Imagine you’ve bottled up laughter, lots of it — a sudden burst of happy laughter, a sustained giggle fest, a chuckle, a chortle, a shy smile, and many happy ones. Now, shake them all up and open the cap to release a little joy. And then, some more, till it permeates the air and leaves everyone happy.
Speaking to Urvashi is a little like that. I counted at least 15 different laughs during our half-hour conversation. Which is why it comes as a surprise when the veteran artiste, known for her ability to emote in every situation before she successfully dabbled with humour, says she’s not a very jovial person in real life. “What you see on-screen is the actress, not me. I’m moody,” she says.
Urvashi is delighted with the warm reception that Bramma’s Magalir Mattum has received. Partly because, she has also experienced the joy of long-lasting friendships. “I grew up in Thiruvananthapuram till I was eight, and then moved to Chennai. I started working in films before I finished school. So, my friends circle is limited. I’m very close to about four-five people, all industry outsiders. No one even wants to be known in the media. We’ve stayed in touch despite everyone belonging to different professions and living in different cities. Among them is Raji, my friend from Trissur; we speak every week.”
Urvashi travels back to her childhood in a joint family in Ashok Nagar, Chennai. “I had friends in the industry, but it never progressed beyond a level. That was the environment we grew up in.”
That way, today’s social media and flitting friendships seem strange to Urvashi. “I don’t understand certain things,” says the actress, who pauses to frame her thoughts. “We had gossip in our time too. But, today’s gossip is more garbage. People share images of people who are unwell, with little thought about consent, or their fragile emotional state. I’m upset by the sadistic pleasure that some derive. Is this what social media is for?”
And then, just like her varied emotions flit across her face, she changes the topic to speak about why she chose humour early on in her career. “After marriage, and my daughter’s birth, I decided to focus on humour, since there were few actresses doing that. This is my profession, and I wanted to carve a niche for myself. In fact, I started sprinkling humour in my performances even before, to see how it works. After a stage, all you get are mother and sister roles. I could not imagine saying things like ‘Nee potiu vaa paa, nalla iru paa’ [may you be well] every day of my life. Performance would fly out of the window. And so, I embraced humour. I was always on the lookout for roles that would showcase my abilities, but that might only happen once in a while; comedy sustained the artiste in me.”
Though she hailed from a family with a great sense of humour — “My parents, sister Kalpana and brothers were a riot” — Urvashi was unaware that she had a funny bone. “I improved my game with every film,” she says.
And then, after a point, Urvashi felt that the writing was getting pedestrian. “There are no writers for women in comedy. K Bhagyaraj and K Balachander Sir knew how to write humour for heroines. We have language limitations, body limitations. If people do not realise this while writing a scene, it would look terrible on-screen. It is very important to understand humour so that you know how to elicit ‘happy’ laughter. Bhagyaraj could get you to laugh with his dialogues. Crazy Mohan is the master of slapstick,” she elaborates.
Magalir Mattum, she says, was a happy experience, because Bramma had done all the homework. “We merely improvised. He took such care to frame every scene. I have great respect for someone who wrote a film that revolves around women, and put in progressive thoughts. It was such joy to play an understanding mother-in-law who shares a great bond with her daughter-in-law, and friends, played by Bhanupriya and Saranya Ponvannan.”
Despite all the praise, Urvashi says that even today, she gets worried wondering if she will do a scene well, and overjoyed when the director okays a shot. Likewise, she makes sure she passes on feedback for any good performance. She spoke to KR Vandana, who essayed her younger self in Magalir Mattum, to tell her she loved her portrayal. “She was spot on. I was reminded of myself.”
Before we move on, Urvashi’s three-year-old son Ishaan Prajapathi asks for his amma. She gives him something to play with and buys two minutes of time. “He’s been such a positive force in my life. No one can be fully happy, but he’s put me back in a happy space,” she says, adding that she’s waiting for her elder daughter Tejalakshmi, who’s studying in Bengaluru, to watch the film too. “She has a great sense of humour, and is interested in films. But, she must study before thinking of anything else.”
Does Urvashi rue missing out on any great roles? That famous laughter surfaces again. “You’ll feel bad only if someone else got something you wanted. Where are the roles for women? There are few writers who will develop a female character, with all her quirks and personal growth. A film must revolve around the character, even if that character is a dog. In a star-struck industry, we need producers who will encourage good writers.”
The actress says that with time, women go through so many transformations, and each one of them can add many layers to a character. “In real life, there’s so much we do, so many relationships we fulfill, so much anger we bury within… it’s time to bring them on-screen. That will bring back family audiences.”
And then, Urvashi pauses. “It took 23 years for a second Magalir Mattum. God knows how long it will take for the next!”
The Urvashi interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.