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Dial M For Films is a new online knowledge series that is part of the MAMI Year Round Programme. Curated and moderated by the Artistic Director, Smriti Kiran, the series focuses on breaking down what lies behind the moving image through sharply curated, specific, live conversations with solid film talent. It puts the audience and aspiring film professionals in the front row seat with some of the best in the business. The conversations created take you on a journey through the process with lived-in experience of working professionals that is invaluable.

THE BIRTH OF A METHOD ACTOR

I was 17-18 when I did my first two movies. I wasn’t quite able to find the right word to explain why it felt like it was my calling, and thanks to my incessant digging for people who would speak about their craft, I soon found it but I was not happy with how I was putting it. Was it a study of character? Or a study of storytelling? What is this excitement and this very rewarding journey that makes a two-dimensional character on-page as real as another person right next to me, in flesh and blood? I kept looking for the word, and then there it was, the incomparable Cate Blanchett said it in one of her interviews: anthropology.

That’s it.

I know it’s a big word. By definition, it’s a scientific study of human beings. Here we have all the tools in our art form, in performance, all the tools that we can use for a creative study of human beings, their behaviour in terms of the backdrop of their socio-economic and political background; or their preening nature versus nurture, you have it all.

That’s what primarily excites me about the art of character building. It continues to fascinate me because in its execution it becomes everybody’s. It is by far the loneliest and the most collaborative work that I’ve ever done. It is the polar opposite in that sense and is extremely gratifying.

I am admittedly an unapologetic method actor. It’s a very controversial thing to say, even in the acting community, because you’re judged very harshly when you say that you’re method.

 

There are a lot of ways that people have understood or misunderstood what method means. For me, it’s very simple. It’s just a range of skills and learning or training techniques that will help you put out a sincere performance. It’s just whatever it is for you. If it means throwing away the script and going with the flow, that’s a method too. It just so happens that I am an information junkie. For me, it’s all about scribbling or writing it down and finding more things. I’m not a born actor. I have no idea what that means. But I do have an aptitude for the study of human behaviour, psychology and storytelling. If I could acquire a certain skill set to channel my natural inclination of understanding people and the instincts that I get, then I’d be able to give a better output. At the end of the day, it has to be primarily about what the audience’s takeaway is. So, I just have to find out what works best for me to give that output. Now, it’s a bonus and a selfishly gratifying thing that I benefit a lot too, but that’s my thing, and that’s what I’m here to share with you as well.

“Character building is by far the loneliest and the most collaborative work that I’ve ever done.”

This work has the ability to expand your emotional, mental — to a good extent — your physical and psychological boundaries. It reshuffles everything in your mind. When it falls together again, you have a whole different landscape of understanding the self and others. Over the last 14 years, empathy is something that I have understood to be the biggest takeaway from this job, and my method really nourishes that journey for me.

The diagram above is a representation of what I usually do, that I have slowly become aware of over the course of my career. It hasn’t been gleaned from things set in stone.

The innermost circle is the script and the director, the second circle is self and research and the third one is collaboration and execution.

There are three broad categories to classify the stages of shooting a film: pre-production, under-production and post-production. If you’re lucky, you also have a one-off experience of what I call a long gestation period with a creator, where you have no idea if the movie is going to get made but you do go through a long, gestation pre-production period building characters. Let’s keep our focus restricted to the films that do get made. The three categories apply at different tangible points to the pre-production, under-production and post-production period.

 

THE SCRIPT AND THE DIRECTOR

The first point of contact is always the script. A director or writer reaches out to me and gives me a narration or hands over the script to me. The first hook that I look for, which I do not have to hunt down, is the dramatic need of the character in the film. No other detail stands out. No other detail stays back after a narration for me but the conflict. What is her inner conflict, and how does the resolution get attached to the external conflict in the story itself? How well does it fit into the script?

Once I’ve understood that, then there is time invested in reading and re-reading the script as many times as possible, and whatever material your director or writer gives you. For the initial projects, I used to be given a bound script. Eventually, I started working with creators who would work with me in a way where there’d be a synopsis or a one-line order given to me. I became sceptical since I was of the view that I had to have heaps of pages to go through. But then there is this leap of faith that you take with the creator. When you know that you’re on the same page about what is the essence of the story that you’re going to get, and when as an actor you have gotten it, then the creator trusts you to be free to create it as they go. So, it becomes a self-evolving piece, this thing called a script. You build it along with the creator.

