Some conversations are filled with such sparkle, it’s difficult to restrict them to a topic, or even two. Speaking to Padmapriya Janakiraman is a bit like that. The dancer-academic-actress can speak with ease about budgetary allocation and bhava as she can about environmental law and emoting.
That’s because, she’s given all of herself to everything she’s taken up. But, confesses Padmapriya, “Somehow, I always veer towards the arts.” That is why you see the actress, who won a Special Mention at the 2009 National Film Awards (for Pazhassi Raja and Pokkisham) returning after a hiatus, to star in Raja Krishna Menon’s Chef, opposite Saif Ali Khan. The film is an official remake of Jon Favreau’s Hollywood superhit of the same name. Padmapriya plays the role essayed by Colombian actress Sofia Vergara. The Hindi version has a little more scope for the character of the ex-wife Radha Menon, says the actress.
The past few years have been busy for Padmapriya, who completed her Masters in Public Administration at New York University, got married to Jasmine Shah (who also works in the field of public policy), moved back to India and did a stint with Centre for Policy Research (CPR) as a full-time senior researcher. “I was leading a project that tried to quantify decentralisation to bring transparency and accountability to a public budget,” she explains. She was part of model projects in Kerala and Karnataka, even as she resumed dance (having performed last October in many sabhas in Kerala), and finished work on some films. “After a point, it got difficult to handle all, and I took a break from CPR,” she smiles.
So far, Padmapriya has worked in about 50 films across languages (she’s worked in Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, besides Hindi), and most of those would fall under what one would classify as ‘sensitive’, ‘intelligent’ cinema. “Well, whenever I’ve done films, things have fallen in place such that I’ve been part of such projects,” says Padmapriya.
This is also because she identifies with a certain kind of life. Before moving to NYU, she was part of Samata, a tribal land rights organisation based in Visakhapatnam. That sensibility also reflects in her movie choices. But, how easy has it been to traverse a lonely path, doing films that appeal to her head and heart? “It calls for a lot of perseverance,” she admits. “But, in my heart of hearts, despite everything else I was doing, I always knew I would go back to the arts. I think I am a born artiste, and art is a priority. I always believe there’s never an expiry date for actress, at least in the kind of films I choose to do.”
This also makes her wonder why roles are not being written for women of a certain age. “I see most of the male actors I grew up watching on the big screen still around, and actively doing work. But, what about their female co-stars? None of them is around or playing the kind of roles being written for someone like Cate Blanchett,” she says.
But, Padmapriya says that now is an interesting period to be working in entertainment. “There’s a lot more opportunity, be it films or web-series.” The actress was seen in Tiyaan (Malayalam) and Patel S I R (Telugu) earlier this year, and is also working in the Malayalam Crossroad, an anthology of 10 stories revolving around women — Madhupal directs her in a solo act.
Chef is not the kind of film one would normally associate with Padmapriya. But, she says it’s also nice to be part of a well-made film that does not fall in the ‘social’ bracket. “I’ve been exploring offers from Hindi for seven years, till Chef happened. By exploring, I mean I’ve been hanging out with people I love spending time with. I just can’t go out and seek work,” she laughs.
Speaking of Radha Menon, Padmapriya says she did have difficulty understanding Radha’s choices and attitude, but the director convinced her she could be real. “She’s a girl who marries young, but once the marriage ends, she returns home with her son. She lives her life, does not nag, and has a high-art social circle. I could get that; I’m also the kind of person who will never be tied down just because I have kids. But, Radha is also extremely considerate and does things for her ex that one might normally not see. And, so, it was a challenge to perform her. But, these traits also allowed for more nok-jhok between Saif’s character and mine.”
The actress, who also bagged the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actress for Pokkisham (2009) – announced only recently – still remembers how a TV awards show once gave her the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award for the movie, though she was the protagonist. “So, I’m used to dealing with what comes with making unconventional choices.”
But, what Chef has done is give her a pan-India platform. “For me, that’s a huge positive change, especially because I’ve perpetually been seeking more creative arenas. This sharing of talent also creates interesting intersections among people from across industries.”
How easy is it for someone academically inclined like her to play “regular” characters, where the heart scores over everything else? “I consciously try and play roles far removed from me and my reality. For instance, I rarely cry in reality (she cries beautifully on screen. A good example would be Thavamaai Thavamirindhu). And, while my roles might not call for a physical transformation, they occupy varied emotional spaces; which is why people struggle to recognise me in real life. I don’t look like what I do on screen.”
The Padmapriya interview is a Silverscreen exclusive. This was originally published on September 12.