Before Amala Paul, there was Amala. She had a fabulous run between 1987 and 1993, during which she starred in at least 50 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. She took a long break to raise her son, Akhil, with her actor-husband Nagarjuna, and also became involved with social welfare activities, including starting the non-profit Blue Cross of Hyderabad.
Nagarjuna continues to headline productions, and both Naga Chaitanya, her step-son, and Akhil have careers in Telugu cinema. When would the Vedam Pudhithu and Pushpak actress rekindle her interest in show business? In 2012, Amala Akkineni finally made her comeback with Sekhar Kammula’s Telugu drama Life Is Beautiful. Since then, the 50-year-old actress has appeared in films across languages, such as Listen…Amaya (2013), Hamari Adhuri Kahani, (2015), C/O Saira Banu (2017) and Karwaan (2018).
Among Akkineni’s upcoming projects is the Zee5 Telugu web series High Priestess, which will be streamed from April 25. Directed by Pushpa Ignatius, High Priestess sees Akkineni as a psychic and tarot card reader who steers seven plotlines. Akkineni spoke to Scroll.in about High Priestess and the kind of roles that capture her interest.
What got you interested in ‘High Priestess’?
Pushpa Ignatius is a friend of mine. In our circle, we know Pushpa to be the tarot reader, writer and director. Every time I visited Chennai, the discussion would often veer towards asking Pushpa about the new script she was working on. Also, we would reach out to Pushpa if we had to do tarot readings.
She said, I’m writing a script and I’m going to come to you when it is done. I thought she was joking. But one fine day, she told me that the script was ready and that she was emailing it to me. She said she had me in mind for a role. When I read the script, I felt it was completely up my alley. I was even more delighted that such a project had come from a friend.
How did you prepare for the role?
Usually, I’ve to do a lot of preparation with the language I’m going to speak in. For instance, I don’t speak Malayalam, and before C/O Saira Banu, in which I played a lawyer, I had to do a lot of exercises to deliver the lines in the speed that would convince audiences that I was indeed a Malayali. With High Priestess, it was easier, since Telugu is a language I’m comfortable with.
Pushpa told me that she was looking for a woman just like me – a mature woman who knows how to handle challenging situations in life. I want you to be you, is what she said. So, I didn’t overdo the preparation. The only thing I practised very hard was dealing tarot cards. That was fun.
What can we expect from the show?
High Priestess is full of surprises. It is a feel-good series. The point is not to just thrill audiences – it has also depth and meaning. It’s also very well shot – Pushpa is an ad filmmaker, and she’s taken a lot of care about how the show looks and feels.
Is a web series an exciting prospect for an actor your age today?
Yes, of course, and that’s because of what I call the box-office limitation. Films have a time limitation within which they have to tell you a story. There are limited characters, and those characters have limited opportunities.
When you have a web series with eight episodes, you have that much more time to tell a story and therefore a lot more opportunity to write as well. The characters have a lot more to say, do and grow. The roles also go beyond age and glamour. It is storytelling at its best. I’m really enjoying doing this – I haven’t acted so much in a long time.
In an interview, you said that you’re now getting a lot of ‘mom roles’. Is that how it is?
In cinema, except in Malayalam, see mom roles are being offered to me. They will either be cameos or mother roles. And it’s understandable because again, that’s the limit cinema has. There are two hours to tell a story. There’s only that much you can tell, and that much you can write for a woman my age. Often, she may be a hero’s mother, she may have two or three meaningful scenes. I’m happy with that.
Is this also a limitation of film writers – to not be able to envisage larger roles for women your age?
No, I see it as the limitation of screen time. If you have two hours, you have to sacrifice something, right?
Also, you’re mostly writing for the age group that’s coming to watch the film in theatres. If that age group is under 30, naturally you’d be writing more for the characters that they’d be interested in. In contrast, a web series will have a varied age-group watching it.
Women my age hardly go to the theatres. We are looking after our careers, our family, our elders, so we end up sacrificing more and more. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a great life or downtime. For instance, I put my feet up between 9 and 10pm. It is my time, and I’d love to watch a good web series on my tablet or home theatre.
You took a break after working in close to 50 films in a span of seven years. What was that like?
When Nag and I decided to have a family, it was my choice to be family. For all of Akhil’s growing up years, I was there. It wasn’t like I was idling away my time. I was a full-time homemaker. I also set up and ran Blue Cross of Hyderabad, which is dedicated to the welfare of animals. It is 27 years old now, and 4,50,000 animals have been helped.
