Girija Shettar’s ticket to fame was her debut Telugu movie Geetanjali, directed by Mani Ratnam. She went on star in Priyadarshan’s Vandanam opposite Mohanlal. She was part of six movies, of which, four were released. After that, the British-Indian actress bid adieu to the silver screen.
In an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, Girija Shettar talks about her showbiz career, life away from films, India, spirituality, Mani Ratnam, Rajinikanth and a sequel to Geetanjali.
1. We have known you as a wonderful performer. As you moved on in life, you explored several other facets, and you are right now a journalist with a doctoral thesis on Sri Aurobindo, dancer, writer etc. Could you please tell us a bit about your journey from films to where you are now.
Regarding the journey – I think it can be described both as an experiment in faith and a gothic tale of tragedy and salvation!
But I love the phrase ‘the artist’s process’. Even if it sounds a bit pretentious, it is nevertheless the best thing that you can experience. Being an artist, in my view, starts from the inside – being true to one’s soul. It leads to a growth rather than a stagnation of consciousness, not to mention a sense of freedom and creativity. This was my path up to a certain point, namely, until I quit my career in films.
If you follow the sort of path I follow, whether it’s in a dark or a light phase, you survive by finding niches. This is something that Nature and/or the soul does, we just have to follow its lead.
In films, my niche is best demonstrated in Geetanjali. That character, Gita, was a unique type of heroine for the time. Due to this, the film was featured in a British Film Institute retrospective of Mani Ratnam’s films in 2004. And a very interesting mention was made to it, cited in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, where a film critic for The Hindu, Tejaswini Niranjana, writing in 1991 was quoted, and she refers to the Gitanjali character as ‘a signifier of the good modernity’.
For ten years prior to acting in the film, there was an inner preparation that made me ready for that role, but I had no idea it was coming. The project and I met when the time was right.
In my work as a journalist, I also found niches.
But the process of listening to the inner leader and finding your unique place or places in life is, I think, the closest one can get to achieving the extremely wise and humanistic concepts of living in accordance to your Svabhava (your own unique nature) and Svadharma (your own unique work in life), which we read about in Hinduism.
You have once mentioned that there are two stages to your association with India – one of films, and the other of discovering India’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Can you elaborate?
Yes, that’s true. In my experience, there is a marked difference in the quality and atmosphere of a life that’s lived purely at the material level (physical, emotional and mental) and a life that’s infused with the air of spirituality or divine consciousness. Even, a life that simply aspires to be the latter has a different and, for me at least, a happier feel to it.
Before I was introduced to India’s spiritual heritage via the medium of Vedic-based philosophy, my life in India – culturally unique aspects aside – was much like it would be anywhere else in the world.
But when India’s spiritual heritage became known to me and felt by me, it created a kind of ecstatic revolution in my life and thought. I felt that all my metaphysical questions about existence had found a source where answers might be found. And I also felt that I had entered into the very heart of the land, which I felt as a spiritual dynamo. Both experiences were profoundly moving, and they made a lasting impact on me.
3. You left cinema at a point where things were looking very bright for you, do you regret it?
For many years, I was distracted by not knowing whether I could have combined film acting alongside my spiritual studies. I loved filmmaking and most of all I loved India. When I left, I really missed the temples and ashrams, which are a unique and precious aspect of Indian culture. They really offer such an amazing service, spiritual service to individuals, which I don’t think you can find anywhere else in the world.
There was a lot of upheaval involved, and it was disorientating. Not least because when I got home to the UK, ten years after I’d left, there had been a cultural shift and there was now a media obsession with celebrity. It was strange because I had just walked away from that world, and so it felt like turning up to a party when everyone else had left: you’re left standing there all alone holding your little gift for the host, but there’s nobody there to receive it. I had no idea what I could offer this world, nor what it could offer me.
I had never aspired to be a celebrity or a star. Those ideas were not in my consciousness. I loved the doing of art. I loved the freedom of being a channel to creativity. I loved philosophy and applying it.
So I just stayed positive and true to myself and a new window did open to me when I was given the chance to build a new career as a journalist, which has been an incredible privilege – to have and to offer my own voice to the world.
As a journalist, I’ve been given the opportunity to take an independent viewpoint on issues that affet life in a significant manner, and the obligation to report and analyse them fairly and truthfully.
What a privilege it was to meet the late Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy who created the groundbreaking Aravind Eye Care System for cataract operation provision for the whole of south India, offering free cataract operations to thousands of people, subsidized by those who can pay. The model has been lauded in many international studies by organisations and universities such as Harvard, who want to replicate this system in the US and other places.
And I have been blessed to meet Indian seafarers who have withstood attacks by Somali-based pirates and saved refugees in the Mediterranean. I have also been able to highlight the plight of seafarers, many of whom are Indian and Filippino. Too many face job shortages due to the technological advancements of merchant ships, and need the industry to hear and address serious concerns about securing job contracts that may or may not properly protect the seafarers’ human and employment rights.
