Cheers and firecrackers cheers erupted as the three judges of the reality show Dance Jodi Dance Juniors on Zee Tamil took the stage one recent evening in Chennai. Host Deepak Dinkar introduced the panel, comprising actresses Laila, Sneha and Sudha Chandran. When he enthusiastically declared that the “Mumbai storm” Laila was back, the actress flashed her characteristic smile.
The show has been on air every week since November, and has brought Laila Fernandes back before the camera after more than a decade. Known mononymously as Laila, the Mumbai-born actress of Goan heritage made her debut in Mehmood’s Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan-starrer Dushman Duniya Ka in 1996. But it was in southern cinema that Laila made her mark.
She appeared in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam films, and some of her best-known releases have been in Tamil, including Parthen Rasithen (2000), Dhill (2001), Pithamagan (2003) and Kanda Naal Mudhal (2005). She appeared in a few films until she got married in 2006, and hasn’t headlined a production since.
“If someone gets me a good enough role, I would love to act in films again,” Laila told Scroll.in on the sidelines of Dance Jodi Dance Juniors. While some of her fans tell her that she would make a good screen mother, others believe that she hasn’t aged a day, the actress observed. “I have been getting offers to play mothers to the heroes I have worked with,” she said. “I looked like their daughters when I acted with them and now they want me to play their mothers. Such things do not appeal to me. I am open to any film that is interesting, with the word interesting being the operative word over there.”
Laila, who was born and raised in Mumbai, says she agreed to act only because of Mehmood, the filmmaker of Dushman Duniya Ka. “I had no plans of being an actress,” she said. “I didn’t want to because I was very young. He promised me that he would look after me and treat me like his daughter, which he did. That is why I did his film.”
Laila made her debut in the South in the Telugu film Egire Paavurama in 1997, and convincingly played characters in southern films despite not knowing the languages.
“For certain characters, it was difficult because I was speaking various dialects,” she said. “Tamil dialects, including the one in Pithamagan, were colloquial and hard. As long as I got my script on time and practised, I was fine. If someone pounced on me and asked me to say huge dialogue on the spur of the moment, I would always freeze.”
Among her Tamil hits were Dheena (2001), Nandha (2001) and Mounam Pesiyadhe (2002). One of her best-known roles was as the sparky Manju in Bala’s acclaimed tragedy Pithamagan (2003). The film was one of her most challenging projects, she recalled. “There were the chirpy elements to the role, the more serious elements and then the more physically challenging elements,” Laila said.
Bala didn’t give his cast, which included Vikram as the developmentally challenged Chithan, Suriya as Chithan’s friend Shakti and Sangeetha as a small-time drug dealer, the story or the script. Instead, Bala held extensive discussions with his actors. “We would discuss every little movement, dialogue and expression, and everything would be analysed,” Laila recalled. “There was a lot of me in the character. I think he did that after having seen all of the fun we had on the sets of Nandha.”
Pithamagan was hardly the first film in which Laila played the perky girl-next-door. But there were other movies in which she played different characters, such as Vikraman’s Unnai Ninaithu (2002), in which she was an aspiring doctor, and Bala’s Nandha, in which she was cast as a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka.
“I enjoy making something out of my characters, and, of course, every character needs to stand out,” Laila explained. “Ullam Ketkumae is close to my heart. It is a character for which I sat down with the director and worked on very deeply.” The film features Laila as a teenager who is in a one-sided romance.
All through her career, Laila stayed away from Hindi films. “I like my privacy in Bombay,” she explained. “I realised that if I did South films, my privacy in Bombay would continue. I figured it would be the best of both worlds. Not much is known about me and my private life. Even when I was getting married, I don’t think anybody knew.”
Laila stepped away from the arc lights after marrying a Mumbai businessman in 2006. “Initially, the characters would come to me,” she said. “I had gotten to the point and where I became greedy for performance-oriented roles. At one point, I was not getting as much satisfaction as I wanted. And then I wanted to take a break, so I got married.”
Filmmaking practices have considerably changed in the years that she has been away, she observed. “Things are more organised, technology has advanced, and people have advanced their skills,” Laila said. “People have upped their game, and it’s a pleasure to watch films now.”