Pooja: Shah Rukh Khan is very famous in Sri Lanka
Ullam Ketumae, a film directed by the late Tamil director Jeeva was a launch pad for five popular South Indian actors. Two of them, Pooja Umashankar and Arya, went on to do Bala's Naan Kadavul, a cult film, years later for which Pooja received quite a few awards and rave reviews.
She has not acted in a film for two years and has just resurfaced as Princess Pabavati in the Sri Lankan film Kusa-Paba. The film is said to be the Sri Lankan film industry's contribution to the celebrations to mark the 2,600th anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment.
In this interview, she talks about Kusa-Paba and other Sinhalese films she has acted in.
What is the Sinhalese film Kusa-Paba about?
The film will go on the floors in August. It is based on the Jataka tales on the Buddha. The story is about the previous birth of the Buddha and dates back to 400 BC. It is the story of King Kusa and Princess Pabavati and is integral to Sri Lankan history and culture. I play Pabavati.
The film is being produced by the Sri Lankan Film Makers' Guild which comprises top producers and directors. I am doing the film because I could not say no to them even though I had quit films. Another reason for my acceptance was my grandfather. He is a Sri Lankan and when the team left the script with him for me to read, he picked it up and finished reading it in one hour flat. That's how interesting it was. So he urged me to do it. Also I am doing this film to thank those fans who have loved and supported my Sinhalese films.
What is your look in the film like?
Venuka, who has worked as a designer for several reality shows, will be designing my look. This will be his first film. While my costumes will resemble those that were worn by Shakuntala, we are keeping options open when it comes to jewellery. We even went to Mumbai recently to get an idea about the latest trends.
Image: Pooja Umashankar
'People write whatever they want because I'm not easily accessible'
Your co-star Jackson Anthony is a big name in the Sinhalese industry
He is an actor with tremendous talent. I loved his previous film Abba. That also had great historical significance. I have not acted or interacted with him before and thus am looking forward to the shoot.
Is it true that the Tamil film union had a problem with you doing a Sri Lankan film?
That's what a web publication claimed. The report even mentioned that I was issued a warning in this connection. But that's not true at all. In any case, there should be no boundaries for artistes. Just because I am not easily accessible, people tend to write what they want. I remember one such other bizarre write-up. Someone once wrote that the climax scene of my Tamil flick Naan Kadavul shows Arya eating my flesh! I remember joking with director Bala that we should try shooting such a scene.
What marked your entry into Sinhalese films?
My mom is a Sri Lankan and my dad, a Kannadiga. My mom is the only child and thus she often travelled to Lanka to be with her dad, and I used to shuttle between Bangalore, where I was based, and Lanka. As I often visited Lanka, I thought I could put my time to better use, so I started acting in Sri Lankan films. I have acted in four Sinhalese films so far.
Image: Pooja and Roshaan
'Sri Lankans are huge fans of Hindi cinema'
How different are the Indian and Sri Lankan film industries?
I don't see much of a difference. The Sri Lankan industry is very like our Malayalam industry.
What are the kinds of films that are made in Sri Lanka?
Most films as I have observed have an art house touch. What I mean to say is that they are very realistic and back home can be compared to the ones churned out by the Malayalam industry. Now producers are making more commercial films so as to respond to diverse tastes.
I should also tell you that Sri Lankans are huge fans of Hindi cinema. Shah Rukh Khan is the favourite. Whether they understand the language or not, they go and watch his films. In fact, some go more than once.
Tell us about your Sinhalese films
My first film was titled Anjalika. Next came Asai Mang Piyam Banna, followed by Survanda Denuma Jeevithe. They were all love stories and went on to become huge hits. I starred with Roshaan in two of these films and since people love our on-screen chemistry, they have linked us up! But we are good friends and he is such a well behaved boy. At the end of the day, we just laugh about such rumours and forget about it. He is a part of Kusa-Paba as well.
Image: Pooja Umashankar
'Eequal importance is given to the hero and the heroine in Sri Lankan films'
What scope does an actress have in Sri Lankan films?
Stories are very women oriented there. If not, equal importance is given to the hero and the heroine in any film.
Getting back to your Indian films, why did you take a break especially when you were riding high on the success of Naan Kadavul?
After Naan Kadavul my dad wanted me to quit films. I come from a traditional brahmin household and dad felt it was time for me to get married and settle down.
The film had earned me appreciation and awards -- it was almost like I had done my Ph.D. in films! I also thought it was time for me to put my MBA to use. Also, I always wanted to be known as the girl who cooks well. I wanted people to tell me that no one could beat my cooking skills. Of course, it's another matter that I am yet to make a decent cup of tea!
Image: Pooja Umashankar
'I'm working hard to shed the extra 10 kilos I have gained'
How did Naan Kadavul come your way?
The role was that of a blind girl and a director friend asked me to give a screen test for the film. I wasn't too keen for fear of being rejected, but my friend goaded me to give it a shot.
When I met Bala, he asked if I would enact a begging scene. I said yes immediately. So they gave me this dishevelled look and a pair of blinding white lens, took me to a bus stand somewhere near Madurai and left me to beg.
For the first ten seconds, I got no alms. I thought I was not convincing enough and fine-tuned my singing. Coins started falling in my plate. Then someone placed a heavy parcel too. After some time, the crew who were observing me, called me back. When I removed the lens I saw that the parcel contained food and I had managed to collect around Rs 20. Not bad at all for the first time, I would say! And that's how I bagged the role.
What's next for you?Right now I'm focused on getting into shape for Kusa-Paba. I had put on weight thinking I'm not getting back to films, but with Kusa-Paba on the anvil, I'm working hard to shed the extra 10 kilos I have gained.
Image: A still from Naan Kadavul