I’ve found great fulfillment in shining a light on things previously unknown or unseen, making people care about things previously uncared for, and also having the chance to put my view across, argue a case, and have that argument heard and debated. I also love the craft involved in writing.
We are sure you would have had lots of offers coming your way even after you moved away from cinema, which one was the most difficult to say no?
The second offer I received from Mani Ratnam. Just prior to receiving the offer, I’d taken a vow, which was psychologically and, as such, practically impossible for me to retract. If you’re pure in heart when you make a vow, depending on one’s perspective it can be a very wonderful or a very dangerous thing.
Rajnikanth once expressed interest in working with you. Are you disappointed about it not materialising?
In life, the most precious things are those that are given to us as blessings from God – in contrast to things that we wrest from life by our will and power. My first film, Geetanjali, was one such blessing. Meeting and interacting with Rajnikanth the few times that I did was another. Had I worked with Rajnikanth, it would have been a tremendous honour, but meeting him, and the way he treated me, was enough of an honour. Rajnikanth is an uncommon type of person: a great public personality who, in real life, is as kind and genuine as you could ever hope him to be.
What is your best memory about Mohanlal?
His personality: Patient, kind, genuine, funny and intelligent. Apart from his technical talents as an actor, his screen persona has a sincerity, a kind of lovableness that I feel comes directly from the kind of person he is in real life. Working with him was easy, and he is a gentleman.
Do you know the film Vandanam and the scene ‘Gaathaa-Jam’ has got a cult status in Kerala?
No, I didn’t know that.
Priyadarshan’s vision was fresh and fun, and the core team on that film were all good friends and a very friendly, fun, talented bunch. Luckily, all that good stuff came through in the film. Regarding the Gaada-Jam scene, watching it back now, I think the reason it works is because there is an innocence it. There is a playfulness, which I would personally credit to Mohanlal’s wholesomeness and genuineness, as well as to the boldness of the character I played.
But Indian films do traditionally have this ability to convey a sense of innocent love. It’s why I was not in agreement with how, about fifteen or twenty years ago, the Indian film industry was suddenly branded en masse and marketed to international audiences as ‘Bollywood’.
I felt that the branding did not reflect the industry’s output, which is now and has always been far more nuanced than that branding would suggest. I also thought the branding hid Indian cinema’s unique ability to convey this element of pure love and innocent love. In my view, this is a highly important cultural element that our media and creative arts ignore to their public’s peril – it’s especially a risk to young people’s psychological health and well-being.
Have you ever visited Kerala?
Yes, when I was a child. One year, we holidayed at Kovalam and stayed at a hotel on the beach. I remember it as extraordinarily beautiful and idyllic, like a paradise.
Mani Ratnam is one of India’s best directors. You have worked with him in a film which is essentially yours. How different was the Mani Ratnam experience?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.
It’s difficult to put into words how I feel about having worked with Mani Ratnam and having starred in his 1989 classic film Geetanjali. Mani is a person who has a kind of monolithic power within him that commands respect. In my experience, he did not talk a lot but could convey his vision largely without words. In my experience too, the film dialogues he wrote were realistic and perfectly character-specific, making them easy for an actor to identify and work with. In short: I believe Mani to be an actor’s ideal director.
Do you follow Indian Cinema?
For many years I did not want to be reminded of the past, so I stopped following Indian cinema.
However, this attitude changed recently. A feature in a UK newspaper reviewed the latest film by Shubhashish Bhutiani, Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), which really inspired me. I felt, then, that enough distance had been placed between me and my ‘past life’, and that Indian cinema and I were now very different beasts. In all, this gave me the confidence to renew my acquaintance with it.
If at all you start acting again, whom do you want to start with?
I used to dream about the possibility of a sequel to Geetanjali written and directed by Mani Ratnam. The film might see Gita and Prakash meet by accident at a major turning point in their lives, and again act as one another’s catalyst to overcome obstacles, become better people, and find meaning in life. The world’s become a very different place since 1989, so there are many subjects that could potentially be explored.
But it may be that a sequel would remove the poignancy of the original story – the ending of Geetanjali leaves the audience with no inkling as to whether the two characters actually lived to see adulthood.
Other filmmakers whose ideas and approach inspire me are Shubhashish Bhutiani, Ritesh Batra, and Amit Masurkar.
I am often asked if I want to return to film acting. I always do feel that I have something to offer, but I am a writer now too, which means that I’m strongly drawn to documentary films. For example, I would like to co-create and present a documentary on an aspect of Indian culture or Hindu philosophy.
But I would say that I believe filmmaking to be a visionary and intuitive process – one can’t shoehorn oneself into it and achieve an authentic, valuable result. It all depends on what is ordained in the greater scheme of things – which, really, is another way of defining the artist’s process.