The actress, who worked in close to 70 films as a child actor, speaks about her experiences working in Mani Ratnam’s film, how actor Ajith helped her meet Shah Rukh Khan, the life of a child actor and where she picked her love for animals from
Thirty years is a long time to ask someone to time travel. But, what if the character is still fondly remembered, even though she enters the frame 70 minutes into the film. Mani Ratnam’s Anjali was the kind of film that commanded love for its child actors, headlined by Shamlee, who was barely a year-and-a-half when she began work on the film. The actress won the National Award For Best Child Artist for her role too. Despite the years, some memories are still fresh in Shamlee’s mind. And they have to do with her messy hair, not-so-fancy shoes, and precious afternoon naps.
“It’s been a long time since I watched Anjali as a movie. However, when some of us friends, who are all fans of Ilaiyaraaja, meet up, we play his songs on YouTube, and Anjali’s songs randomly show up. It is surreal watching myself as a child on screen,” laughs Shamlee, who is an artist.
Among the first things people remember of Anjali in the film is her wavy hair that tumbles with free will. “They decided to not comb my hair, I remember. It would be messy all the time. In fact, my hair is still too thick to handle. I had to wear retainers to create the impression of a protruding upper lip; it was most annoying. But, in my head, the saddest thing was having to wear the same pair of shoes the entire movie. Shruti and Tarun (who played her siblings in the film) would wear fancy shoes and I’d always cry for those. Mine were tied in a way so that my gait was not smooth, and I hated wearing them. It’s strange what the mind chooses to retain,” she says, during an evening chat after a packed day of working in her studio.
Shamlee remembers her family telling her that she would have a nap after lunch, and the crew was particular she was not disturbed then. “Now, when I look back at some scenes, I think the team let me do my own thing and was patient enough to capture those expressions. I think the cinematographer (Madhu Ambat) and director put them all together very well.”
The film featured a bunch of children, and Shamlee’s brother, actor Richard, was one of them. “There was a certain comfort knowing he was around. My father would take me for the shoot, handle me, and get me to co-operate. Whatever little ‘performance’ was there was thanks to all their effort. But, because Richard was around, I was not afraid of so many new faces. I had a great time with all of them.”
How does Shamlee look at the fact that even now, she’s still addressed by the prefix ‘Baby’, and that she’s probably one of the very few actors whose childhood has been documented in films—in her case, close to 70 films? “My first instinct even now when I see a film or song featuring me as a child is, ‘Acho, look at that baby, she’s so cute’. That said, I am deeply grateful that my childhood is there in motion somewhere, and is still being watched. That’s a privilege. There are so many lovely memories with actors who are superstars now. I’m told I hung around a lot with them and chatted a lot… I don’t remember that phase very well, though. As for being called Baby, well, my sister is still called Baby Shalini (Shalini was part of Mani Ratnam’s seminal Alaipayuthey), and I do want to tell people that, ‘Hello, look at us, we are not babies anymore’, but I stop myself, because, we probably are babies in their head.”
How easy was it for Shamlee to give up arclights and put Anjali and Malooty and tens of other films behind her and live a regular life? “It was not at all difficult. I was in Church Park and I thoroughly enjoyed my school days. I danced, took part in dramatics, was above average in academics. School did not permit us to act in movies after a certain age, and it suited me too, because I was done with that phase of films, advertisements and star nites.”
However, Shamlee does carry one remnant from her acting stint: a love for animals. She acted in a bunch of movies with creatures as varied as snakes and monkeys and dogs and elephants. “I used to play with elephants a lot. Many senior actors would stay away from them, but not me. I also got very comfortable with dogs. Once, I had to shoot with some snakes and the camera was far away. Looking back, I wonder how I did not freak out. However, I’ve never warmed up to monkeys. One tried biting me during a shoot! But dogs are a different kind of love. It is a part of my life to carry dog food in the car and feed any strays that are hungry,” she says, and suddenly remembers the time she shot with a vulture. “It was tied to my hand and I had to pretend I was being attacked. I even played a snake once and wore contact lenses and randomly kept sticking my tongue out. Those were animals that had been tamed, and trained, and I don’t think they’d work in such circumstances now.”
Anjali also threw the spotlight on Tarun, Shruti and director Vishnu and his brother actor Krishna, besides sound designer and sound editor Anand Krishnamoorthi, who played children living in the apartment complex. “I ran into Tarun some years ago. Shruti lives in the US, and I’m friends with her younger sister Shreya. I run into Vishnu and Krishna a lot of times… we have not really made an effort to stay in touch, though.”
Anjali also helped Shamlee in a big way to meet Shah Rukh Khan. When Ajith was dating Shalini, Shamlee said she’d let him marry her sister if he introduced her to Shah Rukh Khan, with whom he was acting in Asoka. “SRK knew me, can you believe it, because of Anjali! He remembered that child. In fact, so many people outside of Tamil Nadu, remember Anjali because the film was dubbed into Hindi, Marathi and other languages. The film made a huge impact, entirely positive, on my life. The best part is that I relive those days based on the memories of other people.”