Cinema is in Keerthi’s blood. Her mother Menaka was a popular heroine in south Indian films while her father Suresh Kumar is a well-known producer in the Malayalam industry. Unsurprisingly, Keerthi’s initiation into cinema happened early – cast as a child artist in films like Kuberan and Pilots while still at school. But the 22-year old actress calls her entry into movies an “accident”.
“I admit that I used to dream of being an actress when I was a kid. But later, I was more interested in costume designing, and I was focused on my education.” When veteran director Priyadarshan, who happens to be her parents’ close friend, approached her with an offer, she didn’t feel confident enough. “Priyan uncle came home one day, and declared that I was the heroine in his next movie! I tried to protest, but he had already made up his mind.” And just like that, her childhood dream had turned into a reality.
On the day we had agreed to talk, Keerthi couldn’t take my call; she was busy shooting. But the next day, she did something completely unexpected – she called me. She apologised. With a voice so sweet that no director would want to hire a dubbing artist for her, Keerthi talked to me about her career, which, she says, is still in its infancy.
In her debut film, the horror-drama Geethanjali, Keerthi played a dual-role of identical twins. One sibling is a lovelorn, embittered, wicked girl, who murders her soft-spoken, sweet-natured sister, to take her place and marry her fiancé. Keerthi was thus both hero and villain, good and evil. Quite a strenuous task for a newcomer, but Keerthi played her part with aplomb. Her parents would call Priyadarshan several times a day, during the shoot, to ask how their daughter was performing. “They were more anxious than anyone else”, says Keerthi. She remembers her first shot vividly.
“I was asked to run out of the house, panicking. I was already very nervous. So I didn’t have to act at all,” she laughs.
Mohanlal was Keerthi’s co-star in the film. “All my friends asked me if I was nervous while acting with him. But the fact is, it was way easier to act with him than with other senior actors like Innocent and Siddique. Lal uncle (Mohanlal) is a father figure for me. He’s a close friend of my parents and it was easy to share screen space with him.
“On the initial days of the shoot, I would beg Priyan uncle to tell me the film’s story. He would plainly refuse. I would just act as he directed. He would ask me to weep, staring at a green matte, imagining that it’s sea in front of me,” Keerthi recalls. This was the period when she was groomed as an actress. When she reached Ring Master and Idhu Enna Maayam, things were relatively easier.
Keerthi’s debut film in Tamil was the light romantic-comedy Idhu Enna Maayam, in which she was paired opposite Vikram Prabhu. “My character Maaya was basically the girl next door. It was a film in which the hero and heroine had equal importance. When I reached the sets of Rajini Murugan, in which I was playing a Madurai girl, I found it mentally hard to step out of Maaya. I am that kind of a person, who gets sucked in by the character I play.” She will soon be seen with Bobby Simha in Paambhu Sattai, and with Dhanush in a Prabhu Solomon film.
Keerthi’s house can rightly be called a ‘mini film school’. Her elder sister Revathy, after completing a course in visual communications, is working with Shah Rukh Khan’s production house, Red Chillies. She, along with her parents, manages Revathy Kalamandir Film Academy in Trivandrum.
“My sister and I would watch films together. While she was always into the filmmaking part, I was more interested in the acting,” Keerthi says. “Amma helps me choose the script. We listen to storylines, share our thoughts and discuss. She often shares with me how filmmaking has changed since her time. Acting used to be loud – directors preferred that and audiences loved that. But now, my generation likes to keep it subtle. Except in the climax of Geethanjali, which was a horror film, I didn’t have to ‘act’ at all,” says Keerthi. “Amma would tell me how they used to manage at a time when there were no monitors for the actors to watch and alter their performance accordingly after every shot. They would have to evaluate how effective their performance was just by looking at the director’s face. I can’t imagine doing all that. We have it much easier these days.
“I think they’ve done a better job. Without this level of technological support, they’ve made great films. Nowadays, we leave most things to technology and be lethargic. I believe, when technology improves, we shouldn’t let it overpower us. It shouldn’t be vice versa. We should be in control of it.”
She may be young, but Keerthi sounds like an old hand when she talks about cinema. “I like watching fast-paced films and thrillers. I love the good old Eastman colour war-dramas. Recently, I watched Shivaji sir’s Veerapandiya Kattabomman, the re-released version. The jewellery and the costumes they used in it, how they had picturised the war sequences – everything was fascinating.
That people are able to enjoy it even today shows how brilliant a film it is. Those days, they used heavy lights. At least 3-4 inches of make-up had to be used to protect the artist’s skin from such strong lights.
The jewellery and the costume were designed by art directors, as there were no costume designers in films. But it worked perfectly well. They would research, design and make things look perfect on screen. Wearing those hefty clothes and jewellery would have been physically strenuous. Look at the blouses actresses like Padmini used to wear those days. They were skin-tight, stitched perfectly, and carried without a single wrinkle. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen while watching the film. Their dedication and energy levels, to work so hard without exhaustion, were phenomenal. These films and artists are definitely a motivation,” Keerthi says with awe in her voice.
What about films today? “I love many of the recent films in Malayalam and Tamil. For exmaple, I thoroughly enjoyed Premam, and was smitten by the character Malar, like everyone else,” Keerthi laughs. “I messaged all the girls in the film after watching Premam. The film’s forte was their amazing team work.”
Of her mother’s films, she loves Oppol and Ente Mohangal Poovaninju the most. “We never discuss her films, but at home, we sometimes pull her leg for her old-fashioned style of acting. She is a very talented and successful actress. That she stayed in the industry for so many years itself is an achievement. She acted in films that were written by writers like MT Vasudevan Nair, who isn’t active in the profession anymore. I wish I had got such opportunities too, but I don’t have any sense of loss. Times have changed, and cinema has undergone a lot of changes. Although, I would have loved to act with Sukumari chechi (late actress Sukumari), and many such veterans.
“I might not have been in films, if I were not born into a cinema family. It’s not easy to be an actress these days. I might have become a designer, but not an actress,” says Keerthi. “I would never make the mistakes that many artists make, thanks to my parents’ guidance. I grew up watching my parents handle fame and success. When I have my turn, I will never allow fame to go to my head.”
Many of the yesteryear stars are Keerthi’s family friends. People whom she affectionately addresses as uncle and aunty. “I am lucky to have them as well-wishers. They watch my films, comment on my performance, and genuinely encourage me to go ahead. Sometimes, they go into the details of my acting and point out mistakes. I make sure that those mistakes aren’t repeated. My sister is a staunch critic of my acting. Especially since she aspires to be a film maker, she watches every film closely.
“Cinema, for me, is like any other profession. It’s a fact that people often don’t see it that way. For them, cinema is a medium that inspires them every day. While it’s a blessing to be an actress and earn the love of people, there’s a bad side to it too.
Earlier, I used to feel hurt after reading the vulgar comments and hate messages on my Facebook page. But now, I find them funny. There are all kinds of people in the world.”
What does she want from the future? “Ten years from now, I don’t even know if I would still be acting. I would like to act in female-oriented roles like my Amma. It’s tough these days to get such opportunities. Nazriya was lucky enough to get a few such good roles, like in Ohm Shanthi Oshaana and Bangalore Days. Parvathy’s role in Mariyan was amazing. I am glad that I’m getting good opportunities as well. In Prabhu Solomon sir’s film, I have a very substantial role.”
And what does she do when she’s not busy with acting and watching films? “I love just being around the people I love – my family and friends. I love travelling, spending some quality me-time, enjoying things like midnight coffee. I am an ordinary girl, who loves life and the people in it.”
The Keerthi Suresh Interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.