Interview
In this frank interview with TNM, Sai Pallavi speaks on 'Athiran', working with Selvaraghavan for 'NGK', why she turned down her remuneration for 'Padi Padi Leche Manasu' and more.

Sai Pallavi is on a roll. The actor's Athiran, in which she stars with Fahadh Faasil, is due for release on Friday. The promos have already created much intrigue about the film. For Sai Pallavi, this will be her third in Malayalam cinema after Premam and Kali.

In between, of course, she has been busy in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, quickly making a name for herself with her fiery performances and dance skills.

When TNM calls her for a chat, Sai Pallavi says that she's been keeping unwell for a while. "It's irritating and I'm a bad patient!" she confesses between laughs. The doctor-turned-actor is nevertheless in high spirits as she awaits the audience's response to Athiran.

You're back in Malayalam cinema after three years. From Premam to now, do you feel you've changed as an actor?

I've started to learn a lot of things. Earlier, I didn't know anything. I would go to the sets and just listen to the director. Now I've learnt how actors react - how a scene is constructed. In that way, I feel I've grown as an actor.

You've so far played sensible, spirited women characters. The Athiran promos promise us a Sai Pallavi we've never seen so far. Do you have such a thing as a comfort zone and were you looking to break out of it?

I think since Selvaraghavan sir's NGK, I've been craving for roles which make me a little uncomfortable, roles which challenge me, scenarios in which I couldn't imagine myself being. So when I see such a script, the actor in me feels like doing it. Athiran is one such film. I hope tomorrow people enjoy what we've done.

You seem to have trained in kalari for the role?

Yeah. Previously, during discussions, I went "Kalariya?" and looked it up online. But I think dance helped me in doing kalari. After 'Rowdy Baby', I haven't danced on the sets. When I went to the kalari set and we tried it out, people said it came out perfect. But I still can't believe it and would like to see if the audience finds it authentic. That's my fear. I've always seen myself as a dancer and I'm not able to judge if I've done the right thing when it comes to doing kalari or stunts.

I never pictured myself doing such fighting moves. So when people say it looks natural, I thought okay, maybe in future I can actually kick some ass for real! I've never seen myself as someone who's capable of that.

You've worked out a specific body language to play your character Nitya in Athiran, who is supposed to be autistic. Can you tell us how you went about doing that?

Autism is a very wide spectrum. I first went to a home with only autistic children so I could observe how they react to things, and then I went to a home which had grown men and women. From my observation, I found that men had a very wide range. In a few of them, you have to speak to them to figure out that they need a little help. They were at different stages. But in women, I found that they were non-verbal and they had a few prominent characteristics. They were at opposite ends - either very subtle or extreme. I knew I couldn't do the extreme one because that wouldn't fit the character, so I've gone with the subtle one.

Every time we did a shot, I went back to Vivek (the director) and checked to make sure I didn't look like the usual lazy Pallavi. We have a few traits that we've incorporated from the extreme cases but the facial expressions and stuff are subtle. Vivek has been assuring me until now - I'll have to wait for tomorrow and see!

Did you at any point wonder if this would stigmatise people with mental health issues or developmental disorders/difficulties? You are a qualified doctor yourself...were you satisfied with how autism was handled in the film?

I shouldn't talk much about the film. It's releasing only next week outside Kerala and I don't want to end up revealing too much. It will hurt the director for whom this is the first film! I think Vivek's handled it really well. The main point he told me was that we've always seen people with special needs as someone who isn't normal; we're afraid that if we are with them or if our children are with them, we may pick up some of their traits. But they can also be considered superior beings in a sense, capable of doing things that others can't do.

Each of us has our own talents and we don't have the same socialising skills. Especially when it comes to me, I've realised that I'm not a very social person and it might tick off people. But when it comes to "us", we accept it all as "normal", but when it comes to "them", we put them under a label.

But these labels which have come up in the medical community are actually there to help, so we don't expect everyone to be the same. We know that some may need more love, more effort. The film shows that people with special needs also have talents and that instead of expecting them to do what we do, we should consider that they can do things that we cannot.

'Rowdy Baby' is super viral and even a lot of foreigners have responded to the song. Do you enjoy the craze around it?

It hasn't sunk in. I've never been able to accept anything completely because I know the process of how we made it. I know that without these people it wouldn't have been possible. I'm just happy that everyone's enjoying it. As a dancer, you need a portfolio, no?

