It may be her second film in Hindi, but actor Padmapriya is hardly a newcomer when it comes to the world of cinema. With more than a decade of experience in six film industries across the country, the 35-year-old actor is anything but a novice.
Padmapriya is paired with Saif Ali Khan in Raja Krishna Menon’s Chef, the Hindi adaptation of Jon Favreau’s 2014 film by the same name. In the October 6 release, Padmapriya plays Radha, a dancer and chef Roshan’s estranged wife. Sophia Vergara played the part in the original movie.
Padmapriya’s last Hindi film was her Bollywood debut – Chandan Arora’s Striker (2010), starring Siddharth, in which she was cast as a Koli woman. Even in a role that spanned a few scenes, Padmapriya left behind an impression. “I have no idea why Bollywood took so long,” she said. “I think it is a little more complicated in the Hindi film industry. Even when I started out, I was never someone who would go and fetch work. The way it works in Bombay is a little different – one actually goes and fetches work. Striker for instance, came through Siddharth. I think a lot of it, for me, happens through word of mouth, which I hope is a little more active this time.”
Hindi films have been few and far between for the National Film Award winner who made her debut in 2004 with the Telugu film Seenu Vasanthi Lakshmi. Her filmography boasts of titles in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali and includes Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Naalu Pennungal (2007) and Cheran’s Thavamai Thavamirundhu (2005) and Pokkisham (2009).
A filmmaker friend told Padmapriya to contact Raja Krishna Menon when he was casting for Chef. “ I happened to be in Bombay at the time,” she said. “For some reason, I couldn’t meet Raja but six months later, he called me and asked me to send him some samples of my work. Then I went to Bombay and we did a few script readings and that was that.”
Padmapriya had no idea that she was going to be cast opposite Saif Ali Khan. “All I knew was that Raja was directing the film and given that fact, which zone it would lie in. It wasn’t a random filmmaker. When I found out who my co-star was going to be, I was awe-struck. Even before I even had any inclination towards being an actor, I had seen Saif’s films. I have a lot of respect for the way he has grown as an actor.”
The character of Radha is different from the original but at its core retains Favreau’s sketch of Vergera’s Inez. “Like Inez, Radha too is very strong, independent and a caring mother, but has been adapted to an Indian context,” Padmapriya said. “Radha is a Bharatanatyam dancer from Kerala. Her aspirations as a dancer are very critical to her because that’s her livelihood too. This aspect has been explored but not in the typical Bollywood way where you’ll see me do recitals.”
Getting under the skin of the character was easy because she was working with a filmmaker who was very sure of his vision. “The director was so much in control of this film that all we had to do was follow him,” Padmapriya said. “What I found difficult to grasp, however, was the magnanimity of Radha. She is very comfortable with the idea of being comfortable with an ex-husband. The kind of privileges that Roshan gets from Radha – I don’t think I would have such magnanimity as a person. So that was a bit tricky for me. It also points to how sure Radha is of herself. Personally, I’m not someone who is so sure of myself.”
With over 50 films under her belt, Padmapriya has carefully chosen the roles that have come to her. “As it is, as an actor, you have very limited choice because you are not a content creator but a participator,” she said. “The velocity of options that one has over a sustained period of time is much less for a woman. Women are never chief protagonists, for instance. So, you have a subset from which you get to choose and you have control over. I have made sure that I never let that control go. Unless I’m happy doing what I’m doing, there is no point doing it at all. It is a high pressure industry. So, it all better be worth it.”
Typically, when she gets a film offer, Padmapriya looks first at the director and his vision. Then, she examines the role and considers what it would give both her and her audience. Finally, the cast and the overall crew are the clinchers.
A former risk consultant and a Public Administration graduate from New York University, Padmapriya started acting in films alongside a full-time job. A few productions later, she realised that the arrangement wasn’t sustainable.
Gradually, films took up her time and soon, the multi-tasking returned too. “I’ve always been a restless kid,” she said. “I think along with my 12th or 13th film, I studied environmental law and worked with a tribal legislation organisation. I could do all these things offline from my set, during my time off. This is how I’m constructed I think. Cinema is an inseparable part of my life and I’m here to stay but that doesn’t mean I will stop exploring myself as an individual.”
Padmapriya is also the founding member of a collective for women in the Malayalam film industry, one that is soon going to be registered as a formal organisation. “The recent controversy surrounding Kangana Ranaut – many said that she is using the woman’s card. I feel that women will have to and should use that card for a long time until things get sorted out,” Padmapriya explained. “We should unabashedly use it because men do it all the time. There is a gender disparity. And both in terms of equality of opportunity and potential, it is an unequal system for women. And I’m not talking about actors alone but about women in the industry overall. First we need to realise there is an issue which most of us do not even care to recognise. It is a human-created problem and it needs a human-created solution.”