Multiple award-winning star with her work spanning across several languages, Suhasini Mani Ratnam is a talented actor, director, producer, writer, wife and mother and is also a prominent spokesperson and part of many juries in institutions and organisations across the world. A gold medallist in cinematography, she is a true personification of women empowerment. As an actor, Suhasini made her debut with Nenjathai Killathe in 1980 and won Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actress. She then won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance in Sindhu Bhairavi in 1985.
As a director, she made her mark with the TV-series ‘Penn’, the infamous movie ‘Indira’, and very recently a short film ‘Coffee, Anyone?’ as part of an anthology, Putham Pudhu Kaalai for Amazon Prime in 2020. Along with her husband, Mani Ratnam, she has been involved in the running of their production company, Madras Talkies since 1997. She was also named the honorary council for Luxembourg. Suhasini is a true artist by heart. As part of her charitable trust, NAAM, she worked in recreating the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma along with south Indian women actors, dancers to celebrate “the spirit of Indian womanhood”. We dig deep into the enigmatic personality’s life as it were, as she opens up to us in this freewheeling conversation.
1. Please tell us about your growing up days. Where did you study? Your time spent later at your college. What was your dream career in your
My dream career in my childhood days was to be a bank manager where 20 men would work under me, but that never happened. I grew up in Paramakudi, in Tamil Nadu in a large family with a very ordinary upbringing, were have nots and were not well off. We didn’t even have a refrigerator in our house in those days, forget having a car. We walked to school in our Bata slippers. I studied in a government municipality school, which is a corporation equivalent now. But I turned out ok, so I would say, don’t hesitate to send your kids to a government school, but do send them to some school. I moved to Chennai when I was 13 years old and my uncle Kamal Haasan (Suhasini’s father Charu’s younger brother) and my grandmother were already staying in Chennai, which was called Madras in those days. When I moved here, my uncle, my mother, my grandfather and my two sisters were still in the village, Paramakudi. I moved to Madras to be with my uncle Kamal Haasan and my grandmother, because my father had a fall and an accident. We were three girls so it was too much for my mother to handle all of us and it was common in those days for grandparents to look after their grandchildren. Today, I don’t think it’s happening at all.
So I moved to Madras when I was in the 9th standard and I studied in a very good school, Shanta Vidyalaya, a Ramakrishna Mission School and went to Queen Mary’s College after that. By then my uncle Kamal Haasan had become a big actor and so life changed. My parents also moved to Madras and my uncle Kamal wanted me to study cinematography and become a technician in cinema, so I went to the Film Institute. So for someone who wanted to become a bank manager became a cinematographer’s assistant and later on by accident I became an actor.
2. When and how did the journey towards being an actor happen?
I was working as a camera assistant to Ashok Kumar, a cinematographer, during my second year in my Film Institute, to get some practical experience. At that time director Mahendra was looking for a young girl to play a college going lead in his film. He had booked Padmini Kolkapuri but she had a one year contract with Nasir Hussain and he didn’t want to wait for one year for the contract to expire. He was looking for an actress who was not a conventional star, but a girl next door. He saw me working in the unit for another film called Johny where Rajinikanth and Sridevi were playing the lead roles. I was working on the lighting and camera for that film then. He approached my father and my father gave him his blessings. That’s how I became an actor. My debut Tamil film was called Nenjathai Killathe.
3. What are your other passions and hobbies?
Sports, reading, writing and doing everything that is challenging. Right now I’m learning to play the piano. I don’t know when I will learn it perfectly but I’m learning. I also love to learn new languages. I can speak all the four south Indian languages fluently and also have a passion for French. Cinema of course is my passion. Writing also is another of my passions. I’m also watching a lot of shows these days. I was also a film curator for many International film festivals and I’m part of many film clubs too that I enjoy. I’m also passionate about many other things.
4. How challenging is it to carve out a niche for yourself?
I was very young when I entered the film industry. I was only 19 and I knew I did not want to be one of the many glamorous actresses. To be very frank, acting profession is not treated with respect and dignity it deserves. People look down upon the actors as if it was not a good profession. Everyone would adore stars in adulation, but the respect was not there, whether it was a man or a woman. So I decided I will stay respectful and I’m glad I did that.
5. What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
Going to Film Institute for three years, studying there and learning from people who are experts in cinema was a highpoint. Also, my uncle Kamal for taking me to all his shoots and exposing me to the film industry at the tender age of 15 and 16 was the highest point of my life. Also, acting at such a tender age of 19 in my first film and for that film, I went to win the Best Actress award. For a reluctant actress, who wanted to work in a bank, winning the State Best Actress award with my uncle Kamal, was a highpoint. Also, winning the National Film Award for Best Actress in 1986 for my role in the 1985 Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi, directed by K. Balachander, were all highpoints for me.
