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'I Wanted To Beat People Up...'

July 09, 2024 09:54 IST
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'Suddenly the audience pool feels bigger, like everyone is watching everything now.'
'It's no longer limited in terms of boundaries, like a state or a language.'
'Whether it's a series, a movie or even a Korean film, the audience has access to all of it.'
'Slowly, the boundaries are blurring, so that's great for actors.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Darshana Rajendran/Instagram

Children may remember her as the chirpy storyteller who brought characters to life from the Karadi Tales.

Sukoon lyricist and singer Swanand Kirkire described her in his endearing song Baanwra Mann from the Malayalam film Maayanadhi, even calling her his 'favourite person.'

But who is this artiste whose name almost became an anthem of sorts after the release of the Hridayam, the Malayalam film that also inspired Karan Johar?

Darshana Rajendran, the petite young actor from Thiruvananthapuram, can sing, act, tell stories, entertain and even break a leg if her character demands so.

The 36 year old has worked in over a dozen films in Malayalam, and recently collaborated with the award-winning Sri Lankan Director Prasanna Vithanage for the film Paradise, which won an award at the 28th Busan International Film Festival.

"When I started acting, I wouldn't have imagined that a small actor from a small part of Kerala would be doing an international multi-lingual film. Or that I will be doing a film in another country working with technicians from there," Darshana tells Divya Nair/

From studying Math at Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi and Economics at the University of London to acting and singing, how did the shift happen?

(Laughs) I was born in Trivandrum but grew up in Saudi Arabia, where I studied from kindergarten to eighth grade.

I did my high school in Cochin.

Then I went to Delhi for my undergrad in Math, and then to London for my master's degree in economics.

I was working with the Institute of Financial Management in Microfinance in Chennai, when I started doing theatre on the side.

I got into acting completely by chance.

I started doing theatre sometime in 2011, for four years.

That's also the time when I crossed paths with Karadi and still work in whatever capacity I can. At one point, I used to read their stories, take them to schools and do toolkits for them.

One day I just quit my job and started acting.

To keep it sustainable, I started exploring voice acting, dubbing and storytelling.

How did your parents respond when you told them you wanted to be an actor?

I come from a family that's very supportive of the Arts. We have grown up with all kinds of music and dance. But acting was my older sister's forte.

She teaches theatre in Bangalore.

For my mother, it was really strange that I chose acting.

I was good with academics and my mother was just like, 'Everybody can do Math, but everybody can't sing. Why don't you study music?'

But back then, I thought I was not going to do that. I have to study something and find a job. That's how I decided to pursue the academic path. Then somewhere along the line, I was like, okay, I guess I want to do this (acting).

My parents were very supportive. I think that's one of the reasons why I'm able to hold through because my support system has backed me up through the times when it was not easy.


IMAGE: Darshana Rajendran with Paradise co-actor Roshan Matthew. Photograph: Kind courtesy Roshan Matthew/Instagram

How did you become a part of Paradise?

I was the last entrant. Roshan (Mathews) and Rajeev (Ravi, Cinematographer) were already on board, and I'd heard about it from them.

I was following the project for a while, and was excited about it because it sounded like one of those ideal settings.

Initially, the story was about a north Indian woman and a south Indian man. The team was auditioning in Mumbai.

Then somehow, they reconsidered and said, 'Okay, what if it's a Malayali couple?'

That's when I came on board.

Prasanna Sir (Paradise director) had seen some of my work before.

I didn't have to audition.

He sent me the script, and then we had a chat about the character and all.

I got a call sometime in January 2023 and we began shooting the next month.

When you first heard the story of Paradise, what were your thoughts?

Honestly, I was freaking out! Because it felt like, you know, this girl had a lot to say but she was not saying it in words.

I mean, you're finding out everything that's happening with Amritha in her silences, in her interactions with the environment, with her people, with the animals. It seemed very little but a lot was happening. So I thought, how do I explore all of these unsaid things? How do I react to most of these events without saying it out?

If you see the film, whatever I did, you will know, it was very internal.

Amritha always has an opinion. Though she doesn't speak so much, whenever she does, she is very clear about it, and what she stands for.

The story also explores the dynamics between her and Keshav. I was curious how we're going to figure working those scenes out.

IMAGE: Basil Joseph and Darshana in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey.

Director Prasanna mentioned how he liked your performance in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey. How is it working with a director who has a certain expectation from you? Does it inspire your craft or does it limit you?

For me, it's very director-driven.

With Prasanna, sir, it was a very quiet support. I felt like he held me, even if he said very little.

For example, he gave me the freedom that 'You're a woman. You will know her (the character) better than I do.'

He was ready to travel with me, where I was taking Amritha in the story.

There is this trust that Prasanna sir has in his actors. It's a very empowering feeling; it's like you are responsible for that and you feel like you should work everything through.

That helped me a lot.

Every time I made a mistake in terms of something like an order of events, he'd call a cut. Then he'd think about it and say, 'No, that's right. That's exactly what you should be doing. That's the right thing.'

He was very supportive of the choices I made.

That helped me trust my instincts.

