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March 3, 2000


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'I don't want to act with half-baked idiots any longer'

Aiswarya Films were never on Aiswarya's agenda when she was young, even though she was the daughter of veteran actress Lakshmi. This stunningly beautiful young woman chose to learn computers instead of following her mother's path. But Destiny had something different in store and she went on to become an actress.

Unfortunately, despite 40 films and motherhood, the last few years have not been too good to Aiswarya. She battled with both a turbulent marriage and drug addiction, yet survived with her sanity intact. At the moment, she is working at living a more meaningful life.

Shobha Warrier had an interesting conversation with the new Aiswarya -- a highly energetic and exuberant person who now lives alone in a rented house with her five-year-old daughter. She works in a computer firm and occasionally acts in films. She says she accepts only those roles that she finds challenging.

In fact, her recently released Malayalam film, Narasimham, with Mohanlal, has been declared a hit. Her other release is again in Malayalam and stars Suresh Gopi.

What was it like to grow up as Lakshmi's daughter? Was it difficult? She was a very famous actress when you were young.

It was not at all difficult because Amma never brought home anything that would remind us that she was an actress. Till today, other than Kamal (Haasan) uncle, Rajini(kanth) uncle and (Shivaji) Prabhu sir, nobody has come to our house.

Kamal uncle was a very good friend of my mom's. Besides, we were neighbors. So I have seen him right from the time I was a kid. Rajini uncle was once shooting down the road. So he dropped in for a cup of coffee. Other than these three people, nobody from the film fraternity came to our house. There never was any filmi party in our house.

I was into all kinds of sports when I was in school. After school, my mom made sure I joined various classes like karate, dance, etc. I didn't have the time to sit at home. She didn't want me to have even 10 minutes of free time. She was afraid somebody would come and ask me if I wanted to act in films. She just wanted to keep me completely away from films.

Was she against your joining films?

Totally. My mother was very determined that, in her family, acting would end with her. It was not because she considered the profession degrading. But she couldn't think of her only child dancing in the hot sun and slogging. She knows how much hardship there is in the industry. She used to say, I don't want you to suffer like me. You study, go to America and get married. This was her standard advice!

What about you? Were you not interested in films? What about watching films?

God! I was not allowed to watch films. I was allowed to watch only innocuous films like The Gods Must Be Crazy and some other wildlife films. If there was a kissing shot, the television would be switched off immediately. Of course, after my studies and extracurricular activities, I didn't really have time to watch films.

Did you plan to do your higher studies in the US, like your mother wished?

Yes. When I completed my 12th standard 12 years ago, computers were the in thing. They had become the focus of everyone's attention in India. An IIT professor had started a computer centre near our house so I grabbed the opportunity and joined the course. Even then, I was aware of what was happening around us as I used to read newspapers and watch the news without fail.

So your life was very different from that of an actress.

Aiswarya Yes. Make up was not allowed. I still hate make up, but that's a different matter. I was like any other normal child. I was very, very naughty, always up to some prank or the other. I was spanked often by my mother and even by my grandmother who brought me up.

Compared to me, my daughter is an angel. Sometimes, I wish she was mischievous, but she is so mature. She is very quiet, well-behaved and cool.

Didn't you want to act in films?

It so happened that my mother was doing a Kannada film then, with my stepdad as the director. They needed a girl who could act as a 15 to 18-year-old. They screentested many girls, but couldn't approve of anyone. One day, they were screentesting yet another girl and I was listening to her trying to learn a few Kannada lines from my room. She was fumbling and stumbling and stuttering and I got so irritated that I came out of my room and muttered, "Can't she even say these few lines properly?" But my mom and stepdad gave me dirty looks, so I promptly vanished from the scene.

After sometime, my stepdad called me and asked, "Do you think you can say the dialogue?" I said, "Any blistering idiot can say it. I have been listening to it for the last one month from my bedroom. I can even say it in my sleep." He said, "Don't just say it. Act and show me." That was not a difficult task for me since I was a dramatics student in school.

Later, I heard my mom and stepdad fighting so I went inside to find out what was wrong. My mom was very angry because my stepdad wanted me to do the role. She was dead against it. Finally, though, she relented. I too agreed because it was not going to interfere with my studies.

I thought I would do that one film and vanish from the scene to the US. I had already got admission in Michigan University and my mind set... It was, like, Michigan University, here I come. God! I never imagined then that acting would become my career! I am 28 now. If I had continued my studies then, I would probably be the manager or general manager of an organisation now.

Any regrets?

Not at all. I still hold a job in a computer firm and, honestly, I have no regrets. I am a very optimistic person. I see the good side of everything. People call me naive, gullible, etc. But I cannot be judgmental about anybody because of their habits or because of the mistakes they commit.

So, after your first film, Hosakavya, you started accepting one film after another...

Yes. I somehow convinced my mother that I would do just one film, but it continued.

Did you enjoy the adulation, admiration and star status?

No, I was and I still am very uncomfortable.

You said you didn't like make up. Do you feel odd or awkward in those glamorous costumes and make up?

Very awkward. In fact, I still feel odd if there is even a millimetre of make up on my face or if I am dressed up. I don't feel comfortable at all.

Then why did you choose to act in commercial cinema?

Yeh to pet ka sawal hai. When you are very young, nobody gives you good, National Award winning kind of meaningful roles. Now, I will get such roles. Even if I was given artistic roles then, I would not have performed well.

An actress becomes good with age and experience. Experience in life makes you a better artiste. It is very easy to recall emotions which you have experienced. As you grow older, you get to experience a plethora of them.

I have read that you got addicted to drugs after your marriage. How did it happen?

I became an addict because my husband was into drugs.