After that my journey into south Indian cinema from Tamil to Telugu and then to Malayalam and Kannada and all the films that I acted in all the four south Indian languages turned out to be very successful, even though I was not the commercial heroine at all. I had my own reservations and I had always wanted to hold back my respect and dignity and despite that being successful is a big highpoint for me. Some of my films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada have won many awards and it feels so good to be a part of these films. My role in the AFI Fest nominated feature film Vaanaprastham that released in 1999, which starred Mohanlal, was particularly well received. I was 45 then and that film also went to Cannes. I won the Best Actress award at the age of 41 for a Malayalam film called Theerthadanam directed by G. R. Kannan and written by M. T. Vasudevan Nair. The movie was selected to be screened in 18 International Film Festivals, which was a record at that time. I also won Kerala state film awards for my work in this movie. I don’t know if anyone will be considered an actress at the age of 41 in today’s times. I also acted in a Kannada romantic drama film called Amruthavarshini in 1997. I was a mother then and that was also successful.
But the biggest highpoint I feel is meeting Mani Ratnam and marrying him. Also now we run an NGO together called Naam Foundation, where we help underprivileged women. I feel this gives me the high that nothing else does.
6. What does family mean to you? How was the lockdown period for you? How do you spend time when you’re not working? What is a typical day like for you?
When I was a child, I had the best father, mother, sisters, grandparents, best aunt and my Chittappa, Chitakka. I didn’t find any fault with any of them. Today, I feel we are all very judgmental about everyone around us. Family meant loving somebody without bothering about any of their weaknesses or minus points. You accept them as they are and are always nice and happy with them, without being selfish. That’s what family means to me.
We were perfectly okay during the lockdown period. Since we have always been so busy, I used to wonder how our retired life will be. Lockdown was a kind of a trailer for our retired life. I’m actually looking forward to our retired life now, except of course that so many people in the world struggled during this time. I shouldn’t say it was the best period in that sense, but I learnt how to be alone at home without work.
Our industry has suffered so much and the theatres haven’t yet opened fully. They’re open with only 50 % capacity and in that 50 % not even 10 % are coming as they’re still afraid to go back to the theatres. So it’s not back to being normal and busy how it was in earlier days.
When I’m not working I’m learning French, I learn to play piano and I’m learning to cook and right now I’m also being a part of organising a Media Summit in April.
Everyday is different as we also work on holidays. In our profession it’s all so different. We work on weekends and don’t work on Mondays. A typical day for me starts with a morning walk as it’s very important for me. Now I’ve also started Intermittent Fasting. I also answer emails and schedule meetings in the mornings. Even on a normal day, I go to office only in the mornings and have reserved my afternoons for my family. That’s the advantage of being 60. You can take life easy. Of course, when I’m shooting it’s a full day work.
7. Were there any kind of apprehensions entering the field of cinema? How did you and Mani Ratnam meet?
Yes, I was very apprehensive as I had chosen a very difficult profession of being a cinematographer, a technician. I was a camera assistant for about 12 films. My mother was very unhappy. She wanted me to do English Literature. My father wanted me to be a BSc and MSc Physics or an Engineering Graduate or an IAS Officer. Being in the film industry, in front or behind the camera, everyone had a lot of apprehensions. I myself had a lot of apprehensions. I didn’t want to be the dream girl. I wanted to be a normal person, so somewhere my conscious decision of doing that turned out well.
Mani Ratnam and I first met professionally. He met me to narrate his first film called Pallavi Anu Pallavi, but I couldn’t do it for some reason. After that I didn’t meet him much. We then met through our families. Our wedding was an arranged wedding – I was 26 and he was 32. It was time for our parents to consider us getting married. So, my father and his brother met and they decided that we should meet. It was an uninteresting story actually. There is hardly any love story there. We just met because our parents wanted us to meet. But when we met, we liked each other and got married.
8. What is your vision and dream in this field that you have made a mark for yourself in?
I think work hard and don’t work for money. If you work for only money and success, then you’ll never be able to make it. You continue to work because you’re really passionate about it.
9. What are the changes you want to bring about in the film industry?
I want more respect for the film industry people and especially more respect for women.
10. How has life changed after entering the film industry?
It has changed a lot. I can’t be normal now. The problem with normal people is that they want to look like celebrities and the problem with celebrities is that they want to look like normal people. Neither is possible, so once you come into the film industry, life changes as people are looking at you. You’re in the public eye always. A Tweet from me is also scrutinised by many people. A saree or a blouse that I wear is also under scrutiny and since we are also responsible, we have to be careful. Life is not bindaas and easy anymore.
11. What kind of a person are you in your personal space? How do you like to spend your me-time?
I’m a happy person and I like gathering people around and have a lot of fun and lot of laughter. I’m also hardworking. I like reading, writing and binge watching OTT. I also like a lot physical activity, so sports has always been a yes for me. I also love travelling.
