Parvathy on playing an acid attack survivor in her latest film Uyare: Telling the truth heals me
Filmmakers/actors don’t take that moral responsibility to understand what their choices are doing to cinema, says actor Parvathy
She made her debut in 2006 with the film Out of Syllabus, and in 2016, she made a mark in the psyche that rules Malayalam cinema when she openly challenged the on-screen glorification of misogyny by superstar vehicles. She is well-known and well-liked by certain sections of the audience for her political positions and her performances. This year she will be seen as Pallavi, an acid-attack survivor, in Uyare and also in Aashiq Abu’s multi-starrer Virus. More on Parvathy:
For the role of an acid attack survivor, you said you spend time with a lot of such survivors. What came out of those conversations?
We met a lot of survivors at Sheros Cafe in Agra. Some of them were attacked when they were as little as three years old, so more than the attack, it’s the aftermath of it that they remember. I got notes on the similarities of the attack, as well as getting a general sense of the psychological and physiological implications on them. About my character, Pallavi, the script gives the exact route that my character traverses. The craft lies between the obvious and imperceptible ones; with facts you can’t compromise on as well as the characters journey as written by the writers. A survivor watching the film shouldn’t think this has never happened to them. That would be disrespectful. However, since we chose to tell a fictional story, there are other things we have included in that’s truer to the characters story. We are walking that middle path.
This is your second film with Bobby-Sanjay, you said they would even brief you about your character’s favourite toothpaste in Notebook. Has that kind of detailing stuck with you since?
It’s very important to me. Creating certain tastes for the character is a different kind of exploration. It can be the most contradictory things. You can grow up loving ketchup and at 18, you suddenly realise you hate it! These are all things we create to make them as real as possible in your head because at the end of the day they can’t be two-dimensional, just on paper. When there is roundedness, all you need to do is embody them, so that it radiates on the screen. This is not something technical. That’s the organic part of the performance. My favourite curry or soap might never be shown in the movie, but it will exude in my body language.
The more it will help in internalising her?
Internalising her, becoming her. We are our thoughts. So at least in the moment of me being her, Parvathy does not have the space to exist there. It’s a sneaky process. As an actor I strive to portray, then understand and empathise. Because the anthropological nature of my job is to study human behaviour. To understand what circumstances made them choose what they did. We may not agree with a character in the beginning and then they might just see why— despite all rationalities, sometimes what we can do best is simply observe and try to understand.
Was there a checklist of questions for Pallavi?
I do have a bare minimum checklist, but it always exceeds those questions. There are so many permutations and combinations that make a human their being. You can never say that you have figured that character out. You never can. If you can’t figure yourself out, how can you assume to figure another? I don’t look at getting perfect answers. Also, the script is everything for me. There is an arc that one needs to navigate. First, I need to find the obvious questions and obvious answers and then read between the lines. That’s the most fun part, it’s painful because you never find the right answers. That’s where you tread the joy of letting go and trusting your team and the process.
In Qarib Qarib Singlle, for some reason, I felt Jaya’s little eccentricities were your add-ons.
That’s good to hear. To not judge Jaya and be her sincerely took a while for me. To trace her journey of 35 years was my job, as a writer you want them to figure things on their own. There are those who have a very different take on Jaya. You take the form of art and make it your own.
Actor Jayasurya once told me that he personally initiates the makeover of his films as most of his directors never think of it. Is it true in your case?
It’s always been a collective discussion. I am very proactive in this, though we have to consider the production costs. With Uyare, they had the best technicians. Prosthetics was difficult as you can’t move your jaws, it sucks your skin dry. But then it’s the emotional strain that puts me down. Physical strain is not much. I mean it’s a given. The biggest takeaway is that I am far more empathetic after a movie than before a movie. It exercises that muscle in me. I think we need more of that in people. They are finding it cool to be indifferent and insensitive especially on social media.
You played a domestic abuse survivor in City of God and even in Koode. What’s it like to shoot such scenes? Does it affect you a lot?
