Q&A: Suchitra Pillai

An interview with the Indian film and stage actress about the cine-play Dance Like a Man, showing at the South Asian Film Festival on Friday.

published Thursday, February 8, 2018


Addison —  The fourth annual South Asian Film Festival of Dallas is this weekend, and on Friday night, the first film is a nice intersection with the performing arts. Dance Like a Man is a cine-play, meaning it’s a filmed performance of a play by Mahesh Dattani. The play has been performed in India and on tour for more than two decades. It is the story of two Bharathanatyam dancers (Indian classical dance) contrasted with that of their daughter, and how the revelation of dark family secrets causes conflicts between generations. The cine-play is directed by Ritesh Menon and features Vijay Crishna, Lillete Dubey, Joy Sengupta, and film/stage actress Suchitra Pillai in multiple roles. Pillai will be in attendance and there will be a Q&A after the screening.

University of North Texas documentary film student Sunil Kilaru conducted a WhatsApp interview with Pillai, who was in India at the time. That conversation is below.

The South Asian Film Festival happens through Sunday at AMC Village on the Parkway in Addison. You can see a full schedule at the bottom of this interview.


Photo: Courtesy
Suchitra Pillai

Sunil Kilaru for TheaterJones: What kind of research did you carry to prepare for this film?

Suchitra Pillai: No preparation was needed to do this film, because I have been doing the play itself for the last 20 years. It was the first play that I did when I came back to India, so the roles of Lata and Ratna completely imbibed me, I didn’t really need to prepare for this film, because it was the cine-play version of the play itself. The only thing we have to keep in mind was the fact that we were actually shot by three cameras and though the set was the same as that of the play, they would be stopping and starting. So the emotions from scene to scene, which is natural during the play, they change a little bit during the shooting of the cine-play. 


What is the difference between acting for a play and acting for a film?

The difference between acting for a play and film is a huge, huge, huge [and] vast difference; two different mediums entirely. I am very lucky to have been part of both throughout my career. Acting for a play involves a lot of rehearsals before the actual play gets onto to the stage. Acting for a film may involve a few workshops, and meetings with your co-stars, and the rest of it happens on the set. And you do your character sketch at home before you come to shoot. For a play your reaction is there on the spot, you don’t have to wait for any critics to review it like a movie—either they boo you off the stage or they clap, but for a film its totally different. There is lot of waiting around when shooting for a film; it’s a longer process ’till its completion.

The similarities would be just the fact that both theater and film involve teamwork. There is a hell of a lot of teamwork and if one person is slacking, the whole project goes down—which is similar to that for a film as well.


How do you prepare for this role?

As I said earlier this was the first play I did when I came back to India in ’97. [Actress] Lillete Dubey and I met, and she thought I would be great for this role considering the fact that I am South Indian. I had to basically emulate a lot of what Lillete does when whenever I play her character, Ratna [at an older age]. I think of what she would have been like younger; so little nuances, the way she speaks, the accent, the tone of voice, etc.—that was all very integral to the preparation of role.


Do you prefer stage or film acting?

Well that’s a tough one. Theater is definitely high up on my list because it’s the biggest adrenaline rush, because you are right there in front of the audience, you don’t have a second take to fall back on. It’s just those butterflies in your stomach that you get before you go onto the stage before every performance that really keeps you going. In film you will have a lot more time to relax. Despite the fact plays don’t pay you that much I will choose theater over film for sure because it is the most job satisfaction an actor can get and it is the biggest test as far as an actor is concerned for his or her talent.


How did you learn to dance for this film?

Considering Dance Like a Man is about Bharatanatyam dancers, there were two places where I have to dance in this play. I am not a trained Bharatanatyam dancer though it is something I would have loved to have done in my childhood, but I didn’t. For this play my cousin Sunita Pillai, who is a professional dancer, trained me for these two pieces. I seem to be pretty convincing to the dancers who come to watch it, so [knock on] wood, I have been lucky.


These characters are emotionally demanding. How do you recharge yourself after finishing a scene while getting ready for the next scene?

Both my roles and characters are emotionally demanding, more so when I play Lillete at younger age than when I play Ratna. That has a lot of scope for histrionics. By keeping your self-identity, you tend not to—although you should—invite everything that you can of the character and lose yourself. I would have to say the biggest compliment I have received is from somebody in the U.K. who watched Dance Like a Man three times. She is a journalist and personal friend; she came to me and said “I did not see even an ounce of Suchi on stage” which is the biggest compliment that somebody can get.