I remember an interview that Naseeruddin Shah once gave that had a great impact on me. He mentioned that an artist must own the rights to improvise. Irrespective of the method, there is a certain dedication or focus that you give to the script, to the core structure of the film. The more you read it, the more the truth and the essence of the script get ingrained in your mind. Then the character will lead you to improvisation. You don’t have to think of the smart thing to do or what would look cool. Things don’t go out of the character anymore. It stays just on the surface, and everything comes from within. That’s a leap of faith. So, I end up deliciously gorging on the script or any material that I get. That’s the first step.

“When you’re thin-skinned, you can absorb everything.”

THE SELF AND THE RESEARCH

The second one is the self and research. Based on the script, self would help you see what you need to do with your physicality and find the physical habits of your character. For example, there are certain fabrics that I’m used to as Parvathy. Fabrics in your house, your bedsheet, something as simple and small as that makes a lot of difference for me on any character that I work on. I would like to know what kind of clothes she (the character) wears, and what is the fabric that she feels on her skin. That helps me during the performance to settle into a different space, which is not Parvathy. Of course, there’s training that you undergo if the character looks or behaves a certain way because of their lifestyle or job. That’s one kind of research or training that you do.

The other is more textual: the who, what, when and how of it all. No question here is wrong, even the foolish ones, especially because I perceive the need to flush it all out. The first wave of questions is usually directed towards the writer or director. The socio-economic and political background of the story and where the character fits in is extremely important research for me to conduct. Does all of that make it to the final execution? Not really. But there is a certain kind of absorption that happens which I can then trust to come to my aid when required. These are the things that you study and retain focus on. Sometimes the script or the performer/performance doesn’t talk about it but the audience gets it. It’s intangible. Almost a compound effect of everything that you chart out in a character that finally comes out in a very organic way. You can feel it. I have felt it in performances that I’ve seen on screen. A behavioural instinct such as a hand moved or a wrist turned that feels very odd and awful. It could possibly be hesitation arising from a variety of reasons for the character. It could also be something that I must have read in her backstory. That comes across magically despite all the preparation that you have done. The audience and the collective experience will get it. I have realised it the hard way to not cling to it because staying loose with your research is what helps you grow and find these little magical dots.

I used to build walls around my character. I could see my creators struggling with that because they would have wanted me to be a little looser and welcoming to changes and something that’s unexpected; that is even beyond the script. I learned that the hard way in the initial years, now I invest and not cling to it. I put that into action through different movies, it’s a trial and error method.

A non-textual yet integral aspect for me is to look for how a character feels time. We all feel time. We relate time to instances and habits, tangible things like food or intangible things like memories. Even a character’s sexual appetite, for that matter. What is the orientation? What are the experiences of the character? I chart, jot, scribble and doodle them out. It eventually surfaces in myriad ways when I get to interact with another character in the film. Not just the protagonist, but even someone from a crowd. How does that crowd inform her behaviour? To understand time for a character becomes a very important game for me.

 

COLLABORATION AND EXECUTION

The third aspect is the collaboration. This is where the magic gets increasingly real, the loneliness gets chucked out, and you have your entire team to help you. I seek a lot of elasticity from my team, that is the essence of collaboration. I feed off their energy. It’s mostly that I’m sensitive to my director’s voice, their energy, moods. I try to have more and more conversations with them, but I realised that over a period of time on set, during any kind of collaboration, you need to have thick and thin skin.

It’s very important to retain the focus on the character because when you are thin-skinned, you can absorb everything. You also get affected by the noise around you. Everybody’s doing different things in their department. There’s a lot to learn from every single department. But if you’re not treading the balance between the two, you will be constantly blown away. Absorbing everything does not feed your character well.

If I get a collaborator who is not willing to share their energy or space and time, that still doesn’t take away from where I find the collaboration. It could arise with one of the people from a different department such as the art director or makeup artist with whom I might end up having all my conversations. At the end of the day, you stay true to what the director wants and make that shot happen because no matter the prevalent energy, that moment for the character is all that is real. Just as in meditation that this is all there is, I try to focus only on that single shot and block it out from the rest.

