Suhasini is all flushed with joy at the rave reviews of her engaging piece of acting in Gnana Rajasekaran’s recent work, Ramanujan. As the mother of the math wizard, she gripped the audience with her mannerism and method, and yes, her authentic and believable portrayal of a woman torn between the love for her son and his wellbeing. An astrological prediction that his passion for and closeness to his young and pretty wife could contribute to his early death forced the mother, Komalathammal, to try and drive a wedge between the couple.
In a free-wheeling interview with Hindustan Times in Chennai, Suhasini says: “There were several commonalities between my mother/ my grandmother and Komalathammal. I belong to an Iyengar clan, like Ramanujam was, and I was familiar with the language and mannerisms of his family. So, the part seemed tailor-made for me.”
Of course, Suhasini was surprised when Rajasekaran met her and offered her the role. “It came out of the blue… I never expected to play Ramanujan’s mother,” Suhasini avers.
Similarly, she never imagined a career in tinsel town when she was growing up at Paramakudi (a small town near Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu) and in an orthodox Brahmin family at that. “It was rare, even unthinkable for a girl from such a background and family to join cinema,” she smiles nostalgically.
But Suhasini’s uncle and Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan fought with her father, Charu Haasan, to let her come into the movies. Kamal’s elder brother, Charu, was a noted lawyer in Paramakudi, but who later went on to act in movies made by Girish Kasaravalli (Tabarana Kathe) and Mahendran (Uthiripookkal). While the father wanted Suhasini to become an engineer, her mother said take up literature. But Kamal convinced them all that the girl had that quality in her to make a name for herself in films.
Kamal took his niece under his wing and advised her to become a cinematographer. She moved from Paramakudi, came to Chennai and joined the Madras Film Institute after doing a year of under graduation at Queen Mary’s College in the city. “Kamal was a great teacher. He would bounce stories and ideas off me, he would take me for shoots, he would take me for editing, dubbing. I saw cinema from behind the camera. Also, Kamal’s house on Chennai’s Eldams Road was a place where writers (Sujatha), singers (Usha Uthup) and directors (Bharati Raja, Balu Mahendra) conglomerated. Anybody who thought differently those days made a beeline for Kamal’s home. It was a fun place where people hung around, and it became a great place for learning. I learnt a lot there. And three movies were shot there in that house. I remember Sridevi’s first film, 16 Vayathinile, was shot in Kamal’s place. She was my age and she would rest in my room. We became great friends.”
While Kamal also introduced her to world cinema and Indian auteurs, such as Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Suhasini herself made efforts to watch arthouse fare. “I would take a bus from Eldams Road to T Nagar on Sunday mornings to see a Satyajit Ray work. I saw Pather Panchali, Apur Sansar and so on. Till then, my exposure to cinema was only Tamil movies. Later, at the Film Institute, I would get a chance to look at international movies. Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves changed my very idea of cinema. I got truly hooked on to it.”
Suhasini realised that day that films were not a joke. They were serious business. And she had to be really good in a cinematography class of 150 boys and one girl!
But Suhasini was not destined to work the camera. Her stars were guiding her towards stardom. During her internship under the ace cameraman, Ashok Kumar – part of her course at the Institute – she was spotted by director Mahendran, and he dragged her into her first role in Nenjathai Killathe.
This time, Charu Hassan had fight with Kamal to let Suhasini act, and not be a cinematographer. Suhasini informs that she was shocked when her father asked her to work with Mahendran. “Here was my father, Dravidian in his ideas and principled to the core who had even looked down upon Bharatanatyam and had refused to arrange an arangetram for me, telling me that Nenjathai Killathe was a golden opportunity, one that was not to be missed.”
Well, acting just sucked her in, but the entry into it was as rough as a spacecraft breaking into the earth’s atmosphere on its way back. Kamal was livid that his niece was giving up cinematography. “How can you do this,” he stormed. “There are actresses and actresses, but no woman cinematographer.”
The other person who was also disappointed was Rajnikanth, who told Suhasini in no uncertain terms that she was not cut out to be an actress. Both Kamal and Rajnikanth predicated doom for her.
Well, they were wrong. Suhasini is still acting, and as Komalathammal in Ramanujan, she was just superb. Even early on in K Balachander’s Sindhu Bairavi, she was refreshingly charming. There she falls in love with a married Carnatic singer.
She has acted in no less than 275 films since then, and with heroes like Kamal, Rajnikanth, Mammootty, Mohanlal and the like. She is fluent in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, not Hindi. She can read and write Malayalam. “I picked up this language by reading the Malayala Manorama. You will be surprised to know that so many of the alphabets in Tamil and Malayalam look alike,” Suhasini adds.