I have personally endured a similar trauma. It’s not even a part of empathy anymore, it’s about telling the truth. That’s the place where Parvathy and her characters can converge and sort of sit in one place holding hands. It heals me. It’s equally traumatic to make-believe such a scene. I black out. You have to do 3-4 shots and you have to put yourselves through that again and again, once it’s done hopefully there is a release. One thing that drives me to do such scenes well is that there are going to be people watching it and understanding the reality of it. That representation in cinema is important. There is such power in visual narratives. We come from a culture where there needed to be a quintessential rape scene, an item song, which unfortunately is there even these days. Filmmakers/actors don’t take that moral responsibility to understand what their choices are doing to cinema. I try to counter it is by telling the truth through my work. They have always got it wrong when I say that you can’t glorify bad people on screen they mistake it as you can’t show bad people. I say, show them, but don’t glorify. Don’t choose a visual grammar that will garner applause for beating up a woman or abusing a woman. Don’t normalise it.
That part about glorifying misogyny seems to be lost on some of the most educated people. Is it the conditioning?
I think it requires a lot of emotional labour to change yourself. People don’t want to do this emotional labour, unless they are facing the brunt of it, because then they don’t really have a choice do they. A lot of men I see in my life are now putting themselves through this emotional labour and changing their perspective. It took me 31 years to be who I am now. But there was a time when I thought it was okay for a man to feel entitled over my body because he loves me. I put in the work, and there were many who helped me.
How would you define a well-written character?
There needs to be an integrity of intention when a writer creates a character. You always feel that when you listen to the writer — did he create the character just because he wanted the story to move forward. Is there representation and storytelling within the character itself? Every character I have done, even Virus or Uyare — there are characters written which may not be the lead, but their presence gives a certain intention to the story itself and their definition brings a lot more than the main story.
Pallavi’s father has a lot of strength and softness in him. It also informs us about Pallavi. This is where a writer wins for me. They have their own backstories that make their presence even better. When I read a script if my character isn’t supported well by other characters, she loses depth. Cinema doesn’t deserve to lose depth; no matter what genre or what style. It is also about how politically aware our writers are. It’s in the subtle placement of dialogues, BGM, certain news channels in the milieu—lot of things subconsciously affect you when you watch a film. It’s layered. When I see that detailing done, I feel the project is a winner.
Do you remember the film that changed your perspective and approach as an actor?
It has to be Notebook. Every single movie, good or bad has done it in different ways. It has made it better for me as a person and an actor. This is where I want to survive – you need something that holds you close. I am lucky that I am in a field of work which provides constant nutrition for my soul and heart. When I am not working is when most of my work happens. On the set is the application of work, rest is preparation and the grief of letting go of the characters. People go to med schools, law schools for their profession. My acting coaches are actors I have worked with, filmmaker, writers and the teams they put together and the very many films I have watched. It’s a brilliant education as long as you are willing to learn and put in the work.
Is there something called a born actor? Or are there only skilled actors?
I really don’t know. You are not born anything — you have things partly genetic and partly nurtured. Some of the biggest actors have children who have never taken to acting. I don’t think there is a formula to understand that. Nothing about it is easy—studying and training. I get the same kick out of every role I did, be it success or failure (in generic definitions). I trained myself along with my peers. Maybe it’s a mix of both. Creative expression is medicine for empathetic people.
So, it can be safely assumed that a great performance cannot come from a safe place…
Never. You are never safe in performance. You are always risking your entire being in performance. You can never create a great form of art from a safe place.
But that is how you grow! Hopefully you get a great team to support you while you lay yourself vulnerable.
Have you been confused with a character you have played?
Sometimes in order to respect someone you don’t need to understand them. That’s where this study comes from. I learnt a lot from my characters who made choices in their lives in the purview of the script. You will not understand their choices unless you have gone through their plight. I listen to that character saying “I don’t mind if you don’t understand me, but I do demand respect”.
Is it important that every movie you do in future should tick all the politically correct boxes?