I try not to put unnecessary traffic in my mind, say, about where that scene may feature in the edit. That’s not my business. If I have questions after pack up, I do ask my director. But in front of the camera, there are many lines drawn out – to the director, the cameraman, makeup artist, costume designer, co-actors and the set department. These are the six broad categories that I would speak about.

The writer/director are the first people that you meet and engage with. Trust is a major factor for me. When I am given material to shapeshift, a great space of trust and growth really helps. I would love a director who speaks as much as I do, with whom I can spend time wondering about different aspects of characterisation. I have had the opportunity to work with directors who have their own format and technique to work, but with an actor, they make sure they engage.

I’ve also worked with certain others who have a certain solitude to their technique. They may not be able to verbalise exactly what works on-screen, but they can only tell you once you perform. That is another kind of experience altogether. Unfortunately, you come across a director who is completely closed off, where all you do is just stay with your character who becomes your best friend of sorts. In instances like these, I felt as if I had zero information communicated to me, and I’ve been considered a pain for asking too many questions. The work at the end of the day is important because when you watch a movie or build a character, you cannot add a subtitle that explains the challenges you were faced with on set. At the end of the day, the integrity of the character is all that you have to uphold. You do whatever it takes to do that.

“You’ve got a bag of tricks, take what works best for you and run with it.”

On set, I find that there are two kinds of directors. One is somebody who would particularly enjoy bringing the actors on set before the shoot begins, and ask them to have a go at it. Not a dress rehearsal. You’ve just received your lines, and everybody is watching you perform. You’re like a toddler stumbling and falling. You don’t know exactly where anything should go. I have really enjoyed this process in certain films. Then there is somebody who would call you after the shot is entirely set, which is equally brilliant. They know that you’ll take this leap of faith, that you’ll settle into spaces that they have visually created, and still not stifle the character that you’re playing. A little hack that I’ve found is to reach the set well in advance and loiter around, lie down, get used to the energy. I see the shot being set up, and it makes me comfortable as long as I am not attacking their space.

Then we have makeup and costume artists. These are like my army who are always there to support my performance. Conversations with makeup artists and costume designers are one of the key aspects of pre-production for me. I found that not a lot of people are used to speaking with actors or thinking about what the character must be thinking while buying a certain colour, but it really helps me, whatever they can provide. Even going shopping with them sometimes helps to understand which shops do these characters frequent.

The next are the cameramen and the focus pullers. Initially terrified of cameramen, I have eventually learned that they are in fact your allies. You have to trust them and also seek their help. Over time, I started having multiple questions about their craft which would have absolutely no correlation to building a character. But, having conversations with them has always helped me.

Focus pullers are an amazing first audience for you. I even rehearse with them at times. They have been generous enough to communicate with me that I was on the mark. They are extremely simple people, they do not go around with acting jargons. They just tell you whether it worked for them or not. It’s always great to get that kind of feedback from them, and I look forward to collaborating with them.

The next set is co-actors. Again, there are different kinds of co-actors, irrespective of whether they are method or not, or what school of acting they come from. What helps is their willingness to figure out something new. It is a jugalbundi or amalgamation of all kinds of thought processes coming together. You’re both truly committed to getting that shot right.

The other kinds I’ve met and worked with are the ones who have certain techniques that require solitude, require a complete cut off from other people. I completely respect that as well because I may need that technique on another project that I do. As long as that doesn’t interfere or ruin my performance, then there is a very healthy respect of space given to that actor.

The most unfortunate ones to work with are the ones who are selfish, who think it’s an ego competition, with whom you do not get a chance to build at all. They think that it’s a race, unaware that they aren’t reaching anywhere without the other person. Again, you find certain hacks because at the end of the day, as I said earlier, you have to ensure that the integrity of the character and performance stays intact. This is also where the Naseeruddin Shah interview comes back. He said something which stuck with me and will stay with me for a very long time thanks to the experiences that I’ve had. If you get a great co-actor, good for you. But if you have a really bad one, then that is no excuse for you to mess it up. That felt like a warning from a teacher. You’ve got a bag of tricks, take what works best for you and run with it.

