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February 16, 2000
'I want to win an Oscar!'
The Best Child Artiste trophy clutched tightly in her hand, the little girl walked towards the flight that would take her back home to Madras. Suddenly, a familiar figure zoomed into view. And the excited nine-year-old immediately recognised J Jayalalitha, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
Once on flight, Sweta promptly sent word through the air hostess that she would like to meet the former actress. And, believe it or not, the usually inaccessible Jayalalitha called the little girl immediately.
"I was thrilled when I got the message. And I wasn't the least bit scared. I said, hello aunty. She also said hello. I told her I act in films and I had won this year's National Award and the Best Child Artiste Award at the International Children's film festival (which was held in Hyderabad). She smiled at me and made me sit on her lap. She asked me many questions about how I study, where I study... She also asked me, 'Have you seen my movies?' I said, Yes, aunty, on TV. When I was leaving, I gave her my visiting card. She was very surprised to see my card. 'I don't have a card even now. But you have one at this age! Good!' She smiled again and told me that she would call me one day."
Cute, confident, gritty, emphatic, well-mannered and, sometimes, a little too precocious and mature.... meet little Sweta, better known to the world as the protagonist she portrayed so realistically and poignantly in Santosh Sivan's Malli. What was amazing was the ease and confidence with which she sat down to answer my questions.
"You talk like an experienced person," I commented, once she started answering my questions with aplomb. "After Malli, I must have given more than 50 interviews." The list includes half-hour interviews to various television channels!
I could barely complete asking her how she became interested in movies and, pat, the answer was flowing, "My uncle knew uncle Bharatiraja and it was he who introduced me in films. I didn't know anything about films then. My uncle took me to meet Bharatiraja uncle and he asked me, 'Are you interested in acting in films?' I said yes. I was not at all scared while acting in my first film, Sathi Sanam. I was studying in second standard then. I was the villain's daughter in the film. I remember the first shot. My father gets a letter from the city. But he cannot read it as it was written in English. So, he calls me and asks me, 'Can you read this?' Yes, I say, and I read the letter to him. That's all I did in my first film. It took only one take."
But other films followed and, now, she is a veteran with 10 commercial films, three art films and 50 advertisements behind her. Given a choice, though, she would choose only ads, "They are very easy and very nice too."
Did you enjoy acting as Malli? I asked her.
"The first shot was very difficult. I didn't do it properly. Till then, I had acted only in commercial films. There they ask you to cry or laugh or dance but, in Malli, I had a fight with another girl, Kuku, in the jungle and, in anger, I had shout at her loudly. It is only after that happens that I come to know that she is deaf and dumb. I had to feel bad and sad then. But I didn't do the shot well. Then, Santosh uncle asked me, 'How would you feel if this happened to you in real life? Don't think you are acting. Try to feel what you are doing and then act.' Then, I thought of the girl who was deaf and dumb and how I behaved with her and, slowly, I started feeling very bad and I really cried. Only in art films, we have to feel like the character and act. That is why I like to act in films like Malli, Blindfolded and Kamalam."
Her performance as Malli has been widely appreciated. And the first formal recognition came in the form of the National Award. The news did not surprise her; after all, so many people had been constantly telling her that she would definitely win. But the day when it was announced...
"As usual, I went to school and, as usual, I came home very tired. The moment I entered the building, an aunty came running and congratulated me. I didn't know why but I said thanks and slowly climbed the stairs. When I entered the house, my father and mother also said congratulations! I thought everybody was teasing me. Finally they broke the suspense and told me I had won the national award. I was very, very happy to hear that. I called the Malli unit and told them the news. They said I should give a big party to them after I collect the award. Santosh uncle also will attend the party."
It was a scene that repeated itself at the International Children's Film Festival in Hyderabad. Sweta came to know she had bagged the best artiste award only after a certain amount of suspense and uncertainty.
It so happened that father and daughter were taken to the front row by one of the organisers. But before they could settle in their seats, they were asked to go to the third row as the 'front row was reserved for the awardees'.
"I felt very upset and sad. My father consoled me and told me I shouldn't worry as I had already won the National Award. He was sure Malli would get an award." As the visibly upset and disappointed Sweta began moving to the third row, a lady came down from the stage and asked them to sit there itself. She went back after congratulating Sweta.
Then, instead of immediately naming the winner, the jury started talking about the child artiste who amazed everyone with her superlative performance. And the crowd began shouting, "Malli, Malli." The jury paused for a while. Then they smiled, "Yes, you are right. It is Malli who has won the award." The moment Sweta heard this, she sprinted to the stage.
"I was very excited. I was very happy. I felt like flying in the air!"
Then, in a sudden twist to the interview, Sweta told me she preferring acting in art films. Do you know the difference between an art film and a commercial film? I asked her.
"Of course, I know. Art films are short. Art films have a very interesting story. And they treat me very nicely. But in commercial films, they don't treat me well. They don't give proper food. They don't treat me like a child. They don't call me by my name; they just call me 'hey girl, you come here.' I don't like that at all. Commercial films are very long and I have to go for the shooting for many days. I don't like it. That's why I like to act in art films only."
And Sweta's ambition? She wants to be a doctor and also "act in many art films and win an Oscar!"
Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh
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