Most of south India is fidaa over Sai Pallavi who is only three films old but has managed to acquire an enviable fan base.
Glowing in the success of her Telugu debut, the actor spoke to TNM about her films so far, her views on beauty, what she thinks about the portrayal of women in cinema and more.
Take notes from Malar Miss because this is one smart actor who knows what she's doing and has managed to make the audience fall in love with her without striking any compromises.
Sai Pallavi has two upcoming films, Karu in Tamil and MCA in Telugu.
Most people think Premam was your first film but you had a small, uncredited role in which you appeared with Kangana Ranaut in Dhaam Dhoom.
Yes, but I wouldn't call that my debut. I didn't know what I was doing! I was only in sixth grade and I went along with my friends because I wanted to cut class. I did that for two days (shooting)...it was quite an experience. I felt really uncomfortable wondering how do people do this in the heat, repeat the same thing over and over again. I saw what they were going through...the costumes, the make-up, the hair. And I thought it must be very tough to be a heroine.
You've done three films so far, two in Malayalam, one in Telugu. All three films had such well-written roles for the female character, something of a rarity. How did you pull this off?
I'm happy, first of all, that I was lucky enough to get them. But I was also held up with college and I wasn't in a position to do a lot anyway. I did one film a year and that itself was too much for me because I was concentrating on Medicine. I wasn't in a hurry to do movies.
When I watch movies, I think women are much stronger than how they show them. Nobody portrays them right...maybe in some films like Mani Sir's Kannathil Muthamittal it was done well...I'm drawn to such films.
I feel the people who represent women should be stronger in how they do it. I've watched movies where there would be some dialogues and then a song...and I'd be thinking this is not how I'd have reacted. I'd have slapped the hero and done something else!
I'm also happy I didn't get into the industry when I was very young...like at 18 or something. I knew what I was doing when I came in. I knew what I was comfortable doing. I felt like I had the right to say what I wanted and that made things easier for me.
Your last character, Bhanumathi, comes across as a strong and sensible woman. But yet, she's quick to misunderstand and rather temperamental - did you wonder why she just doesn't speak openly about her fears to Varun?
Yes, I did wonder. But when you play a character, you start making excuses for whatever the character does. So how I thought about it was that I (Bhanumathi) just needed a reason not to leave my country and go behind this charming guy in the US. The minute I saw that he thinks of this country as a time-pass, I decide he's not for me.
Women do think a lot about relationships - we think of 2-3 possibilities in future. So I wouldn't judge the character based on what she did.
There are quite a few women from the industry who are speaking up against sexual harassment and also about how women are portrayed on screen. Your thoughts?
Honestly, I haven't been put in a place where I was forced to do something or be in a situation where I was uncomfortable. I've worked with the best of directors and crews. In many ways, I have been lucky.
But from what I hear from people in the industry and when I watch movies, I do think "Hmm, this song could have worked if the girl was shown wearing a longer dress maybe?"
Because it's not normal for a woman to go and roll in the ice with the shortest clothes! Men wear four layers of coats and pants and the girl has to wear a chiffon saree and a thin blouse - I used to get angry about this before I came into the industry. I used to wonder why directors think people will like this...because it's just unnatural! If it was natural, it'd be okay.
Image credit: Twitter/Sai Pallavi
In so many places in films, when there are generalizations about women, I think it has an influence on people, especially young men who haven't met too many women. They grow up with the notion that this is all women have and this is all they can do.
I think movies play a major role in how kids grow up. We've always shown mothers have to sit at home, dads have to work...heroes have to run behind the heroine. Women have to work twice harder in any environment to prove that they are equal to men or better.
Men within the industry sometimes do want to bring down a lady who is strong. Just to prove that they did this to a strong girl. I went through this experience when someone wanted to be friends with someone else and they did that by putting me down - to show that they are way too macho! It's not just physical abuse, they laugh at you...there are other ways.
People have gone on about your acne and how cool it is that you don't seem to care that it shows on screen. Did you always have that kind of confident body image while growing up?
Actually, no. I went to college abroad and I thought the girls there looked much better - they had clear skin, they had a good body. But the thing is, they worked towards it. They make sure they exercise...I see them jogging at four in the morning! So I felt that they deserved it and I felt I was way too lazy.
When it came to Premam, I confessed to Alphonse (Puthren) that my hair is really shabby and wavy. The heroines have really straight hair and feather cut and all that. I asked him if I should do such things. He said, "No, I want you to be raw. I want you to be as you are and I think you fit the bill."
I don't know why people keep mentioning pimples and acne. I did have it when I was much younger but right now its Rosacea. It comes because of excess heat - anytime I'm really stressed, it happens. And obviously, when I'm on camera, I'm stressed. When people see me in real life, they're like...this girl doesn't have anything on her face. I'm photo-sensitive, the minute I turn hot or it's sultry, I turn red...that is all it is!
