Remember Maggie’s irreverent laughter in Panchatantram? Something similar peppers an hour-long conversation with the timeless Ramya Krishnan as everything from career choices to a caravan-less era are discussed.

From 1984, when she made her debut to now, when everyone’s looking forward to her Leela in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe, Ramya has managed to not just stay relevant, but also be a trendsetter of sorts, with a confident screen presence as her calling card. Any mention of lasting the race is met with the same laughter. “I don’t analyse so much. I’m just lucky I managed to land good roles that also clicked with people. In some cases, even those who created the roles would not have envisioned that kind of reach.”

Leela promises to be one such character. She’s a former porn star in a film that seems to defy slotting. The entire cast, writers and the director have perfected the art of speaking a lot about the film without revealing even one little plot point. In Ramya’s case, it is the 37 takes she took for a scene. “I’ve never done that even for my first film, and don’t hope to repeat it,” she laughs. This, despite planning for it from the time the director narrated it to her. “He’s a solid taskmaster, and by the end of the ‘take marathon’, he peeled the performance layer by layer till it was just the core. I could not sleep the night after the last shot for the day was not okayed. He showed me a few takes that were almost close to okay, and I sensed a missing rhythm. As I was acting in the shot that was approved, I stopped thinking. I was in the moment and knew that this was it. I like being nudged that way to give the best I can, provided the person asking is not doing so just to prove a point.”

Super Deluxe came into Ramya’s life at a stage when she was craving to be part of good cinema. “I have been looking to move away from roles I have done already, but the choices were limited. Then, this came in. And, going by the trailer, you can never guess the storyline.”

Flashback: Scroll YouTube to find one of her earliest dances on screen —’Ayathanavan Bhavati’ or ‘Jolajo’ in K Viswanath’s Sutradharalu or where she romances the hero’s shirt, and you’ll see the same Ramya you saw in Padayappa, a performer who owns the screen. You’d think she’s always been this way, but Ramya says she’s still not a confident person. “It’s just that I had good directors, and gave my heart and soul to every project. Working with Viswanath garu early on was equal to doing a PhD. I was like a student waiting to absorb everything he taught. In fact, there was no choreographer for the song; Sir would tell me what he was looking at, and I would give him options and he would finally decide on one set of movements.”

In a way, it helped that Ramya literally grew up on the sets. “I was hardly 13 when I started off in 1984, but my first commercial success was in 1991. Those seven years were just learning. Today, everyone is well prepared; the luxury of a learning phase is missing. I needed that time to understand that films were not just a holiday from school. That time made me stronger, established a foundation. But for my early failures, I would not have taken my career seriously.”

Ramya’s career has had its peaks and plateaus, but she’s bounced back each time with a new look or role. After a decade-and-a-half of commercial cinema in Telugu, peppered with some memorable roles, including the 1995 Ammoru (Amman in Tamil) in which she played a goddess, she landed Neelambari in Padayappa in 1999. “It got me the kind of popularity that eluded me for 15 years. Given a choice, I would have opted for Soundarya’s role. I was not at all happy with some scenes, because they showcased me as too arrogant. I cringed during the scene where I place my footwear near Soundarya’s face. But, I believed in the director’s vision. The same happened with Maggie in the 2002 comedy Panchatantram. Everyone asked me why I was taking up the role of a call girl; they feared chances for the leading lady would dry up,’ says Ramya, who has continued making eclectic choices. She’s also part of Gautham Vasudev Menon’s web-series.

Mention must be made of Sivagami, the majestic queen of the Baahubali franchise who could kill a traitor with one fell swoop and breastfeed two children the next minute. “When Rajamouli narrated this scene to me, I had goosebumps. Sivagami is such a lovely mix of motherhood, bravery and dignity.” Of course, Sivagami, in a first, also became the subject of a book by Anand Neelakantan. “That was an absolutely new experience,’ she smiles.

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