Aishwarya Rajesh on her upcoming Telugu film Tuck Jagdish, unabashedly voicing her opinions, and how she’s benefited from the OTT boom
Aishwarya Rajesh is one of the few young actors who has wholeheartedly adopted a much older look on-screen, rocked it, and seen that gamble pave the way for roles of substance. Most people might remember her from M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai (Disney+Hotstar), where she played the mother of two young children, a woman bereft of money but not dignity or the will to live. But, her body of work outside of this is admirable, and deeply rooted.
During the lockdown, Aishwarya has had quite a few releases, and her latest is the Telugu Tuck Jagadish, featuring Nani, which drops on Amazon Prime Video on September 10.
Previously, her Ka Pae Ranasingam premiered on ZEE5, Thittam Irandu or Plan B on Sony Liv and Boomika on Netflix. She’s now working on the Tamil version of the Malayalam hit The Great Indian Kitchen.
On her slender frame, Aishwarya carries gravitas-tinged roles with ease. She was hardly 22 when she did Kaaka Muttai, going against every well-wisher who told her she would get slotted in mother roles if she played a mother to two kids. “But, Manikandan told me that if I did this movie, people would start writing scripts for me. I thought he was joking, but his words came true,” smiles Aishwarya.
It’s close to midnight when we speak, but she’s thoughtful with her answers, occasionally pausing to explain a point better. Other than playing a mother, Aishwarya has also been raising the issue of Tamil-speaking actors not being given their due. She has a ready list of her contemporaries who can suit various roles, and does not hesitate to speak her mind.
“So many have told me to not be so open about my thoughts, but my point is if I don’t talk too, then who will talk? I’ve always been honest. I’m that kid in college who stood up when the teacher asked those who cheated on an exam to voluntarily confess. My friends were livid, but I think it is better to admit to one’s wrong than to lie.”
This penchant for frankspeak came to the fore early in 2020 when Aishwarya did a Tedx talk. Her childhood was not easy, with her father passing on early. For the first time, the actress, whose first job was to promote a brand of chocolate sauce at a Chennai supermarket when she was in Class 11, spoke in detail about the travails of her family and how they overcame it. Life taught her a lot, and she internalised those experiences. It has clocked 64,13,567 views since it dropped on May 22, 2020. “I was completely unprepared, but I visualised my life and spoke about that. It worked, I received so many messages from people. It was humbling.”
Aishwarya says that her goal was not to work only in female-centric movies, but to “hold a movie, do characters that were integral to the movie. I wanted to play characters that were so beautifully written and performed you can watch them on screen and feel them come alive. Slowly, I started realising when that ‘moment’ happened”.
As an actor, Aishwarya has not really worked with the big league of stars, except for Vijay Sethupathi, who’s more a performer, and Vikram. “I used to wonder why I don’t get a chance to star opposite them, before I decided that I should do what I can do,” she says. That’s how Arunraja Kamaraj’s cricket drama Kanaa happened. The actress took coaching in cricket to come across as authentic on screen.
“I liked the character and wanted to do all I could to fit the director’s vision. This, after he told me he did not have the budget or time to train me. You’ve to fall in love with a script that you are willing to give five or six months of your life to,” Aishwarya explains.
Over the years, Aishwarya, who grew up in Chennai, has revelled in village-centric roles — she did so again in Ka Pae, about Ariyanaachi, a woman waiting for her husband, and then his corpse. “I won’t call it a painful role, we meet such women in real life too. I believe where you grow up does not matter. We all learn and pick up things along the way. Once the director explains the character arc, things fall into place. I need to know who the character is, what drives her, what she loves, and things like that. Even in Thittam, where I play a cop, the director said, ``Let's visualise her as a regular working woman, and it worked out well. I understand that I am not the creator, only someone who presents the character.”
In the decade that Aishwarya has been in the industry, cinema and how it’s made has changed a whole lot. There is space for every kind of actor, complexion is not as much of an issue as it used to be, and there are varied platforms one can use to showcase creativity. And, Aishwarya is tapping into that space to find projects that give her enough to satiate the actor in her. “Even in Boomika, my character is a supporting role. I did it because I feel that actors must play all kinds of roles. I would like to do more films inspired by real stories. There’s an audience connect to them, unlike others,” she says.
As someone who has benefited from the OTT boom during the pandemic-induced lockdown, Aishwarya says that these platforms have helped small films find their audience. “There is so much content, and so many good options. We are watching Korean and Spanish movies. This is nothing less than magical.”
Since March 2020, Aishwarya has been cautious about signing films. She’s been hearing a lot of scripts and wants to only do films that tempt her. “I learnt a lot of new things during the lockdown. I did an acting course, learnt Hindi and English, some backing, planted a small terrace garden… and now am back doing what I love best,” says Aishwarya.
Subha J Rao is a freelance journalist based in Mangaluru