The last broad category is the set department. I crave to work with the set department. They make the world that the character inhabits. I often ask them if I could feel the objects, see how they fall into the crevices of my body so that it doesn’t feel new when I go on set for the first time so that it becomes a part of my body. The time that the set department gives me with the items they build a world with, has exponentially helped me in performing, in just settling into the character.

I will take examples of a few films from my filmography which will better contextualise and illustrate this process.

 

FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

The first movie that I did was Out of Syllabus (by Viswanathan) which was released in 2006. I went into the film with the notion that acting is just being yourself, learn the lines and say it. If you ever do watch it, that’ll be a great way to watch a terrible performance. It was very amusing to watch it when I did later on. I say this with self-kindness and self-love.

It was only after my second film that I realised what building a character can do. Pooja Krishna from Notebook was the first time that I engaged with a character and her story as an actor.

Pooja from Notebook (2006) by Rosshan Andrrews

When the writers, Bobby-Sanjay, sat with me to discuss the character, that there are reasons for a character’s choices was revealed to me. That was when a two-dimensional character became real. According to the story, there is a decision that this character makes which has a great impact on the story. I said to myself that if I would have been in her place, I would never have taken that decision.

This brought me close to the core internal conflict of this character. We broadly know the character’s arc. But what drove her to it? The writer asked me, “Are you sure you wouldn’t have done that? If you had gone through every single issue that she went through, which her backstory adequately reveals, don’t you think you would have done exactly the same?

That’s when I understood that this job suddenly shifts perspectives – it’s way beyond putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Judgement always brings up walls, and as an actor, I now need to find reasons that justify her actions. Everything we do is justified for us.

“This job shifts perspectives – it’s way beyond putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”

What Pooja Krishna does is right because she doesn’t know any better. That was the first time that I experienced what it feels like to be her and not Parvathy. I didn’t judge her anymore. Whatever she was doing felt right. There the perspective shifted. I was no longer on the outside but on the inside. That was the beginning. Notebook introduced me to the expanse of character building.

I did a Tamil film called Poo right after. My character in the film was unrelatable for me as a person. When I auditioned for this character, I had never met or seen anyone like her in my life in terms of her backdrop or her story. Sasi, my director, used to read out the short story on which the film is based. At that point, I didn’t even understand the language, which was another thing that I needed to focus on. So, preparation meant going to where she lives and her workplace. She works in a firecracker making factory where they tie them in a very peculiar way. It took a long time to learn that. It was not just a skill to show in front of the camera. There was also the element of figuring out what time was for her. She makes firecrackers for long, talks to her friends, has lunch, comes back and begins making them again. This is how the majority of her time is spent. There was a tremendous departure from Parvathy in this case. I started listening to the music that she would listen to and started imitating it in Tamil. Whenever I felt a little out of sync during dubbing, Shashi would always read the story and bring me back to the essence of Maari.

Maari in Poo (2008) by Sasi

There’s also a very interesting thing about the character-building of Maari. She has been in love with her cousin since she was young. But at the beginning of the film, we see that she is married to someone else. She has somehow compartmentalised her life, where her love for this man meant that he needs to be happy, and she is happy knowing it. The journey and the arc then became about how she realises that even her departure from the space did not provide her loved one a happy life, which eventually breaks her. We leave the movie in a space where we don’t know how happy she is going to be anymore.

Moving on to my character in City of God, I was again in the same space with my character in the film as I was in Poo. I had never met or interacted with a character like that. The initial setup is to always be in the space – to see and live where the characters live. The first thing that the writer advised was to understand the labourers’ movements early in the morning. Getting up early in the morning, oiling their head, washing it, putting a little flower in their hair, preparing lunch and putting it in a little lunchbox, then getting ready and waiting for the bus to take them to the construction site.

Marathakam in City of God (2011) by Lijo Jose Pellissery

The first thing that I did was witness their movements. I lived with them and understood their relation to space, which was vastly different from the privilege I have had all my life living in a two-bedroom apartment. There was a way in which they had maximised the space in their one-bedroom apartment and owned each corner to their benefit for practical purposes. If, say, I had to reach out for a utensil in character in that space, I should know it instinctively. I was only then able to understand the interplay with space for a character.

