Your short film ‘Devi’ won the Filmfare Award…
I am close friends with Niranjan Iyengar and the late Ryan Stephen, the producers of ‘Devi’. As a woman, I feel proud that my friends made the film. It was written, directed by women, and had an all-female star cast. It was such a unique experience to be on a set with so many powerful women across age groups. The shoot will go into the photo album of my life.
Has it changed your perception of womanhood?
I felt guilty whenever I thought how easy it was to comment on other women. I worked on it consciously over many years to say there is enough space for every woman and that each one of us is beautiful in our own right. It’s not even about being a woman; it’s a very human quality that when you see someone else getting something that you want the first thing you feel is envious, negative, and intimidated. Look at the comments section of certain social media posts and you’ll know what I mean. I have decided that when I see a woman that I like, I will aspire to have that good quality instead of being jealous of it. It’s a simple shift but in the current scenario, it is very important for women to stick together. We have too big a dream to achieve to be bickering amongst each other.
As someone who has studied abroad and chose to return to the country, how do you see the alarming number of rape cases?
We must not forget that we live in privilege which offers us a layer of safety. But the more you move closer to the rural areas the more this safety doesn’t exist. The fact that women are not safe in India is as basic as you and me breathing. I told myself that I must study this world that is not mine to understand why it is the way it is. I acknowledge that I may not be aware of what a woman in a village must go through and I want to know. At the same time, I also want to tell you about my micro-aggressions and why I feel the need to raise my voice as a woman.
Do you also discuss this with your father Kamal Haasan, who, as a politician, can bring about real change?
The repercussion of being my father’s daughter is that I am a liberated woman. He was raised by powerful women and you can still see him carrying his mother and sister’s energy. He understands women, their value, and their contribution to the society and ecosystem. I feel really happy that there are so many women involved in his political party and that they are addressing pertinent issues. I have no contribution to the party, but I was very happy to see the focus on schemes for girl’s education that they were working on. That is something every politician should be looking at.
What were the first projects that you resumed work with after the first lockdown ended?
I resumed work with a short film ‘Coffee, Anyone?’ by my cousin Suhasini Maniratnam. There were only four people involved and we shot indoors but it was nerve-wracking to return to work after being by myself for more than 100 days. After that, I shot for Netflix’s ‘Pitta Kathalu’ which is a short story anthology, and also finished ‘Crack’ and ‘Vakil Saab’ which released in January. ‘Laabam’, my Tamil film is yet to be finished.
Why have you been away from films?
I took a break from films for almost two years, during which I did a film which I didn’t even realised had released. I made a promise to myself to work on both my music and cinema because I had not given due diligence to the former, which is what my career had started with. I had to step away. After that, I wasn’t very happy with the things that were being offered to me.
The first hurdle when coming back from a break is convincing people that you aren’t disinterested in your job. That, in fact, you took the break because you wanted to be better at it. The concept of healthy sabbaticals and reinvention didn’t exist back when I took a break. Now that I am back, people tell me how much I have changed but when I was doing it they called me a crazy woman.
What about Bollywood?
With Hindi films, you have to constantly be on track. I don’t think I am good with it in any language. I am not the greatest strategist in the world which is evident from my Bollywood trajectory (laughs); I choose projects based on my artistic instincts. If a good role comes my way, I’ll take it up. But with OTT, my regional films are also being watched by everyone and the change I have undergone is for all to see.
OTT has also made pan-India stars out for regional actors. Your ‘Salaar’ co-star Prabhas being one of them…
I am really happy about that. Before that, it was only us women who were working in several film industries at once; it is great that now even the men are following our lead.
You are doing an Amazon Prime show now. Do you hope that will get you noticed in Bollywood?
I am not a person who puts any egg in any basket. I enjoy what I do and hope it connects with people. How much that translates into validation is another discussion but it is not a driver for me. I have made such choices in the past and I was not happy about them. People told me that if I wanted to be a part of Bollywood, I’d have to do super commercial films. I did listen to them but I didn’t enjoy it. I am no longer ready to go by other people’s timelines and expectations of me; I am just doing me.
During the last lockdown you had released a single. Are you working on one this time around as well?
I do have something for release but right now is not the time to do so. It is an original with a unique presentation. It is very feminine in its voice and kind of connects to what I have been feeling in the past year.