12. How often did you take holidays in the pre COVID days? What are your preferred holiday destinations?
I was always holidaying as my son liked going on a cruise every year. We went on many family cruise holidays together. We would go to atleast six countries on every cruise, as he didn’t want his mother to be recognised by the public, so we always went abroad where people didn’t know me or my husband. My friends used to tell me that I have wheels in my feet. I used to always travel. Maldives is my favourite destination, but people are killing it by going there in huge numbers. It’s become an overkill now. So, I didn’t go this time, but I have gone earlier many times. I also love England. My sister lives there and my son Nandan also lives there now. It’s one of my all-time favourite destinations now.
13. Any work you can recall that inspired you in your earlier days?
Balachander’s movies as they were always about women’s empowerment, liberation and women’s emancipation and I also liked Satyajit Ray’s work, as it was about true Indian life and was not the typical Bollywood film types. These are the two directors and intellectuals who truly inspired me. You can be intellectual and you can be artistic and realistic and still be successful in the film industry.
14. How do you maintain a work life balance at home with Mani Ratnam sir? Do you both discuss films a lot or things around it?
I don’t know what sacrifices he is making to accommodate a working woman like me, but yes, as a woman and as a wife I have to balance it all with a lot of give and take. I have to accept his talent and know that he is not working in a bank or is an engineer. I know that he’s going to bring work home and he’s going to be involved in his work and is going to be away on shoots. I understand all that and feel that having a husband like him itself is a gift. So, I don’t make too many demands.
We both discuss films a lot. We also discuss family. We both like similar cinemas, so it’s ok when we go to the theatres to watch films, but only on OTT platforms; he keeps saying that our choices differ. Whatever I see he doesn’t see and whatever he watches I don’t. That’s what probably makes our life interesting.
15. Any memorable fan message you’d like to share?
Yes, I’ve had so many fans. But there’s one fan who has now become my family friend. Of course, she is also a relative of one of my family friends. Her name is Shanta Kalingaraya. She started off by writing letters to me and is a couple of years older to me. She lives in Pollachi and runs a school there. She has become very close to all our family now, including my parents. Our family holidays include her as well. That is quite amazing isn’t it? Someone who started as a fan has now become family.
Recently, a 19-year-old girl called Astha Pradhan who is from Darjeeling has also been a huge fan. The way she follows my south Indian films is amazing. She is making an effort to understand those south Indian languages and keeps sharing a lot of my Instagram posts and keeps following me ardently. I’ve become quite close to her and we chat alteast once in three days. If I want something done for my NGO Naam Foundation, I ask her to do some research and she does it. One fan is now family and the other fan is helping me run my NGO.
16. Who are your close friends from the industry?
I have many close friends from the industry. Sumalatha, Khushboo, Rekha, Revathy, Poornima, Lizzie. I also have a lot of male friends from the industry – I’m saying because I studied in a Film School which had 109 male friends and one female, which was me, so I learnt to be friends with all my heroes, Chiranjeevi, Mohan Lal, Mammootty, Prabhudeva, Mohan and so many others. Vishnuvardhan was one of my closest friends and also Ambareesh. Ramesh Aravind also is a dear friend and we are all in touch. Once in two days we all talk. Infact we have a Whatsapp group with all 30 of them and we chat on a regular basis. Poonam Dhillon and Jackie Shroff are also a part of the group and we chat almost everyday.
17. What has been one of your favourite roles so far that you have played?
My first Tamil film Nenjathai Killathe is very close to my heart and so is Sindhu Bhairavi. Also Bandhana is one of the best films I feel that I’ve done. Also Amrutha Varshini in Kannada and Muthina Haara and in Malayalam Koodevide.
18. How was your experience working on the OTT platform recently? What are the projects you’re working on currently?
I acted and directed a film for Amazon called Putham Pudhu Kaalai in 2020. And now in 2022 I’m acting in a Nagesh Kukunoor film where I play an old woman and I really enjoyed playing a slum woman who is a house maid. It’s completely different from my comfort zone and I really like it.
19. Any secrets or tips you would like to share for a successful marriage or relationship?
Respect the other person. Give up and give in. You have to respect your partner’s abilities and qualities as a human being. Also forgive and forget if you want to stay in a happy marriage.
20. February is the month of love. You and Mani Ratnam Sir have shared a special relationship over the years. Please share some of the most romantic things he has done for you and maybe you have done for him too?
I don’t remember what romantic thing I have done for him. He was having symptoms of Covid so I just decorated his plate with lots of his favourite food and also a candle and gave it to him. Right now that is the most romantic thing that I’ve done and I’m sure it brought a smile on his face.
The first time when he came to see me, I was taking a 6:30 am flight to Bangalore the next morning. So he went and sat on top of St Thomas mount and watched the flight take off from there at that hour of the morning. I think that is the most romantic thing he has ever done.
21. What are your future plans?
I want to lead a life where I can help more people. Also, to create a summit where I can bring people together. To continue running an NGO and being useful for others. I want to make things better, whether it’s through art, politics, society or an NGO.