Living by her own rules: Sandalwood Queen Ramya's journey through acting and politics

Living by her own rules: Sandalwood Queen Ramya's journey through acting and politics
Living by her own rules: Sandalwood Queen Ramya's journey through acting and politics

You could say that the 12 years that Sandalwood’s Golden Girl has spent in the film and entertainment industry also earned her the title Queen of Controversies. But it was Ramya’s difficult life before that, which made her who she is.

As she welcomed us into her house in Bengaluru on a hot day early in the summer, her easy laughter conveyed a sense of calm and confidence.

When we entered her house, three dogs – two black and one golden – bounded into the hall from nowhere, barking at our heels. “They won’t do anything”, she said, calling them off. It took a while though, for Brandy, Champ and Tiny to settle down and go back to what they were doing before we arrived.

Ramya’s apartment in the city is a labour of love. Although she bought the house in 2012, she only moved in around two years ago.

“My friend and I took all the furniture to the car park and painted and distressed it ourselves,” she said, and led us to the balcony which was shady and cool despite the heat, thanks to potted plants and a sun screen.

“Moving into my own house was an act of letting go of the past,” Ramya said. She had lived with her foster father RT Narayan at the Taj West End since she was in Class 8.

A family friend, Narayan not only funded Ramya’s education since high school, but also became the man she eventually began to call her father.

Born in Bengaluru to Ranjitha, Ramya was sent to St Hilda’s School in Ooty at the age of four. Boarding school was a mixed bag, one that helped foster the independence that made the world see her as both Golden Girl and controversy queen.

“My mum was a single parent. She found it extremely hard to raise me and she felt that education was the most important,” Ramya said. Ranjitha was from Mandya but had studied in Maharani’s College in Bengaluru. Finding a job in the state capital was difficult, but she managed to make ends meet. For a long time, Ranjitha worked as a staff member on the suicide helpline in the Bengaluru Police Commissioner’s office.

Growing up in the 1980s as a girl whose name was just Divya Spandana, with no surname, was hard. Ramya is the name that legendary actor Rajkumar’s wife, Parvathamma, gave her on the sets of her first film Abhi (2003).

As an onscreen pair, Ramya and Puneeth Rajkumar were a hit

Ramya said, with exasperation, that questions on what one’s father and mother do for a living should really be disallowed in school. “How does it matter?” Then, breaking into a grin, she said: “Every year I would make up a story. One year my father died in a plane crash, or another time, I would say ‘My father is a green card holder. He’s in America.’ Kuch bhi. Whatever came to my mind.”

“I was really young and I didn’t really understand these things. My mother sort of encouraged it,” she said. Breaking into actual laughter, she said: “The teachers would be like, ‘What is she saying? We’re not even going to ask her that question anymore.’”

St. Hilda’s was where Ramya first acted. She directed plays and gave herself roles that did not require too much effort so that she could keep track of whether everyone else had their lines by heart. Once she gave herself the role of a king who was always sleeping on a bed. “They gave me the best supporting actor award for sleeping,” she said, breaking into laughter at the memory.

This photo was uploaded in 2009 on Ramya's Facebook page

She also excelled at sports, mostly basketball and track events. But even though she often came first in the games and competitions, it was always the parents of whichever girl came second who handed over the prizes.

“The parents of the girl who won were supposed to give away the prizes (but my mother could never come). I didn’t understand what my mother was going through at the time. It was very easy to feel ‘If her parents can come, why can’t you come? If they can do this why can’t you, and if they have this, why don’t we have this?’ It’s easy to be influenced by materialistic things. You see that the other girls are coming in cars and I was taking the bus home. It was difficult,” Ramya said.

She felt this particularly when a trip to Rajasthan was organized by the school and her friend’s father, a Congress politician, had sponsored the fee of Rs 10,000.

“My mum was really embarrassed, because she never wanted to show that she wasn’t sending her daughter on an excursion because she couldn’t afford it. She would say she preferred to spend time with her daughter. She became very hurt by those kinds of things and she was very strong. Very strong,” Ramya said.

Given all this, Ramya did not have too many friends and she took to reading the Bible. “I became very spiritual because I didn’t have many friends, no one to talk to. When everyone else was playing and doing stuff I would go to the chapel and open the Bible and start reading at whichever page opened.”

In a tone laced with laughter, which would recur throughout the interview, Ramya said: “I felt that god understood me. He said the right things all the time. He was talking to me.”

After her schooling, she applied for a degree course in commerce at St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru. It was senior Congress leader and former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna who wrote a recommendation letter for her. He was her father Narayan’s best friend and the two did everything together.

But towards the end of the course, she was approached with an offer to act in the film Abhi opposite Puneet Rajkumar.

The story of how she got the offer itself is fairly fairytale-like. When the directors were scouting for a female actor, they approached a modelling agency run by Ramya’s family friend and aunt. On a random day some time before that, her friend had taken photos of Ramya to try out her new camera.

“They were looking through the photos on the camera and saw mine, and my aunt said, ‘No, she’s not interested’. But they insisted.”

The offer came at a time when she was unhappy with her course in St Joseph’s. Although she had applied to a college in London, she decided to take up the film so that she could be independent.

What happened after that, has been covered widely and often badly. Not only did she become a great hit among audiences, several films became runaway successes, including the three she did with Puneet Rajkumar. Audiences loved them in Abhi (2003), Aakash (2005) and Arasu (2007). 

When she joined the industry, she knew no one, and nothing. Soon enough, Ramya found that women actors were paid lesser than their male counterparts, there were no contracts, being paid on time was also a hassle.

