Yesteryear actress Kanchana, who made a brief appearance in Arjun Reddy (2017) after more than two decades of being away from cinema, looks upon every life event – the good, the bad, and the ugly – as something that turned her life around
‘Once upon a time’ is actress Kanchana’s favourite phrase. Fairy-tales, she says, often come true. They did, in her case at least.
Every misfortune that life brought to young Vasundhara Devi, was a harbinger of change, she says. If not for her father’s financial issues, she would not have even considered getting a job. If not for the job, which often meant flying all over India and maintaining ridiculous hours (her neighbours were scandalised), she would not have met director CV Sreedhar. And if not for that, she wouldn’t be where she is – in a plush Bengaluru apartment, little ribbons tied to every window.
She grabs hold of a pink one to hoist herself up. Her legs are not what they used to be. “I can’t dance now, can I? But I’m better off than the rest. At least, I can walk and talk to you. So now, let’s begin. Once upon a time…”
When Kanchana was born, her parents named her Vasundhara Devi. A graceful name for a hoyden who would run rather than walk. Her hair would form a curtain over her face, hiding those tip-tilted eyes. As teenage beckoned, Vasundhara took on another persona. “It was like I had changed overnight.” Her beauty brought her various admirers, but the family’s imminent downfall meant that she had to abandon trivial pursuits in favour of commerce. “Overnight, I was an air hostess. Those were the initial days of this business so everything was so glamorous.”
Her parents, who she wanted to save by joining the film industry, eventually proved to be the villains of the piece. As she worked and saved a nice little pile of money, her father was busy transferring them all to his name. “Women back then had no agency. We had the better roles. The better actors, directors. The better music and costumes. But we had no control over our own money. If you’re unmarried, your father manages your money. If you marry, your husband takes over. Now, it’s different. Women have a lot of agency. But their roles are terrible,” she smiles.
Kanchana narrates her life experiences, comfortably ensconced in a dragon red wing chair. Sunlight falls on her beak of a nose, those diamond mookuthis glint ever so prettily. Like Saroja Devi, Kanchana is a staunch believer in propriety. At times, she sounds like a Georgette Heyer novel, as she talks about glittering balls, fancy gowns and romancing actors onscreen who were, yes, quite rakish.
But first, tea.
As she pours, the steam momentarily causes her spectacles to fog up. A dainty handkerchief with its corners bearing floral embroidery is rustled up by her assistant. A few minutes later, Kanchana or Devima, as she insists I address her, is ready to talk. Over cups of fragrant tea and the soothing vocals of MS Subbulakshmi for company, Kanchana tells me of an idyllic childhood. School trips, bike rides with friends, and a childhood friendship with Nageswara Rao, who happened to be her neighbour.
“He was so charismatic back then. He wasn’t conventionally handsome but he had that star quality, that kalai, that even his son Nagarjuna has. He had lovely curls and would speak so dreamily. I used to meet him on my bike rides. My friends would all giggle when they met him. They were quite jealous of me because even then he was already an actor. I wasn’t in the field back then. When I finally joined, ANR looked at me incredulously and talked about the chinnamma who became a heroine. I was flattered,” she says.
In Kadhalikka Neramillai, Kanchana is the new age woman. Elite, college-educated and with her nose stuck in the air, Kanchana played her namesake in the film. She was a little stiff and mechanical in the movie. Chitralaya Gopu, a frequent collaborator with director CV Sreedhar and a screenwriter for Kadhalikka Neramillai, once told her that she improved greatly only after her first five films. “So by that scale, I was not that good in my first film,” she says.
The actress who toiled long and hard for a six hundred rupees salary as an air hostess considers her meeting with Sreedhar the will of God. “I believe that God was always watching over me. When I met Sreedhar sir, I was in financial trouble. He was very impressed with the way I looked. He told me that I would win hearts and own them if I worked with him. I was skeptical, because in my line of work then, we were told not to fall prey to false promises. But some inner voice told me to trust him. So I did.”
CV Sreedhar was a tough task master. But he was toughest on Chitralaya Gopu, she says. “There was a lot on the line for him then. This was his first full-length comedy. So he was very stressed out I think. When he had issues with my acting or that of Sulochana’s, he would take it out on Gopu sir. We didn’t understand at first. But later we realised that the tirades directed at Gopu sir were for us.”
