Michelle Yeoh’s resemblance to Suu Ki went a long way in moulding the actress into her character Image Credit: Reuters

Two much-talked-about films on women political leaders have recently hit the screens. The Iron Lady with actress Meryl Streep portraying Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, opened in the United States on New Year's Eve, while The Lady recently had a special advance screening at the Asia Society in New York — the film will be commercially released in February.

The Lady is about Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysian-born, Hong Kong-based actress of blockbusters Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Memoirs of a Geisha, plays Suu Kyi — a Nobel Prize winner and the leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar [formerly Burma] — and journeys into her "mind and soul".

After her father, Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, was assassinated by his rivals in 1947, Suu Kyi was raised by her widowed mother Khin Kyi who later gained prominence as a political figure and was appointed the Burmese ambassador to India. Suu Kyi followed her mother to New Delhi, where she attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and graduated from Lady Shri Ram College with a degree in politics in 1964. Suu Kyi continued her education at St Hugh's College, Oxford, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1969.

The Lady revolves around the personal life of Suu Kyi and her relationship with her English husband Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, whom she married in 1972. Aris, a "pillar of strength" for his wife, died of prostate cancer in 1999 aged 53. Since 1989 when his wife was first placed under house arrest, Aris had met her only five times, the last time being for Christmas in 1995. She could not leave the country to be at the side of her dying husband, fearing that the military junta would not allow her to return. She was also separated from her two sons, who live in the United Kingdom, though they visited her in Myanmar last year.

In the 1990 general election, her National League for Democracy party won 59 per cent of the votes and 81 per cent (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. Suu Kyi had, however, been held under house arrest even before the elections. She remained under house arrest in the country for almost 15 of the next 21 years. She was released on November 13, 2010. Suu Kyi's political campaign has been influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and Buddhist teachings.

With this rich political tapestry serving as the background, Michelle Yeoh succeeds in making a complete transformation into her character, helped by her uncanny physical resemblance to Suu Kyi.

For Yeoh, who attended the special screening at the Asia Society in New York, her performance in The Lady could very well be the magnum opus of her acting career. Yeoh was introduced to the audience by Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who spoke of her "unflinching dedication and perfect depiction of the character she portrays".

The film was directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element (1997), La Femme Nikita (1990)). The French director talked about the challenges in making the film, which was shot largely in neighbouring Thailand since the junta did not allow its shooting in Myanmar. The large number of Myanmarese demonstrators and supporters of Suu Kyi in the film, Besson said, were recruited from refugee camps in Thailand.

But some of the scenes were also shot in Myanmar despite the restrictions. Besson revealed that some of the crew members, posing as Western tourists, had visited Myanmar and shot background scenes to lend authenticity to the film.

For Yeoh, portraying Aung San Suu Kyi was not easy. The actress worked hard to get into the persona of the democracy icon. "Acting is not just impersonating your character," she said. Her preparations included studying some 200 hours of footage of Suu Kyi's public appearances, besides learning Burmese for several months to deliver lines in the language, including Suu Kyi's landmark speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1988.

Yeoh said that there was "something special" about The Lady. "Playing Aung San Suu Kyi was a journey in itself. She represents many things for many people and for many reasons. Although I have played many important roles in my life, I can say that this role has been a journey of self-realisation. Aung is a strong lady and her journey through the travails has been an inspiration to me, on which my portrayal of the great lady is based," she added. At the Asia Society, many of the female viewers were so moved that they were oblivious to the mascara-stained tears rolling down their cheeks, as Suu Kyi's life unfolded on the screen.

Yeoh met Suu Kyi during a visit to Myanmar. "I was struck by Suu Kyi's warmth and generosity. No matter how petite she looks, she exudes amazing strength. More than anything else, I felt like I already knew her, like she was an old friend, because I'd been watching her so intently, and she was exactly what I had figured she would be," Yeoh said.

Yeoh said that Suu Kyi's biggest strength was love. She preached peace and non-violence even in dealing with those who had done her harm. Yeoh recalled how Suu Kyi opened her arms and embraced her as part of her family. "It was so touching," Yeoh said, her smiling face gradually turning pensive.

After the screening, many in the audience told Weekend Review that they would not be surprised if Yeoh won an Oscar. "Michelle Yeoh deserves an Oscar for her role in The Lady," said Julie Russell, a Malaysian woman married to an American businessman.

Besson's emotionally packed narration dwells mostly on Suu Kyi's personal life, highlighting the trauma of separation from husband Michael and her two sons. The film's title is the nickname bestowed upon Suu Kyi by her people, who see her as a beacon of grace and courage and who appreciate the huge personal sacrifices she has made in fighting for the country's freedom.

When Yeoh first read Rebecca Frayn's script for The Lady in 2007, she was deeply moved by Suu Kyi's story of love and sacrifice, and was convinced that this would be the role of a lifetime. She then approached Besson with the script; the French director was equally moved after reading it. Replying with his characteristic humour, Besson said that he would go on to direct the film because he had found an "18-month hole" in his usually packed schedule.

Myanmar has been in the news lately, with its rulers showing signs of relaxing their repression and releasing a number of political prisoners, though only after a strong nudge from Washington. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Myanmar in an effort to encourage the ruling junta to move ahead in the direction of holding free and fair elections, and to establish a democratic state that respects human rights and freedom.

Ironically, Suu Kyi has yet to see the film, which is banned in Myanmar. "I think today you can go to jail if you have a copy of it, but you know what, I hope that they will pirate the film," Besson said at the screening, unleashing ripples of laughter among the audience that comprised not only film lovers but also fans of Suu Kyi, a household name among rights activists in the US and particularly the Big Apple.


Manik Mehta is a writer based in New York.