Tamil actor Aishwarya Rajesh has a career filled with unconventional roles: in M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai (2015), she plays the mother of two children; in her second Malayalam feature Sakhavu (2017), she is a 60-year-old woman alongside Nivin Pauly. In her Bollywood debut Daddy, Rajesh is Asha Gawli, the wife of the notorious Mumbai gangster Arun Gawli (Arjun Rampal).

Rajesh rose to fame after winning the third season of the Tamil dancing competition Maanada Mayilada in 2010. She made her feature debut in the low-budget Avargalum Ivargalum (2011). Pa Ranjith’s Attakathi (2012) and K Balakrishnan’s Rummy (2013) marked her out as an actor. “I never choose my role based on the screen space or the number of songs,” she told Scroll.in.

How did you become part of ‘Daddy’?
I was shooting for Mani Seiyon’s Tamil film Kattappava Kanom last year when an assistant director approached me for Daddy. I didn’t know if it was a lead role or a supporting one. I vaguely remember her saying that Arjun Rampal was part of the film.

But I didn’t know much about him at that time, I only knew Om Shanti Om. When she asked me if I could speak in Hindi, I told her no. But I told her that I could try. They needed someone immediately because they had been looking to cast an actress but they couldn’t find anyone.

As my dates were clashing, I was told to drop it since I didn’t know the language. But later I realised that I didn’t want to miss such an opportunity and sent them an audition tape. I got a call from an unknown number from Bombay, and I cut the call. Only then did I realise that it was Arjun Rampal and called him back at once. I couldn’t believe it and never expected to get this offer.

The next day I went to Mumbai and discussed my role and they were happy with me. They also told me that I looked a lot like Asha Gawli.

Daddy (2017).

How did you prepare for Asha Gawli’s role?
There isn’t enough information about Asha Gawli on the internet, so that made it even more challenging. But the team had already researched the look and feel of the character. As and when we were shooting, Arjun got to meet Gawli’s family and got hold of some pictures from Asha’s young days. Whatever images he got, he forwarded them to me and I worked on the character accordingly.

Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.

How hard was it to work in a film that requires you to speak an unfamiliar language?
It was very difficult. While doing Tamil films, I never took prompting because I know the language. For Daddy, while I did try prompting, it didn’t really work out. So I had to mug up all my lines. Apart from the language, everything else was very easy. I used to practise the feel of the dialogue in Tamil and then say the lines in Hindi.

How do you generally pick a role?
I never choose my roles based on screen space or the number of songs. Even if it is one or two scenes, I pick the role based on how powerful and significant the character is. In Kuttrame Dhandanai (2016), I feature only in one scene towards the end. But the entire film revolves around the character and her investigation. Even in Dharmadurai (2016), the audience was able to remember my character Anbuselvi. I prefer starring in a few scenes rather than a full film for the sake of it.

You have never shied away from playing diverse roles. Your peers are far more hesitant to do so.
Yes, definitely many actresses might be hesitant. Nobody will act as the mother of two children. In Sakhavu, I don’t play an old woman for the entire film. Both the young and the old roles are shown very beautifully. In Daddy as well, I play an older Asha Gawli. I try to give my best in whatever I do.

Most of the actresses in Tamil films do not know the language. I don’t blame them because Tamil is a very tough language. So when a lot of these actresses lip-sync, the camera is focussed on the actor instead. I don’t understand the point of casting somebody like that in films. If you are making a film about the women in Chennai, show them as they actually look.

No Tamil woman from Chennai is as white-skinned as the films portray them to be. They have their own beauty and charm and their own skin tone. Hindi films are more welcoming that way. Take Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Nandita Das, for instance.

A lot of Tamil women nowadays go for these fairness treatments just to get that colour. Even I have been told to do so. But I have always been happy with my skin tone and moreover, I don’t think it will suit me.

Where does this obsession with a fair complexion stem from?
I think that this is the skin colour that Tamil audiences have gotten used to watching on screen since the beginning. But then, there have also been veteran actors like Radhika Sarathkumar, Saranya, Nadhiya, Radha and Roja. Can we pick out a set of five heroines from our generation to match their calibre? I don’t think it is possible.

In those days, actresses could pull off glamourous as well as homely roles. But these days, if you perform well, you are not glamourous. And if you are glamourous, you do not perform well. If you have both these things, you won’t have a job.

Kaakka Muttai (2015).

Pa Ranjith’s ‘Attakathi’ is considered to be your biggest break.
I wouldn’t call Attakathi my biggest break, but you can say that it was the film that got me recognition. Before Attakathi, none of my films did well. Since Attakathi was a hit film, I got noticed even if it was a small role.

You are now starring in big productions such as Gautham Menon’s ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’ and Vetrimaaran’s ‘Vada Chennai’. What was it like working in these films?
It is very nice to work in big films. I have been asked by a lot of people from the media as to why I don’t act alongside big heroes. The question should be, why have I not been offered such big films?

When Gautam Menon approached me for Dhruva Natchathiram, I was very happy because again, it is a performance-oriented role. She is a very strong character. Vada Chennai also is a very local film, and I play a bold character.

What makes you turn down a role?
I have turned down many roles, especially after the shooting of Dhruva Natchatiram and Vada Chennai. I got a lot of offers with good money. But I have never given money priority.

Last year, eight of my films were released. This year as well, around five films are releasing. It’s not that I will not do small films. I will do any film if the script is good and significant enough. I just want to be choosy and careful with the films I pick, starting this year.

Dharmadurai (2016).