Many films don't budget for a woman lead: 'Mayaanadhi' Darshana on sexism in cinema

The ‘Bawra Mann girl’ opens up to TNM in this exclusive interview.
Many films don't budget for a woman lead: 'Mayaanadhi' Darshana on sexism in cinema
Many films don't budget for a woman lead: 'Mayaanadhi' Darshana on sexism in cinema
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The Mayaanadhi fever is yet to die down as the film continues to get good reviews and appreciation from viewers. The lead cast, comprising Aishwarya Lekshmi and Tovino Thomas, has charmed the audience. But another actor who plays a small, supporting role in the film has also become a favourite with all those who watched it.

Darshana, better known these days as the 'Bawra Mann girl', plays a counselor and Sameera's (Leona Lishoy) housemate in Mayaanadhi. The two women and Aparna (Aishwarya Lekshmi) enjoy a camaraderie that's rarely seen on screen when it comes to female characters.

Darshana, who spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia and Kerala and later moved to Chennai for a job at the Institute of Financial Management and Research, recalls her journey - which involves holding a 9 to 5 job and later running for rehearsals - in this chat with TNM.

You played a supporting role in Mayaanadhi but you've become a big hit with the audience. How does that feel?

I really wasn't expecting it. I have been doing theatre and films for a while and I have done roles which are bigger than this. People will watch and write to you and I was prepared for that. But this sort of attention is a little overwhelming. I really wasn't expecting it!

You've done a lot of theatre before getting into films - did you always want to be an actor?

Not at all. This is really by chance. I did my undergrad in Mathematics in Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi. I used to sing - my family is culturally involved in music and dance. My sister used to do theatre but not me.

After my undergrad, I did my Masters in London and then I moved to Chennai for a job in micro-finance. I didn't know anyone other than this one friend I'd met a long time back. So when I met up with him again, he said he does a pantomime every year and that I should come by for an audition. I told him I can do some singing but not act - but when I went for the audition, I ended up getting cast for the play.

When I was onstage, I found myself asking why I hadn't discovered this earlier. I was working full-time and would go for rehearsals after that, getting home at 11 in the night and just crashing. At some point, I started taking it seriously. I wanted to learn a lot more, do a lot more. Somewhere, I started consciously or sub-consciously saving up because I knew I might quit.

That scene from Mayaanadhi with you, Leona and Aishwarya, was such a good capture of women bonding, a kind of female friendship that we rarely see on screen - do the three of you share a friendship off screen as well?

Absolutely. We met through the film. I don't know how but by the end of the first day of shoot, we felt like we'd known each other forever. I think that's to do with the way the environment of the film was. The director and team made it so comfortable that you make friends with everybody.

Image courtesy: Instagram/Leona Lishoy

We were taking breaks together, eating together. In theatre, you do form these bonds for life but in films, it's usually been about going to the shoot for work and coming back. I've never had so much fun on a set. This was the first time I really wanted to go back to the sets. The three of us are really tight now.

There was a hate campaign against Mayaanadhi because of ongoing Kasaba Vs WCC issue - did that affect you?

If you open any YouTube video which is to do with the film, you can see the kind of online campaign that's going on. I get tagged to a lot of the rubbish that's being said about the film. For me, the whole thing seemed so petty.

Firstly, there's no connection with the issue itself. And for people to be dragging this down because of an association is really silly. It's a good thing and a bad thing that social media is the kind of space it is. There's a lot of negative things happening but there's also plenty of great things. A film like this will survive such negativity. It's too big for it to be bogged down by this campaign.

There's a lot of conversation around sexism and misogyny in cinema today. Is that something you've encountered?

Definitely. I've been called for films where it'd be a great script and it'd be something I'd love to work on and I'll be excited about it. When we come to talk about money, almost blatantly they'll say, "Oh you know what, we hadn't budgeted money for the female lead!"

Something that's so obvious - paying an actor money! So sexism is there in everything. There are banners which are very professional about this but there are also a lot of unprofessional things that happen. It's great that a collective like the WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) is bringing attention to this because nobody even talks about it or knows that this happens.

Does the lack of financial stability worry you?

Yes. I'm doing this with all heart. When I knew that I was quitting my job, it was out of love for acting and wanting to figure it out. For a long time it was quite a struggle to be able to see how to do all of this, how to find work.

Right now, I'm doing ten different things to make it work - I'm acting, doing story-telling, voiceover work, a lot of work with children. Most people in this stage have to do ten different things to make it work. It happens very rarely that you hit the jackpot right away.

Are you trained in music? Tell us about your love for the Bawra Mann song.

I grew up in so many different places, so I never had a proper foundation. But I've learnt a lot. It never was serious - it was something I did on the side. Being in Saudi, we didn't have access to good training. My mother was a dance teacher and we had a dance school, so I learnt a bit of that as well. There weren't many things you could do in Saudi, but of what we could do, we have done a lot!

I remember listening to Bawra Mann when I was in college. And the first time I heard it, I just felt connected to it. Everyone has that one song, you know. The first line of the song itself is so beautiful, there's something about this lost wanderer's soul setting out to dream...the song stuck with me.

And any time someone listened to it or it played on the radio, I'd get messages from different parts of the world that this song is coming and that they were thinking about me! Everyone associates the song with me.

Image courtesy: Shashank Jayaprasad

You played a rape victim in the Vijay Sethupathi film Kavan - how challenging a role was that?

It was very difficult for me primarily because I don't speak Tamil fluently. It's a lot easier if you think in the language you have to act in. So I had to really work on the lines a lot. It was also the first time I was on the sets with such big artists. I was a little scared about how it was going to be. But they were all helpful, especially KV Anand sir.

In Mayaanadhi, Appu is concerned that if she keeps playing small roles, she'll never get to be the heroine. Is that something you'd relate to?

Unfortunately, most of our films are very hero-heroine centred. It's once in a blue moon that you get noticed for a small role. It's sad but that's how it is. So I get where people come from when they say they don't want to play small roles. Why is it that if I play the role of a mother of a 5-year-old kid, the next role also I have to play the mother? As an actor, I should be able to play different kinds of roles.

For me, I want to do what I'm doing. If a character interests me, if there's a point to me being in the film, I will do it.

Is there a lot of difference between how women actors are treated in cinema and theatre?

Personally, in the Chennai theatre scene, I've found that there's a lot of respect but I've heard stories and I feel like it's everywhere. I do feel it's easier for me to be in theatre. With films, the scale is so much larger, you're meeting that many more people and that many more different kinds of people.

You've also worked as a storyteller. Has having children as your audience helped you?

Oh yes. Children are the toughest audience. You can't just faff. Even if you're doing something only for five minutes, you have to be good for all those five minutes. You can't blow their mind for just one can lose their attention in just 30 seconds!

I love it when I take these long pauses during storytelling and I can see all these small faces, waiting to see what I'm doing to do!

What are your future projects?

I've played Vishal's sister in Irumbuthirai. It has Vishal and Samantha in the lead. It should be releasing soon. I'm also working on an Anjali Menon film but I haven't shot a lot for it as yet. There are a few other films for which I'm in talks.

Listen to Darshana singing 'Bawra Mann' here:

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