How Neeta Pillai trained in martial arts to play female lead in 'The Kung Fu Master'

Neeta speaks about why she decided to do the film, even putting her education on hold.
How Neeta Pillai trained in martial arts to play female lead in 'The Kung Fu Master'
How Neeta Pillai trained in martial arts to play female lead in 'The Kung Fu Master'
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Two bats were kept on either side of her. She had to stretch; it was an exercise to improve her flexibility. But then, the master kept changing the place of one bat further, which meant she had to stretch more and more. It was painful and Neeta Pillai cried out loud. But it never occurred to her to stop the training, or even to slow it down. Even when the master said she was ready, Neeta asked if she could train some more.

Nearly a year of hard training later, Neeta Pillai was still a nervous wreck on the first day of shooting for her new film The Kung Fu Master. Neeta had jumped on the offer that came from director Abrid Shine, who brought her to the film industry through Poomaram, which also introduced Kalidas Jayaram in an adult role. Even before Poomaram was complete, Abrid asked her if she wanted to do an action film. She didn’t have to think twice: yes she did, very much.

“I have always enjoyed watching action films. Female action movies especially have a grace and beauty to them,” Neeta tells TNM over a phone interview that has to be done in parts. She is busy travelling for promos of the film and giving live interviews. She doesn’t seem to mind repeating the same answers: yes there was a lot of training, yes, it was tough, and no, there were no doubts about playing one of the leads in an action film.

In the film, she played Rithu, sister to a Kung Fu Master, played by Jiji Scaria. The two take revenge on the villains who hurt their dear ones; there is a lot of action on screen and very few lines spoken. Neeta, one film old, was one of the more experienced actors of the lot, most of the others being newcomers. “They may be new as actors but they were all trained in martial arts – they have been practising it for years. Jiji is an international champion and Wing Chun (type of Kung Fu) instructor,” Neeta says.

She had absolutely no background in martial arts when the offer came. She began her lessons with kickboxing and then Taekwondo, Judo and Karate before moving on to Kung Fu and the Wing Chun style in particular. The style practised by later actor Bruce Lee. “I didn’t know how long it would take to train or what was in store. But I really wanted to master the basics so it would look convincing. And somewhere along the way, I began enjoying it,” Neeta says.

All the training was in Kochi, which meant that the MBA she had planned on doing elsewhere had to be deferred. Neeta was in the final leg of her Master's programme in the Louisiana University in the US when Poomaram came to her. The offer, coming from a director who had proved himself with his very first movie, 1983, was too good for Neeta to leave it and go back to her course. She stayed on. The movie that was entirely dedicated to youth festivals in Kochi where colleges would compete tooth and nail with each other, took a long time to release.

Abrid’s next offer was again special. Malayalam cinema has perhaps not had a full-length martial arts film so far, much less with a female actor as one of the leads.

“It was a lot of stress. It wouldn’t matter to the audience how much of training happened before the film. All that matters is how convincingly it comes on the screen. And I was fighting opponents who have had years of practice, who are national and world champions,” Neeta says.

The response has, however, calmed her down. There have been a lot of positive comments, praising Neeta’s stunts and she’s more than happy that all the training has paid off. She still continues her martial arts lessons, for it had never occurred to her that this was for a movie, and she should stop at a certain point.

The movie, however, appears to have relied on very little publicity. Neeta reckons that it was kept under wraps since the shooting was taking time. Unfavourable weather (the film was shot in Uttarakhand and the climax was shot during snowfall) and injuries on the sets led to delays in the shooting. Neeta herself had a ligament tear and she had to wear a plaster for a couple of months. Even now, she is going through physiotherapy after a shoulder dislocation. 

“It took 170 days to shoot the film. But once the shooting was complete, the film was announced,” Neeta adds.

Another problem was that many appeared to think this was an English film, seeing the title.

However, all this might not affect the film if the response continues to be as good as it is now. While the scripting isn't all that impressive, it's clear that the fight sequences involved a lot of hard work, and Neeta especially has performed well, both in terms of her stunts and dialogue delivery. She has dubbed for herself for both her films, another process the young actor says she enjoyed a lot.

After both the films, Neeta’s decided to stick to cinema for a while. She hasn’t yet committed to a new film yet, but new offers are coming. 

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