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Only a few film stars have truly reflected the pretty-next-door girl. Savitri in the 60s, Sharadha in the 70s, Shoba, Suhasini, Revati, Archana in the 80s, Suvalakshmi in the end of 90s, and Anjali in 2000s are a handful. Every fan has a list like this in their mind. A few recent ones are Aishwarya Rajesh, Ritika Singh and Lizzie Mol Jose. But perhaps the most important of them is Sai Pallavi.

Sai Pallavi is not loved by the fans just for her looks. The stories she selects, the characters she plays, the impact those films create on the fans, and the respect she earns in the public sphere are key to her appeal. Sai Pallavi portrays the pains, emotions, familial affections with that just more naturalness than most others. And that’s her USP.

Malar the flower
As a teenager, Sai Pallavi appeared in a few scenes in films like Kasturiman and Dhaam Dhoom. She also took part in television dance programs like in Ungalil Yaar Adutha Prabhu Deva (Who is the next Prabhu Deva?) and in Telugu, Dhee – season 4. At that time she was a middle class girl from Coimbatore. Though dance was her favourite art form she did not immerse herself in it and instead went to the country of Georgia to study medicine.

Sai Pallavi was offered a role in Premam in 2014 when she had come to India for her holidays. Though she was set to go back to studies, she played Malar teacher with conviction. It didn’t seem like a let’s-just-try-it-once performance. The fans gave great support to all the three heroines of the film. Anupama and Madonna transformed into commercial film heroines, but Sai Pallavi continues to choose characters that give importance to her. That was probably a wise decision. She is still Malar teacher for her fans and they adore her for being that.

Sai Pallavi portrays the pains, emotions and familial affections with that just more naturalness than most others. And that’s her USP.

Sharp observation
After Premam she did Kali in Malayalam, Fidaa and Middle Class Abbayi in Telugu, Diya in Tamil, all of which were similar. None of them is the innocent-girl-running-after-the-hero stereotype. Maari 2 and NGK, two Tamil films, were off beat for her. .

Sai Pallavi got a solid role in Vetrimaran’s Paava Kadhaigal, an anthology, during the Covid-19 times. She essayed the role of a woman who falls in love and marries a young man of a lower caste, and is invited back to her parents’ home for the baby shower ceremony only to be subjected to honour killing. The short film runs for just for half an hour but there is nothing small-sized about her performance.

The films released after that — Love Story, Shyam Singha Roy and Virata Parvam and the latest in the theatres, Gargi — all of underline her talent.

In Love Story, she plays a woman who joins a young man from her native place to run a dance school because she could not land a software job. In Shyam Singha Roy, she is a Bangladeshi immigrant devadasi in West Bengal. As if these were not sensational enough, she plays a young woman who falls in love with a naxalite leader in Virata Parvam.

In Gargi, Sai Pallavi plays the daughter of a man accused of abusing a 10-year-old girl.

All four of these roles confound the general expectations of society on how a woman should perform or even exist. But at the same time none of these are superwoman characters.

It takes much skill to understand the character one is going to represent on screen in a certain manner even before accepting the role. In all the 13 films that Sai Pallavi has acted in (Diya was produced in Telugu and Tamil as a bilingual), one can see a different personality. Each of these characters can be said to be borderline rebels.

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In Gargi Sai Pallavi plays the daughter of a man accused of abusing a 10-year-old girl. (Photo credit: Kaushik LM @LMKMovieManiac- Twitter)

Unique bravery
The journey of being different has not been easy. There were many who criticized Sai Pallavi’s face in Premam with acne scars. A frail frame, curly hair, fair skin, a smile that showed big teeth and a form that does not create the awe of a heroine drew some derision. But each of these pain points became her speciality.

A few years back, Alphonse Puthren, the director of Premam, said in an interview, “It is because she had acne that I chose Sai Pallavi for the role of Malar.”

Recently, during the release of the film Gargi, she told “In time the acne will clear. I am an example,” said Sai Pallavi. This answer is a powerful boost for those who put themselves down because they don’t conform to some standards of beauty.

In that same programme when VJ Parvati asked a question about menstruation, she answered instantly: “In all the films I have acted, the song sequences were shot mostly during the menstruation days, except Shyam Singha Roy.” Every woman who has come out of her home for work would have said the same answer. Sai Pallavi has made clear she is one among the many working women.

Asked why she chooses to wear a saree for public events, she did not respond with the cliched “that is our culture” answer. She recalled that in Premam, in the tap dance video when her clothing moved slightly, the scene was edited separately and became the subject of much social media chatter. From then on, in public events she stopped wearing skimpy dresses, she added.

In all the 13 films that Sai Pallavi has acted in, one can see a different personality. Each of these characters can be said to be borderline rebels.

But the actor is not new to controversies. When asked by a Telugu channel about her role in Virata Parvam, as a naxalite, her answer referring to the film The Kashmir Files caused a furore. “In Kashmir if the killing of the pandits is terrorism, then killing a Muslim because he had beef, beating a Muslim or forcing him to chant Jay Shri Ram are also terrorism. We have to see such things done in the name of religion as one,” she had said.

Despite the rightwing social media backlash, the actor held firm. She said she was not going to backtrack from what she said, adding: ‘We cannot harm others in the name of religion”. To speak like that without courting the support of any political backing requires rare courage.

In both Virata Parvam and Gargi, Sai Pallavi’s acting has come in for much praise. But the political row could cost her the best actress award. Her strong roles on screen and unapologetic opinions off-screen make Sai Pallavi easy for any young woman to identify with.

Star heroes find it difficult to garner continuous success within the confines of commercial cinema. Gargi’s success has shown a star heroine can.

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