Suchitra Pillai is a woman of many talents. A model, host, VJ, actor and dubbing artiste, Pillai is known for her work across languages and countries.
From playing Alaknanda Ma’am in Hip Hip Hurray to Avantika Sarin in Fashion, the actor has left an indelible mark in the minds of the audience. Her other noteworthy projects include movies like Page 3 and Dasvidaniya, and TV shows 24 and Swabhiman. Even her cameo as Priya in Dil Chahta Hai remains a fan favourite.
But how did it all begin for Suchitra Pillai? Here’s what the actor shared:
1. What was your first acting project? How did the project come to you?
It was a French film called Le prix d’une femme (The price of a woman). I was 22 and played the lead. I was living in England at the time with no training in acting. I was with a modelling agency there. They got a call from casting director Jennifer Jaffrey (Saeed Jaffrey’s second wife) who asked if they had any Indian actress on their books. The agency referred to me saying I was a model, and they can send me. Jennifer said it is for a French film based on the dowry system in India and we are looking for the lead girl. So I went for this audition. At the audition, there were a lot of girls who were trained actresses. And I still recall very clearly, one of them, who went in before me, said Jennifer just gave her 10 minutes to go through the scene. The girl said she could not get into the skin of the character so soon. When I went in, there were two intense scenes from the movie. One is when this girl is burnt and lying in the hospital, where she breaks down. Jennifer asked me, ‘How long have you been acting?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, this is my first audition. I am not trained. I did amateur theatre in India when I lived there.’ She said, ‘Okay, sit down and read the scene with me.’ I said, ‘I would like to act out the scene for you.’ She was just looking at me strangely wondering who this chick is. She allowed me to use the paper, but I refused. I said I’ll make up the lines in case I forget. I asked her to read the other parts. I think she was quite intrigued. By the end of doing those two scenes, I was so into it that I had kind of properly broken down. She just caught me by my shoulders, lifted me and put me on the sofa, and said, ‘Now tell me the truth. How long have you been acting? You do realize this is what you need to be doing?’ (laughs) That’s how it all began.
I had studied French in school but never had the opportunity to actually put it into practice. But when this movie came along, the director initially told me we would get dubbing artistes. After we shot the hospital scene in Sri Lanka, he came to me and said, ‘You know, the character will be lost if it’s not your voice.’ I said I would love to do my own dubbing as it was a nice intense role. So as much as I could do on the set, I did. When I came back to England, I caught a friend whose first language was French. He sat with me and did the whole script. Then I went to France to do the dubbing, and I did all of it myself. By the time it was released, I was 23 years old.
2. What do you remember of your first day on set?
That was incredible. As I said, it was an intense scene that was happening in the hospital, which was one of the audition pieces. The director knew that this was my first film project. Whatever he explained to me, he got what he wanted. He came up to me and said, ‘It really doesn’t seem that you are doing this for the first time.’ That was great to hear, frankly speaking.
3. Who were your co-stars? How was the rapport with them when you got to meet or work with them again later?
Saeed Jaffrey played my dad in the film. I think he had discussed my acting with Jennifer, who was a casting director and wanted to start an agency. I was the first client Jennifer signed on because she had heard that I had done a pretty decent job in the movie. I also worked with some famous actors from France and some very nice actors from England. It was amazing because one of them is still my Rakhi brother. I am turning 50 this year, and he lives in Canada, but I am still very much in touch with him. He got married to his girlfriend in Sri Lanka during the time of shooting, and I was the maid of honor. So I have made some good friends from my first project.
4. If given a chance to go back to your debut role, what’s that one thing you’d like to change or do better?
If it was a movie in another language, I would have brushed up on it a lot more before starting the project, rather than coming back to it after the project and doing the dubbing. I would have definitely taken a little bit more time on that. There’s nothing else I would do differently. I think after over 26 years of a career, the skill improves. That way, yes, I would be able to add a lot more today than I did that day. But, at 23, those were my experiences. At 50, my experiences are a hell lot more.
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5. One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?
Umrao Jaan. Rekha has been my idol always. There’s something about that role, just how powerful it was and how beautiful she was in it. It had everything in it. It had dance, acting and emotion. Other than that Gone with the Wind. That’s one movie which stayed with me.
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