I believe there are certain things I can’t compromise on. I can never be in a film which has an item dance that commodifies a woman’s body. I can’t be in a film where misogyny or patriarchy is being glorified. It doesn’t even have to be my character being good or bad or being abused or not, if there is another track in the film which normalises abuse I would back out of the film. It’s the film as a whole that affects the psyche. Politically, again, it’s a hard battle but there are things which can be reflected and glorified in a film. I am all for a film that reflects the political state of the times we live in. It’s not possible to say that I will only work in political movies which I believe in. If it is honest enough to show and respect the current state of affairs, I will do it and I am actually doing a couple of films like that. For my film with Sidharth Siva, we are still talking about crossing the line as we don’t want it to be any propaganda. It still needs to come from a state of art that converses with people. We are giving you the ingredients and you are going to cook it yourself with your moral compass, political consciousness and a willingness to learn. I would like to do more films like that.
What annoys you about female depiction on screen?
The absolute incompleteness of it! It’s so polarised! Of course, it’s changing beautifully now and making me happy. It doesn’t need to change fast; it needs to change consistently. The ones I am doing are characters that have a completion to them as a person. The gender doesn’t stop the depiction of who they are. Their choices be political, religious or personal with regards to dynamic with other people. Gender is not the only thing that defines them. These gendered expectations from a woman is disappointing. Since WCC came, there has been so much (change). You cannot keep fighting with people who won’t listen, you can’t have a conversation with a mob.
What was the Virus set like?
Aashiq Abu’s set was the most transparent set I have seen. He knows how to be in control of the set. He knows how to get the best out of everyone. Actors are never lost. The writers were always there to give us what we needed. There were so many characters and it’s their efficiency and research that helped me the most. You get the gist of it - the freedom was great! It’s a vibe of "let’s perform and find out together." I am used to getting a full bound script and what the character would say, and I wouldn’t even change a punctuation. And that’s for good reason too; because such a script would have a reason for each dot. So, Virus was a space where I was given another role, as a collaborator. It was slippery, scary yet liberating at the same time.
Reese Witherspoon recently said if payment was equal, exploitation wouldn’t have happened…
With women most of the time, there is this looming sense of being done a favour when they get a job. Jennifer Lawrence talks about changing the tone when she negotiates. She would assert her payment, smile an extra, just so that the man might not get offended by that assertiveness. Because the same thing coming from a man would be called confidence and entitlement while it will be arrogance for a woman. Lots of men and women in the beginning of their careers are taken for a ride. The whole idea of launching an actor is something I don’t understand. You are not launching a rocket! That person is doing their job. "I launched that actress." Wow, I didn’t see it in the sky! It’s one thing to be grateful to that film and team that introduced you as an actor, but another thing to have a sense of ownership. Pay parity is a long way off, it can only come when you re-condition yourself. Women have shrunk themselves so much that they don’t know how it is to bloom on their own. My aim in life is to take space which is rightfully mine. We are not even allowed to be a bigger size. What the hell! I am taking my own space. Physically and otherwise. That doesn’t take away anyone else’s space! We can all coexist just fine.
Do you think the culture of power and abuse will change post #Metoo?
It is changing. There is a constant change in the level of awareness. A lot more vocal support from men as well. As they are the ones with power, it’s great. When they stand up for us, they are also standing up for themselves. I think society benefits from everyone working together. Transgender and non-binary individuals as well! Their stories are as important. The community of transgender people, the LGBT community, were vocal in their support for WCC, because they know what it is like to be marginalised. We need to bring everyone together. We need to change the narrative.
You recently admitted in an interview that you weren’t getting any offers post the Kasaba issue. Is the situation still the same?
I am one of the most privileged ones. I had a lot of support from those who were ready to brave it for me. But those the kind of commercial success I have seen recently? They suffer a lot more. So, it’s important to make work for them. It’s important that they are included in the movies we are doing. Telling your truth and employment should not be an either/or. By standing up for myself I hope to create more space for them to stand up for themselves. There’s lot more work coming our way whether rocket launchers like it or not!
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