She has been there, done that! Be it a career in modelling or acting, Priyamani is talent personified. Right from her first film she has had the privilege of working in the midst of venerated minds in the industry. Though she has not had many commercial successes, her author-backed roles speak for her credibility as a sensitive actor. Her amazingly straightforward spirit and strong attitude have helped Priyamani cope with box office misses with the same level-headedness that aided her in staying focussed after the overwhelming response to her award winning role in Paruthiveeran.
“I was an extremely mischievous child. My brother was the studious one”
Born in Palakkad, and brought up in Bangalore, Priyamani’s childhood was idyllic. With an older sibling to share her days with, she points out that she was always the fun one. “My dad and grandmother shifted to Bangalore when I was very young. My brother was the studious one. I was extremely mischievous,” she laughs. She asserts that she did not want anything to do with studies even while she was growing up. “I was the master of giving excuses for not studying. I was much more into fine arts, if you can call it that.”
Priyamani’s grandmother is a very well known trained Carnatic music singer while her mother was a national level badminton player and her father a cricket player. So coming from a family of such varied interests was Priya ever prodded into entering any of the fields? “I can hold a tune pretty well. After all, singing is in my genes. And I represented the district in badminton tournaments. But then college happened and I got pulled into fine arts and modelling,” she states. During her childhood, Priya admits to having watched a lot of Malayalam movies on TV. “I never used to watch regional language movies apart from Malayalam. My father was not inclined to go to a theatre and watch a movie so we were dependent on the TV,” says Priya, who is also the cousin of Bollywood star Vidya Balan.
“My grandmother gave me the go ahead to join films”
Priya’s foray into modelling happened when she was doing her graduation in psychology. “When I was in college, the HOD in the History department used to organise fashion shows and events. That is how I got interested in ramp modelling.” From then, her tryst with modelling gave way to greener pastures and she started taking part in many fashion shows for either ramp walking or modelling for advertisements. “Tara Umesh, the famous model coordinator, and her son Ajay who is a photographer, helped me get into commercial modelling assignments. Ajay did my portfolio and through Tara I got a lot of modelling assignments, especially for the print media,” says Priya.
Though her aim was ramp walking, Priya points out that many well wishers including Prasad Bidapa, fashion designer and model trainer, urged her to get into print modelling as her photographs were suited more for the print media. “I did a lot of jewellery and sari advertisements then.” Soon her good looks and talents earned her offers for movies and more advertisements. Did her family have any problem with her going into acting at such an early age? “My parents were obviously hesitant. It was my grandmother who gave the green signal. She told my parents that they should allow me to do what I want to do. She had watched quite a lot of my advertisements on TV, both in Tamil and in Malayalam, and she encouraged me to go ahead.”
“I had a dream debut with Bharathiraja. He is undoubtedly my guru”
When one of her still photographs for a sari ad campaign landed in the hands of the scriptwriter Premnath of ‘Kangalal Kaidu Sei’ directed by the legendary Bharathiraja, Priya knew she had struck gold. “Bharathiraja sir apparently saw a few of my photographs that were with Premnath sir. He immediately called me for a screen test and I was through. I was officially the heroine of Bharathiraja sir’s next film,” she grins. Her palpable excitement at such a wonderful opportunity is evident even now as she reminisces the days of shooting for the movie. “Bharathiraja sir is undoubtedly my guru. He was the one who tapped the actor in me and encouraged me to perform.” Though ‘Kangalal Kaidu Sei’ was not a commercial success, the movie earned mixed reviews from critics and was known for the fantastic music scored by AR Rahman. “The Bharathiraja-Rahman is a dream combo for any debutant. I have no regrets with my decision to act in that film through which I evolved as an actor,” says Priya candidly.
Bharathiraja’s style of direction and acting nuances can be considered as a bit of over the board when compared to the subtle nudges of many directors of today. But undoubtedly he is an institution by himself in every right, stresses Priya. “For one of the songs in ‘Kangalal...’ we did not have any choreographers. So Bharathiraja sir asked me to do whatever I felt like doing. He would point out a few places where I could change the movements, but the waving of hands and other large movements in ‘Azhagiya Cinderella’ song is all me,” she laughs. “I was a little disappointed as it took a year for the movie to release. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the schedule got postponed and as a result the release got pushed too.”
But even before Bharathiraja saw Priyamani for what she was worth on screen it was the famed Malayalam director A.M. Fazil who gave her the first opportunity to act. “I went to Fazil sir’s place for an audition for his next film in which he was directing his son. I was not armed with any formal training in acting, but I gave my audition with confidence. I was selected,” she says simply. Priyamani unfortunately could not work on the project with Fazil with her Board exams playing spoilsport. The director was in a bit of a hurry to complete the project and hence could not wait for her.
