Shobana Chandrakumar Pillai, better known mononymously as Shobana, is the very definition of elegance, beauty and grace. As an actor, she is known for an amazing career spanning over almost four decades with over 150 films in more than four languages. As a dancer, she has excelled in her chosen form of bharatanatiyam and has also been awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her contribution towards the arts. She is a powerhouse of talent and someone who is very aware of the craft she represents.
Meeting her at her residence for an interview for our Special Women’s Edition was an honour and while her home and residence is as breathtaking as you’d imagine it to be — once she begins talking, the world around you soon fades into oblivion. Here are some interesting bits from the conversation we had on a sunny Chennai afternoon in February.
You have excelled at both acting and dance and are renowned as a dancer and as an actor… how has it been juggling both these sides of you?
I never really juggled between the two. I began learning dance at a very young age and by learning, I mean dancing every single day; unlike these days when you go for a dance class once or twice a week — dance was quite literally a part of me. Even when I began to work in cinema there were very few lapses in this daily rehearsal, unless we were in some isolated part of the country and I couldn’t get a space to rehearse… and I was constantly performing. So, I didn’t really lose touch with the artform. They were both always a part of who I was and I always found the time for them. What I was juggling however was my film career and running this establishment (her dance school, Kalarpana). I chose to do a film after seven years and I found it very difficult, even though we were shooting in Chennai itself. It’s almost like things go wrong here only when I am away. So, maintaining that is difficult, but career wise — dancing and acting were both an essential part of me.
At some point though, Shobana the dancer took precedence?
I took a backseat from films in 1997-1998 and that’s when I began to realise that I have to do something more, something different. This was a solo journey. I had listened to people and I pride myself on being a good listener. But this was left to me. Even when it came to films, I hardly ever argued with a director. I feel my generation of actors was far more aware of what efforts went into a script and we knew that if something was written in a certain way, it was meant to be like that. We trusted our directors. Anyway back to my journey — I kept performing, listening to music and trying to understand all the subjects within dance — be it rhythm, abhinaya, poetry — or how a certain composer imagined a certain piece. The amount of detail can be pretty overwhelming. Add to that the nuances of language. Within the South itself, compositions exist in all the Dravidian languages and then there’s Sanskrit, that finds its way into everything — almost creating a grey area — an area I was very aware of. I could talk about it. Just the possibilities of interpretation of all of these different nuances left me absolutely intrigued and excited. As someone who considers herself a storyteller, I wanted to tell my stories differently, even if they were in the traditional idiom. There was a point when I had a large audience in films. Initially, yes they came back for more, but then suddenly they disappeared for decades. It was then when I had to make peace with the reality of cinema. I was honoured to have had a large audience and I really wanted to engage and build this relationship. So my focus shifted on how to engage this audience and how to keep them entertained and how to keep them coming back. My love for music and rhythm eventually led to me writing my first musical, Maya Ravan, almost 15 years ago. I have a flair for putting things together and so I experimented with the musical format. I got professional actors to dub for my characters — something nobody had done with bharatanatiyam so far — the nuanced non-dramatic style brought in by Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and my other voice actors created a very interesting combination. As dancers, we were dramatic and as voice actors, they weren’t. It was such a lovely learning process. It was a very new and different way to be engaging with audiences. That was then followed by Krishna, half a decade later and now I’m working on a new musical called Trance.
From amazing films like Manichitrathazhu and Mitr, My Friend… to the more recent Varane Avashyamundu… you have always chosen very interesting and progressive cinema… what is the yardstick you employ to choose your roles?
You’d be very disappointed to know that I took on films because they came to me. There was never a conscious choosing of films. Now, when I have the luxury of doing a film even almost a decade apart — it’s not like I get roles that I choose to turn down… maybe people send roles my way only after really thinking about whether I’d fit them or not? And if you’re talking about the 80s, then almost all the films I did then were fabulous. It was a Golden Era. And I swear I didn’t choose anything even then, they chose me. It might have been because there were only four to five heroines available then. I didn’t choose Manichitrathazhu, by the way — that too just came to me. That said, it’s not like I didn’t turn down scripts — I did, quite a few.
The media calls you lone warrior as you have carved your own niche within the industry and within the world of dance — are you comfortable with this tag and if yes, what led you to carve such a unique identity?
I like my isolation. I like to be in my own creative space. My friends have given up on me. They’ve chosen to just give me my space. I don’t want to go out at the end of a day, because I’m usually so tired. I have a lot of things to do at home, at the dance school and I’m generally preoccupied with my own ideas — so, while I don’t see myself as a lone warrior, I think I like being isolated in my own world.
If dance and cinema hadn’t happened to you, where do you think life would have taken you?
I think I would have become some kind of a writer. Or I would have become an artist — I love painting. I am finally also working on a book — but we can talk about that sometime later.
You have been conferred the padma shri and won two national film awards — how important is winning awards, in your opinion? Or is it the ‘art that matters’ at the end of the day, irrespective of the recognition?
When you’re at the end of your life and there’s nothing to look forward to, I’m sure the memories of winning these awards will be very special. But that said, when you win an award when you’re 24, and you’re in the midst of so much competition, it matters. I was overjoyed to win that award at that age and I am not going to sit on a high horse and say: art is what matters. Now, I can say that it is the art that matters, but when I got the award, I was terribly overjoyed.
Dance and cinema occupy most of your life according to the public — what are the other passions that keep you going?
I love building things. I built this house from the ground. Everything in this house has come out of that passion. Everything you do must come from passion. Building is a very expensive passion though, I must admit.
Are there any causes that you champion/fight for?
I have a lot of causes that are dear to me and I show up for them and do donate my time and resources, but I wouldn’t say I champion or fight for them. Mental health is something that I take seriously and so I associate with organisations like The Banyan in Chennai.
As an artiste, what would be your words of advice for young aspiring artistes who are still hoping to make a mark?
Just learn to focus. I am aware that this generation can multitask better, but it’s still important to focus — just ensure your craft isn’t affected by the lack of focus. For dancers, specifically, try and find your originality.
You are often credited with having created a dance style that is uniquely yours — how was that journey and if you had to describe your own style, how would you?
Everyone has their own style, because imitation takes you nowhere. If I do have a unique style it must be a style inspired by my guru Chitra Visweswaran and my manasiga guru Padma Subrahmanyam. I am also influenced by the grace of mohiniattam too.
Like in the movie Varane…, you are often called a timeless beauty… your opinion on beauty and the way the world looks at it.
I am more interested in people’s energies. I grew up around a lot of beauty, beautiful people — so it’s never been very enchanting for me.
With so many varying interests and passions and so many accomplishments, is there something new that you hope to master in the years to come — a new talent to acquire, or a new passion
I have always wanted to document the original home of Indian classical dance — the temple. I want to look at these temples as living and not just as relics.