South Indian actress Amala Akkineni, who recently made her web debut with the paranormal series ‘High Priestess’, isn’t keen on playing ‘mum roles’.
As much as she enjoys and respects that space, the actress — who was last seen as the progressive and kind mother in Dulquer Salmaan’s slice-of-life road film ‘Karwaan’ — was keen to try something new.
Enter ‘High Priestess’, an eight-episode series on Zee5, in which she plays Swati Reddy — a high-profile tarot reader and psychic. But it isn’t silly or ludicrous in its premise, promises the wife of Telugu superstar Nagarjuna.
“As an actor, you are always looking for something different and challenging… ‘High Priestess’ gave me that rare opportunity,” said Akkineni in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid!.
As the principal character in the series, Akkineni, subverts the tropes attached to on-screen Indian paranormal experts who are usually unhinged characters with flying hair getting psychedelic visions of the dead. The 48-year-old actress, who plays her age, is educated, cerebral and even scientific about her powers.
“I love pushing myself and I think being in a comfort zone perennially can restrict your growth,” said Akkineni, who has acted in more than 50 South Indian films in languages including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Malayalam.
People love a good thriller that makes them sit on their edge of their seats.
She isn’t proficient in Malayalam, but has found long-enduring fame in that film industry with a lean-but-rich catalogue of award-winning blockbusters.
Her hits including ‘Ulladakkum’, in which she played a woman grappling with mental health trauma, and her turn as a college rebel looking for her biological parents in ‘Ente Sooryaputhrikku’ were cult classics. So the big question remains why she never acted more in the Malayalam industry that embraced her.
“It is the language. Nobody realises that speaking Malayalam is a big challenge for me. In ‘Ulladakkam’, there was a lot of hard work to seem natural. Nobody sees the hours and hours of hard work that go into that. But it pushed me to the edge and learning an unfamiliar language got my brains on fire,” said Akkineni with a laugh.
The human and animal rights activist, who’s the co-founder of an animal welfare organisation Blue Cross in Hyderabad, talks about the new chapter in her life, her take on women’s rights and her celebrated second innings on the web platform. Excerpts from our interview with the actress…
Q: Why did you choose ‘High Priestess’ as your web series debut?
A: As an actor, I found the story of ‘High Priestess’ fascinating and there was a lot of scope in playing a tarot reader… I have found interesting roles in Malayalam films, but for the longest time I kept getting mum roles. Think understanding mum, kind mum, mum with cancer… Many shades of mum essentially. Although I have no objection to playing mum roles, I craved for something different.
Q: The first few episodes of ‘High Priestess’ reminded me of a series called ‘Ghost Whisperer’, a hit paranormal series starring Jennifer Love Hewitt… Were you struck by the same thought?
A: I remember seeing that series a long time ago. Just like how any doctor’s role would remind you of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, this series may remind you of that. This series subverts the way psychics behave traditionally. They either behave like the ‘mantravaadis’ [magicians] or they have this therapist aura around them. Director Pushpa saw my role with the latter shades of psychic in it. There are points where she loses her ability to see into the past and that’s where the twists in the tale emerges. She wanted me to play an educated lady who made a profession out of tarot card reading. It’s a legitimate way of earning a livelihood for her. She has an office/secretary and her psychic job functions as any other job.
Q: You were dealing with a paranormal series that requires you to suspend belief. Were you worried about it appealing to discerning viewers?
A: People love a good thriller that makes them sit on their edge of their seats. Agreed, there will be many who will be sceptical of what they are watching, but there will also be many who find it scary. Many reached out to me saying that ‘High Priestess’ was scary and that they loved my character who’s strong and is never shaken by anything. I play someone who firmly assesses a situation and tries to understand the spirit behind it. She’s unafraid and unshaken. So when a protagonist of a series is strong, the audience tends to root for them and they are moved by the same experiences as her. There’s comfort to be had in that. ‘High Priestess’ doesn’t belong to the horror genre, but it can be spooky.
Q: ‘High Priestess’ unravels from your perspective and that must have been exciting …
A: I don’t think I am the central character in this series. For me, the story of ‘High Priestess’ is the central character and we are parts of that bigger picture. For me, it was an important role. I am someone who’s just holding the torch. I don’t think my role is more important than any of the other actors’ roles. We had a great team and I want to be an equal partner in any project.
Q: What was Pushpa’s brief to you?
A: She sent me the script and it took some time before I read it. She’s my friend and wanted me to tell her what I thought about it. She was very anxious and told me that she can’t think of anyone but me in it. I laughed. But perhaps it was because she thought I was a perfect fit since I meditate and I inherently respect people’s belief systems. I carry light in my heart, she said. She was talking about my work with animals and NGOs. There’s a certain calm and positive energy I emanate, according to her. The energy that you carry can transform an atmosphere, she believed. Pushpa wanted me to do the role for who and what I am. ‘High Priestess’ is filled with a humane story. This supernatural thriller has shades of women empowerment in it. That’s what resonated with me the most. Every woman who faces challenges will identify with the series. It’s not just a thriller. My character drives people to do the right things.
Q: One of the episodes tackled rape and violence against a pregnant woman effectively…
A: That’s what resonated with me the most. It is handled maturely and I knew we were on the right track. We touched upon the grimness of the event, but also spoke about not dwelling on it and trying to move on. We wanted to underline that those raped shouldn’t be made to feel victimised or make them feel that something has been taken from you. We wanted to stress that their life, agency and future is in that woman’s hands.
Q: Is acting in a web series more liberating than being a part of films that often face censorship issues?
A: Absolutely. But you have to remember that web platforms have a strict quality control … During the filming of the rape scene, everyone on the sets was disturbed and horrified. The actors were going through those feelings, but Pushpa handled it beautifully. She gave clear instructions to the actors in the scene saying: ‘you do this, climb on the bed and cut’. It was a scene that was about reaction. And when you depict such violent scenes, you have a certain kind of responsibility about the feeling that the audience should walk away with. Something terrible had happened and Pushpa was effectively able to communicate it. My part was about giving that woman closure so that should could find a bit of healing it. The episode reminded her that she had led a beautiful life and that she shouldn’t let this one thing [rape] be a blemish in her existence. Let it go was our tone of the narrative.
Don’t miss it!
‘High Priestess’ is out on Zee5.