Being around someone as passionate as Gautami is an experience in itself. Absolutely devoid of star tantrums or the air of obnoxiousness we expect from film stars today, Gautami is down-to-earth, well-grounded and speaks with the wisdom of a lifetime full of experiences.

“I have been in the industry for a while, so, a lot has been said about how I came into the industry. For now, all I will say is that the film industry was — forget about being unknown — it was nowhere even on the same planet, as far as I was concerned. I had no idea a world like this existed,” begins the actor.

“It just happened. For various reasons I got an opportunity and I think the most important decision I ever made, was deciding to take that chance. A big part of that and the fact that I even had the option of taking that chance was because of my parents’ support,” she adds.

We chat a bit about how supportive her parents were and then she continues, “I was studying, I’d just started my engineering and that was a very hard fought battle. I did my entrance exam, the MSET exam, and I got a merit seat. Then I got this offer to do this film and these offers kept coming, one after another. I kept thinking — what are these people doing? Who are these people? What is this world? And then, I still remember, my parents sat me down, one evening, and said, ‘we don’t know anything about the film industry, because none of us have anything to do with it, but we know that it’s a great medium. It’s a great art. You have a choice to at least see what this could be or you can choose to say: I don’t want it and I am not interested and we’ll shut the door on it. Whatever you want, we’re fine with it. And whatever you want, we’re with you.’ I decided to give it a chance and that decision has led me to actually knowing that there was no other way I could have lived my life. No other way that could have been just so correct for me.”

I break into a Q&A:

Did you come from a family that was very emotionally supportive?
My mom was very emotional; my dad was hyper-emotional but very intellectual about it. There was nothing stereotypical about his behaviour. He was not your regular Telugu man. You gave him a taboo and he’d find a way around it or figure out how to break it. He was a great and understanding personality, which is why I don’t have even one recollection of fighting with him. I have had knock-out drag-down fights with my mother — but I was both mama’s and papa’s pet. Like I remember, my mom was unwell; I came back from the US to look after her. She would watch me with Subbalakshmi (my daughter)… I was very hands-on; I never had any nannies or anything. So, one day, she looked at me carrying the little one around during a particularly loud tantrum and then she looked at her and then looked back at me and then giggled. I was obviously curious and so I asked her why she giggled. Pat came the reply, ‘you have your hands full with this one, no? Now you know what I went through.’ That’s the kind of relationship I share with her.

What was life like before films?
Most of my childhood and early teens was in boarding school. I grew up in the US, Bangalore and for a few years in Vishakapatnam. But my memories from Bangalore are my fondest. I love the city and hate what they’ve done to it. You know what one of my favourite memories is? On weekends my brother used to come and visit me in Bishop Cottons Girls School and he was in the Boys’ School. And he would always bring some food, because we were always hungry and when you’re around 13/14, you’re eternally hungry… it’s like you have a giant tapeworm in your stomach. He would bring hot fried rice from Rice Bowl — the one on MG Road, the old one — and everybody in the entire dorm would be waiting for him to come. Then six or seven girls would descend on it and before you could blink, it was over. I’ve never tasted that flavour again. That flavour, it was magic. The whole dorm had that delicious fragrance wafting around for hours after it was finished.

And then films happened. Was it easy?
I wouldn’t say it was easy but I never felt stressed in front of the camera. I actually feel happy in front of the camera. I just feel like I’m in my place — I have no questions. It’s always been like that. When I began as an actor, I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know the language (Tamil) and I had no clue what any of these different technical roles/rules meant — but I was just absolutely comfortable being shot. I won’t say something cheesy like: it’s a vacation. It’s very hard work. But something about being in front of the camera feels right for me. I did anything I had to do. If I signed it on, I did it. It was my job. Like I remember this particular gruelling shot that I once had to do in a Tamil movie — I had to jump into the Buckingham Canal in Chennai. The water used to be green and it used to stink a lot more than now. So, I’d finish the shot and my mother would be waiting with two/three drums filled with water and disinfectant and she’d literally make me stand on the roadside, on that rickety bridge that used to be on the canal, and then I’d be immersed in this waterfall of disinfectant and water and only then she’d let me get into the car and then go home. I did that shot,
several times over.