“Critics wrote me off after my first film. But they took it all back with my next one”
Priyamani’s excellent onscreen persona and her adaptability to screenplays led to many more flicks with star directors and actors. The Malayalam flick ‘Sathyam’ where she starred opposite Prithiviraj led to many more films with the actor. Soon a fantastic opportunity to work with the ace director Balu Mahendra presented itself in the form of ‘Adhu Oru Kana Kalam’ opposite Dhanush. “The critics who wrote me off as an ‘over actor’ in ‘Kangalal…’ called me as the underdog in ‘Adhu Oru...’. I think everyone got their answer there,” she answers strongly. Her acting prowess was highly appreciated in the movie what with her being able to pull off the role of a maid in the movie with élan. “The differences in the working styles of both Balu sir and Bharathiraja sir are very stark. While Balu sir’s direction calls for more subtle expressions from the artist, Bharathiraja sir’s scripts demand a much more dramatic screen presence.”
Though ‘Adhu Oru...’ too did not set the box office cash registers ringing, Priya stresses that she would never regret working with both the legends. Apart from being provided an excellent platform to nurture her talents, she says it was Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra who tapped two different sides of her to come up with completely varied characters. Another plume in her hat of fame is that Priyamani is known for her ease of working in many languages. Be it Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu or Kannada, the actor says that she has never had any problem working in different languages. “I learnt Telugu after I went to Hyderabad. It was a makeup man who urged me to talk in Telugu and since he knew Tamil he was able to correct me.” While shooting for ‘Kangalal...’ Priya got an offer for a Telugu film which paved the way for more films in Tollywood.
“Shooting for Paruthiveeran’s climax was a haunting experience”
It was when Priya was working on a Tamil film called ‘Madhu’ that she got the call for ‘Paruthiveeran’ written and directed by Ameer Sultan. The film that gave her a major break in her career also won her many awards and accolades. “When the call came I never knew who Ameer Sultan was. After meeting him, in the evening one of the managers from the film called me asking me to come to Theni,” she recalls. ‘Paruthiveeran’ was the one film in her career that she agreed to do without knowing the plot or the storyline, she says. The movie in which she co-starred with Karthi Sivakumar saw Priyamani transform into a village belle, much to the appreciation of critics and the audiences. The movie was a box office hit and was also the first movie that she dubbed for.
“There were days when we did absolutely nothing at the set other than eat and wait. We used to work on a few montage shots for a couple of songs from the movie. But Ameer is a perfectionist. If he is waiting for a particular kind of illumination to shoot a scene he will not move ahead unless he gets it,” she says in praise of the director. The movie was shot entirely in natural light and Priya showers kudos on cameraman Ramji and Ameer for portraying the rustic duo in such natural settings.
Anyone who has watched the movie would vouch for the chilling climax which is perhaps Priyamani’s career best. The scene which involves a gang rape and a sudden death of her character Muthazhagu was an amalgamation of sentiment and gloom. “I did not even know that there was going to be a gang rape scene with me as the crux. But Ameer was extremely sensitive and he made sure that the camera was in one room and the actors in another. So maybe not knowing the scene made me go with the flow,” she comments. When she bagged the Tamil Nadu State award and the National Award for best actress, among many others, her reaction was that of acceptance as she explains that the entire experience was almost surreal. The film also won acclaim in many international film festivals.
“Though my role in Raavanan was small, the experience of working with bigwigs was incomparable”
Soon offers started to pour in and Priya worked on a few more Telugu and Tamil films before landing a role in yet another critically acclaimed film in Malayalam, ‘Thirakkatha’, which is loosely based on the life on the yesteryear actor Srividya. Starring opposite Prithviraj, the film won Priya great praise for her original performance. “I found a few scenes in the movie extremely difficult to handle. The portrayal of emotions when the protagonist is cancer-stricken and how she copes with the aftermath of the disease were very hard to portray. Even now the scenes bring tears to my eyes,” says Priya. Ranjith, the director of the movie, wanted her to do the movie after watching her stellar performance in ‘Paruthiveeran’. “It was an author-backed role and the movie was the biggest hit in my Malayalam career,” she states proudly.
