Two decades after her debut on television – in the hugely-popular Minbimbangal series Marmadesam (Vidhaathu Karuppu) and the subsequent Ramany Vs Ramany Part II – actress Devadarshini, now also a certified counsellor, delights in the continued popularity of the shows. Her appearances in cinema, especially the one in the recent 96, are but extensions of her sprightly roles on the small screen.
About two years ago, actress Devadarshini received a WhatsApp forward from one of the many groups she had been added to. It featured a young couple some years into their marriage and the curious case of 52 variety dosas. It took her back in time to when she was all of 22. It was the year of the new millennium and she was part of the sequel to the hugely popular Ramany Vs Ramany Part II, produced by Minbimbingal.
Till date, she receives some forward or the other featuring snatches of the series that has achieved cult status over the years. “Till Deepavali, the most popular clip seemed to be the one where I force my husband (played by Ramji) to revolve with a plate on his head so that I can make suthumurukku,” she laughs.
When she received the first forward, Devadarshini called up her Ramany director Naga and told him this was doing the rounds. He was pleasantly surprised. Next, she got in touch with Geetha Kailasam of Minbimbangal, and wondered if they could revive this as a web series. “I hope it will take off, but it feels wonderful to receive such love even after all these years,” says Devadarshini.
To think that when it was first telecast, the sequel did not become as popular as the original, which featured the feisty Vasuki and Prithviraj (Babloo) as a just-married couple coping with life together.
“The sequel of Marmadesam (which was her debut as an actress) did very well, but I was disappointed that Ramany did not do as well. As an actor, it was wonderful being part of it. But, not many knew that it had shifted from Sun TV to Raj TV. Plus, this clashed with Balu Mahendravin Kadhai Neram on Sun TV, and as a member of the audience, even I was torn between these two shows. There was not much Internet reach and I never knew Ramany would get a fresh lease of life now,” says Devadarshini, who received a second round of appreciation at home when her teenage daughter binge-watched both Marmadesam and Ramany Vs Ramany on Rajshri Tamil’s YouTube channel before exploring Netflix. (Trivia: Devadarshini would go on to marry Chetan who acted in the original Ramany Vs Ramany, and also her co-star in Vidaathu Karuppu).
After a spate of roles in television, Devadarshini looked towards cinema, taking forward a career she’s never envisioned for herself. In an academically-tuned family, where both daughters were toppers and the parents teachers, her only focus was scoring well in her subjects, and to “study and become somebody”. The stepping stone to a career never-considered was an invite from one Mr Christopher, her father’s friend’s brother, asking if she could audition for the position of television anchor. The one condition: she should speak good Tamizh. Till then, all Devadarshini knew of the stage was taking part in dramatics in school (Doveton Corrie). She did well, and earned a grand salary of Rs 500 for each episode shot in Chennai and Rs 1,000 each for those shot outside, for anchoring after college hours; she was studying in Ethiraj then. The original plan was that she would complete ACS, but acting beckoned soon enough, and she opted to do her M.Com through correspondence. “I’ve never really planned anything; things just fell into place. I never went around seeking opportunities. It just happened — from anchoring to television to movies…”
“It was a major kick to get Rs 1,000 those days. Imagine, my mother worked through the month to earn just a few grand, and here was me making a full thousand! Like many of us did then, I handed over the money to my mother. She would then give me some pocket money,” recalls Devadarshini.
Even at that stage, she was not sure if she wanted to do this full-time. And so, the studious girl checked out computer classes, in Aptech like every other person was doing then, before she finally decided the entertainment industry was going to be her mainstay.
Slowly, she built an enviable track record on television, working in Chidambara Ragasiyam, Annamalai, Kolangal, Penn, Chinna Paapa Periya Paapa, Anjali, Idhayam and Athipookal. Film offers kept coming in too. Beginning with Parthiban Kanavu in 2003, she went on to do two more films that were spoken about that year – Kaakha Kaakha and Enakku 20 Unakku 18. And then, Devadarshini found herself playing every akka/anni character there was to be played, a constant presence in the background and the one who piped up with words of encouragement.
