Indian actress Aishwarya Lekshmi famously swapped her medical degree to follow her acting ambitions and she hasn’t looked back since.
In less than six years, she’s become the go-to girl for fierce roles in South Indian cinema. Her recent releases — ‘Archana 31 Not Out’, ‘Ammu’ and ‘Kumari’ — saw her play the titular role with a mixture of dignity, defiance and drama. So was dropping the scrubs and scalpel for strong roles on the silver screen worth it?
“I wouldn’t have done anything else other than acting … I will always choose to be an actor if given a choice. I was a good doctor because I loved what I was doing and loved the hard work, but acing also involves long hours and lots of hard work,” said Aishwarya in an interview with Gulf News.
The 32-year-old star was in Dubai on October 29 to promote her new Malayalam-language thriller ‘Kumari’, out in UAE cinemas now.
“I have done both and I still feel I will always choose to be an actor. I might come across as very selfish but a doctor touches lives every single day and after my film ‘Ammu’, I believe an actor can touch lives too,” said Aishwarya. In the acclaimed feature ‘Ammu’, she played a domestic abuse survivor who escapes the clutches of her manipulative, toxic husband.
“The other day, a woman knocked on my door at my apartment in Kochi and told me about her life that shook me for a long time. She said that film touched her life and spoke to her … What was in that film was just 40 per cent of her life and that shook me,” said Aishwarya.
Like most young actors in South India, Aishwarya hopes to bring the cinema for change movement with mainstream films. In less than a decade, she has also turned co-producer with films like ‘Kumari’ and ‘Gargi’ starring Sai Pallavi.
“Sometimes women tend to prioritise other people’s happiness over their own … But I can’t say more about ‘Kumari’ and give the farm away but I can assure you that she embodies what a woman should grow into,” said Aishwarya.
The self-made actress made a spectacular debut with the stirring romance ‘Mayanadhi’. She wasn’t born into any acting dynasty, but has made it big on her own proverbial steam.
“December 22, 2018, was the day that altered every single day after it. The release of ‘Mayaandhi’ proved that art is timeless … Even when I am dead and gone, I hope people remember me through films like ‘Kumari’ and ‘Archana 31 Not Out’. I want to do films that speak about human emotions and have lasting appeal even if we are watching films in spaceships,” she said.
So did she meet sexual predators and creepy producers while she started out in the unfamiliar world of films?
“Frankly no. I didn’t come into this industry when I was 18 and naive. I entered the film industry when I was 26 when I was a little bit more aware. At 18, I was stupid and I wouldn’t have understood or figured people out. But at 26, I could say I was a bit grounded,” said Aishwarya.
While she’s grounded and sorted in real life, her career choices are filled with experimental and bold roles. In her latest film ‘Kumari’, she plays a young bride who marries young and discovers that her husband’s house is filled with forces unknown to her.
Excerpts from our interview with the actress as we talk films, her career, and why she’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown ...
“I haven’t slept in days and I am abusing my body,” she declares. But more on that later.
‘Kumari’ belongs to my favourite supernatural thriller genre steeped in folklore ... so how scary are the ghosts?
There are no ghosts in this film, but there’s a string of mystery elements attached to ‘Kumari’. It is being widely speculated that ‘Kumari’ played by me is a ghost, but that isn’t true. This is not a horror film per se, but it has its share of shock-inducing moments. Since I watched a couple of shows with the audience, I spotted them looking scared. ‘Kumari’ is based on Vadakkan Aithihyamala [a series of old legends from north Kerala] and we are undoubtedly trying something new to Malayalam cinema. I was extremely happy seeing the first shows with my audiences.
The reviews have been mostly flattering saying that Shine Tom Chacko and you shine in this compelling thriller … Of late, you have been taking risks in your career with roles that challenge you as an actor.
It’s a mix of both – my choices have been deliberate and instinctual. I want to make career choices and films that will empower everyone – not just women … A big shout out to the writers from the Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil industry who are offering me characters that I can only dream of.