So, tamil was an issue?
In the beginning, yes! I was comfortable with English and Telugu. I never spoke in Tamil till I was confident that I could. Sathyaraj and I did so many films together. And initially we never spoke. But, somewhere down the line, during the shooting of the sixth or the seventh film, he said: you know I never spoke to you for the first two/three films, right? I said: yes. He said: It was because you’d always sit there… so calm, so quiet… I thought you were very stand-offish… so, I never spoke to you… and then I realised you weren’t very comfortable with Tamil. We went on to become very close friends. Now, however, I think I can finally think in Tamil. I speak three, almost four languages simultaneously… so; the next sentence could be in any one of them.

How passionate were you about your career?
I don’t really understand what it is to live without passion and passion does not mean you fling everything to the four winds and be outlandish or wear your heart on your sleeve and kick up your heels and all that kind of stuff… it’s not about that. It is about doing everything that you do with the fullest of conviction that, this is what I want to be doing right now. There are some things that you have to do whether you like it or not, but you can choose to do them completely. I have been put in situations that were not of my choosing or I felt uncomfortable in, for whatever reason. But once I committed to something, I chose to give it my all. So, in many ways you have to live with passion — because what else is there? You can’t live your life half-heartedly; you can’t be apologetic about anything that you do; because if you do that — you’ve made a lie of your time, your breath and your existence.

Did your parents ever disapprove of your career in cinema?
You remember the time when if you went into hotel management or something like that, people would immediately assume you were never going to make it big? I was mystified by that, because I was brought up in a home and a family where there were no expectations other than: you find yourself, you find your goals and work towards achieving them. I am aware it was a huge privilege and I am thankful to my parents for never being an obstacle in my career.

You seem to have a spiritual side that you are unashamed about…
I do and I think it comes from my family again. I’ll never forget this one conversation I had with my mother. I was reading some of these books on Zen Buddhism at that time. I had come across this idea: imagine that your mind is like a glass of water… full of water and now, the aim of this particular kind of meditation is to keep it steady. The water should not spill, it should not waver and it should not ripple. Keep it as calm and steady and peaceful as you can. I said okay; let me see what my mom would have to say about this, as I was really young at the time. So, I asked her and she said something that, till today, gives me so much of joy. She said, ‘if I were water, I would want to experience my nature to the fullest extent of it. I would want to splash, spill, rumble, tumble, flow, explode, rain… whatever. It is probably part of my nature to be calm and still and steady… but being water is so much more.’ This, I think was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever heard and it’s stayed with me. That is what I would consider my spirituality, embedded in the elementals of earth, fire, air and water.

Your opinions on feminism…
I didn’t understand what feminism was for a long time, because it was never an issue in our home. My mother was always in control and my father was a gentleman who respected women immensely. Today, I understand feminism better and I can say that the day that feminism is redundant is the day when feminism is really working.

Your opinions on the lgbtqia+ community and their struggle for rights…
They are human beings. I am a human being. You are a human being. We are all human beings. We are all different and we are all the same. We bleed the same, we hurt the same, we laugh the same, we feel the same — we’re all the same! The very fact that there is a need for a movement like this is deeply deeply hurtful. But, the fact that there has been so much of progress, so much of open-minded acceptance around me in the world and so much of celebration of another individual’s right to live their life according to their choice — that’s something that really needs to be celebrated and something to feel proud about as a human society. I’m glad we’ve come this far… but there’s so much more to achieve.

Your opinions on the #metoo movement…
I would like to see the movement get greater credibility, and when I say credibility, I mean from all those that need to be a part of it. It’s not just about an injured woman standing up and pointing a finger and saying: this person did this to me and this is how it hurt me and damaged me. That, no doubt, is where everything begins. But, for it to have a real true effect and bring about change among people and the coming generations — everybody has to be invested in it. Even the one who is having that finger pointed at them and those standing in judgement around both of them — everybody needs to be involved.

In conclusion: what’s the one life lesson that you would like to share?
Life is to be lived. Every moment is to be experienced. Every breath has to be drawn deeply. You have to revel in who you are and in everything that you do. Never apologise for who you really are!

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STYLING: Ranjana Ramesh | @abiranjana5
WARDROBE: Studio 149 | @studio149
ACCESSORIES: Rimili Botique | @rimilibotique
HAIR & MAKE-UP: Priyanka Pun | @priyanka_pri_babe_ (Toni&Guy | @toniandguyindia)
LOCATION: Sheraton Grand Chennai | @sheratonchennai