At ARS Gardens in Chennai, Tamil movie Mela Thalam’s shooting is in full swing. Preparing for a crucial scene, the prop boys sprinkle beautiful yellow flowers on the cemented lane. On cue, the leading lady appears on a scooty, maintaining a rather unsteady balance on the bulky two wheeler. She almost rams into the camera, making the cameraman hastily cut the shot and everyone breaks down laughing. The next several takes follow this sequence. Camera. Action. Crash. Laugh. Cut.
In between shots, I try to strike up a conversation with the heroine, Abhinaya MG. She watches my lips carefully before raising an arm and, with an almost disapproving expression on her face, she mouths one word: “Slow”. You see, the Tamilian leading lady of Mela Thalam and the star of many other movies (in four south Indian languages, no less), is hearing and speech impaired.
Later, in an email interview with DNA, Abhinaya explains that if one person talks to her, she can try to understand. “If two or three people try to talk to me, I get confused.” She prefers to relax after shooting, describes herself as a spontaneous actor and knows no language except English. “After I understand the dialogue, I think of the expression to be given,” she explains in her email.
Shooting with a handkerchief
Mela Thalam’s debutant director and cameraman Anbu Stalin was sure that he wanted Abhinaya in his debut movie although an actress with her impediments wouldn’t strike most as the first choice for a character that is supposed to be talkative in the film. “It is very difficult for Abhinaya to deliver 10 lines at a stretch,” he recalls. “And I had to shoot the film with a tight budget.” Most of the time, directors in Abhinaya’s other movies show her mouth some of the dialogue before cutting to an over-the-shoulder shot, focussing on the expression of her co-star. Stalin didn’t want to use that device too much. “She just had to study the dialogues,” he says. And today, Stalin cannot stop raving about his heroine. Actor Nischala Krishna who is Abhinaya’s co-star in this film describes her as “hardworking”. “While others could look elsewhere and still hear the director’s directions, she had be completely focussed on the director and watch him speak,” he explains.
Although they had a few hiccups initially, Abhinaya and Stalin figured out how to work in sync. “Many things had to be in place before shooting,” explains Stalin. “For instance, I had to watch her lip movements carefully. Abhinaya cannot make out when her co-star is done delivering her/his dialogue, especially if s/he is not in front of her. So I positioned people at certain points who would signal to her when it was her turn to mouth her dialogue by waving a handkerchief. It was challenging for other artistes as well.”
While Abhinaya is well-established now, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Hemalatha, Abhinaya’s mother, sensed that something was wrong with her daughter a week after she was born. “She didn’t open her eyes on hearing loud noises. When she urinated, the floor used to get bleached. So we realised that Abhinaya was losing amino acids,” Hemalatha remembers. Initially, the doctors rebuked her for fearing the worst, but soon, they realised Hemalatha’s fears weren’t unfounded.
Until the age of three, Abhinaya could neither crawl nor walk. A complicated cochlear implant at the age of 12 and a long spell of audio verbal training helped her to some extent but several issues remained unsolved. While she could hear sounds, she still couldn’t hear speech. It took her almost three months to learn her own name. Hemalatha helped her study using flash cards as learning aids. “I used to utter the name and she used to listen and pick up the flash cards,” says her mother.
Still, it was clear that Abhinaya was a born star. She used to accompany her father to his shoots (he quit his job with the Indian Air Force to act in films). She would later come home, imitate the actors and dance to her favourite songs, with only its musical vibrations to help her sway. And she loved Aishwarya Rai. “She used to say ‘Ashhh’,” says Hemalatha. “So I stuck Aishwarya Rai’s pictures all over the wall and wherever she went.”
Abhinaya’s debut and breakout role came in the widely acclaimed Tamil movie Naadodigal by director Samuthirakani, in 2009. Her small but prominent role as one of the heroes’ sister fetched her numerous awards, including two Filmfare awards. Samuthirakani repeated her in the movie’s Telugu remake and she reprised her role in the Kannada remake as well. So far, Abhinaya has acted in more than 13 movies. Her latest assignments include leading roles in Malayalam movies Isaac Newton, Son of Philipose and The Reporter, which both Abhinaya and her mother call the “acid test” due to the sheer length and number of dialogues that the actress had to “mug up”.
“The day before the shooting, I sit and make her understand the dialogues. I spell it out for her like ‘ku-di-chi-ya?’ (Tamil for ‘did you drink?’). I have to tell her what it means. And now, she is acting as an RJ in an upcoming movie,” says Hemalatha, with a hint of pride. “But on the day of the shooting, I am nowhere near the set. I sit very far away.”