You wouldn’t expect Kovai Sarala, a veteran actor with over four decades of experience, to say that she can no longer find her niche in cinema. Life, people, and cinema have changed over the years, and Sarala grapples with the reality of it all. “Change is inevitable, in cinema and life. From make-up and acting to lighting and shooting, everything has changed.” The evolution of cinema has been to the extent that actors now have screen lives that span a few films, she says. “Heroines could be on top for a decade back then.” Now, this doesn’t mean she isn’t appreciative of how cinema has developed technically. “A lot of youngsters are here with brimming ideas, but sometimes they look at us as ‘oldies’ with obsolete ideas.”
Further, Sarala misses having “her directors” around. When she was at her peak, directors and actors collaborated more frequently, sharing a great understanding of each other. Sarala gets emotional at the mention of yesteryear filmmakers V Sekhar and the late Rama Narayanan — she has done about a dozen films with each of them. “They were like a parent to me. With their absence here, I feel like a child lost in the woods,” she says. Adding to this is the reduced scope for comedy in films. With narrations getting tighter, cinema has practically done away with comedy tracks that used to run parallel to the story. “We had writers who could write such tracks. Sometimes they would design scenes for an artist specifically, and at times, these comedy tracks were the reasons for the success of some films. Now, writers don’t want that and so comedians end up as heroes’ friends or brothers, and so on.”
One can sense Sarala’s tribulation when she says that she has never gotten what she wished for. , Oru gundoosi kuda kedikadhu (I don’t even get something as small as a pin)” SimbiIn her film with Prabhu Solomon that is set to hit screens this week, Sarala could finally fulfill a long-time wish of hers: doing a full-fledged serious role. She plays Veerathaayi, an elderly tribal woman who undergoes great ordeals to protect her granddaughter. “All these years, whenever I cried on screen, it was meant to make the audience laugh. Now, I wanted to make you all cry and I took it as a challenge,” she says. It was a major item on her bucket list. “Even great comedians like Nagesh sir got a Server Sundaram or Neerkumizhi to do that, but I got it only now.”
But the task ahead of her was mountainous. “The character was exciting, yes, but I was hesitant,” she says, adding that no matter how many films she has done, there will be a certain nervousness until the first shot. “With every film, it all feels new because you are working with a fresh group of people. But eventually, you will get comfortable. With Prabhu, Sarala chose to be blunt. “I told him that he should guide me through and that I won’t do anything with my own assumptions. So he had to teach me how my character Veerathaayi behaves, how she speaks, her body language, etc.”
That’s precisely what Prabhu also wanted to do once he cast her in the film. Firstly, the very choice of casting her in this role is intriguing. “People look at her as Kovai Sarala. I look at her as an actor. Only a good comedy actor can pull off all the Navarasa expressions. And of all the ’80s actors, only Sarala ma still has that level of enthusiasm and energy,” he says. And this meant that Prabhu had to erase everything that we associate with Sarala and bring to life a Veerathaayi. “Having done 750+ films, she has a certain body language in front of the screen, and even that had to change. But she was so obedient and that’s what I admired the most about her. She was humble and she submitted to the process of bringing Veerathaayi to life,” he says.
Kovai Sarala as Veerathaayi in ‘Sembi’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
While Sarala was informed of the nuances of her role, Prabhu had missed out on a pivotal detail. “He didn’t tell me about the dangerous locations we were to shoot (chuckles).” Prabhu, who is well-known for films like Mynaa and Kumki, is known for its picturesque locations, often in hill stations with enough forest cover. since Mynaa (2010), this is a common feature in his films, but Prabhu dislikes such branding. “The stories demand these settings. And nobody asks why other filmmakers make their films inside coffee shops and colleges. I think everybody loves nature and they need an outlet. Also, I am bored as an audience as well. At least let my films take people to a different world,” he says.
For Simbi, Prabhu shot in remote locations around Kodaikanal. This demanded a lot from Sarala, physically, but she says it felt more adventurous and a child-like enthusiasm than anything. “Given my health ailments, I still wonder how I sat on top of a hill, at 1700 ft, without even complaining,” she says. What seems to have been really challenging was shooting inside the bus. Simbi has extensive sequences set inside a minibus. Other than the space constraints, the team had to be mindful of the lighting, given how the entire film was shot in natural light. “The light allowed three hours per day to shoot. But we also had to go through several hairpin bends. Moreover, you won’t know when the climate here changes. It’s difficult to maintain continuity in these situations, but we managed,” says Prabhu. Sarala was at first astonished at how they were shooting with such minimal lighting, but to perform, she had to forget what was going on. “I just had to perform with a laser-like focus, and so it needed a very controlled acting,” she says.
Thambi Ramaiah, Kovai Sarala, Prabhu Solomon, and Ashwin Kumar in a still from ‘Sembi’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
The bus that they mention, interestingly, seems to be a character by itself. Prabhu says that it represents society. “The passengers inside that bus are all from different castes and creeds, with each of them carrying their own stories.” In most of his films, Prabhu has strived to voice out issues faced by those who are silenced in our society. In fact, real-life incidents seem to be the inspiration that pushes him to do a film. “Many aren’t even aware of the legal recourses that are available to them. They lack situational awareness, and sometimes, people also lose the fight in them and conclude that there’s no chance of anything happening. I want to collectively show these human contradictions on screen. And Prabhu thinks cinema is the medium for it. “It’s the most effective language. Cinema halls are where we all unite.” However, he understands why Tamil audiences are wary of films with a ‘message’, and assures that he will never make a preachy film and that Simbi isn’t one either. “I am audience too and I don’t like that as well.”
Sarala is happy with where her character Veerathaayi has taken her. Having done Simbi, she now wishes to perform as a stone-cold villain in a film. But she reminds me that she isn’t used to getting her wishes fulfilled. So what does the future hold for her as an actor? “That’s not how I see my work; I am just another worker and I have to earn as well. So I can’t be picky. At the same time, if I am offered something like SimbiI have to give my best. That’s all I care about,” she signs off.