My meeting with Shalini was fixed at 11 one morning.
I am greeted at the door by an obviously just-gotten-out-of bed, very sleepy Shalini. "We usually get up early. But Ajith was shooting till late last night. So we went to bed late," she explains.
Chalk it down to marriage or the long break from films. Whatever the case, the woman is glowing. Never has she looked more beautiful.
Shalini started acting as a three-year-old in Fazil's Ente Mamattikuti Ammakku (Malayalam). She has never looked back since. She ruled the Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu industry.
Then came an awkward phase. Shalini disappeared from the film scene completely. In 1996, at 17, she came back again in Fazil's Aniyathi Pravu as a kid sister of five big brothers. It was a huge hit.
When I met Shalini after the stupendous success of Aniyathi Pravu for rediff.com, she told me firmly that acting was not on her agenda.
But then offers began pouring in. She began juggling studies and films. Her second innings turned out as successful as the first with all her Malayalam and Tamil films succeeding at the box office.
Then she met Tamil superstar Ajith. The two fell in love. In no time, they decided to get married and Shalini decided to quit films, much to the disappointment of all those in the film industry and all her fans.
Her last film, Piriyaatha Varam Vendum, a remake of a highly successful Malayalam film, Niram with Prashanth has just been released. The BO seems to have welcomed it. She has received great praise for her performance.
She is overjoyed. But resolute: "I have said bye-bye to films." Excerpts from an interview:
Your last film, Piriyaatha VaramÖ has just been released. All the reviews say that it is a pity that you have stopped acting. What do you feel when you read them?
Very flattered. I would be lying if I said, 'Oh, it's not a big thing at all!'
I feel proud that people still talk highly of me. Anybody in my place would. Especially because I have quit films and do not plan to act again.
If no one was bothered about my acting or me, it might have hurt me. I would have thought I hadn't done a good job. Nobody misses me. But now, I feel good.
Tempting enough for you to rethink about acting again?
No, not really.
True, I loved acting. I was very happy. It is not that I didn't like it and so quit it. Because I am also very happy leading a married life and taking care of my husband.
This life gives me a different kind of enjoyment. To be really honest, there are times when I see my films and think of those wonderful days when I used to go shooting. It is still on my mind.
You donít miss acting, your profession?
I do, sometimes. But I don't feel very bad about the fact that I am not acting. It is natural to miss something you really loved doing.
It's worth it because I am married to a person like Ajith. It has been a year since we got married. But now, I really feel I should be doing something.
I am now studying for a Bachelors in Business Administration now. After that, I will go in for an MBA or MCA.
Acting is also like any other profession. But why is it that many actresses, once married, quit acting?
No, acting is not like any other profession.
Most professions have fixed timings. You go to work, and come back at a fixed time.
Here, you have no idea when you will be called, when shooting will start and how long it will go on. You have to go whenever you are called.
And the shooting can be at any time during the day or night; anywhere in India or abroad; any time from a day to a month...
We already have one person doing that in the house. If the other person is going to start, too, there will be a total lack of communication between the two. Without communication, there is no successful family life.
Now that I am not acting, I can tag along with Ajith. If I were acting, I wouldn't be able to do that.
Why is it that it is the woman who has to adjust and sacrifice her career all the time for a successful marriage? Does it ever occur to you?
I haven't thought about this. Because I believe that the man is the breadwinner in a family. I can quit my job, do something else and adjust. But I don't think it is very fine for the husband to quit and sit at home!
Also, I have been acting from the age of three. I have enjoyed more than a fair stint. I am not saying I was fed up. Not at all.
Just that I have always been very choosy. I wanted to prove that it was possible to make it in the film industry on rules and morals in life. All you require is talent and luck.
Do you feel you have been very lucky to get such good roles? You didn't have to run after them. They all came to you.
I think so, yes. It all depends on the goals you set in life. If you are confident about your them, you can achieve what you want to. I was always sure that I would not do all kinds of roles and that I would not expose.
Your second innings in films started with Aniyathi Pravu in 1996, when you were, what? 16 or 17?
I was 17 then.
Were you very clear then itself what exactly you wanted to do in films?
I was very clear and sure about what I was going to do.
You told me when I interviewed you then that you were very reluctant to come back to films and that Fazil had to persuade you a lot. A reluctant heroine you were, were you not?
