Amala Akkineni debuted in Tamil cinema with T Rajendhar’s Mythili Ennai Kaathali. It was 1986 and she had just turned eighteen. Mella Thirandhathathu Kadhavu followed soon after, a superhit with lilting music by MS Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja.
Amala had arrived. The films catapulted Amala to the top tier, and projects followed in all the South Indian languages in rapid succession: a series of big hits, movies with top heroes and ace directors. She rose to the very top.
And then she quit. She married actor Nagarjuna and stopped acting in films. It was 1992.
She had only been acting 6 years.
Today, we wait at a construction site in Chennai to meet Amala. As we wait, we re-run Ninnu Kori Varnam in our minds; recall her hanging from the bus with Kamal Haasan in Valai Osai but our reverie is broken by an announcement:. “Amala madam vanthaachu!”
Amala, clad in a bright yellow saree, walks past us in a brisk pace. She has hardly changed, and still sports that beautiful Zen-like smile. “20 varusham aacha?” she asks rhetorically, and quickly corrects herself. “No. Maybe more. It’s been 22 years,” she declares. We notice her switching between Tamil and English and she confesses, “I’ve forgotten Tamil. I’m trying to practice the language again.” She tries to rehearse her Tamil at every opportunity these days, because she has chosen to start acting again. She plays the protagonist in Zee Tamil’s new medical drama, Uyirmei.[quote align=’right’]An actress can get strong roles only on TV these days. There is a dearth of powerful roles for women in cinema[/quote]
When Ramesh, the producer of the show, met Amala in Hyderabad a year ago and narrated the premise to her, she agreed readily. “I watch a lot of medical dramas. When Ramesh told me the story, I was impressed. It’s an extraordinary script,” she tells us, explaining why she had no qualms about coming back to Tamil through television.
Amala plays the role of Dr Kavitha Sandeep, who heads the emergency care unit. From administering CPR and comforting a nervous patient to taking pride in her protege’s achievements, Amala’s character is multifaceted. “We attended a workshop to understand how doctors work. Three real-life doctors trained us,” she says. Amala even worked liked doctors do, putting in 9 to 9 shifts 15 days a month. “I haven’t worked this hard in the last 20 years. I have been giving my best to Uyirmei,” she notes.
In 1992, when Amala quit acting, she wanted to “invest her retired life in many causes.” She worked with around 15 NGOs to raise her voice for social and animal welfare issues. “I thought I would never act again,” she recalls.
[quote align=’left’]From airport security to unit staff, everyone makes me feel special. I indeed have a special connection with Tamil Nadu[/quote]It was Telugu filmmaker Sekhar Kammula who lured her back into acting. He was adamant that Amala act in his film Life is Beautiful. “I was not keen. I referred many other talented artistes to Sekhar. I didn’t want to accept the offer,” she says. But Kammula sent her text messages every day for six months. He also finished the film, but left Amala’s portion open.
When he played the movie to her, Amala was sold. “I had to give in after I watched the film. It was beautiful,” she says. Amala essayed the role of a mother and she didn’t have any apprehension about donning the “amma character.” She agreed to act because she could relate to the role.
Amala doesn’t plan her career. She is not sure what projects she will sign and when, but she has one rule that she is sure of. She’ll only do roles that project women in good light. “And that has happened with Uyirmei,” she observes. She chooses to not act as a vulnerable woman or as a regular serial lead who indulges in sob-fests. “An actress can get strong roles only on TV these days. There is a dearth of powerful roles for women in cinema,” she says. And Amala hopes that “the characterisation of women in films changes for the better.”
With just 15 days every month to care for family and manage her social welfare activities, Amala has been reliant on email and phone calls to stay in touch. Although the family misses her physical presence, they are happy for Amala. “I’ve often told my family that I owe a debt of gratitude to Tamil Nadu. I was made a star here,” she says. And the adulation that she enjoyed when she was an active actor hasn’t died down. “From the moment I landed in Chennai, everybody has been smiling at me. From airport security to unit staff, everyone makes me feel special. I indeed have a special connection with Tamil Nadu,” she declares.
As we are about to wrap up our conversation, we realise that we haven’t spoken about her work on animal welfare. Her face lights up at the mention of animals. “That is my favourite subject,” she pumps her fist in the air. Amala co-founded Blue Cross of Hyderabad along with her husband in 1992. The two-acre shelter houses nearly 1200 animals that are in different stages of recovery. “From camels to cats, we treat every type of animal. There are 400 volunteers who work along with us. Besides rescuing and nursing them back to health, we work with many groups to create awareness about animal welfare,” says Amala. With so many volunteers who work with her, she tells us she “feels like a mother-hen”.
Amala didn’t just start her acting career from Chennai. Her love for animals blossomed here too. “The average Chennaiite has good civic sense and a responsibility to animal welfare. I’m glad how people come out to help.” And we leave her there as she dons her white coat and wears the stethoscope around her neck. Now she is Dr Kavitha Sandeep again.
The Amala Interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.