She is an award-winning actor with several critically acclaimed films to her name. But for the Tamil audience, she is Puyal, the fiery young woman from Kaala, who has taken everyone by storm with her performance.
Anjali Patil always thought her role in the film was a small one. But after the Pa Ranjith directorial released on June 7, Anjali's character has been among the most discussed aspects in the film.
The one scene that has struck people powerfully is when Puyal is stripped by policemen during a protest. Instead of picking up her clothes, she picks up a stick lying next to it and continues to attack the cops.
Speaking to TNM, Anjali recalls how they shot that scene.
"We were shooting in the middle of the night and I was probably the only woman on the sets. There was an assistant and we were surrounded by a mob of 500-600. But you know, I come from very strong training. I've spent 7 years in drama school. So the things we're trained to do make us practical and professional. While doing the scene, I had only one job - to make it look very normal. Because if it is not normal and casual when I shoot, my co-actors, the cops would feel uncomfortable and we would not get good shots. So it boils down to getting the shots right and getting good performances on camera."
Anjali had the option of using a body double for the scene - a man - but she decided to do the scene herself.
"We had a body double who was wearing exactly my clothes. But I didn't use him. I didn't like the idea of someone else doing it for me. I had to show them how to do it - especially the police guys - if you hold me in the air like this and if you pull my pants like this, it's going to be easy," she says.
'An emotionally exhausting job'
Looking at Anjali's body of work, it's not surprising that Pa Ranjith cast her for Puyal's role. In films like With You, Without You (for which she won the Silver Peacock for Best Actor (Female) at the IFFI), Na Bangaaru Talli, and The Silence, Anjali has played characters who've stood up to gender violence - though each of those characters has been unique.
Does she find it emotionally draining to play such roles?
"Of course, it drains me a lot. When I did With You, Without You and Na Bangaaru Talli, I was almost in depression for a really long time; they take so much out of you as an actor. It's something you don't even realise. When I came out of With You, Without You, I didn't realise that the film would affect me so much for so many years. After Na Bangaaru Talli, I decided that I wouldn't do heavy duty films like this anymore because it was affecting me mentally and physically as well," Anjali says.
In Na Bangaaru Talli, the actor's award-winning Telugu film, Anjali plays the daughter of a man who trafficks women and girls into sex work. In With You, Without You, a Sri Lankan film, Anjali plays a Tamil woman from a war-torn region who ends up marrying an ex-solider.
"When I was doing Na Bangaaru Talli, I lost hair. Physically, my hair was pulled out of my scalp. When I did With You, Without You, I thought I probably would never fall in love or be a normal girl because I was, in a way, affected by the character a lot," she shares.
Do these roles allow her a catharsis at some level? Anjali thinks for a moment and says, " I don't know about catharsis - most people think of actors who get these huge pay cheques and they get all these comforts and luxuries. I have a very different view of it, especially in the last couple of years. It's a very difficult job, it's an emotionally exhausting job. Na Bangaaru Talli we were shooting for so many nights. We were shooting for almost a month at nights. So sleeping in the day and waking up at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and then staying awake for the entire night is a very, very demanding job."
Coming back to Kaala, which draws several parallels to the epic Ramayana, I ask Anjali if her character was based on Shurpanaka. With a laugh, she says, "No, that wasn't in the brief I received. There are a lot of parallel things which you draw and it is very beautifully crafted, the way Ranjith details things. But Puyal wasn't supposed to be Shurpanaka...her nose didn't get cut! She was one of those contemporary characters, a girl of today who is equal in every way."
With You, Without You had a limited release in Chennai. It was Pa Ranjith's assistants who watched the film and told the director about Anjali's performance in it.
"The assistants called me and told me about this role. Very clearly, the best part about this entire film was that everyone always knew what sort of actor I am and what kind of work I do. There was tremendous respect when they called me. I remember them being very open to the fact that I might say no to the entire thing because I have been doing very strong lead roles and this might not be something I'm interested in. That honesty touched me," Anjali reveals.
Anjali speaks fondly of her first meeting with Pa Ranjith. Calling him a "sensitive and sensible human being", Anjali says that they had a great conversation about colours, their ideas on politics, and so on.