See, I did well as a child. But I had no plans to continue. I was very reluctant
But then people noticed me, and approached me with a number of offers. But I didn't accept any.
Why were you so opposed to films even though you were a superstar as a child? Generally, child artistes come back the moment they grow up.
I really do not know why I didn't want to act. I was quite content with life as a student. I enjoyed the privacy, which I didn't get when I was a child. It helped that I looked different from the time I was a child. Nobody recognised me. Nobody came for autographs. I could go out with my family and friends anywhere I wanted.
Then I started modelling because some of my friends were into it. But not even in my wildest dreams did I think I would return to films.
But then, I couldn't say 'No' to Fazil uncle. I thought I would do that one role and disappear. But it went onÖ My sister, too, says she doesn't want to act in films. Let's see.
I remember you told me, then, that you would not continue acting after Aniyathi Pravu -- you wanted to continue your studies...
Yes, that was my ambition. But then, I developed an interest in acting.
What exactly interested you about acting?
I really do not know. I started enjoying it after a couple of Malayalam films. I guess I got used to it.
Maybe it was because I was not in touch with films for a very long time, and I had forgotten what it was all about. But after a couple of films, I started enjoying the experience.
Moreover, I was able to manage my studies and acting like I did when I was a kid. I thought if I could manage both, there was no problem. I started getting good offers, and people accepted me.
In fact, all my fan mail said one thing: Act only in character roles. After Aniyathi Pravu, everyone started looking at me like a kid sister, which suited me fine. I was happy. So my fans encouraged me to do what I wanted to.
I was very choosy -- I didn't want to be a day-and-night-and-day-and-night shooting actress. My family and friends are very important to me.
You said you started enjoying the experience of acting once you got used to it. What gave you the enjoyment?
Everything. I just enjoyed it all. I was working with people I had worked as a child. It was fun working with them again. And I liked playing different characters.
Once you started enjoying acting, was it a difficult decision to quit films?
It was not difficult initially. Mainly because I was in love. Had it been an arranged marriage, I would have found it difficult. I had no plans to act after marriage. Ajith was also of the same opinion.
After watching Alai Paayuthey and Piriyaatha Varam Vendum, people have started looking at Ajith as a villain who has snatched Shalini from filmsÖ
Oh? People may react that way? What can I say?
You enjoyed acting in Alai Paayuthey, didn't you?
Oh yes. Alai Paayuthey was the film in which I really acted. Mani (Ratnam) Sir was amazing -- he just has the ability to elicit something more from you. Whenever he narrated the sequences, I used to get goose pimples. Thanks to him I really enjoyed Alai Paayuthey.
That was also the time I had fallen in love with Ajith.
You might have enjoyed Amarkkalam also, your only film with Ajith...
Yes. He says it was love at first sight for him. I donít know. For me, it wasn't. I started shooting on March 17. He did not shoot that day; he just came and went away.
I had no plans at all to get married then. I used to tell my friends that I would have a late marriage. Now, all my friends are making fun of me because I was the first person among all my friends to get married.
I donít know how it happened. Maybe that is what love is.
Maybe it is destiny. I leave everything to God.
Do you surrender yourself to God?
I talk to God like I do to any other person. I tell Him all that I have in my mind. I feel you can be much happier in life if you have faith in God. I feel happy when I pray.
How has life changed after marriage? Do you feel grown up?
No! Nothing has changed. The only difference is that I am living with Ajith, not with my parents. And I'm not acting any more. Otherwise, I am still the same.
I'm sure Ajith regrets the fact that I have not grown up at all!
Now that you are not acting and Ajith is quite busy, do you get bored?
When we were newly married, I enjoyed it. Now, I am getting bored. When he is at home, I like it. Else I feel bored.
That is why I want to continue my studies and do something. I donít know what to do. I donít know what I am good at. The moment I find it, I will do it.
Your film, Alai Paayuthey was about the problems that a young married couple has. What went through your mind when you were doing the film?
While working on the film, I was in love. I knew I was going to get married.
But I never thought that was how married life would be! Maybe because in my life, the span between falling in love and getting married was very small. So, I didn't have time to think about marital problems.
Today, when I am faced with small problems, I relate to the film.
Have you watched any of your films with Ajith?
Both of us went to see Alai Paayuthey and we were mobbed. After the film, we came out to find that all the car tyres were punctured. Finally, we had to come back in an autorickshaw.
But yes, of course, Ajith liked the film and my performance!