'There is no caste or religion in this industry. There is only talent.'
When you call Lakshmi, her caller tune is Bhool Gaya Sab Kuch from Julie, in which she made her Hindi film debut.
It's a song that became popular nationwide 48 years ago, but people still listen to it.
Julie made her a sensation when it released in 1975.
Lakshmi has been acting for over 50 years and still going strong.
Sweet Kaaram Coffee, which streams on Amazon Prime Video, introduced younger generations all over India to a magnificent actress who has won Filmfare Awards in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi -- the only actor to do so.
"Most people my age are sitting at home, waiting for work. I am lucky I am working," Lakshmi tells A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com.
In Sweet Kaaram Coffee, your character goes through a journey of self discovery. In real life, what's the biggest thing that you have discovered about yourself through the years?
I am not Sundari at all.
She is completely different.
I have traveled a lot, shot at foreign locations...
Lately, I was in Portugal for a month.
All those experiences helped with the role.
Have you had any regrets?
I have no regrets because I don't have any wants.
I don't go out to eat.
I don't go to the theatre regularly.
All I have been doing is acting which I enjoy.
Very early in your career, you starred in a very bold role as Julie. It was far ahead of its times. How come you did not get typecast in bold roles after that?
In Hindi, I did get glamorous roles, but I did not take it up as I was busy in the south.
You acted in only six Hindi movies. Why didn't you do more?
At that time, I was already a star in South cinema and was getting good roles, so I did not concentrate on Hindi.
I did get a couple of offers, but the roles required a doll-like heroine, a glamorous role.
I was getting challenging roles in the South and so I stayed here.
You acted in 25 movies with Anant Nag.
He was a wonderful co-star.
We used to chat during the shots and after that, he used to sit with his book and I with mine.
Those days, there were no mobile phones, so we used to carry books to the sets.
He was very interested in politics and used to talk a lot about it. He would also read books on politics. Later, he became a politician.
He has a very lovable and sweet wife. I used to call her my kid.
We are still in touch; he calls me once in a while.
Those days, there was no social media.
I became a young mother at 19, so I had to take care of Aishwarya.
Those days, there was no going out for dinner, we ate at home.
I am a vegetarian, so it was better that we ate at home.
Life passed by like a time table.
You have been acting for more than five decades. What changes have you seen in the industry that you like? What do you not like?
I have seen a lot of changes from black and white to colour to digital.
Those days when we used films, we did not take so many retakes as film was expensive.
Now you can take as many as you want with digital.
I sometimes think that if I had been born 20 years earlier, I would have missed out on the Internet and all the other comforts it has brought us.
I remember when we used to use film, particularly colour film and if we needed a few takes, the director used to ask, 'Haven't you had your breakfast that you are eating film now?'
So there was a fear that we must not waste film.
With digital, that fear is gone.
Another change I have seen on the sets is that there are a lot of girls now. Earlier, we did not have many girls on set.
I remember one lady acting as a vamp telling me that she was very scared in the early days, but now, the atmosphere is more cordial, as there are many girls on set.
Also, the sets are more active now.
Everyone is in a hurry to finish more work.
There is a lot of enthusiasm to finish a lot of work every day. They want to finish the work quickly.
Now there is a lot of work available, as so many videos are being made.
All you need to do is to work hard.
There is no short cut to success; you have to work hard and with a little luck, you will be a success.
Another new thing I have seen in the industry is that now they study acting and then come into the field. I know a lot of actors and directors who have studied engineering, medicine or architecture and later turned to the creative field.
They work in the field they have studied for a while and then realise that their dreams are in the movies, so they come here.
Some of them stay here and some of them go back to their earlier fields.
Now that we have OTT, the scope is wider.
What is also special is also that there is no caste or religion in this industry. There is only talent.
You will get a role according to your talent, but no one is asked to go back.
Everyone gets some role, big or small.
The cinema industry gives life to whoever enters.
All you have to be is obedient and work hard.
Your transition from heroine to character roles was smooth.
Yes, because even as a heroine, I had played heavy and mature characters. So the transition was not difficult at all.
You have received awards in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada, a feat that no one else has achieved. What more would you like to achieve?
I don't have any dreams.
I like to act and I like to deliver what the director wants, irrespective of whether he is senior or a fresh one.
Who do you consider the most important people who helped your career?
Nobody helped me in my career.
Nobody helps anyone.
Unless you have the talent, nobody can help you.
You have to work hard with sincerity.
I have taken home climax scenes and practiced before I came on the sets.
What challenges did you face back then and how did you cope?
There were no comforts, no vanity vans.
When we went for outdoor shooting, we had to ask people to let us use their homes to rest in the afternoon or change our dress. I have changed under a tree with four blankets held around me.
Now, we are pampered.
We have caravans traveling with us.
Those days, we danced bare feet in the sun, in rain or in snow. Now, we have proper footwear.
We used to eat sitting under trees, with everyone else. Now everyone eats in their own vanity vans.
We used to listen to our seniors and learn from their experiences. Now even if you tell the youngsters something, they will search for it on the Internet and learn from there.
Even at home, when you try to teach the young to cook, they will refer to YouTube.
Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal, the story by Jayakanthan, was far ahead of its time in 1975. You won a National Award for it. What made you say yes to it?
For this movie, I had practiced the climax at home.
I asked the director and Jayakanthan if I could show them how I had done it and they agreed.
I thought it was a rehearsal, but they filmed it.
I was so involved in the character that I started crying on the sets.
Both the director and Jayakanthan liked it.
It was like receiving an award that day.
I can do one or two takes only. After that, I cannot act naturally.
You were among the first to usher in a natural element in acting, at a time when it was more about theatrics. In fact, a magazine poll rated as you the most natural actress. Did you face any criticism at the time for it?
I have always acted naturally.
I don't know how I do it, I just do it and my directors know and have accepted that. Even when we did period films, I acted like I belonged to that age.
What advice would you give a younger Lakshmi today?
Children do not look to their elders for advice. They prefer discussing it with their friends.
Parents too are very supportive of their children's decisions.
My time they used to tell us what not to do all the time. You can't do this, you can't do that.
These days, kids don't need advice.
If we think of one angle, they look at it from 10 different angles.
Does Lakshmi the actress have any regrets?
No. I started acting at the age of 17 because I wanted to act. Nobody told me to act.
I enjoyed outdoor shooting in rain and sunshine.
Dancing in the rain was so much fun.
My mother wanted me to study law.
Now, I have appeared in so many movies as a judge or lawyer... I have acted as a collector and a doctor.
Whatever you do, do it with devotion. Where the devotion is less, the work will suffer and you will lose out.
For a children's show, I was shooting till 3 am.
I didn't feel tired or regret doing the show.
When children are working at that hour, why not me?
Most people my age are sitting at home, waiting for work.
I am lucky I am working.
God has given me the energy and I feel happy.
The Universe gives everything to everybody; it is up to you to pick it up.