamil, despite giving many wonderful performances, it's only now that you've managed to work with the big stars...
Everything takes time to come our way. Even in Malayalam, people watched my performance in Kaaka Muttai and only then they cast me. Initially, I did get a lot of offers from Malayalam but none of them was with known faces...it was all new people. I started my career a long time back but I was very particular that if I was going to be launched in other industries, it has to be a proper film with a proper script and proper hero. I've been getting many offers from Telugu also but I haven't signed anything yet.
The script is very important. It's not enough if you're acting with Dulquer, Nivin, or any other big star...if the script is not good, the audience will reject the film.
So do you always look for a substantial role in the script, given that most films only have a heroine for "glamour" or as the hero's love interest?
A lot of people have asked me how I select scripts. When I listen to a script, I imagine it in my mind. If it doesn't entertain me, I don't take it up. If even the narration doesn't excite me, how will the audience like it when they're watching it in the theatre? I like to play sensible roles. Whatever I've done so far are not roles where the heroine comes for a song and acts "cute and bubbly". I haven't done the stereotypical "loosu ponnu" characters.
In the Malayalam industry, heroines get bigger roles than otherwise...and I've been lucky to get two such performance-oriented films. When I got a call asking if I'd act in Sathyan Sir's film, I didn't know who he was! I don't watch many Malayalam films. The producer, Sethu, told me to Google for him. I was so embarrassed when I found out what a big director he was. I said yes even before listening to the script.
You became famous as the Kaaka Muttai girl, a role in which you played the mother of two boys. Did you ever worry that you'd get typecast in mummy roles when you were looking to become a heroine?
Before I signed Kaaka Muttai, I was not sure if I wanted to do the role. I took almost 1.5 months to decide. A couple of my friends told me not to do the role because I'd be branded as a mother in other films, too. But my intuition told me to do the film and I'm glad I took that bold decision. It's only because I did Kaaka Muttai that I did my Hindi and Malayalam films.
After I told the director that I was unsure about doing the role, he did ask many actors, including known faces from the Malayalam industry, but nobody was willing to do it.
You also did Manikandan's Kuttrame Thandanai in which you played a woman who sleeps around with her boss. Again, not a choice most heroines would make...
Initially, when Manikandan narrated the script to me, I didn't want to do it. It's a role that has negative shades. But we do see women like this in society...women who have to be independent, they do face issues like this. She's a very practical character. There's only one scene where she speaks out - it's a very casual scene but with very strong words.
It's a role that would work only with a known actor, someone who has sexual appeal, because she attracts so many men. It's a guest role with negative shades and nobody wanted to do it. Then I decided to say yes. I don't feel bad to have done it and I actually got appreciation for doing it.
Do you also think this acceptance tells us how the audience has changed over the years?
Today's audience is very sensible and practical. They are far more mature than the people who're making films. You make some blunder in the film and they'll spot it in no time. Earlier, they used to watch films just for the entertainment. For today's audience, every aspect of the film is important. You can't cheat people any more. I did 8 films last year - all of them very different roles, including supporting ones. I'm not someone who thinks, "Okay, I'm the heroine, so I'll have these many songs." I like to explore. People should remember me, that is very important.
People want more performance, more reality in the scripts. That's why films like Managaram and 8 Thotakkal are doing well.
Is there any difference in approach between the Malayalam and Tamil industries?
There is one big difference. Sathyan Sir is a very big director in Malayalam and Dulquer is a very big star. If this was the scenario in Tamil, they definitely would not have cast a newcomer like me. They'd have cast a big heroine. But in Malayalam, they cast me because that role required someone who is dusky, who is Tamil, someone who can do a performance-oriented role. Even though it was a commercial film. This is something I appreciate a lot in Malayalam. The situation is changing in Tamil though.
You are among the very few heroines in the Tamil industry today who have grown up in the state and can speak Tamil. Does the preference for North Indian heroines affect you?
You have to be very patient when it comes to cinema. You have to stay positive. If I'd randomly done a lot of films, I wouldn't be where I am now...
I wasn't always so serious about doing films. I became serious when I faced a lot of criticism...when people told me that I couldn't become a heroine in Kollywood because of my looks. I spoke Tamil, I was dusky, I used to be chubby. They told me that I can try character roles or sister roles. Directors and producers have all told me this. I was told I was wasting my time.
That's when I took it seriously and thought people should know me and I should do something big.
Of late, female actors like Parvathy, Varalaxmi, Kasthuri etc have spoken about sexual harassment in the film industry. What's your take on this?
It's very common. Now I've been around for five years or so. Initially, I did face this a lot. It will sound disgusting to even listen to the kind of things people say. But I think things have changed with new directors and corporates coming into cinema.
Earlier, it was too much. To get into a film, people would say, "Just go for half an hour and come." It was so obvious. And the stuff I faced was not even for big films...for these "upma" films also people expect you to do it. Adjustment, contract, agreement...all these are words they use. But I must say that today's girls are very clear, they don't stay quiet when they're told such things. They do shout back.
It's not necessary for you to do all this to come up in cinema. When you respect your profession like god, it's cheap to expect women alone to do such compromises if they're to survive. It's there in every profession...it's just more obvious in cinema. But I think it's time to give it back.
Which of your films did you enjoy working on the most?
Kaaka Muttai. I learned a lot of things. In normal life, we always want bigger things. There's nothing wrong with this. But when I was working in Kaaka Muttai, I was in that slum for many days. I saw how happy people were with whatever life they had. They had only a 10x10 feet house where they did everything, from washing clothes to sleeping, but they managed to be happy. I learnt to be happy with what I have from them.
Working with those two kids was amazing. Even if I get married and have children, those two will always be my first kids. That's how I looked after them. That's why I think it shows in the film. I missed them a lot after the shooting. I used to cry. I got so attached to them. That film is very close to my heart.