When Ranjith offered another role in a Mammootty starrer ‘Pranchiyettan & the Saint’, Priya grabbed at the opportunity. Thus was born another critical hit and yet another acting experience with one of the legendary performers in Malayalam cinema. This was followed by ‘Grandmaster’ in which she starred opposite Mohanlal. Apart from Malayalam, Priyamani’s foray into Bollywood was ushered in by none other than ace director Mani Ratnam. “When I went to meet Mani sir in his office he spoke to me in detail for five minutes about my role in ‘Raavanan’,” she chuckles, adding, “He asked me how my Hindi was. After a brief test of the language with another crew member I was in the cast of ‘Raavan’ too.” Priya insists that despite lack of commercial success for the movie, she relished the experience as she got to share screen space with great actors such as Vikram, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Prabhu among others. “Though my role was short, the experience was incomparable.”
In her trademark straightforward manner she agrees that she was more comfortable working with Vikram than with Abhishek Bachchan. “I knew Vikram personally and he was an extremely chilled out guy. Many of us in the crew used to play badminton after shooting at the hotel we stayed in,” she laughs. On working with the Big B’s son, she says, “I had heard that he was a good cook. Once I fell sick at the shooting spot and therefore finished work quickly. Abhishek had just come back from his pre-release work of ‘Delhi 6’. He made me and my mom a chicken dish and said that it had a lot of medicinal values in it,” she laughs. “Another day on the sets, Abhishek broke a laddoo into many pieces and distributed it among the crew claiming that he cooked it,” she merrily reminisces. Proving the adage that she is a director’s actor she added to her kitty another strong role through ‘Ratha Sarithiram’ in which she starred opposite Surya. The movie directed by Ram Gopal Verma was also released in Hindi and Telugu.
“I will definitely be more cautious about taking on glamorous roles now”
The actor admits that her career chart has been full of pluses and minuses. So when pictures of her wearing a bikini for a Telugu film leaked online she understood that she had to be more cautious about accepting roles that put her in uncomfortable positions. “Despite asking the movie crew to not let out the picture beforehand, it did happen. It taught me to be more cautious with glamour in roles and I will make sure I don’t do anything that my family or I am uncomfortable with.” She reiterates that just because her role in ‘Paruthiveeran’ as a village belle struck a chord with the public, it does not mean that she has to stick to traditional roles and costumes. “At the end of the day I am a modern woman and I do wear modern clothes. And Telugu cinema is a place where glamour plays an important role.”
“Shah Rukh is extremely cooperative and charming to work with”
Priya’s cameo dance performance in the money minting ‘Chennai Express’ again put her on the map as someone whose cinematic roles are completely unpredictable. “I got a call from my manager asking me if I want to dance with Shah Rukh Khan. Who would say no?” she laughingly asks. Though immediately she sobers up saying, “I did have reservations about the kind of song they wanted me to do. But after meeting Rohit Shetty and listening to the song I said yes,” she clarifies. Adjectives are endless when it comes to describing Shah Rukh, says Priya! “I am a huge fan of his. Anybody who meets him for the first time will immediately get floored by his charm. When I was introduced to him by Rohit, he hugged me and thanked me for agreeing to do the song. A person of such a stature being so down-to-earth was refreshing to watch.”
The ‘1,2,3,4 get on the dance floor’ number that topped many charts features Shah Rukh and Priya indulging in good old-fashioned ‘dappanguthu’ which is also incidentally one of the first that Shah Rukh has done in his career. “He is extremely hardworking and whenever he was not happy with a step he would ask me ‘Darling, can we go for another take please?’” she grins.
“I would give my right hand to do a role like what Ramya Krishnan did in Padayappa”
Not many actors would opt for a negative role that tends to skew their ‘goody goody’ image on screen. But with Priyamani, the tendency to experiment with character backed roles in almost natural. “I am very sure that I would fit into a negative role. After all, without Neelambari there is no Padayappa, in the very words of the Superstar (Rajinikanth),” she smiles. Ramya Krishnan who essayed the role of Neelambari in the hit Tamil film received kudos for her bold portrayal of a woman obsessed with Padayappa (Rajini) and who would go to any lengths to vanquish him.
Priya is currently filming for a couple of Malayalam and Telugu films apart from a Kannada one. Given her versatility and penchant for varied roles, it comes as no surprise that her role models in cinema are Kamal Hassan and Sridevi for their effortless acting that makes them completely believable in the eyes of the audience. “The seamless manner in which they slip into a role is amazing. Even Shah Rukh’s acting comes under that banner,” she states.
With her professional life appearing to be nicely poised, does marriage figure in the scheme of things for this talented actor? “Of course! I will be getting married in about two years’ time. The person, my ‘someone special’, too is ready to tie the knot,” she signs off with a cheeky smile.