In 2008, when director Priyadarshan was making Kanchivaram, which had Prakash Raj in the lead, the actor had insisted on hiring theatre artistes to be cast in supporting roles. 10 talented actors from the popular theatre company Koothu-P-Pattarai were chosen. Actress Vinodhini was one of them, but the National Award winning film didn’t enjoy mainstream success.
A couple of years later, director Saravanan, who debuted with Engeyum Eppodhum, watched a play called Saami Aaattam – written by Bama, and dramatised by Vinodhini. It followed a woman, who bobbitised her neighbour because he was constantly abusing his wife. Vinodhini portrayed all three characters, and delivered a 45-minute long monologue.
Saravanan was impressed; he went the extra mile to improvise her role in Engeyum Eppodhum.
Although Vinodhini appeared only for a short while in the film, the audience remembered her. She seemed refreshingly natural and at home in Engeyum Eppodhum, that when she was spotted at public places, she would be told that she looked exactly like the actress in Engeyum Eppodhum.
Vinodhini would then patiently explain that the actress was indeed her.
Since 2011, Vinodhini has starred in eight movies including Kadal, Jilla, Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam, Pisaasu and Jigarthanda, and has six more releases coming up. Pandiraj’s Haiku and Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani. “Everything that’s happened in my life is an accident. And, that’s how it works for an artiste, I suppose. One can never plan life.”
Vinodhini’s vintage apartment in Besant Nagar is pleasantly sunny. Besides the neatly made diwan, a bronze artefact, and a recliner, there is barely anything else in the drawing room. “My house represents what I think about materialistic things,” laughs Vinodhini, sinking in the easy chair.
Born in Chennai, and brought up by a mother who’s fond of cinema, Vinodhini had had her fair share of watching Tamil films by frequenting the local theatres to watch Kaaki Sattai and My Dear Kuttichathan, and purchasing video cassettes from Raj Video Vision. “But there was no great fascination for cinema when I was a child,” she says.
At school, she had a penchant for cultural activities. Along with her friends, she wrote her own scripts for her stand-up comedy routines. She was 14 then. “I also wrote some bad jokes alright? ‘Tea-la dhoosiya irukkey? Oh, idhu dhaan super dust tea…’” she laughs heartily. “We wrote a few plays on social themes too.”
Despite her parents wanting her to enrol in an engineering college, Vinodhini signed up for a degree in Bio-Chemistry. College offered her plenty of opportunities to write and perform. “We got to watch plays of Y Gee Mahendra, S Ve Sekhar, Crazy Mohan and Kaathadi Ramamurthy, and also had theatre professionals training us during events. We were winning every competition.” However, theatre was still not a career option then. Soon, Bengaluru beckoned, and she joined XIME to do her MBA.
When she was in Bengaluru, Vinodhini managed to steal a couple of hours from college to watch Kannada plays regularly. “I saw a lot of stand-up comedy and theatre productions. Then, I joined a recruitment firm after completing the course. But, I found it mundane.” Quitting her job, Vinodhini returned to Chennai, and that’s when she found a job advertisement in a neighbourhood newspaper called Mylapore Times. “I was perhaps the only business graduate in the whole world to apply for the post of a job recruitment consultant by seeing a local newspaper…” That aside, she also joined a theatre group called Magic Lantern.
Vinodhini remembers a lot about the plays that she had been a part of. Quite often during our conversation, she recounts stories and dialogues, without thinking for a second. Her first play was the adaptation of French playwright Moliere’s Tartuffe. She played a maid, and assumed a non-speaking part. However, her performance was well-received, for the role demanded some slapstick humour. Her comic timing was particularly lauded.
Every day after work, she would join other part time artistes who practised the craft at various other theatre companies. She also joined Theatre Nisha, where she found more opportunities to hone her skills. From portraying Dharaupadi – “one of the toughest characters” – to delivering long monologues with finesse, Vinodhini was having a whale of a time at theatre groups. All was well till she had to move back to Bengaluru on work. “I couldn’t even find time to watch plays there. For one and a half years, I wasn’t doing anything creative. That’s when I decided to throw in the towel.” She quit her day job in Bengaluru, and stayed there for a month to attend theatre workshops.
“I have attended theatre workshops all my life. Only in such non-judgmental, non-competitive environment, one gets to explore.” She returned to Chennai, and joined Koothu-p-Pattarai as a full-time artiste, being there for three and a half years.
