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Leela Samson Interview: There’s a Sense of Joy in Overcoming a Risk and Rising Above It

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With an ensemble cast and five stories, each directed by Sudha Kongara, Rajiv Menon, Karthik Subbaraj, Suhasini Mani Ratnam, and Gautham Vasudev Menon, Putham Pudhu Kaalai – the first Tamil anthology- will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. The films are about love, new beginnings, hope, and second chances.

Even though the actors and filmmakers had their own set of problems, with fear around the infection rising and the lockdown restrictions and curfew still in place, actor and danseuse Leela Samson, who is part of Reunion directed by Rajiv Menon, says: “There is risk in living. But you have to put faith in everything that you do.”

Samson talks to Silverscreen India‘s Shrija Ganguly about working with the filmmaker, spotting the silver linings of lockdown and what she hopes to see in a post-pandemic world.

 

How has the lockdown been treating you?

Actually very well. I am an optimist, basically. But also I like working. So, when I found I had a lot of free time, I filled it with all the things that I have never done and to which I kept saying “I will do”. And I did them all. I converted tapes and organised my videos and my music, read a lot of books, started teaching online which I swore I will not do in this lifetime. I am enjoying it very much. I am in touch with a lot of young people from all over the world. I don’t take in large numbers but the few people that I meet for classes, I really enjoy that experience.

I have been doing a couple of web seminars and discussions on things related to dance. Because you know, normally when we perform on stage, we just present our dance and come back. We never get to talk about things which young people actually want to talk about.

So, it’s thrown-up an opportunity for us, senior dancers, to talk about things which young dancers have always wanted to know. Not “how old are you?”, or “which form did you learn?” but really serious questions about how to manage their emotional vulnerabilities, their bodies, what kind of music pieces they should play. So, it has been very nice because that’s the kind of thing that interests me, in teaching. Things that people don’t like to talk about. So, I have really enjoyed this period. It’s by god’s grace, you know. I think, in a way, this was necessary for our society. We are all running blindly and not stopping to breathe. And I think that if you take it in a positive way, it is a great thing.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai is about the 21 days of lockdown. So, what were your first 21 days of lockdown like? Because none of us really expected it to get extended.

The first 21 days were extremely important for me. It came at a time when I was so rushed and I had thought that there were so many things that I needed to do and then suddenly the calendar got wiped out. I was so relieved. Because I am also a very private person and I like my silence. I am not unhappy with being alone or loneliness. I am fine. I can read, I can listen to music. I can fill my hours watching films. So, for me, it was just a break that I seriously needed. And also trying to get back to my own body, I have also begun a new regiment of exercising and working on my body and it was wonderful. Even with eating just what you want to eat and not rushing at it. For me, it was a blessing.

What was the filming process like? Considering it was shot in the unlock phase but the lockdown was still on and the curfew hours still in place.

I was the eldest on the sets. And I was assured. One, I was excited to work with Rajiv (Menon). I have been watching his films. And it was an honor that he chose me for the role. I am very happy about that. On the sets, it was just one house and we took all precautions to wear masks. Nobody actually came very close to anybody else and yet, when we were actually acting, luckily, there was the distancing between all of us- the camera, and the co-actors. We were not hugging, because it still was the Covid time and even the acting had to be like that- behind the door or in front of the door. All precautions were taken and Rajiv (Menon) has a wonderful young team. It was really cool.

Were there any hesitations?

No, not at all.

In terms of social distancing or whether or not it will be possible as some of the shots did require the actors to maybe, sit closer.

I think that everything , even crossing your road outside your house, is a risk. You can think about your toilet. I have known people who have slipped in the bathroom and broken a leg. So, you don’t have to do complex dance moves to get an injury. You can get it just like that. There is some amount of risk in living. But we can’t stop living because of that.

There is a risk in everything that you do but there is also a sense of joy and overcoming a slight risk and rising above it and putting your faith in it. If you want to do something, you need to have faith in it. I took the precautions that I wanted to and the team took the precautions that they had to and we were good. By God’s grace.

And what exactly did the set look like in a pandemic situation?

It was a normal house. There was a drawing room, a dining room, a kitchen and at the back there was an area where we used to go eat our meal. It was a very normal house and we were just inside the whole time. I think only one scene was shot in the hospital for Gurucharan, otherwise, all the scenes were shot there (at the house).

So, did the crew put up at the same house which was the set?

We did not live there. Everybody went home at the end of the day. And there were very few people on the crew. It was the cameraman and a couple of others. Rajiv (Menon) handled the camera sometimes. So, it wasn’t a large crew.

And how were the curfew hours tackled? Considering everyone had to disperse by night. One of the directors talked about how black cloth was hung on every window to shoot the night scenes.

That’s what happened here also. We did a night shot in a bedroom using black curtains. I think everybody followed those norms.

How were travel restrictions dealt with?

There were not any. As in, we would be on the sets by 6 in the morning and leave only after 6 in the evening.

Could you tell us about your character in Reunion and what the story is about?

She is an elderly lady and her husband has passed away. She has this only son and they live in this comfortable house. She is afflicted with arthritis and they had a lot of servants, especially, to look after her. But you don’t see any of them because Covid is declared and the lockdown is declared and so, all the servants go home. And so, she’s all alone as her son goes to work. I think Andrea (Jeremiah) and she develop a bond and the conversation reveals the person in her that is actually very youthful and fun and somebody who enjoys life. Maybe her son thinks of her as someone who has to be looked after and pampered. And because now he is home due to the lockdown, she comes to her own self and starts taking care of people. It’s a lovely thing. It is to show that if you need to get up and make a difference, you can.

And what was it like working with Rajiv Menon (director)?

It was a pleasure for me because I knew the family a little bit. He is very professional, cool and fun loving and because Gurucharan and I share an interest in music, we had a lot to talk about.

How many days did it take to shoot Reunion?

It took three days.

In relation to your resignation from the director’s post of Kalakshetra (in Chennai) back in 2012 due to the Censor Board releasing Ram Rahim’s MSG: Messenger of God, do you feel that things have changed eight years later?

My term had come to an end as well. The government wanted to change the board. The previous government had appointed our board. There was political pressure. If an excuse was required, then yes, the Ram Rahim case was an excuse to resign because a certification had been given without the knowledge of the CBFC.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai stands for new beginning. So, what is your expectation from the new beginning or cinema in a post-pandemic era?

Like all human beings, we all want things to ease up. Fortunately, today’s paper read that Tamil Nadu has had a reduction in the numbers (of cases) whereas, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and other states are still facing a rise, so, I just hope for the best. So that the numbers come down all over the world and people come back to leading normal lives.

I think some amount of reflection of this period should benefit our future, right? Rather than us going back to becoming our corrupt selves. For example, earlier, children would rush to schools on their buses. And this (period) is the proof that you can have 50% attendance. I am not saying that parents have to take up the responsibility for children to be at home. But why not? A little of that and the school environment might be a good combination. So, there are things that we can learn from this.

So many hundreds and thousands of children who don’t have access to school education can actually get educated online. This situation has thrown up the possibility, otherwise, we wanted them to come to school and many young girls cannot get to school. But can they learn from their houses in between doing the household chores? Possible. So if we can learn from this lockdown and learn to put some things in place which will benefit our society then I think it’s worth it.

Thank you and I am really looking forward to October 16. All the best for your release.

Thank you. I hope you enjoy it.

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