Did he force you to take drugs?

Aiswarya No, he did not force me at all. One was going through a death wish in life at that point in time because the marriage was breaking up. My argument was, if you can't beat them, join them. But I don't even regret getting into drugs because it taught me what life is, it also taught me what drugs are all about.

It must have been a very traumatic period for you.

It was very traumatic, even though it lasted only six months. Thank God, those six months gave me an experience that would last a lifetime. I wouldn't give drugs to even my worst enemy. I would rather kill him, but I would not give him drugs.

I wanted to find out what made my husband the kind of person he was, so I took to drugs. I couldn't get him out of it even after two years of marriage, so I wanted to find out what the hell it was. But I soon I realised I had made mistake. It is only by the grace of a Higher Power and the help of my counselors and by living one day at a time that I came out of it.

Was getting out of it very difficult?

It was very easy getting into it. Getting out of it was also easy. The physical symptoms disappeared fast, but the mental craving stays in your mind. I am still in touch with my counselors because it is a very powerful experience and it grips you emotionally. So, if you are experiencing a major trauma in life, your mind craves for it. I am not going to do it again but, to be on the safe side, I am still in touch with my counselors.

I go to the slums and many other places with my counselors and talk to addicts quite often. Mind you, many of the addicts are kids. The other day also, I went and gave a speech on drug addiction. I have no qualms about telling people I was a drug addict once. I am the only person who has admitted this in public. I do it because I am damn proud of myself.

Because you came out of it successfully?

I came out of it and reconstructed myself as a human being. Today, I am successful in my own right. I am on my own. I make my own money, I pay the rent, we eat decent food and wear decent clothes. I find my way around. I look after my child and I have been an excellent mother.

How did those six months change you as a person?

I grew up overnight. First, I felt like a failure. My self-esteem was six feet below the ground. My child was just one-and-a-half then. Fortunately, my death dance with drugs lasted only six months and I recovered in another six months.

But my husband refused to come out of it. He was very helpless. Our marriage broke up and I felt like a failure. I felt useless as a wife. My entire future was a question mark. I was constantly asking myself, what will I do? What will I do? What will I do?

After I recovered from drugs, I left him and returned to my mom's place. The divorce proceedings began. I was doing nothing those days. I didn't want to act anymore because everyone in the film industry knew I was into drugs. I sat in a room, very depressed and stared out of the window.

My mom arranged for a psychiatrist to treat me and talk to me because I didn't like to talk to anyone. But that was because I felt like a failure. If not for my mother, I wouldn't have come out of it. It was more traumatic for her. She would look at me and cry. Every time she saw my baby, she would cry.

Thank God, my parents had a very good library at home. They just plied me with books on psychology, spirituality and positive thinking. My brain was numb but those books brought me back to life. In one year, I was off all medicines. And, finally, I smiled.

What did you do after that?

I wanted to continue my computer education. So I joined the NIIT. That was in 1997. I really worked hard for the next one-and-a-half years. I think I can say I worked like a dog.

Didn't you want to go to the US then?

Aiswarya No, I wanted a job here itself. And I got a good job in a Bombay-based computer firm. I am still working for the company. I returned to films because one of my bosses was an ad film-maker. He suggested that I model for him as a young mother but refused adamantly. Initially, I was sure I would not go in front of a camera again.

Were you fed up with films?

I was not fed up. I was scared. You can never get fed up of the film industry. The magic of cinema is the magic of cinema. I was scared about whether I would be accepted back. I didn't want them to reject me. Anyway, I accepted the ad offer.

Then, Revathy's husband, Suresh Menon, asked me to act in a TV serial he was producing. In fact, he did not ask me, he made Asha chechi (Revathy) call me. And she somehow convinced me to act in the serial. Finally, I did that one serial for the Sun TV. Can you believe my telephone had not stopped ringing after that?

Were you happy and thrilled?

I would be lying if I said I was not happy. But I was so scared when I was asked to give my first shot. I thought I had forgotten how to act but I soon realised that, like cycling, acting cannot be forgotten.

I decided to continue acting as I got good offers. This, despite the fact that I had been totally cut off from the film industry for the last few years. See, I am not going after anyone asking, 'Saar, give me a role.' I want only good roles. Otherwise, I don't want to act at all.

I don't want to act with half-baked idiots any longer. I have had enough of them in my earlier phase. I have my job in the computer firm, it will always remain my back-up.

Are you happy with the films you have accepted so far?

I think so. Swayamavaram was shot in 24 hours. I had a hilarious role in it and I had a blast doing it. After that, two good Malayalam films happened -- Narasimham with Mohanlal and Satyameva Jayate with Suresh Gopi.

I had a great unit in Narasimham. Mohanlal is a very lovely human being to work with, he is the best co-star anybody can probably ask for, a darling of the first order... He has a great sense of humour and we get along fabulously. It was good fun doing the role, even though it was nothing great and anybody could have done it. But I had such a blast there. We were more like a family.

In Suresh Gopi's film, I didn't know anybody in the unit. We were friendly, but not friends. So, after the shooting was over, we would go to our respective rooms. There was no great fun or happiness there, but I had a fabulous role in the film. So I feel there is a balance in the two films. I like to work with good people even if the role is nothing great.

It is better to do one Mani Ratnam film than 10 idiots' films or 40 stupid films! I let go of Mani's Roja and Thiruda, Thiruda because I was committed to some stupid film.

After I saw Roja, I was tearing my hair and calling myself, mad, mad, mad! It came to you and because of your stupidity and principles, you gently pushed it away saying, 'Sorry, I can't do it.' It is like saying 'no' to amruth (nectar).

Photographs: Sriram Selvaraj

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