As an artiste, did she ever feel shortchanged? “Well, there were phases when I was very bored with what came my way in cinema. I would hardly have two lines to speak. But, television still offered good characters. I continued doing films because the offers were coming in, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. Not many have successfully made the break from television to films. Sivakarthikeyan and Santhanam are exceptions. The rest of us got work in patches,” she says.
A turning point was the 2011 blockbuster Kanchana. “This was also an anni character, and I thought they would need me for a couple of days. I was taken aback when I was told to set aside 25 days. There was a song and some comedy too. Eventually, they kept extending the character and I ended up working for close to 50 days on the film.”
While she worked in a whole lot of movies after that, not many achieved the success that Kanchana did. There were not many opportunities for an actress with a comic bone, but one who also looked for dignified comedy. Devadarshini weighed her options. Stand-up as a genre had not really caught on then, and while she was satisfied with the body of work behind her, she was looking for something truly different.
And then, Telugu psychological thriller Awe happened in 2017. Devadarshini played the future self of the character played by Srinivas Avasarala. “I was curious why they selected me. They were looking for someone who would resemble Srinivas. After the make-up and hairstyle was fixed, even I felt we looked alike. They told me a line of the story, but I had many doubts. I did not understand what I was doing, and I kept asking questions. When I finally saw the film, I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve been part of this film’. Some films make you feel that way. I dubbed for Awe for two days because I had to get the nuances right; while Telugu is my mother tongue, I speak a colloquial version. Ultimately, they got someone else to dub for me, because they wanted another dimension to the voice.”
More recently, Devadarshini is popularly known as Subhashini from 96, that ode to first love. In the film, which is still running in some theatres in Chennai despite being telecast on television, Devadarshini gave life to the friend who acts as a bridge between Ram and Janu. The one person who knows exactly what they might do, and tries her best to keep things casual. Does she share any character traits with Subhashini, who’s the kind of girl in class who mothers everyone and cares deeply? “Sometimes yes, I can be Subhashini. My friends keep telling me I’m an agony mother. They turn to me when there’s a problem.”
The film also saw the debut of her daughter Niyathi Kadambi, who played the younger Subhashini. “When the film came to me, I knew it was very special. When Prem mentioned the younger character, I thought of my daughter, who has been keen on acting for some time now. I knew this was a set where she will get the space a newcomer deserves, and I knew Prem would handle her well and be patient. When I saw the film, it was a revelation to see my daughter on screen. Her role is technically small, and I did not expect it to get this popular. As a mother, I might not be the best judge, but I think she did what was demanded of the character.”
Even two years ago, Devadarshini could not have suggested Niyathi’s name. “She used to have a round face, like someone chiseled it with a compass. Suddenly, she lost all her facial puppy fat and looked a lot like me. I wondered how Chetan (her actor-husband) would react, but he felt it was important to see if she liked the industry, after all. Because, till now, she’s only seen the glamorous side of it. Now, she loves it even more,” smiles Devadarshini.
With the success of the film, the actress hopes well-written roles will come the way of character artistes. “There’s not much being written for women. That said, you can’t judge the depth of a role by the number of days you shoot or dub for a film. For 96, I worked for just eight days, and dubbed for less than a day!”
Interesting offers, some requiring Niyathi’s presence too, have come her way, but Devadarshini says she’s being very careful before signing up for movies. “I’ve put things on hold and have not committed to anything else.”
Films also give her the luxury of time that a career in television does not. “If you’re doing a couple of serials, you usually come back by 10.30 pm and there’s nothing else you can do. In films, you work for 10-12 days a month, the rest is yours. You make the same amount of money or better money…”
But then, there’s enough taking up her time. Not many know that the actress is a certified counselor. “I had wanted to do a degree in psychology for a long time. I did that through Annamalai University and got a diploma in guidance and counseling in 2017. I’m a member of the Chennai Counsellors Foundation and they offered a three-month course from July to September 2018. I completed that and am under training. I also have a private practice.”
The Devadarshini interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.