But I can't take all the credit. I remember I was tense most of the time when I was on the set. I had to dance with Dhanush sir and he's one person who's full of energy. And there was Prabhudeva master who wants perfection. I'm someone who is a very fluid dancer and I can't have cuts. It was very frustrating for three days, just to see if I was even visible there. Because Dhanush sir was there, I had to exert more energy than I usually do. When the song released, I was happy that people could see me dance. But I didn't expect it to become this huge, with people appreciating it so much.

It would have never been possible without Dhanush sir or Prabhudeva master. Balaji Mohan (director of Maari 2) was keen on having Prabhudeva master whom I was dreading because I knew that he is a very serious person and it would be difficult for me to handle that pressure. This is a memory for me. It's been 10 years since the Prabhudeva show and we danced on the same sets. I don't know how it all turned out this way but I happen to be the lucky one.

There was this story doing the rounds that you'd returned your remuneration for Padi Padi Leche Manasu. Is that true? If so, what prompted you to make that decision?

I had a conversation with the producer. I'd been working with him for a year and I told him, "Sudhakar garu, maybe you should have this now and after you've got back all your money, you can either pay me then or leave it." We had all gone through so much that in the end, I didn't feel like this money would give me any extra happiness. I felt like he needed it more than I did. He immediately said, "No, take this as an advance for the next film if you have to. I feel very guilty because you've worked with me for a year and it's wrong if I have this cash."

This conversation was going on and I decided I wasn't going to keep talking about the money. So, it was my mom who did it. We finally came to the agreement that the money can be an advance for the next movie - he's the one producing Rana's film. I don't know how this news came out though. This was a very personal conversation that we had and I didn't expect it to go around. It was embarrassing.

Selvaraghavan is known to make very intense films. What was it like working with him for NGK?

It's one of the best experiences I've had since I got into the industry. I've heard actors say that he taught them how to act. But I learnt to unlearn on his set. When you learn the dialogues in your room and go to the sets, you'll have a different picture of what's going to happen. But when Selva sir comes and stands as each character, he will show the expressions that we should give, at what pace the dialogue should be said. I've asked him if I should cry for a certain dialogue and he'd tell me to deliver the line plain, blank. I'll start fighting with him and he'll say, "No, Pallavi, if you start crying for this, people will feel bad."

So I'd try what he told me to do and it would be very different. There were a few takes when we had low angles and my face would look weird, but he'd say this is where the proper expression has come. I think that's what came in the teaser. There's a shot when I smile and look at Suriya sir's picture. I was thinking, "Oh god, I look chubbier there! Sir, do you want me to do something else?"

Selva sir, by the way, never lets the actor look at the monitor. I usually go and see what I've done and tell my director, "Can I please correct that? I can do it better." But in his set, I never saw the monitor because there's a strict no-seeing-monitor rule. If he says ok, even if you're not ok with the take, it becomes ok! And when you see it later, when you're dubbing, you realise he's a magician. He knows how to get work done from you.

Another important thing is that I've always been very conscious if I go for more than two takes. I've worried that people might get impatient or think that I'm a bad actor for not getting it right. But on Selva sir's sets, you can go for even 10 takes and he'll still be there. Everyone will have the same energy. I felt like I've broken through my shackles. Even after 10 takes, I've gone to him shamelessly and asked for more and he's said, "Yes, go for one more." So this fear isn't holding me back any more and it's something I'd like to carry forward to my next films too.

Is it true that you're acting as Sasikala in AL Vijay's Jayalalithaa biopic? And is there any real-life woman whose biopic you'd like to be in?

Noooo! Vijay sir hasn't even asked me any such thing. Would I do the role if he asked me? I can say that it depends on what I'm doing in the film, as long as it's something powerful, maybe.

As for biopics, I watched Keerthy Suresh in Mahanati and she's played it so impeccably. Her expressions and Savitriamma's in the comparison videos that people were sharing looked so exact. Until now, I haven't discovered that in myself. I can't think of doing a biopic until I'm there in that place. I've been approached for two biopics but neither of these films is on an actor, so I'm not put in a spot where I have to repeat the expression. But that's the challenge. 

Have you had any time at all to practise medicine? You've said earlier that you don't want to leave your medical career behind.

I haven't been going to the hospital to practise, but it's important for me to revise. I've realised that a lot of things I'm very good at have been falling apart. It's heartbreaking to see that the stuff I was really good at doesn't come so easily any more.

Even now, if I go and sit in the hospital, I'm pretty sure nobody is going to trust me! They will ask me if they can take a photo, not give a prescription. But at home, I'm the only doctor they have and I'm the only one they can come to. I experiment on them!