"That was important for me more than anything else. I felt this director is trying to do something huge. And I have been doing films, I have been standing up with people who've been associated with doing such substantial things - not paper horses. That's how I said yes, even though it was a tiny part in many ways. I always thought of Puyal like that. But when the film came out, the impact was huge," she says.
Love for Puyal
Anjali goes on to add that the love she has received for the character has been incredible and unexpected. For several women who watched the film, Puyal choosing to hit back instead of succumbing to patriarchal ideas of 'honour' that Tamil cinema has fed them for years, came as a relief.
"I can totally understand that. I've been getting messages from boys also but the amount of messages I've been getting from girls, women, it's so fulfilling. It's amazing that girls want to see this, girls want to be this, more than their shame and so-called womanhood which is pushed on us," says Anjali.
Anjali recognises that films have played a big role in selling such ideas to women.
"Films have done some amount of damage in many ways. It's very fulfilling (to do a role like Puyal) because I'm not a damsel in distress. I'm a very independent woman and I've been independent since the time I was 16. I'm earning my money, earning my food. I choose to be with people I want to be. I choose my opinion, and I don't take anyone's opinion because I owe them anything. Economic independence gives me my emotional independence. I'm not dependent on any man to be happy. That's something every woman should know," she asserts.
Off screen, within the film industry, Anjali believes there can be gender equality only when social attitudes change - a lot of women, too, are patriarchal, she points out.
Small-scale Vs Mainstream
In Newton, a 2017 release, Anjali played Malko, an adivasi woman. The film centred around subaltern politics, much like Kaala, but was very different in style. For one, Kaala was made on a massive budget and was sold as a 'Superstar' film, with Rajinikanth in the lead.
For Anjali, however, the format of the film has never mattered. She sees these films as part of a continuum.
"Not really. It has never made any difference to the work I have done. Of course, when Newton came out, it was written about all over. All the universities, professors, students, everyone was writing about it. It was incredible. It was really overwhelming, the way it was received. Then there was Kaala, a mainstream film. Thousands are watching it and then I get messages like 'Oh we've seen you in Newton' or 'Oh we've seen you in With You, Without You'. After Kaala, some people go back and see the work I've done."
Calling Kaala a huge magnum opus, especially in comparison to the small-scale films she's known for, Anjali says that as an actor, she learnt to adapt "like a chameleon." She dubbed for herself in Kaala, as she has for most of her films across languages. In fact, right now, Anjali is learning Spanish for the fun of it.
Kaala had two other pivotal women characters - Selvi (Easwari Rao) and Zarina (Huma Qureshi). The three women characters came together in quite a few scenes and although they did not always speak to each other, the dynamics between them was apparent in their glances and gestures.
Anjali says that off screen, too, the three of them shared a camaraderie which made the shoot enjoyable.
"I'm in love with Easwari akka. She's so beautiful, she's beauty personified. She's very loving. When I saw her for the first time, she came to me and said 'Ohh, you were in Bangaaru Talli!' - I guess because she's Telugu. It was very gracious of her. She was one of those people I'd see on the set and I'd just want to smile. She was quiet - I can see similarities between her and me. She'd work and then keep quiet, she'd sit by herself," says Anjali.
Huma, on the other hand, was the opposite.
"Huma is a prankster. She'd play cricket with the ball and the bat. She pulled me in as well. She knew I'm an introvert, so she'd try to draw me in. And when it came to speaking Tamil, I'd buck Huma up and tell her that she could do it if she had really long lines. We were the only two 'Hindi girls' in the sets, so we had that solidarity," says Anjali, with a smile.
Looking back at her career thus far, Anjali has no regrets.
"All the choices I've made so far made this painting of films and awards. It's made me who I am as an artiste," she says. She goes on to add, "There is no end to our desire for money and power. When I know this now for sure, I'd rather do cinema by which I'm remembered. Now even if I die in the next 4-5 years, it's fine. My films are there, they will always be there."
After Kaala, Anjali has received more offers from the Tamil film industry.
"Most of the people who approach me come with very strong idea of what I do as an artiste. They have known my work and that's why they come. So whatever role requires that kind of quotient or beauty - they'd never dare to come to me because they just know! It works in good favour for me because I don't have to convince them that just being fair doesn't mean beautiful," she says.