You recently put up a post documenting how difficult being an artiste was in such times…
I am feeling very inadequate as an artiste right now. I feel like I don’t have musical vocabulary. I am, however, able to write more poetry right now which is a new medium to me. But my poetry is very autobiographical and it feels almost petty to talk about my struggles right now. But one thing that I have learned through history is that science and art change the world. So, it’s important to value one’s own artistry. During the last pandemic, I was in a creative rush because the pandemic didn’t feel as close as Andheri, Chennai, or Bandra. It was not very wise of me. But one needs to understand that what you are feeling right now is valid; you need to acknowledge that and put out that compassionate energy in the universe. That’s where mental health comes in. Many people wonder if they should be going under therapy when people are dying. But the answer is yes, you must.
Do you think the pandemic has urged more people to focus on mental health?
Since the last lockdown, things have changed drastically. Back then, we were yet to realise the mental ramifications that this time period would have on us. When people came out of the lockdown, they were low on hope, money, and support, they collectively felt that they were all feeling a little s**t. I was so happy to see it being discussed by a panel of mental health experts on primetime news as a genuine issue. That destigmatises it. Indians are very proud of being self-sufficient when it comes to mental health issues, which is great, but not on an individual level. People say talk to the family, but that’s not always enough because they are not equipped to deal with it.
How different do you think was this lockdown than the one imposed last year?
The energy this time around is heavier, darker, and more helpless. Till last year, we were hearing such stories coming out of China and Italy, but this year we went through it ourselves. Last year was about staying positive and being productive.
There were a lot of people who complained that Shruti is being so paranoid and crazy. They were laughing at me for refusing to shoot on sets where not enough Covid protocols were being followed. From day one, I had understood that the virus was not going to negotiate with us; it isn’t a distant relative with whom you can reason. I knew we were getting lax; I would see people without masks, partying like it was 1996. There were many days when I was made to feel like a hypochondriac party-pooper when I went around spraying people with sanitisers and wearing my mask. But it was evident to me, even back then, that we would end up here. All of us want to work and make a living, but it is important to do so safely. Right now everyone is suffering but there was a stage where it was controllable on an individual level.
How do you ensure the information that you are sharing on social media is genuine?
When I am not able to verify and trace back the request to its source, I don’t share it. Hence a lot of my posts are associated with organisations or publications. Even the ones that aren’t, would have been verified by my group of fans who are like family to me. They have taken it upon themselves to call and verify the leads; I am not that savvy but they come to my rescue all the time.
Children and animals are the worst hit by the pandemic as they can’t communicate. A few days ago, a friend told me about this new post being circulated about orphaned children that needed to be adopted. That’s really dangerous. Many people think that children who are orphaned need to be taken in but it involves various adoption procedures and thorough background checks to ascertain there is a need for adoption. I found the organisation and reached out to them, to ask how could I help them help others.
Were your parents worried about you being in one of the worst-hit states?
Last year, we were worried about the elderly but this time around, it has affected even children as young as six-month-old. Everyone is worried about their near and dear ones. Financially also it is a trepidatious time so not everyone is able to help out too. Asking people to donate all their money is also not fair because right now every business and corporate house are under different levels of financial stress. It’s a very scary situation even vocationally. I don’t agree with the perspective that one should just switch off the news and do yoga to stay positive. Seeing matters for what they are and understanding them instead of falling down the well of paranoia is the key to moving forward.
What’s your biggest takeaway from this time?
We have always had a false sense of control and held a certain image of the role we played in the world. But this time has reminded us that things can be taken away from us at any given time. There is a weird sense of being controlled by an outside force but at the same time, the universe is also giving us the control to make sensible, creative and compassionate choices. My takeaway is the duality of this time.
You are quite active on social media…
For me, social media has been a boon because it gives us a chance to control the narrative. Ever since I was a child, I had a problem with people misunderstanding me. Online, I am me; you can like it or hate it.
During the last lockdown, your cat had run away…
We have seen her around; she is alive and well. So, that’s a relief.
This time around, you have Shantanu Hazarika for company. How had you met?
We have been friends for a while. I had reached out to him first to appreciate his artwork.
You share a lot of everyday details with your fans, but seem to be guarded about your personal life…
I am not hiding anything; that’s not my nature. It is too much effort to keep things a secret and I had decided early on that was what I didn’t need in my life. However, I have also not had too much personal life, because I have grown up in front of people from a very early age. My own family felt like it didn’t belong only to me, so I am instinctively a little guarded about my personal life. I am not complaining but that’s how it has panned out for me.
Creative credits: Aditi Giri