The last 40 days during lockdown have been the longest Keerthy Suresh has spent at her home in Kerala since she moved to Chennai to study fashion design. The 27-year-old actor was fortunate that she could visit a studio and complete dubbing for her movie film Penguin. In Eashvar Karthic’s Tamil thriller, which will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video on June 19, Suresh plays Rhythm, a mother searching for her missing son.

A former child actor, Suresh graduated to lead roles with Geethaanjali in 2013. The Telugu-language Mahanati, in which Suresh played Southern cinema legend Savitri, catapulted her to the big league and won her a National Film Award. Excerpts from an interview.

How would you describe ‘Penguin’?
It’s an emotional thriller, which is mostly about motherhood and the bond between mother and son. It’s about the trauma she experiences when she loses her son. The whole story is set over four days, during which she tries to find her son.

What was it like working with ‘Penguin’ producer Karthik Subbaraj, who is said to be one of the most exciting filmmakers in Tamil?
Karthik has this tag right now that if it is his film, it will be a good script and good film. He is a very sensible director. So yes, working with him was one of the attractions towards Penguin, as was director Eashvar. He was working at a bank and had never worked in films before. Yet, his narration was strong and the content was strong. I was excited to see his execution, which turned out to be perfecto.

We shot the entire film in 35 days in challenging locations like Kodaikanal, which is always cold. We had early starts and long days. But it was great.

Penguin (2020).

You play a character older than yourself in ‘Penguin’. In ‘Mahanati’ too, you were 24 when you played 45-year-old Savitri.
The first time I heard the narration of Mahanati, I said no. I was very scared because she is such a renowned actor and those who follow Tamil and Telugu cinema love her. Not only was I going to have to replicate her work on screen, but also her personality. And that it is hard when you have never met someone.

When Nagi [director Nag Ashwin] narrated the script, I looked in the mirror and thought, I don’t even look like her. But he was confident so I thought, if the director has so much confidence, then maybe I should be too. Once I decided to go for it, I gave it my heart and soul and it worked out beautifully.

What was the impact of the film and the accolades on your career?
The journey of Mahanati was magical. It changed everything – the kind of scripts that came to me, and my approach to scripts. I got to prove myself, and it opened up a lot more women-centric films for me. When you do such heroine-oriented films, you have the responsibility of carrying them on your shoulders. I am not sure I will get an opportunity like Mahanati again, but you never know – magic does happen.

Mahanati title track (2018).

In ‘Penguin’ too, you are the hero.
This trend of women-centric films is quite recent. Society here is also largely hero and male-dominated, so when you do a film with a woman as the lead, it gets noticed.

Actually, after Mahanati I wanted to do something very commercial – a big hero film. But I was also looking at strong women-driven subjects, like Penguin. I also like the motherhood theme. When the film ends, I think every mother will feel she is a hero.

Actors often say that it takes time for them to come out of their characters. Did you feel that way about Savitri and Rhythm?
It was coincidental that I got a good long break after Mahanati. I had been working for three-and-a-half years non-stop and I needed it.

It’s true that once you are very emotionally connected with a character, it is difficult to get out of her shoes. There were days when I was very low, because the scene was depressing. On the worst days, I would be crying and I didn’t even know why. The scene you are shooting takes a toll on you.

Even during Penguin, although it was less intense, there was an emotional scene with my son. I happened to fall ill that day and throughout I kept thinking where is my son, what happened to him. You don’t realise, but slowly the character starts taking over.

How do you get out of that space?
It is very important to relax after pack-up. Talk to friends and family. Keep active and go into a happy space. Don’t think about the character or shoot until you get back on set the next day. Once you know what you are going through, you have to ensure that you bring yourself back.

What can you share about your upcoming work?
Miss India is a Telugu film by newcomer Narendra Nath. I play a girl who goes from a village all the way to the US and becomes an entrepreneur. I have two more Telugu films – a sports comedy called Good Luck Sakhi by Nagesh Kukunoor and a romcom called Rang De directed by Venky [Atluri], co-starring Nithiin. There is the Tamil drama Annaatthe with Rajinikanth and I have a small part in the Malayalam biopic Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham.

What is it like seeing superstars like Mohanlal and Rajinikanth as a child and then working with them years later?
Lal sir has been a family friend, so while growing up, I have seen him more as my dad’s friend. Working with him and Priyan sir in my first film, Geethaanjali, was more like working with family, because Priyan sir, Lal sir and my dad [producer G Suresh Kumar] all did their first film together.

As for Rajini sir, I was completely star-struck. Every time he was on set, I could see every iconic scene of his passing before my eyes. I am a huge fan. In fact, my mother, grandmother and I watch his movies and we try to whistle at the screen, and now here I am, sharing screen space with him. It’s amazing.