“It was unforgettable,” recounts actor Semmalar about her 10-day shoot at a Kurumba tribal hamlet in Attapadi, Kerala. She was shooting there for her new Malayalam film titled Mmmmm, directed by Vijeesh Mani. “The title denotes the sound of buzzing honey bees; the film revolves around honey hunters from the Kurumba tribe.With a decline in bee population, there are fewer beehives and the film shows how this impacts their livelihood,” says the actor over phone from Chennai, where she is dubbing for the film. “Two boys, Panali and Ben, accompanied our shoots to aid with translation as the Kurumbas speak a different language. They are here with me for dubbing as well, to make corrections in dialogue delivery and modulation,” says Semmalar, who speaks in an accented Tamil that has a Malayalam flavour. “I love Kerala food. I indulged in pazhamporis and fish curry almost every day while shooting,” she laughs.
Former football player and actor I M Vijayan plays the male lead, while Nanjiyamma, an Irula tribal woman, plays his mother. Nanjiyamma’s song ‘Kalakkatha’, written and sung by her in Irula language for the Malayalam film Ayyappanum Koshiyum got over 10 million views on YouTube. “She plays my mother-in-law. During breaks, she would regale us with singing and Vijay sir would start dancing to the beats. We bonded well. His role is a direct contrast to the villain roles he has been doing. He has excelled himself and it helped me emote better,” says Semmalar.
The crew wrapped up the shoot in 10 days and the post production work has been completed to send the film to the international film circuit. “We shot at a home in the hamlet. There were no sets. I also conducted a three-day acting workshop to train a girl [who plays a fantasy character] in body language and to pick up the Kurumba slang.”
Semmalar Annam, who is from Coimbatore, packed her bags to Chennai to become a part of films. She started her journey with a defining performance in Lakshmi Ramakrishnan’s critically acclaimed Ammani. After a degree in Mass Communication/Journalism from PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore, she brushed up her skills in acting and theatre at the Stanislavsky Acting School in Chennai from her teacher and filmmaker, the late Arunozhi Sivaprakasham.
“I have done street theatre [mostly on themes around environment]; historical and political plays, independent films, and over a dozen short films. It has been an exciting journey in both commercial and independent movie space,” says Semmalar, who has also been part of popular films like Ponmagal Vandhal and Magalir Mattum to name a few.
She will be next seen in Ajith Kumar’s upcoming Valimai, GV Prakash Kumar’s Bachelor, a Sivakarthikeyan film, and a web series directed by Dharani. “I get to play prominent roles in independent films that have won awards internationally,” says Semmalar and lists Leena Manimekalai’s award-winning Maadathy that spoke about a subsection of Dalits in Southern Tamil Nadu. “I had to perfect the Tirunelveli slang for it. Director [Pa] Ranjith sir had nice things to say about my performance. It was very encouraging.” Semmalar also directed a short film First Rain that won an award at the Belgaum International Short Film Festival.
She says there is a popular notion that actors from theatre background are good only for melodrama. “That is changing and many theatre actors have proven it with their subtle acting. I would love to see myself doing a comedy role or even a cop. We are getting opportunities.”
Though she wants to direct a film at some point in her career, Semmalar is now happy juggling the two parallel worlds of cinema. “When Ponmagal… released on OTT, I got so many responses on Facebook and Instagram. It was overwhelming. You have to reinvent yourself to stay up-to-date and relevant. Learning never stops. It keeps you charged.”