Urvashi has made a career out of stealing movies from right under the nose of her co-stars. Khushboo once recounted her experience working in Vanaja Girija. The film’s title referred to a pair of sisters played by Khushboo and Mohini. Urvashi did not even feature as a ‘lead’ per se. She makes her entry only mid-way into the film as a bumbling maid servant. But Khushboo mentioned, with grace and admiration, that Urvashi had completely stolen the scene(s) with her impeccable comic timing. If that is the case for a film where she makes an extended appearance in the second half, then imagine her impact in a film where she plays the role around which the plot pivots. That is exactly the case with Irattai Roja. But as resplendent as she was, she still deserves a lot more spotlight for her spectacular performance than what she has gotten in the 25 years since the film released.
This film is a remake of a Telugu film, unseen by me. But I can bet my Netflix subscription that the actress who played the same role would have not done as much justice to it as Urvashi did. Urvashi sunk her teeth into the tricky yet juicy role with aplomb. She plays the character of a wife who agrees to a ‘deal’ with another woman (Khushboo, who is excellent, but is pitted against a great actress at the peak of her powers). The proposal which she agrees to is to have her husband (Ramki) marry Khushboo in exchange for Rs. 1 crore. In the hands of an ineffective actor, this role could have turned into a shrill, repulsive, one-note caricature. But Urvashi plays it just right.
That Urvashi has astounding comic timing is undeniable. There are so many scenes where she has us in splits, most notably the ‘jodi porutham’ scene with Visu. She is hilarious, as she mispronounces “Prime Sports” as “Brain Spot” and proudly talks about going to Nasik to see freshly minted currency! The way she grabs the mic and launches into a tirade is especially rib-tickling. As entertaining as her performance is in several such sequences, that is not what sets her apart. It is the ability to switch gears in a matter of seconds. Tonal shift is something elusive for lesser actors. Whereas Urvashi is a master at it. A case in point is the birthday party sequence which starts off lightly. But as she watches her kid feed the piece of cake to Khushboo, she loses her cool. Ramki rubs it in further as she continues to lose face in front of the crowd. She switches from comedy to drama effortlessly. Such is her likeability and the expert shaping of her character that we feel bad for her instead of treating it as well-deserved comeuppance.
The "Jodi Porutham" sequence:
Another example of expert juggling of tone is the rather serious scene where Urvashi realizes her folly and tries to renege on the 'deal' that she had struck with Khushboo. This scene has several sharp lines delivered by Urvashi. But it is rather remarkable that a big laugh comes across as completely organic. It is the part where Urvashi asks her Dad (Vennira Adai Moorthy, who is superb) for advice. In this case, Urvashi remains in character while we find it impossible to not laugh at Moorthy’s reaction. It takes an actress of Urvashi’s caliber to know when to push which buttons in service of a scene, while neither sacrificing the essence of the sequence nor losing the opportunity for a laugh to lighten the moment.
The movie’s dialogues were written by the late N Prasannakumar, who wrote several of Vivekh’s tracks such as Run and Manadhai Thirudi Vittai. Urvashi once mentioned (in the context of Vanaja Girija, also written by Prasannakumar) that she would take the time to collaborate with the script writer. I don’t know much about the making of Irattai Roja. But the fruits of the actor-writer collaboration are there to see on screen. In addition to the big moments, be it comic or dramatic, there are several casually tossed-off lines that showcase the efforts of a writer who leaves no stone unturned even in the little moments. For instance, the way the film ends. When surprised by a friend of hers, she spontaneously shifts to broken English, only to revert to normalcy in a jiffy. Prasannakumar’s contributions to such scenes are sadly forgotten. Writers who work well with actors and directors need to be nurtured and encouraged so that they don’t end up as footnotes or entirely edited out altogether from analyses of film.
Urvashi’s ample talents have been provided fodder by filmmakers who understand her full range of capabilities. I was especially pleased to see her in a deeply affecting role in the recent Soorarai Poattru. Filmmakers and writers will do well to continue to tap into her acting chops. Of course, there is always danger of her walking away with all the honors. If you don’t trust me, ask Khushboo!