It always helps to go to the place where they live, interact with people who are similar to the character, read literature about them, if possible, and listen to music that they listen to. I have a completely different culture of sound that I am used to, I have never listened to their songs which they jam to.

Another backdrop that is far removed culturally and physically, which the director brings in Maryan (by Bharat Bala), is fantasy.

There is a song in the film which is quite interesting due to its interplay between love and the resolve it can bring about in someone to survive death. That was an idea that the director had come up with. It was an indulgent script in that sense. I went through the same routines again even with this character. It was done and then taken a notch higher from the regular understanding of a character.

The quirk of the character is that she is a big fan of movies, and knows that she’s pretty and sexy. She owns it. She is madly in love with Maryan and has been constantly pursuing him for the longest time, saying that eventually, they would end up together. There’s a certain way in which she imbibes that. For whatever aesthetic purpose, the character doesn’t resemble any other fisherwoman. It was unusual to see her in deep neck, vibrant colours and with straightened hair. It is definitely a standalone character. My job was to then build the character, in its execution, performance and feeling, to be as relatable as possible, along with the vision that the director wished to bring.

This is where directors do different things. I remember the essence of their love and separation was constantly meditated upon after I received a little taste of the music which was to be used in the film, made by A.R. Rahman. There are embellishments and aesthetic choices made along with the reality of the character wherever the backstory takes you. You have to intricately weave the character.

Continuing with the theme of fantasy, we move on to Charlie. Tessa has wings under her feet. Her internal conflict in the film is that she cannot and does not want to stay still. She has left her job. She doesn’t have any intention of settling down in marriage, and she just wants to be on the move. Obviously, her family has a great issue with that. Except for her grandmother, nobody else approves of her.

Tessa in Charlie (2013) by Martin Prakkat

I would like to tell you about my experience working with the director, Martin Prakkat, and how the collaboration worked well there.

Here was a director who came with the script and read it out entirely, and told me not to ask him any questions, very sweetly. If I had some burning ones, I could just contact the writer. He said, “I just know how to shoot”. I have worked with him previously on advertisements and photoshoots. One day, I asked him why Tessa went after Charlie. He didn’t have anything to say. What he showed me instead of explaining it to me was quite interesting.

We were in a hotel room, where he took a 500ml bottle of water and a bigger one which was almost finished. He placed the bottles on the table and said that the little bottle wants to become the bigger one. That’s it. I didn’t need any other explanation from the director. I got the point. I found out, in the most amusing way, what drives Tessa forward. Her internal conflict to find Charlie, her change in behaviour with each person that she meets along the way was then mapped out with the team.

The costume department had a lot to do with bringing a certain element of fantasy to who Tessa is. We can all relate to her vagabond nature, at least I do. A lot of people are mistaken that she is exactly like me. Kerala doesn’t have the kind of weather where you need to layer up. We still went ahead with using layers on the character to add the element of flight in every movement through every costume. Before the first shot was taken, we did a couple of rehearsals and felt as if something was missing. Sameera Saneesh, who was the costume designer, said, ‘How about a nose pin?’ We tried a lot of them on but nothing really seemed to make a difference. Then she said that she had a broken button with her and if I could just stick it on my nose. It made all the difference in the world. This is a perfect example of how different departments add final touches to truly bring out a character.

“For me, it has always been the questions that have helped me, and more often than not, I have received the answers that I wanted.”

It was a very visually indulgent film. The art director created a whole world of installation art for Charlie, and Tessa fits beautifully into that. She just gets the grammar of it. She was an interesting character in terms of weaving fantastical elements while still keeping it quite relatable.