Koothu-p-Pattarai was like a gurukulam, she says. “It was proper training ground. Muthuswamy sir (founder and artistic director) left the door open for everybody. He often told me that a lot of women should embrace this art form.” The theatre company had a distinguished method of training. “We would do a physical activity every day. Like Devaraattam and Silambam. Muthuswamy sir would tell us that we weren’t learning such forms to master it, but to understand how it could be employed while acting, and improvising a scene. The most beautiful thing about Koothu-p-Pattarai is that their training is comprehensive. It was often called ‘Mind, Body and Voice’ training. It encompassed all aspects of acting.”
Vinodhini learnt at Koothu-p-Pattarai that every action she does contributes towards the art that she pursues. “I have recently started cooking. If I do it meditatively at some level, it would help me become a better actor,” she observes. The experience was also liberating. “Training made me fluid,” she says.
And in addition to acting, she learnt other parts of theatre, from lighting to direction, when she left Koothu-p-Pattarai. The actress has also been teaching drama to children with learning disabilities.
Working in Engeyum Eppodhum was great fun, according to Vinodhini. She would sit beside Saravanan and watch the scenes with him on the monitor. “He would look like he is not that deep. But he is a great observer. For instance, an actor, who played Ananya’s mother in the film, had done her eye-brows before coming to the shoot. She looked slightly different from how she appeared at the audition. So, he waited for the eye-brows to grow again,” she laughs.
Mani Ratnam’s Kadal though, was way different.
The director had seen Vinodhini in Engeyum Eppodhum, and roped her in for a short, yet important role in Kadal. The crew stayed at the coastal village in Manapad for 45 days. The sojourn was adventurous, she says. “Regardless of whose portion was filmed, we all would leave the hotel at 4.45 am. On some days, we wouldn’t act, but we would still be ready at the sets. All of us were treated in a uniform manner. There was no hierarchy at Mani sir’s sets. Gautham Karthik travelled with us in 3rd AC, and Arvind Swamy used to join us, while resting under the trees at Manapad.” [quote align=’right’]”I am not young to play a typical heroine. I am 35. And, I am not old enough to play mother roles. Nobody is writing for women like us.”[/quote]
Sometimes, during lunch, Vinodhini would have conversations with Mani Ratnam about all things cinema. “He would love it if actors approached him to discuss their roles. So would Mysskin.” When she worked for Balu Mahendra’s school, Cinema Pattarai, several afternoons were spent discussing a range of subjects. “He would openly talk about his personal mistakes, and the past. Suddenly, he would ask his students to bring a camera and click a picture, and show us the way lighting and shadows work. That’s how I learnt a lot of things.” Vinodhini played a significant role in Balu Mahendra’s last film, Thalai Muraigal.
Despite being accomplished, not many opportunities come her way, says Vinodhini. “Because, I am neither here, nor there. I am not young to play a typical heroine. I am 35. And, I am not old enough to play mother roles. Perhaps, when I am about 39, I would start doing amma characters too,” she laughs. “Nobody is writing for women like us. But, men of our age still get chances.” Even if a role doesn’t appeal to a great degree, she still accepts. “Because it’s good to remind people that I am still around. I have still been choosy.”
The only compromise that she would never make is to give up theatre. Movies are unpredictable. “Theatre is purely an actor’s medium. I can be anyone I want. The options are countless there.” And, theatre allows her to question the status quo. “Through my stories, I reflect on the established norms. All my life I have been subverting them. Theatre lets me do that more. The ideas and literature that I explore through theatre affect me to a great extent. It doesn’t happen with films. Theatre is more intimate.”
This year, Vinodhini wishes to revive some of her favourite monologues, and direct a play. She has also been closely working with the theatre group, Clowns Without Borders for four years, and also devised a clown-comedy for the popular Short + Sweet Festival. Her Tamil play, Sathoor Sandhippu won many accolades. “By being in theatre, and collaborating with such groups, an artiste develops the ability to create illusion.” She is also revisiting some of her favourite plays of Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Mohan Rakesh and Indira Parthasarathy.
While she aspires to do several things that are close to her heart, Vinodhini firmly believes that there is no set career path for an artiste. Questions about the future irk her. “Would Picasso have thought of his future or career, when he was creating such lovely works? Or Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad for that matter? My work can surface even when I am 70. I am practising the art form that I adore, and it’s all that matters.”
The Vinodhini interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.