Your career graph has some very interesting films. In most of your films, the character begins like this cute, submissive or vulnerable female who displays a certain strength of character (CU Soon, Irul, Purusha Pretham, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey and now Paradise).
Is this deliberate? How do you usually pick the script or the characters?

I don't think like that at all. I only think of it as playing a human being.

There's going to be strength, there's going to be weakness.

Even if you take Jaya (from Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey), you've seen her in her weakness, you have seen her as the rebel. That's sort of the human experience, right?

You can't say this person is a strong or weak person because as human beings, you go through it all.

It's not like I have chosen to do one type of character. When I see the script or narration, it's like, Does this person who they're trying to show, pitch to me?

Does it sound like a human being who has all of this?

Will I have fun doing it?

Will I be able to find the layers?

Like in, Purusha Pretham, you're not seeing a lot of this person (in real life) but I felt like she has a story to tell. There's a lot she could have gone through that I can explore.

The exciting part is in showing all of that without really showing it.

IMAGE: Roshan Matthew and Darshana Rajendran in Paradise.

As someone who has done theatre, do you have a certain process of approaching a character?

For me, I work better with the doing than planning or thinking.

I familiarise myself with the script in a way that you can ask me what scene comes where, and I know all of it.

Beyond that, I feel like I work a lot based on what's happening on the sets -- my instincts, plus what I am getting from a co-actor.

I depend a lot on what I'm getting from a co-actor, my environment or what that scene is set up like, or from my director.

I ensure that I work a lot on anything that I need to, for the character to be present in that space.

(For example) If it's a language I'm not comfortable with, I'll make sure that I work towards being as comfortable as I can be with the language.

If it's a skill that I need, say, like, in JJJH, if I have to emote without freaking out when I'm doing the taekwondo scene, I would prepare for it accordingly.

You have worked with Roshan Mathews before. How was your experience working with the cast and crew in Paradise, especially the Sri Lankan actors?

Roshan and I have known each other since the beginning of my career.

With him, it's a very different approach, especially how he goes about a character or scene.

He is very meticulous.

There's a process that he goes by and it's incredible to see him keep it and then take it all and put it away and go for a shoot.

I love how Mahendra (Perera, Sri Lankan actor) sir -- who plays Sergeant Bandara in Paradise -- comes with so much energy. He comes to the set every day to have a party. I love how much he enjoys his work.

He's been working for so many years, he has done so many films, but he comes with that sort of energy. It's almost like the whole set switches on the minute he steps in.

Shyam (Fernando) sir, who played Mr Andrew is so calm, just like in the film. That's a different energy too. When you're doing a scene with him, you're able to breathe.

IMAGE: Darshana Rajendran in C U Soon.

It's good to see international directors collaborating with Malayalam actors and wanting to make these incredible films to showcase to the global audience. What do you think has changed for Malayalam actors that suddenly brought them to the limelight?

I think for one, Malayalam actors are being watched a lot more.

After the lockdown, I feel like every small film that I'm doing is suddenly not a small film any more.

It's travelling everywhere.

Suddenly the audience pool feels bigger, like everyone is watching everything now.

It's no longer limited in terms of boundaries, like a state or a language.

Whether it's a series, a movie or even a Korean film, the audience has access to all of it. Slowly, the boundaries are blurring, so that's great for actors.

Paradise is an international film released in five languages. The fact that I got to be a part of that is a big thing.

When I started acting, I wouldn't have imagined that a small actor from a small part of Kerala would be doing an international multi-lingual film.

Or that I will be doing a film in another country working with technicians from there.

Do you think films like CU Soon that released during the lockdown gave new life to Malayalam cinema?

I'm sure it's one of the films. But there were a bunch of them like say, Kumbalangi Nights.

If you go to any place outside of Kerala, they're always talking about it.

I think for me, the perception of how people saw me as an actor changed around the time C U Soon happened.

So I would definitely think of that as a landmark.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Darshana Rajendran/Instagram

What are the projects you are working on?

In Malayalam, I have worked on Ashiq Abu's Rifle Club and Director Krishand's (Purusha Pretham) Sambhava Vivaranam Naalara Sangham.

I'm working on a Telugu film called Parada.

You have lived and grown up in so many cities. How many languages can you speak?

I speak in Malayalam.

I learned Telugu for the film I was working on (Parada).

I can speak Hindi.

I don't think you can count it but I learned Arabic as a child because I was in Saudi until the eighth grade.

I also learnt French in school.

Is there a dream role you would like to work on?

I want to do it all.

Every time I see a great film, I'm like, oh, my God, I want to work with someone like that.

Also, I think for a long time, I wanted to beat people up, which I got to do in JJJH (laughs).

A few tips that you would like to share with youngsters who want to make a career in films or the entertainment industry?

Look out for opportunities.

Do auditions, make sure you are active in that space.

Keep working on your craft.

There are plenty of workshops, so make sure you're honing your skills in some way or the other.

When you're waiting for things for a long time, things tend to get low. Remember to find ways to stay afloat.

Finally, when the opportunities come through, find your routine that's useful for you, like taking care of your mental and physical health.

Make sure you're working on your body, mind and voice.

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