The protagonist has a philosophy in life. They have ideas and attitudes that are aspirational. I try to first connect with the writer or the director’s core philosophy to create a certain character. My dramatic need in the movie is to find this character. Unless I realise my shortcomings, I won’t realise why Tessa is who she is. Unni R., the writer, and I would frequently talk about what freedom and flight mean. What does shackling down mean for different people? This helped me figure out the points on which we were on the same page. There were moments when despite knowing her reasons, I would still doubt her actions. The script is certainly a tool to tell the story, but I have to perform it. I have to justify her actions. What makes her desperate to do something? Those discussions are how I reach out and gnaw at their heads and receive answers. I must also say that at times when I get an unsatisfying answer, it does not bother me. That’s the leap of faith that I take because this is a team that I have chosen. When they give me an answer now, it’s about internalising that answer even if it doesn’t really make sense to me at that moment.

If I try to lie and pretend in front of the camera, it’ll really show. If I don’t trust the director, that’ll show. I have seen it. That’s the way I keep poking in. For me, it has always been the questions that have helped me, and more often than not, I have received the answers that I wanted.

Sameera from Take Off is a woman whose life is charted and mapped out based on the men in her life. How she comes out of it is her conflict. Our initial discussion in terms of character building, I didn’t even know if she was named yet, was about how she is a daughter who takes up a professional course to become a nurse for which she also needs to pay off her educational loan, who is married and has a child, who returns as an ex-wife from her stint as a nurse abroad, as the cycle begins to repeat itself with only the addition of her dynamic with her son from the previous marriage and how answerable she is to him.

Sameera in Take Off (2017) by Mahesh Narayan

Sameera is caught in a web of problems. This is not a character that you see smiling, which was very interesting. Every waking moment goes into analysing how she could fix her problems. She’s not pitying herself. She’s just very much focused on resolving her issues, and she’d do whatever it takes. That became the starting point. The aspect of being a nurse, and what happens in the latter half of the film, and the conflict, which then ties up really well to how she is liberated from this weight of being answerable to her son, was charted out later in the script.

That’s when the collaboration also comes in. The director, Mahesh, who is also an editor, brought in incredible clarity and precision with which he communicated what needed to be done in a particular scene. The cameraman, Sanu (John Varghese), who was an invisible ally, told me that he would capture everything I did in character. It was extremely liberating to hear that as an actor.

By this time, I’d gotten to a point where the questions were asked less on set. It was mostly all done and dusted way before we started shooting. It’s only when I hit a wall that I request for time off, even when the shot is set, which was so generously given to me in this particular movie. I could sit aside and discuss what my insecurities in the performance were, see where I may be failing. Trust me, there are so many insecurities that may come your way. You may know everything, but it’s something beyond your control at that moment. Whatever you may be feeling wouldn’t reflect. I’ve had such moments in Take Off where being Sameera was exhausting physically. But emotionally I found her through her journey, creating that arc for her, the strength always came to the fore. No matter what she goes through, it’s the decision-maker in her that we get at the end of each sequence.

Again, the costume and makeup collaboration were amazing. We would go to the shops and buy the things that she would wear and carry. Those are things that eventually helped me understand her socio-economic background. It’s so important to know what are the things that she has and hasn’t, what makes her angry and unsatisfied. She’s a fictional character based on real incidents as the movie says, but creating Sameera came from the idea of what a woman’s conflict could be.

Qarib Qarib Singlle is a movie that I got a chance to do in Hindi. This is a character that I would say is relatable. Relatable is a broad and general stroke here. Tanuja Chandra directed it. Interestingly, Jaya’s journey was highly relatable to me. To be honest, it’s the most relatable character that I’ve heard from the audience as well.

I had the fortune of collaborating with Tanuja and Gazal (Dhaliwal) from the get-go. I remember they met me and it was about a two-hour narration session. I remember laughing wildly, not at Jaya or Yogi (played by Irrfan Khan), but at the idea that these moments are so light, and yet there is so much depth in their reality, which made it so relatable. I pounced on it. I had to play Jaya. Working with Tanuja, the constant reminder, apart from many other things, was to always understand what her back story really is. For people who’ve seen the film, the first five to ten minutes in the film is setting up where she belongs, what her job is, where she lives and who the people in her life are. That was, in fact, enough for me to work on the rest of the film.

