Suchitra Pillai: The Way Farhan Akhtar Defined My Character in Dil Chahta Hai, People Still Remember Me

Actress Suchitra Pillai, who recently lent her voice to the audiobook Naqaab, says it was more intense than being on stage or in front of a camera because she didn’t have her face or expressions to tell the story. The Dil Chahta Hai actress who is also a model and VJ talked to us about her experience of voicing multiple characters from the story and her effort to make them sound different from each other.

Pillai also opened up about being typecast on TV and how OTT helped change that. The actress shared that she is getting to do more work after she has turned 50 and she is not one of those who look at the age before saying yes to a character. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about Naqaab and the characters.

Naqaab is an audiobook, which is an exclusive on Audible. It’s a psychological thriller about psychologist Margot Scott and her various patients and family members and how these clients keep telling her lies. One of those lies catapults the whole story into a major thing, that brings the psychological thriller aspect to it. It is interesting because I get to play every character. And it’s all voice so it’s more intense than being on stage or being in front of a camera because you don’t have your face or any expressions to tell the story.

You sit down and break down all the characters. The protagonist should sound a certain way but her 15-year-old daughter should sound completely different. Then there is a 45-year-old client who is very depressed, so he will sound a certain way. And it has to be seamless because we are not cutting in between like a film or a series. We can’t do one section and come back to it later. It has to be in one go.

How did you approach this?

We had a reference when we started off. I had a particular voice for Margo and a different one for her husband. When there had to be some distinct differences while narrating the characters, we went back to the reference file. A lot of concentration was required because it is easy to confuse the listener who is depending on you to tell them the story. And if you sound the same then what’s the point? It makes it interesting for them if they can shut their eyes and know there are three people speaking right now in the scene as opposed to just one voice telling the story.

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What was the most challenging thing you faced while doing this?

Towards the climax, there is a chapter where one character is speaking normally but the protagonist is breaking down and crying and it happens on the same page. Things like that make it very tough. In the same scene, the husband is pacifying her, and in the next sentence, she’s sitting there crying, and I don’t use glycerine to cry. I sit there and cry in a studio alone so that it sounds real. There are also scenes with four-five people in it where everyone has different emotions. Those were the tough ones.

Be it audio stories or films and series, what do you consider before choosing the story?

I like the intensity of a character. I don’t like flippancy at all. By intensity, I’m not talking about ‘rona dhona’ or too much drama. If you talk about Dil Chahta Hai, I had a 15-minute role in it but people still call me the DCH girl thanks to me being that girlfriend from hell. The way Farhan (Akhtar) defined the character, people still remember me after 21 years of the film. When you read the script or are reading a book, you should be able to say that the character is not boring. That’s how I choose my things.

In TV serials, I have been typecast quite a bit. I was the negative person wearing light lenses, and being the bad mother-in-law or the bad auntie. But with OTT and platforms like this (audiobooks), you get to play so many different characters, which is what an actor wants to do for the rest of their lives.

When I did my first Hollywood film, I was around 45-46. When I went for the audition, they said this is a role for a 65-year-old. But I urged them to let me audition and they chose me. I asked them to put grey in my hair and add wrinkles to my face to make me look like the character.

I don’t understand the logic of turning around and saying, “Why should I play the mother to a 35-year-old when I am only 42?”

So you don’t get typecast on OTT anymore? 

I’ve had so many releases lately. I had Bestseller in which I played a book publisher. In Eternally Confused and Eager for Love I played a South Indian mother who doesn’t know what’s going on in her son’s life. Then I played the bubbly friend in Aadha Ishq. I’ve got a lot more releases coming up and each one is different. So OTT opened up the space for all of us actors and gave us the platform to play the kind of roles we want to.

But before all of that audiobooks had already given you that chance. Without having to put on any makeup you just go in, you sit in a studio and you take somebody else into another world.

And thanks to Audible when I did Forest of Enchantment, someone called me from LA and said he wants me to do his audiobook. This author from LA heard FoE and he said, “You have done such a superlative job in that one, I want only you to read my book.” It’s amazing to have that reach.

You have seen things change in this entertainment industry from films, TV and OTT. What would you say is a major change that this digital platform has brought?

For an actor, you get to do so much more. Because you finish off projects fast, you get to do a lot more stuff. That is one thing and professionalism has also increased because you’re competing with international channels. The way people are shooting, the way they respect people’s time, etc, everything has increased. As far as OTT is concerned, that’s the big change that has really come into the picture because actors now don’t want to sit and wallow in a studio 20-22 days a month, doing a daily soap, when you can do so much more interesting stuff. The change it has brought into the industry is the fact that it is a resurrection for all us actors. After I turned 50, I am doing so much more work than I ever did in my life.

Going forward, what roles would you like to play, that you have not explored yet? 

As far as on-screen acting is concerned, I would like to play what Rekha did in Umrao Jaan. I have never used my dancing prowess, except for my play ‘Dance Like a Man’ in which I do Bharatnatyam pieces. So dancing is the one thing I want to do. I have to admit, I would love to play a completely psychotic character, which I’ve not done up to now. I have played a 65-year-old housekeeper and I am still playing a 25-year-old in Dance Like a Man at the age of 52. So I am still getting a chance to play a whole bunch of things and I am not one of those who want to go according to my age.

God has been kind that I still don’t need to go to a plastic surgeon. The way I look, I leave it to my South Indian genes, coconut oil and fish that I have had all my life (laughs). I’ll just do whatever comes my way and interests me.

Suchitra Pillai’s ‘Naqaab’ is available on Audible for free.

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