I also got back to classical dance. I rediscovered life and myself. I learnt meditation and studied yoga. I worked with 25 different organisations on different causes, and I got very deeply involved in all of them.
What made you decide to resume acting with ‘Life is Beautiful’ in 2012?
I wasn’t looking for a comeback or a breakthrough. Director Sekhar Kammula and I would keep bumping into each other at NGO events. He once started telling me about Life Is Beautiful and asked me if I’d play a role in it. I thought he was joking. I even told him that he could find plenty of actors for the mom role he was looking for. It turned out that he was dead serious.
Finally, he showed me almost the entire movie to convince me. He had finished shooting all the portions with the young actors in the film. He knew how to get the artist in me interested.
That was just a one-off thing, I thought. And then, a couple of Hindi movies happened, followed by C/O Saira Banu and the Tamil tele-serial Uyirmai. I found that it was easy to fit in a week a month to go off on a shoot.
Also, I’d reached an age where I could fit into the mother role. My son had grown up. I was convincing as a mom. Otherwise, maybe in that in-between phase, you don’t fit into any slot. You can’t be too young and be cast opposite a male lead because the hero will look bad. You have to age too and fit into the requirements of the industry.
Are the movies male-driven, without too many opportunities for women beyond a certain age?
See, you’re talking to a mom whose children are grown male actors.
Let’s put it this way. I think my bigger regret is I wish there wasn’t climate change. I wish we had a greener planet.
Film business is the way it is. It is about how the numbers work. I’m grateful for the fame, name and livelihood. It has been my biggest brand asset to do any of the work I’ve done – whether it is representing the voice of animals, or women’s empowerment. If I wasn’t who I am, I know what a struggle that would have been.
You were a student of Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra in Chennai, and T Rajendar first convinced you to star in ‘Mythili Ennai Kaathali’ in 1986.
That’s how it was. I was a Kalakshetra student and a member of their troupe. Rukmini Devi Arundale was alive at the time, and I feel very privileged to have been around her. For 10 years, I was also trained by a wonderful teacher named Sharada Hoffman, who is one of the most respected teachers at Kalakshetra.
It was an amazing time of my life. But I also realised that it wasn’t going to help me earn a livelihood. The prospects of being a dancer by profession were very weak.
T Rajendar and Ushaji [Rajendar] were looking for a trained classical dancer for their new film, and somebody told them that the Kalakshetra dancers are very well-trained. They came to Tiruvanmiyur in Chennai, which is where I was staying at the time, and asked if I’d be willing to audition for a role. I knew I had to look for a profession where my skills and training as a dancer could help. I thought this was godsend. I auditioned and I think they were delighted, because they signed me at the audition. There was no looking back after that.
Did you know Tamil, since you had been living in Chennai?
Well, I spoke the Kalakshetra Tamil, which is a little Brahminical. T Rajendar sir gave me some training during my first film. He used to teach me the dialogue on the set itself, and I picked it up.
You’ve been a part of some award-winning films, including ‘Vedam Puthithu’ and ‘Pushpak’. How do you look back at that phase of your career?
Both Vedam Puthithu and Pushpak won National Film Awards. People talk about my awards, but I think a film is more than just its actors.
Shiva was a path-breaking film technically, and it was a cult film in Telugu. Agni Natchathiram was a cult film in Tamil and Ente Sooryaputhrikku was similarly a sensation in Malayalam. In fact, after Ente Sooryaputhrikku, truck-loads of female students from Kerala came to look for me. They had run away from their homes, and I had to send them back to their parents. That was how much love there was. I feel in every actor’s life, one such moment is enough.
Did you have any idea that these films would do so well when you signed them?
These were projects that you put your heart and soul into. You knew you were doing something very special.
You couldn’t plan any of this. In general, filmmakers back then wouldn’t even tell you the story. You’d have to go with the reputation of the director or his previous films. I’d watch a director’s previous films and if they seemed decent and the aesthetics and sensibilities seemed okay with me, I’d say yes. You couldn’t even ask what the character or story was, and we didn’t ask either.
What drew you to the Hindi film ‘Karwaan’ in 2018? What kind of offers are you getting from Hindi filmmakers now?
Karwaan came out of the blue. They wanted four days, and director Aakarsh Khurana sent me the script by email. It is so easy to make a decision because they send you a script nowadays. I had seen his previous films.
The biggest surprise was when Kabir Khan approached me for the web series A Forgotten Army. I play a mom in it, and it will be releasing in 27 languages on Amazon Prime Video.