Yogi (Irrfan Khan) and Jaya in Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) by Tanuja Chandra

The events that happen in the rest of the film is for the character to form an arc and resolve her problem, which is what’s next in life? She was widowed at the age of 23, and instead of focusing on herself, she immediately ended up focusing on her brother and family. Now that her brother has moved away to the U.S. to study, she doesn’t have a project anymore. There is nothing to distract her anymore. She has no choice but to focus on herself, and that’s equally liberating and irritating for her. There is also grief that she yet hasn’t found closure on. The loss of her husband is not something that she has dealt with. She has dealt with it in a way where she has held it close. That’s not a space where anybody else can come and take it away. That sprouts from fear as well. But, at the same time, you see these women all around. I’m also someone like that. I mean I have my strong suits. You never know what’s going on behind. What are my insecurities? What are the things that drive me to make certain decisions that may seem very unreasonable? She goes on a trip with Yogi. Why? You will never be able to logically argue if one plus one equals two, that’s why we all do these things.

So, these conversations were heavy and well-intentioned and very well done during the course of the film, with an incredible team, my cinematographer Eeshit (Narain), and Maria (Tharakan) in the costume department. You can see that there is a certain aesthetic attached to Jaya which she prefers. You see that she does not wear a Dolce & Gabbana belt. She works in an insurance company. There are sudden relations you make that maybe the belt was bought at Max.

Eeshit is another cinematographer who works closely with the director and the production team and gives as much space for the character and actor to breathe and branch out in any number of ways that you want. Of course, with a co-actor in Irrfan Khan, I could just constantly keep churning the script with him into better butter. That definitely helps keep the focus on her inner conflict. The events that affect Jaya organically affect the performance. This is one other performance where you don’t chart out the shock or annoyance. I never chart out the expressions. It happens to her for the first time. In relation to her past, it flows organically.

“There is a lot of preparation that I do in writing. Often the full undoing, finishing or letting go of a character doesn’t happen until a year or two later.”

I avoided doing multiple roles at once for as long as I have worked. I think I’ll implode. I don’t have what it takes to do two films at a time. It’s pretty much a relationship that you’re in. The closest that I have gotten to it is when Virus, Uyare and the as-yet-unreleased Vartamanam were shot back to back. I’ll tell you in detail how the preparation was affected or worked eventually in the character’s favour. I remember Uyare was one movie at a time, but I had to move to Virus after two days, where I was Dr. Annu for a month and a half, and then 15 days later, it was Faiza.

I need a break of almost three-four months, even after a single film. I tend to think that I benefit as much from the preparation as from the undoing of it. I reach home and I fall into a vegetative state. It’s not like everyone can afford to do that, not every actor can afford to do that. At times, even I haven’t been able to afford to do that. I don’t really get the entirety of the experience if I don’t do it, if I keep sponging up and don’t bring it out, then I don’t know what is left for the character from that experience in me. I don’t get an objective sense of it or a subjective sense of it even. So, I make sure that there is a break in between, and I’m always very nervous if two films are shot very close together, not because I’m scared that Parvathy may or the other character may come to the surface. I will work hard not to make that happen, but the noise in my head eventually does wear me down. For me, that’s been an issue. I’ve seen actors do it left, right and centre. I say to myself that’s an incredible brain capacity which I do not possess. There is a lot of preparation that I do in writing. Often the full undoing, finishing or letting go of a character doesn’t happen until a year or two later.

I’ve spoken about Sameera – her character has a certain strength that I learned from when I had to go through an attack and abuse in my personal life. I feel like all these characters by being in this space, understanding them, justifying what their actions are leaves an indelible mark on you. In taking the route that the character has taken, she becomes a friend of yours who’s so informed about these things that it comes in whispers at times, so to speak, that you can’t give up. When I could not afford to give up, why do you think you could? These are all personal takeaways for me, and they only happen if I give myself that breathing space. I dig that.

Pallavi from Uyare is an incredibly relatable character. I heard about her for the first time over a phone call. I heard one line of the story and about the character, and I immediately said yes to the film. I had worked with the writers before, Bobby-Sanjay, in Notebook.

We had immense faith in this project because she is a representative of someone, fictionally speaking, who goes through an abusive relationship, and when she chooses to walk out of it, she is attacked for having chosen her freedom. It’s incredible that while making the film we did everything that I have spoken about so far. We tried to figure out where she was born, her socio-economic and political spaces, her costume, prosthetic makeup, all of that. But what we weren’t prepared for was when the movie released and people started relating to it, then it wasn’t only acid attack that the film spoke about but also about abuse in general and the overcoming of it, with an individual that spoke not just to women, but also to a lot of people who have gone through abuse.

