Despite having little to do with acting, 86-year-old Devi garnered much praise for her understated role as an old woman in Tharun Moorthy’s ‘Saudi Vellakka’.

An ols woman sitting in a bus looking away thoughtfully, the ends of her light colour sari wound around her headDevi Varma in Saudi Vellakka
Flix Interview Thursday, January 19, 2023 - 09:39

Devi Varma had not watched a film for 15 years when she was offered the leading character of an aged woman in a film in 2022 . She was 85 years old, not at all keen to act, but she not averse to the idea when filmmaker Tharun Moorthy came to tell her about Saudi Vellakka, his new film. He had by then surprised Malayalam movie audiences with Operation Java, his debut, which did wonderfully well. Devi Varma heard him out and only expressed one concern: she might have health issues. They brushed it off — that could be managed, they said. Saudi Vellakka was made and Aisha Rawuthar, Devi’s character, was warmly received.

“I had no tension, no difficulties because I had to think of nothing. I knew nothing about cinema, so I was not nervous. They tell me what to do, and I do it,” Devi Varma, now 86, says in a short interview from her house in Tripunithura. She had never thought of acting or even been interested in films all that much. Devi, originally from Palakkad, was in Tamil Nadu for many years while her husband worked there. The film has a shot where a picture of Devi and her husband is seen hanging on a wall.

The only vague connection she had to acting was watching her grandson Sidharth go to act in theatre. “All I thought of was that if that’s what they wanted to do, let them do it. I never thought of it for myself,” she says.

Tharun got the idea when he saw pictures of Devi on her grandson’s phone. He asked Sidharth if she would act. The grandson told him to ask Devi in person. Tharun’s protagonist is a Muslim woman in a small locality of Kochi, fighting a case for many years. She had, without meaning to, hurt a little boy while slapping him for a mishit vellakka (baby coconut). A vengeful neighbour prods the boy’s parents to file a case against the old woman. The whole incident takes a toll on her, mellows her down, changes her to a regretful woman who nevertheless learns to take her life into her hands and live it through. Alone, fearless, but wanting forgiveness for the day that had gone so awfully wrong.

Read: Saudi Vellakka review: An old woman leads this sweet film that celebrates the ordinary

Devi put on a mostly impassive face to show Aisha’s journey through the years. Her anger, sorrow, and even joy were barely visible on the face, but came through in the slowness of her stride, the tiredness of her body, the consistency of her silence. Only, she did not dub for the character. It was actor Pauly Valsan’s familiar voice as Aisha. 

“I did not think much of my performance when I watched the film on the screen for the first time, when they took it to Goa (for the International Film Festival of India). But I was happy to hear from others that I did well,” Devi says.

She has already won a few awards for her role, including a special jury mention from the Prem Nazir Suhurth Samithi Thiruvananthapuram, and another instituted in the name of Kalabhavan Mani. 

She had found no similarities between her and Aisha. The religious and social backgrounds were different. Aisha’s is not the kind of reaction that Devi would have in similar situations, she says. “There is no question of liking or not liking a character once you agree to do it. You just do it well,” Devi says like a professional. She says she has no plans to act any further, neither has she decided never to act again.

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