Image credit: Facebook/ Sai Pallavi
We did try on make-up but I looked totally different and he said this is not you. Whatever I was emoting wasn't coming through. Towards the end of the film, I was feeling insecure and I asked him if he was sure about this. There are women who've acted without make-up but they don't have all this on their face. I asked him if people would be comfortable because I didn't want them cringing. Then he said, "This is going to be different."
Many women have come and told me, "We're more confident now because people love you for who you are in the films. They don't judge you by your looks." I used to be happy to hear this in the beginning because I wish there had been someone like this when I was growing up...I would have accepted myself for who I am. But now, by the third film, when people ask me about looks, I just think we don't have a grading system for beauty, do we? We just call someone beautiful. It's in the eyes of the beholder.
Beauty cannot be measured by comparing people. Each one is actually pretty. When someone says "People accept you the way they are", I'm like "What the hell? What's there for people to accept? I'm awesome the way I am." People should wear their confidence.
Health does matter. If people said I was too anaemic, I would worry about it. That's something we should take care of. But if it's about looks, I wouldn't be stressed about it. I see young kids also going through this. To go to college you have to put on so much make-up! Because we live in the age of social media and you have to put your pictures on Instagram and people have to Like you!
Kali was a very intense film...about violence within oneself, violence in a relationship and then finally violence from an external source, a rapist. How challenging was it for you to play Anjali?
Anjali was actually pretty easy. I've seen women...parents...having fights, arguments and all this. So I could relate to most of it. How a happily married couple would be, how they'd have fights and misunderstandings.
But when it came to the chase portion and I had to get scared, I had to bring in portions from my life when I'd actually been scared. Every girl goes through this - when they are abused, harassed, or are scared by men on the streets. So I had to pull that into the picture to feel that way and it was pretty traumatizing.
I remember Sameer Ikka (director) saying "Oh I made a little girl cry. I'm so sorry." But I told him I was thinking about incidents that did happen, I was pulling in things from the past.
I consider myself to be very brave but when it comes to a situation like this, I think women tend to avoid physicality. I'd just freeze and that's what happens to this character, too. She just holds on to herself.
So can you actually drive in real life? Because Anjali struggling at the wheel was so real!
I think I can but my parents would disagree (laughs). They don't let me drive because they think I'm a bit impatient on the road. They think I don't concentrate enough and am not fit to be on the road!
Why didn't you do Telugu Premam? Did they make an offer?
They didn't make a direct offer but people did ask me what if you got to play Malar in Telugu Premam, would you do it? Once I'd done a character like Malar and people liked it, I wouldn't want people to feel that it was a repetition of what I did. If I tried something else, it had to beat what I already did or the flavour would go out of their heads.
Image credit: Twitter/ Sai Pallavi
I was not sure if I could do a better job at that point. I said I didn't know if I could do justice to Pallavi playing Malar again. I think that's the case with any remake. You should be talented enough to play the same role differently, bring another flavour to it...you should be confident enough. Like what Kamal Sir did in Paapanasam, he did Mohanlal Sir's Drishyam but differently.
And also, they didn't make a direct offer. There were rumours going around that I might get the offer and I'd reacted to it saying I don't think I can repeat the magic again.
Your debut in Tamil has taken a while. You were supposed to be in Kaatru Veliyidai. But now you're finally doing Karu, a horror film backed by Lyca with no big heroes.
Any creator knows what is best for their work. Especially someone like Mani Sir, he knows what is best for me and the film. I don't think anyone other than Aditi could have done that role better. I'm happy about it. I totally believe in this thing that whatever happens, happens for the best - be it good or bad!
Maybe Tamil took a while because I was busy doing Fidaa. I came back from Georgia after doing my Medicine and I directly went into the sets of Fidaa. We shot for four months continuously and then the hero broke his leg. So I had to wait for his dates. I didn't want to commit to another film and make both the directors wait.
When Premam happened, I thought my friends (who are mostly Tamil) may not even watch it. And if it didn't work, I won't even tell anyone that I acted in a movie...I'd just silently go off. That's how it happened. I haven't planned anything. Even Kali just happened...I listened to a good script and I had the time to accommodate it in my schedule.
I didn't wait for a dream debut in Tamil. I did look at characters and scripts...and I said yes when I found something that fit me.
I'm happy with what Vijay Sir (Karu director) has got out of me. My mom is the best critic, she's very open when it comes to saying if I've done well or not. When she watched Premam, she said this is the character Pallavi from home, so don't be too proud, don't boast.
When she saw Fidaa, she said this is definitely not you, you've done well. She was happy with what I've done in Karu. I'm excited.
Does your sister plan to act? She looks a lot like you!
Oh yes, she does...but I don't know if she wants to act. She's just a baby in my eyes. I'd be supportive if she wants to act but right now, she's just happy walking around and judging me (laughs).