As for recharging ourselves after a scene, well you hardly have any time—at least I don’t. I keep running between scenes to change into the next character from present day to flashback, so it’s difficult that way. It’s the switch-on, switch-off mechanism that you have to have. The only recharging I need is probably after the very last scene, “the confrontation scene,” when there is a big, huge emotional breakdown, and soon after that one has to go and put on the ghungroos [anklets with bells, integral to Indian classical dance] and come back for the last dance. So, recharging after that is going on and taking few deep breaths, wiping off the tears, putting on those ghungroos and running right back.


Which scene is the most interesting to you and why?

It would have to be the climax scene between me and Joy Sengupta, who plays my husband when we are playing Ratna and Jairaj. When we come back from the dance performance, it’s the end of the play where skeletons come out of the closet. For me it’s the most interesting scene because one has to be so totally, totally pleasant from the beginning to the end and you really have to feed of your co-actor to get it completely right. Five hundred-odd shows, [knock on] wood, I managed to break down every time. It definitely takes a lot out of me, but to really get into something like that, the emotions are very, very intense in that one. That’s why I love it.

The most fun scene for me is definitely what we call the “review scene” when the newspaper review comes after Lata’s performance, and the boyfriend brings the newspaper to the house and it’s that conversation between the father, the boyfriend and Lata. That’s the funniest scene for me.


Photo: Courtesy
Suchitra Pillai in Dance Like a Man

The whole film is about calculations and miscalculations at every moment. Do you think life also carries this attitude?

Ratna’s character, more than anybody else, is the most manipulative, calculative character in the play. Life definitely carries this attitude for lot of people, thank God not for me. But, wherever in the world we perform this play, when we have a Q&A with the audience, people have said that although it is set in Bangalore, it’s about two generations of Bharatanatyam dancers. This particular situation/scenario could be happening in present day in any family in any part of the world. It’s about jealousies within the family, it’s about not having reached the peak of one’s career, trying to live one’s dream through their offspring’s, the jealousies between husband and wife, mother and daughter—[things] lot of families go through.


When you are shifting the roles between your parents and [Lata’s] present, does it help you acting-wise to understand what they have gone through, their emotions and loss to achieve their success; to understand what kind of person they are today and why?

When I am playing my present-day Lata character, she is a very happy-go-lucky present day girl who lives in the moment, but has her roots in dance because of her parents and because of the way they push her. In her character, I don’t see a lot of her, but it does come up in moments where she does appreciate what they have done for her and there is lot of this wanting to please them that comes out a lot, between her and mother you can tell that. You can see that there is much softer relationship between father and daughter. Lata definitely knows what her parents have gone through to get where they are and she understands why they are pushing her. But she doesn’t really mind, she also wants to prove herself to them and to herself, I think.


The film/play is like peeling an onion, there is always something more. How do you think this adds to the film? We are watching the stories of two generations play out.

The way it’s written, going from present day to past, past to the present day. There is definitely always something more, which you discover scene to scene. How it adds to the film, well, it’s interesting that the medium of cinema can really go into all of this little-little bit so much more, in depth than you see in a play in one shot. So, that’s what is very interesting filming something like this because with just reactions, with nuances, with close-ups, they way you catch something, the close-up shot. That makes it a lot more interesting. We are watching stories of two generations play out, and just to make the audience interested in what their kind of lifestyle was in the past and in the present day, we all have to be on the ball, and the writing has to be up-to date. Which no matter how many years have passed, it definitely is. Mahesh Dattani’s writing is superlative in this play. Whether it’s the comedy, whether it’s the drama, the weaving of one thing into another from present day to past, and vice-versa, and all the ways that he brings about each character. It’s fabulous!


The film is such a fight between what we want to be, and what we are. Do you feel that way?

Yes, it is a fight between what we want to be and what we are, it’s about ambition. It’s about achievement, it’s about clamoring for success, fame and money. Do I feel that way? I am one of those people who wants to work all mediums, all times, these are my ideals, I have a whole load of ideals, for each aspect of my life, be it theater, film, television, or radio. I try to get to those ideals as best as I can. The other movie that I am showing at the festival is The Valley. I got my first Best Actress award for this movie 25 years [after going into the business]. So, it’s a struggle everyone should have ideals, should be ambitious; I am definitely not ambitious enough to step on other people’s toes to get what I want.


What do you think of all the struggles that your parents have gone through in the film to be where they are, secondly where they want you to be? Why do Indian parents keep such high expectations for their children?

Indian parents across the world, I think have very high expectations for their children, especially in a place like India, where there is so much keeping up with the joneses—my child is better than yours, my child is more talented than yours; that poor child gets completely run down in the bargain. A lot of times there’s unfulfilled dreams, ambitions, and they have no other ways to fulfill them, except by their children. So there is that pushing of those expectations. The struggles that Ratna and Jairaj have gone through, to be where they are in that generation, there’s a hell of a lot of struggle, considering the fact that men were not supposed to be dancers;  were not allowed to be dancers.

