Varalaxmi Sarathkumarmade her debut in 2012, but despite winning praise for her performance in that film, she wasn’t seen on screen, in Tamil, until Bala’s Thaarai Thappattai in 2016. And like her character’s name in that film, Sooravali, her performance, too, was a whirlwind, that finally resulted in windfall of offers.She is now part of a handful of films in Tamil and Malayalam. Speaking to Chennai Times, Varalaxmi says that she owes it completely to Bala sir and Thaarai Thappattai for being the actress she is today . "The experience working on the film has become a very big part of my life. Bala sir really opened me up as a per former, making me act in a manner which I never thought I could. He showed me that I could go places and expand my acting skills," she says.
She elaborates. "Bala sir’s whole process is itself different. You can not just single out and say some thing. The way he does a scene is different. You will know the difference, of how you are performing, even when you are acting in a normal scene for a Bala film. Even a simple action like shak ing your head to say no will be treated differently .That’s the beauty of his direction. This is why when you go and work in another set after working in a Bala film, the directors feel you are giving a lot more than they had expected. You will be able to add more to the scene as a performer."
Now, she is part of over half-a-dozen films which are under various stages of production, and the actress is excited about the fact that each role is different. "You will not find them repetitive," she informs, "In Vikram Vedha, I’m playing a north Madras girl. In Nibunan, I’m a nerdy cop, whereas in Sathya, I’m a bold cop. As for Echarikkai, I’m playing a normal girl who is kidnapped. Even my roles in the Malayalam films are different. One is entirely rural, and will have the feel of what Khushbu ma’am played in Varusham 16. In Mammootty sir’s film, I’m an IPS officer." She has also signed on three to four movies, which are under production.
Varalaxmi says that an actress should play any kind of role, and if it is helpful to the script, they shouldn’t be thinking of who they are being paired up with and all that. "It should be more about the script and the role. For instance, in Vikram Vedha, Vikram and Vedha don’t meet if my story doesn’t happen. It’s that pivotal to the film. I want to break the stereotype of a heroine being in a film for the songs," she proclaims.
She feels that she has been able to do so because our cinema is also changing today . "Filmmakers are starting to say that substantial roles can be given to women and that women can carry off an entire movie on their own. So, I’m in a very good space right now," she says.
However, this wasn’t the case when she made her debut, and there were people who felt that she wasn’t heroine material.Varalaxmi brushes them off. "The industry will always have a lot to say , but then eventually , they have all changed. Now, the people who come and approach me are people who are in search of a real actress. It’s not for a bimbette’s role that they want me. They know that they can offer me a substantial role and they will get a powerful performance. That’s the brand value I’ve created for myself," she says.
But her new lean look seems to indicate that she, too, has decided to stick to the expectations that the industry has on its leading ladies. "Not at all," says Varalaxmi and explains, "I had a break. And it’s just that each role demands a different character. For example, take Thaarai Thappattai. If you go and see the real-life Karagattam dancers, they are not thin.We had shot videos of many of these dancers performing, and all of them were hefty , so I became that way . If a role requires me to be in a certain way , I do it. That’s all."
Talking about how she achieved her new look, she reveals, "I used to finish eating by 7pm, and I gave up carbs. And whenever I had time, I used to work out. When you are shooting continuously , especially in rural areas, you do not get a gym to work out regularly . But controlling your diet is most important."
There was a controversy recently over her walking out from the Malayalam remake of Samuthirakani’s Appa that she was doing with Jayaram. She had alleged poor treatment from the producers while they called it as tantrums of a star. What really did happen? "Our industry is surrounded by a lot of male chauvinistic people. I won’t say everybody is like that, but there are a few cases which you come across. And I have the liberty of walking out, because I cannot put up with such behaviour. It is as simple as that. It’s not a star tantrum. If you don’t treat your artiste well, I don’t think I should be in your film. The way they were talking, the way they were behaving… things like that put me off. I was very patient with them, but they didn’t seem to respect the fact that I have given them the time to do the movie."
She says that even Samuthirakani, with whom she has a very good rapport, told her that it’d fine if she chooses to walk out and not bother about being there if the production house wasn’t respecting her.She had also informed Jayaram of her decision, she adds.Didn’t they bat for her? "They were also shocked at the way the production house was behaving. They obviously gave those people a piece of their mind, but then, I had already walked out, and was not going to return to the film. In fact, Jayaram sir apologised to me, and said that he was sorry about the way I was treated and assured that we would work together in the future."
And she has now taken up the cause of empowering women. For her Save Shakti petition campaign, she had met the Tamil Nadu chief minister and the union minister for law and justice. Elaborating on this, she says, "We have asked for more mahila courts and six months of justice. In Tamil Nadu alone, there has to be 32 courts, but we have only four or five. When we have more mahila courts, justice will be served faster. The petition has been submitted to our chief minister and has also gone up to Delhi, to union minister PP Choudhary ." The minister had, in fact, told her that these suggestions should be implemented all over the country as well. "He immediately sent letters to various chief ministers, and it was amazing to see such a response," she gushes.
Ironically , on the very day she was in Delhi submitting her petition to the minister, the publicity team of her film Echarikkai used insensitive promotional material that drew heavy criticism. "The publicity guys did something idiotic.And it was untimely as well," she admits, but adds, "But these things happen in cinema. You can’t dwell into them too much.And you cannot blame the artiste for it, because I was not even involved in and even aware of the whole publicity stunt. When they took the photograph, I thought it was going to come with the movie title, but I did not know they would use it without the title. It was a mistake on their part, but I don’t want to spend my energy on it."
She is also planning to form a body soon, an NGO to help women, but that might take some time. "I have been shooting for films and busy with my musical of late, so I haven’t been able to multi-task further and focus on that as well. I need time to set it up right," she says.
The actresses in the Malayalam film industry recently came together to form a body for themselves. Does she have any idea of doing something similar in Kollywood? "Even if you are in the industry , you are a woman at the end of the day . So, I’m looking at the bigger picture," she says and adds, "Save Shakti is not only for the film industry . I’ve been very, very clear about that from day one that it shouldn’t be just for women in films, but to every woman out there who feels threatened to be in her house, and feels it is unsafe for her to come out and speak about her problems, and victims of domestic violence and sexual violence."