If Kanchana strove hard to better herself, it was for CV Sreedhar, whom she considers her God. “He brought Lakshmi (money) into our home. He was and is my perumal. There was nobody else who contributed so much time and interest to my life and career. I am forever indebted to him. His passing was a rude shock. I felt very untethered. Like we had all been sailing on the same ship and overnight, we’d been abandoned.”
Kanchana does not maintain close ties with anybody from the film fraternity. Her pursuits remain purely spiritual. And this leaves no time for her to indulge old acquaintances.
“Every day, I thank God for giving me so many opportunities. I worked with legends. It’s not the life I thought I would get. When I was growing up, I thought that my story would be like the others in my life. I would study. I would marry. I would tend to my family. Acting was never the dream.”
It found her, eventually. “Sometimes we don’t know what we are meant to be doing till it knocks on your door. One minute, I am an air hostess. The next, I am an actor. You know, Ravi (actor Ravichandran) and I had our doubts if we would ever make the final cut in Kadhalikka Neramillai. There were greater actors in the film. There was Nagesh, Sachu. Even Sulochana had film pedigree. Only Ravi and I were outsiders. After watching the scenes with others, we would look at each other and wonder. Namma padathula iruppoma [are we going to be a part of the film]?”
Often, it was up to Kanchana to assure Ravichandran that they would. “I told him once, ‘ada poya, irundha irupom. Illena vera neraiya velai irukku‘ [there are plenty of other jobs if not for this one]. I had that strength. I had that option. I was sure that if Kadhalikka Neramillai did not work out for me, I could always try my hand at something else. But for the others, this was their life. Their calling.”
Kanchana says that a passion for something often tends to cloud one’s objectivity. “Passion. Love. These words pale when you are faced with personal adversity. An objective mind is of utmost necessity when one has a career in art. Without a cool head, you will get lost.”
In Veera Abhimanyu, Kanchana played Uttara, the beloved of Abhimanyu (AVM Rajan). Mythologies made it easier for the actor to find herself. “I was more comfortable because I knew the story. I knew what Uttara would go through. And it made me more comfortable in front of the camera.”
By the time Bama Vijayam released, Kanchana had picked up quite a few tricks of the trade. “The role called for quite a lot of physical acting. Since it was a comedy, we really had to extend ourselves in a way that we hadn’t done before.” She wanted to prove to herself that she could handle comedy as well as anybody. “I really learnt the value of comic timing from my role. It changed things for me. I didn’t want to be portrayed as this ice maiden so I went the extra mile. There are three of us in the film and sometimes, it felt like we all wanted to one-up the other. But in a good way.”
An exciting film career in four languages, over 150 films – all of these personal milestones meant nothing to Kanchana when she discovered that the money she had made had all been swindled by her own father. “It shattered me. I was broken inside. I did not know how I would recover from this. Really, the only thing I could do was go away from it all and sort it out alone.”
Kanchana says that she’s not a fan of airing dirty linen in public. But ultimately, that was what she was forced to do. She employed a legal team to recover all assets that were taken over by her father. “It was a challenging time and it took so long for us all to get justice. I had gone to this profession to save my family. But they betrayed me. Parents are supposed to protect one. But mine did not.”
In 2010, Kanchana’s claim on her assets and properties was recognised by the courts. In a startling turnaround, she promptly pledged a very pricey property in T Nagar to the TTD. “God stood by me when nobody else did. My sister, Girija, and I discussed this in detail before we donated the property. What is money? Just paper. It had brought me nothing but misery. I gave it to God. When I leave this world, I want to give everything to him.”
Kanchana’s desire to seclude herself has been tested many a time. After her appearance in Arjun Reddy, she has been asked to do many more such roles. For Kanchana, who maintains strong ideas about propriety, Arjun Reddy – a film about an alcoholic surgeon, seemed like a shocking choice. “Everyone can be saved. Even me. Even Arjun. I may not agree with the kind of films we make. Or the kind of society we live in. But we have to soldier on. An objective mind is what helps me in my art. I don’t think one’s beliefs should affect one’s career. As far as I am concerned, they are two different things.”
The Kanchana interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.