Women dancers were considered to be top-notch women, devadasis per se, who dance for money, even though they were dancing for God. They were always put into those prostitution brackets, rather than the love for the artform. So for them Ratna and Jairaj’s character have to struggle to convince the father-in-law. They had a tough time, that’s why specially the mom keeps on pushing the daughter because she wants to live her unfulfilled dreams through her.


Would you like to direct/produce your own films? What kind of films would you like to direct/produce?

Yes, In the future most definitely I would like to direct. People say that I am a good producer because I am a Virgo by Sun signs. I am a nitpicker, I am very particular, I am a perfectionist. I need everything to be just so, which is why they say I would be a good producer. I have been told that I will be able to direct as well. Because every time I am on a set of a TV—serial or a movie or otherwise, I am always asking questions, I am trying to find out things about the scenes from the director, from the DOP, etc. So I have that innate interest. I hope it’s something that I write myself; that would be very interesting.

The kind of films that I would like to direct, would probably have a lot to do with human relations. I love the way people show emotions and ups and downs of relationships.


It is interesting to watch how your grandfather in the play grooms your mother. In a way, the title of the film Dance Like a Man almost means what the lady of the house has to go through to take care of the household. In a way, it’s where ladies learn to dance like a man for the society?

It’s not really that, in this particular play, the father-in-law agrees with the daughter-in-law. She really doesn’t care, she wants to do what she wants to do. She is not looking for permission. But she makes this deal with the father-in-law, because her ambition is so much, and it overshadows how her husband should be. The title Dance like a Man is about the fact that men weren’t allowed to dance in the olden days. Bharatanatyam and other [forms of] dance were looked down on.

Do you think as children of India we ask for too much from our parents? Do you think if we asked less they may lead a peaceful life?

Asking for too much materialistic or otherwise, if you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, those kind of kids obviously keep on asking without thinking about giving. But, more than asking for too much we take it for granted. I would say that even from my personal experience. It was a rude wake up call for me. When my mother had a stroke six years ago, and thank God she survived it, so much came out of her about how we as kids took her for granted, how she never had a chance to kind of open up and say a lot of things that were inside her. It was always the happy face, it’s always the keeping things together. She was the person who kept the peace, and was there all the time 200 percent. No matter what was going on in her life or what she was feeling, she always put everyone in front of her.

I don’t think we ask too much of them, per se. The present generation definitely asks a lot as far as materialistic stuff is concerned, that’s for sure. It’s much, much more than we asked for during my generation, but I think for every parent they will be happy if a child asked for a better education, or asked for things that would enhance their lives and personalities.


South Asian Film Festival


THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2018 - Opening Night


6:00 p.m. - Doors open at the Highland Park Village Theatre with cocktail reception

7:00 p.m. - Mehram (Short)/What Will People Say (Feature)

9:45 p.m. - Red Carpet/Afterparty at Bistro 31




6:30 p.m. - Arts Programming

Hotstar's CinePlay: Dance Like A Man

Q&A with Suchitra Pillai


8:30 p.m. - Love Programming

Love and Shukla (Feature)

Q&A with Siddartha Jatla


10:30 p.m. - Valentine's Day Afterparty (TBA)





Ask the Sexpert (Documentary)


1:30 p.m. - LGBTQ Programming

Aarsa (Short)

Sisak (Short)

Devi (Short)

Khol (Short)

Maacher Jhol (Short)

Q&A with Priyanka Bose, Shawn Parikh & Faraz Ansari


3:15 p.m. - Indo-European Programming

La Lune Folle (Short)

Babylon Sisters (Feature)


5 p.m.

Five O'Clock Shadow (Short)

The Valley (Feature)

Q&A with Saila Kariat, Alyy Khan, Suchitra Pillai, Sri Mirajkar and Sangeeta Agrawal


7:15 p.m. - Centerpiece Programming

Abu (Documentary)

Q&A with Arshad Khan


9:15 p.m. - Centerpiece Afterparty at Saffron House




12 p.m. - Education/Family Programming

Medium (Short)

Dhh (Feature)


2:45 p.m.

Bhasmasur (Feature)

Q&A with Nishil Sheth


4:30 p.m. - Closing Night


Q&A with Sandeep Modi & Naren Kumar Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Suchitra Pillai
An interview with the Indian film and stage actress about the cine-play Dance Like a Man, showing at the South Asian Film Festival on Friday.
by Sunil Kilaru

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