But there were other hassles on the job that made working that much more difficult. “So we were shooting in Chikmagalur on a hill and there’s no caravan (to change on location). So they get a car and take me all the way down the hill to a random person’s house. Then you have to ask them if you can use the loo in their house. And that’s what they’re going to tell everyone, that Ramya used the loo in their house!,” she says, laughing yet again, at the absurdity of it.

On the sets of the runaway hit Sanju Weds Geetha

From 2005, the year Amrithadhaare, Aakash and Gowramma released, she had begun to demand contracts. It took a year, and much cajoling and insistence, but from 2006 onwards both contracts and caravans were a given.

However, putting her foot down to demand these got her called all kinds of names involving the word arrogant. One in particular, is quite colourful: jambada-koli (Kannada), which literally translates to proud hen.

She even got scenes changed in films. Especially ones in which the hero slapped the heroine, or scenes which depicted violence against women on screen. “I would be like, ‘No, he can’t slap me (the character). Change the scene.’ Then there would be other scenes where the heroine doesn’t eat or sleep if the hero disapproved of her or there was a failed marriage proposal, and her mother begs her to eat something. I was uncomfortable with such scenes because they depicted women as weak. I said I’m not doing this shit.”

She says she felt some social responsibility. “Girls look up to you, right? I don’t want to be seen as someone who is weak. Maybe we (as people) are weak, but should you (always) show that? Let’s also show it’s possible to be different.”

“I wasn’t easy to deal with,” she acknowledged with a laugh and added: “Let me tell you, if my films hadn’t done so well, they would not have put up with it. I took full advantage of it. I thought, ‘I have this platform, what can I do with it?’”

Today, she says she is finished with acting. The recent ads she shot for the government of Karnataka for its LED lights campaign were the last nails in the coffin. She just couldn’t act. A scene that should have required just one take, took multiple attempts.

“In a way I was happy. It was proof that I had evolved. Had I been able to do it, it would have meant there was still some attachment to acting,” Ramya said.

She said she is on a sabbatical of sorts, from the world in general. The time since she contested and won the Lok Sabha polls in 2013 have been a tumultuous journey – both personally and politically.

Ramya was in Delhi when Siddaramaiah, now the Chief Minister of Karnataka, called her and asked her to contest for the Mandya Lok Sabha seat; the last date to file nomination papers was just a day away. Unsure of what to do, she asked him to speak to her father, who urged her to go ahead.

Somewhere in Mandya

On the day she filed her papers, her father Narayan died of cardiac arrest. Just two days after this, a man named Venkatesh Babu told the media that he was her biological father and approached the judiciary to recognize him as such.

Around the same time, political opponents raised questions about her biological father and her caste. Mandya is dominated by Vokkaligas which is the community that her mother belongs to.

All this was traumatizing for her; she was, after all, a political newbie even though her father Narayan always had a string of politicians and others meeting him. She won the election and represented Mandya in Parliament when she knew nothing about politics or government. But she learned and sharpened her sense of politics and also of government.

This is evident in the manner in which she spoke about Narendra Modi when she first joined the Youth Congress in 2011. In an interview to TV9 Kannada, she had said that Narendra Modi was one of her icons.

Today however, she has changed her stand. “I didn’t know any better. You read something, you believe it. We don’t question. When I read about the Gujarat model I believed it. But then I went to Ahmedabad (and was shocked).”

In her view, this lack of critical thinking pervades every aspect of Indian society, including the election of politicians. Even if she loses, she says, it doesn’t matter as long as she can create awareness and get people to question the things and people around them.

Ask her about the money parties hand out to people during elections and she says she wants to change that. “I have this enchanting dream to make Mandya the first district in the country where people would refuse money if someone offered it during elections.”

She says that politicians need people to be dependent on them to be able to wield power over them. “Therefore money and power play such a crucial role during elections, and I’m against that. I would be completely embarrassed, offended and insulted if people said Congress paid Rs 200 more than JDS, and that’s why they won. People should reject (politicians who want to buy votes).”

While campaigning, Ramya says she tries to approach women and talk to them about issues like sanitation, and understand their problems.

Since her first election, Ramya has come a long way; she has gone from being nervous to articulate about her politics, she’s had experience with government, talks about inequality, women, farmers, and more.

There are however, a lot of gaps in the story of Ramya’s life. Growing up in a boarding school away from her mother, and even perhaps their particular circumstances did take a toll on their relationship. While there was, and still is, love and respect between the two, there is some distance too.

“I’m emotionally connected to my mom, but we don’t talk much. I’ve never really sat down and asked her (about the past). She’s never probed into my life and I’ve never probed into hers.”

She has made peace with the ghosts of the past, but ask her to name a few, and she says “All the things I could not understand.” There were many of those. “When you go through difficult times, you have two paths: you can either take things negatively or positively. It’s about how you look at your experiences in life, and I’ve taken them positively. I have no regrets because all the people in my life and experiences I’ve had, have shaped me.”

These days she spends her time running the trust in her father’s name, working for farmers in her constituency, educating herself, writing, reading and continuing her political activities. Ask her about her love life, and all you get is “I love myself. And I love everybody.” She continues for a bit in that vein, even though she has in the past publicly spoken about her last boyfriend Raphael, whom she was dating in 2011.

While she continues her search for her place in the world, the rumour mill continues to dog her. Time and again the gossip columns discuss Ramya and Rahul Gandhi, guessing at their relationship. “That’s society for you. Society is tuned to think in a certain way. All of us are victims of its frivolous interpretations. Especially women. But for me, these (descriptions in gossip columns) are just words.”

She then stopped and said with characteristic firmness: “Hold on, how does it matter? How does my life matter to you (the public)? I have no qualms talking about it. This is me. If it inspires someone, or makes themselves feel better, then good. But how does it really matter (otherwise)?”

(All photos are taken from Ramya's Faacebook page and used with permission)

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