Was this film ‘Kumari’ out of your comfort zone?
To be honest, I was very comfortable doing a film like ‘Kumari’. If you watch the film, you realise there’s a lot happening in her world and suddenly she’s in the midst of a lot of ‘hungama’ [chaos]. This film is a visual treat for the audience. Many of us from Kerala have grown up hearing tales of Chathan and Gulikan and you tend to have certain visuals in your own head. So for this film, we took the help of a Hollywood make-up artist and a Kerala native make-up artist because this story is rooted in Kerala. They worked in tandem. As a kid, I remember my grandmother scaring me saying that if I don’t eat my food then some divine figure will kidnap me. Honestly, those stories didn’t scare me and in this film too we are not trying to scare you but to give you glimpse to what that world would look like. There’s no attempt to scare anyone.
Do you feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that a film in which you play the titular role is now releasing in the UAE?
Yes, we go through a rigorous screening process before it makes it to the UAE. Usually, a movie would have released in India or Kerala a week before and its reviews are already out before it makes it to the UAE cinemas. But I am happy about being here in Dubai because I have always felt that this movie should come to you and if I can give a little introduction to the world of Kumari, it might help audiences to head to the cinemas. A family of four will spend around Dh250 and I am acutely aware that’s it is not cheap, but knowing that ‘Kumari’ is premiering here in this region on the same day as its Kerala release fills me with pride.
So you co-produced this film too …
I felt I earned way too much money and I need to spend it by pumping it back into cinema [laughs].
You have been on a roll this year with multiple releases like ‘Ammu’ and ‘Archana 31 Not Out’ and 'Ponniyin Selvan -1'… So you must be glad that you swapped your medical degree to become an actor.
Thank God for make-up artists! Right now, I am abusing my body. I have not slept properly in the last one month because I have had three releases. I am on the verge of an emotional break down every single day these days and all my friends are completely aware of it. Having three film releases isn’t a joke.
Do you feel overwhelmed?
I feel incredibly grateful that this is happening post-COVID. There was a time when I would wake up every day and wonder where my next film would come from. From that to saying that I am the co-producer of ‘Kumari’ as I sit in front of its poster in Dubai feels incredibly nice. I feel I have done something right in my life and that everything is aligning. But I am not able to meet my parents that often or spend time with my dog.
Sounds like a good problem to have! In your last three releases, you have played the title role and you led those projects to the finish line. So do you choose projects based on whether your character forms the title …
Maybe I should put that clause with my writers! [laughs]… But honestly, when my previous film was called ‘Ammu’, I asked the writers whether we can change my character’s name to a less generic name. But they told me, it was precisely the reason why they called my character Ammu because it’s a common name in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam households. It’s all by chance. The title of ‘Ammu’ came to be while we were shooting the film because it’s a name that sounds sweet, fragile, and can be any woman. They wanted Ammu to be addressed as a survivor of domestic abuse and we wanted every Ammu out there who’s going through domestic abuse to be emboldened. Ammu – who’s the portrait of a survivor – did nothing to deserve the abuse that she received from her partner … Even with the title of ‘Kumari’, director Sahadev thought that it’s a prefix for most women in a particular age for most women in India. Did you know my name is actually Aishwarya Lekshmi Vimla Kumari.
You were also a part of one of South India’s biggest blockbusters of the year: ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’, directed by Mani Ratnam …
I have received so much love from Tamilians and they now know me as Poonguzhali rather than Aishwarya Lekshmi … There was a lady who walked up to me and said that she had not been to the theatre for 18 years but she knew me and that was a big deal. I am a familiar face in the Malayalam industry since I have worked there for the past five years. But to have this lady who hasn’t watched a film for the last 18 years but was familiar with me was a big deal. In my head I went: ‘Dude, you are doing well.’
Don’t miss it!
‘Kumari’ is out in UAE cinemas now.