Sudani From Nigeria actress Savithri Sreedharan opens up on being part of the National Award-winning film
Malayalam actress Savithri Sreedharan recalls her experiences on the sets of Sudani from Nigeria, and life in theatre.
In National Award winning film Sudani From Nigeria, the elderly lady Jameela is always seen in a nightdress with a cotton shawl lazily covering her head. Her smile is almost timid but once the sides of her mouth crease, it warms your heart instantly. This shy and petite Muslim mother, hailing from a village in North Kerala, is perhaps one of the most gratifying sights Malayalam cinema has offered in the last decade. Though in theory she defines unconditional love, she is also a far cry from the stereotypical dramatic one-dimensional mothers one is so used to seeing on screen. It’s no wonder that the actor who immortalised Jameela won most of the awards for Sudani from Nigeria (2018), directed by Zachariah, including a special mention at the 66th National Awards.
When I call Savithri Sreedharan over the phone, she isn’t sure if it’s the right time to have a conversation. It’s raining incessantly at her home in Kozhikode, power has shut down and there is knee-deep water next to her home. But when the situation remains the same the next morning, I suggest a brief interview to which she agrees.
Much before Sudani from Nigeria, she has made a brief appearance in MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kadavu (1991). For someone who has literally grown up on theatre — she debuted on stage at the age of 16, after marriage — cinema was always an unfamiliar terrain. So, when Zakariya and co offered her Jameela’s role, she was hesitant. “I tried to dissuade them thinking cinema was all about glamour. But they were persistent and assured us that we would be able to deliver, and it wasn’t really what we thought it was. Most importantly we were bowled over by their love and care. They treated us like their own mothers and hand-held us through the shoot, that’s one reason we were able to do it smoothly.”
Savithri admits it wasn’t easy; she is “used to theatre” and a certain kind of dramatic acting. “But they patiently helped us shed it. Drama is always a bit loud, be it in mannerisms or dialogue delivery. But cinema doesn’t need that. It has to be natural and subtle. Like, how we talk at home.” She recalls peering self-consciously at the camera while acting only to be assured by the director and team that it was their fault. “Jameela Umma was a naïve, simple woman. She only knew to love. Once we learnt the dialogues by-heart, we got into the groove,” she says.
Savithri loved all the scenes in the film but picks the one where the otherwise docile Jameela reprimands her son for being selfish at the hospital. To my utter surprise, she quickly recites the dialogues with precision and feeling.
She has been part of two films post Sudani from Nigeria — Dakini (2018) and Virus (2019).
Though she has won the Kerala State award for acting in theatre twice, she didn’t quite foresee the State or National Award for this one.
Theatre will always be her first love. She began with amateur dramas — “Karutha Vellam was my first play” — and later became part of professional drama troupes like Kalinga theatres, KTS, Sangamam theatres, Chiranthana theatres and Stage Inda. But when these theatres were shut down, she was forced to discontinue. “Otherwise I would still be doing it [theatre],” she says.
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