Arun Matheswaran’s 'Saani Kaayidham' is an arresting, violent depiction of a woman set on revenge. The abuse Ponni suffers in the film is coloured with caste and patriarchy, and admirably, the film desists from victim-blaming or even vigilantism. Ponni’s quest for revenge too isn’t instinctive; it’s only after the court fails to give her justice does she take refuge in revenge.
Keerthy Suresh, who plays Ponni in the film, was rather surprised to be approached for such a part. Her image is of a girl-next-door, after all. When she asked Arun why he thought she could pull this off, his response convinced her to take up the project. “He explained that it would be different for the audience to see me do such a role. I saw reason in his belief. And yet, I did have a bit of fear. It’s a fact that family audiences, including children, have enjoyed my work so far. I knew that they would have to accept this new attempt.”
Did Keerthy ever end up conflating the reel with the real? “No, I didn’t let it affect me personally,” Keerthy says, and explains that her experience of doing the National Award-winning Mahanati helped her get better at distancing herself from characters she plays. “During Mahanati, there was a phase where I got really depressed. I decided I would not go through that again. The sets that I worked on during Saani Kaayidham were pleasant, despite the dark theme. Be it the direction team, or the production team, it was all a breeze.”
Recalling her routine while shooting on the film, she says, “I would work out in the morning, go to the sets, and then, play Ponni. I would remain Ponni for the duration of the shoot, and then once done, I would return home as Keerthy, watch a few episodes of FRIENDS and remove any traces of Ponni from my mind.”
The depth of Ponni’s rage and pain that comes through in the film seems rather surprising, given Keerthy’s efforts at distancing herself from the character. Keerthy is surprised too by how she pulled it off. In fact, such is the impact of the role that some of her lines and even actions from the film are quite the toast of social media. “A friend sent me a fan edit recently of a girl stabbing at something just like Ponni, and I was shocked. I guess it’s the impact of the character. I am still not sure whether it’s the character or the overall mood of the film.”
On the disturbing sexual assault scene, Keerthy explains that the filming was the result of many days of thought and work. The idea to keep the focus squarely on the men committing the crime and not the victim was director Arun’s choice from the very beginning. “Arun chose a woman cinematographer (Yamini Yagnamurthy) for the film… for this scene, in particular. He wanted to make sure that I would be comfortable. And I was.”
Keerthy thought a lot about the making of this scene. “Ponni, the constable, was being sexually assaulted, and it was enough to make sure that her uniform could be seen. There is no necessity to go beyond this. This also sets Saani Kaayidhan apart from other films that have shown the victim more explicitly.”
While this scene worked for many, Keerthy says it didn’t quite work for some. “A few felt that there could have been more in the scene, but yes, there were many who felt we stood apart by our choice to shoot the scene the way we did…” says Keerthy, who might have put some distance between her real self and the role, but never at the expense of the performance intensity. The actor, in fact, believes that her decision to separate herself from the character was key in portraying Ponni with authenticity.
She might have been able to watch FRIENDS and get Ponni off her mind every evening after shooting, but her performance has ensured that Ponni will remain in our minds for a long time.