Four years ago, Parvathy did the unthinkable. In a film industry governed by fairly conventional rules of feminine beauty, the actor decided to chop off her hair. Parvathy had just finished work on the Tamil thriller Maryan, in which she starred alongside Dhanush, and she was done. “I was utterly exhausted. I needed some time to rest and reflect, so I took a break,” she says. It didn’t make sense for her to work on projects she didn’t enjoy simply to ensure that she remained in the public eye. To make it crystal clear that she was done with that phase of her career, she took the scissors to her long tresses.
To those who have watched the 29-year-old in Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days, the 2014 coming-of-age tale that became the highest-grossing Malayalam film of that year, the shingled hair that Parvathy sports in it is as much a part of her character, RJ Sarah, as her spunky, no-nonsense attitude. It is not possible to imagine Sarah — with her ethnic chic clothes, thick framed glasses and curly crop – any other way. The hair was the reason that Parvathy was cast in that role. “Anjali saw me in an interview on TV and said ‘That’s my Sarah’,” says Parvathy, laughing. Not that, without the distinctive haircut, she wouldn’t have had the acting chops to pull off the role. With last week’s release of director Tanuja Chandra’s Qarib Qarib Singlle, Parvathy’s first Hindi film, a nationwide audience is now beginning to glimpse what movie watchers in the south have known for a while now — that Parvathy, with her ability to play a wide range of characters, is a shape-shifter.
“‘You can never lie to the camera’,” says the actor, quoting Michael Caine, when we talk on the Sunday following the release of Qarib Qarib Singlle. This, in a nutshell, is her approach to her work: know every little detail about the characters and their choices, even down to imagining the toothpaste they use. “You can’t just skim the surface of any role. You have to find the depths, because any other way would be dishonest. And that becomes a hollow experience, both for the actor and for the audience,” she says.
It is a writerly approach to creating a character and one that Parvathy, fittingly enough, learned from the two writers who scripted Notebook, the movie that gave the then 18-year-old actor her first taste of success. The 2006 Malayalam film, directed by Rosshan Andrrews, was about how difficult choices impact the friendship of three schoolgirls. It was both panned and appreciated for talking about teen pregnancy. Parvathy’s portrayal of Pooja Krishnan was one of the highlights. The actor credits the film’s writing team, Bobby-Sanjay, with teaching her that the tiniest detail matters. “It doesn’t matter if those details are not required on screen. They make the character come alive to the actor,” she says.
Notebook signposts the moment when she fell in love with the craft of acting. She had debuted in a supporting role in Out of Syllabus earlier that year and, before that, had hosted music shows on a Malayalam television channel. “My mother had sent my picture for a TV contest seeking anchors and I won,” she says. Even with that entry into the world of glamour, young Parvathy remained a regular schoolgirl, with just a little more pocket money than most of her friends in her school in Thiruvananthapuram. “I would go to school in the morning, and host the shows in the evening,” she says. Her parents, both lawyers, fostered a sense of independence and Parvathy was happy to balance the demands of school and after-school activities.
While she became serious about a career in acting after Notebook, and delivered lauded performances in films like Poo (Tamil, 2008) and Maryan (2013), it was with Bangalore Days that Parvathy could be said to have entered the big league. There was no shortage of talent in the film’s ensemble cast, which included Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan, Nazriya Nazim, Fahadh Faasil and Nithya Menen, but Parvathy made her mark. She won nearly every Supporting Actress award she was nominated for that year, including the Filmfare Awards South and Asianet Film Awards. The following year saw two back-to-back hits in Malayalam — Charlie, in which she played Tessa, a wild child looking for the elusive titular character, and Ennu Ninte Moideen, in which she essayed the role of the demure but stubbornly-in-love Kanchanamala. The contrast between the two roles couldn’t have been starker and her astonishing ability to slip into both ensured that the actor triumphed at that year’s awards too, this time bagging the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress for both roles.
It wasn’t long before Mumbai came calling. The actor would have made her Hindi debut in a film produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, but the project got cancelled. The writer of the shelved film, Gazal Dhaliwal, introduced her to Chandra, who was looking for the female lead of Qarib Qarib Singlle. Once she had heard the story of the breezy rom-com, Parvathy knew she couldn’t let the opportunity go. “I had watched Tanuja’s Dushman, when I was in school and it had made a strong impression on me. I knew that any character written by her would be strong,” she says. That Irrfan was to be her co-star sealed the deal. “I was so relieved to know it was him. We’re from such different cultures but we have the same excitement about our craft,” she says.
In the last few years, Parvathy has become secure enough in her choices. She is fine with working in one film a year and not hung up on playing pretty young things . A role needs to be psychologically complex to draw her. “Once I’ve heard a narration, I sleep over it. If I’ve forgotten about it the next day, it’s not for me,” she says. But if something about it nags at her and makes her want to understand the character, Parvathy says, she knows it’s something she can work with. She won’t do the “dancing in the Swiss Alps” roles anymore or anything that she disagrees with. For example, she recently refused two Hindi films because one of them, she says, was “very regressive”, whereas the producers of the other one “didn’t believe in sharing the script with the female lead”.
She says, “In the 11 years I’ve worked in films, I’ve realised that no one is indispensable and that has actually been very comforting to know. If you want to do something, you’ll find the space to do it. And I’m in no hurry to go anywhere or be something. I’m just happy to do my work.”
“It cannot be about being ‘Parvathy’, that kind of vanity is creepy. Until City of God ( Malayalam, 2011), many critics didn’t know my name. They’d say ‘this girl who played the character was very good’. That made me happy, because it showed me that the character had come alive.”
On being a newcomer
“When as a newcomer, I asked for a script, people were always very surprised. It was always as if you have to be grateful just to have been cast in that role, and to work with a certain actor or director. But it’s not as if the director’s last superhit is going to help me in front of the camera.”
On Women in Cinema Collective
“The harassment of women has been going on for many years. It was pushed under the carpet for too long and we are keen to pursue all legal means that would make it safer for women to work in the film industry.”