Pallavi in Uyare (2019) by Manu Ashokan

For me, again, Pallavi came at a time when I was picking up pieces and figuring out how to put myself together to be strong enough to continue on the path that I have chosen because that’s my truth.

We had incredible discussions during this film with the writer and director, mostly about her relationship with Govind, the abuser and attacker. The relationship with Govind (played by Asif Ali) is toxic from the get-go. We can see that he’s someone who continuously needs to control every aspect of her being and calls that love. She had been feeding that for a very long time. When a girl like Pallavi, or whoever can relate, is helped out at a very pivotal point in their life and adolescence, they almost feel like they’re obligated to stay with that person. ‘They have helped me once, and I wouldn’t have been here if not for them. So, let me stay.’ We have in one way or the other come across or gone through a relationship or a friendship which is toxic like that.

So, what were her fears that forced her to continue with this toxicity? These were all very brilliantly charted out. I was excited about this one particular scene where Govind’s father comes and meets Pallavi’s father and says that if he does not drop the case, he would lose his son, that he would lose his future. He sincerely goes on and on about it in the scene. Pallavi comes from a class that she is trying out, and the initial draft had a few lines of dialogue written for her when she comes in and listens to what is being said between the two men. We figured out, in a group discussion, that what if she doesn’t say anything? What if she just comes in and sits down because she’s exhausted?

How about we use the tool of silence? If the scene didn’t work after the performance, we could always add dialogue. That’s when we shot the scene where she sits down and removes the dupatta to reveal her burned face. It worked out well for everyone. For me, during the performance, the anger and resolve and all that she has lost was a call to action.

The day before we started shooting, we were discussing an aspect of a scene in the corridor of the hotel where we were doing the prosthetic makeup. The director said something that made me realise that I may have grossly misinterpreted the character. I couldn’t believe that whatever the character did was because she willingly wanted to do it. It was really late in the night, and we had to start early in the morning, but this was again another great collaborative space to build a character. We had to figure it out before the shoot, and we still weren’t on the same page.

 

NON-FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

Virus is a brilliant example of a character that is based on real-life that you cannot readily identify in a public space. My character was based on a doctor who worked during the first Nipah outbreak. She is a community medicine doctor. I figured out through conversations that they are really looked down upon in the medical community because they’re not medical doctors. They don’t have an office. They don’t treat diseases immediately. What they do instead is that they study how it spreads. They’re actually the key players when it comes to awareness about things such as index patients, incubation periods and charting out the root map of a patient among other things.

I had about a day to drop Pallavi from Uyare and transform into Dr. Annu for Virus. It was the most stressful time that I have had in my career. I went to the set to understand what the energy was like, and we did our look test. I got the doctor’s number, and I went to meet her at her house and understood what her surroundings are like, even met her children and her husband. She so generously also shared all her notes with me. I started taking pictures of her hair, her clip, from her nails to notes about what kind of conversations she was having with her children. I was lapping it up because I was also a little paranoid of sounding like a student since I only had a day.

Dr. Annu in Virus (2019) by Aashiq Abu

Then the next day, she was sweet enough to come home and explain exactly how, even though she was not asked in the beginning, she mapped out the people and found out who the index patient was. That became her own curiosity.

Dr. Annu in the movie though has a certain attribute to her. Her internal struggle is that she has a lot to give but she is also quite nervous about herself. Her value has always been undermined so much, this is very personal to her. So, once she starts explaining — she’s a great storyteller — she’d gulp and her palms would start sweating. She knows that she has so much to give. She is good at her job, but she doesn’t have the confidence of owning the room. That was an interesting characteristic to bring out.

When in the script the main point of a scene would be the officials discussing solutions to solve the crisis, the writers would tell me, be that as it may, Dr. Annu would also be having thoughts about whether or not she belonged in the room with them. This is amusing to me because these are the things that we do very naturally. If I were to go to the Oscars, let’s just say, I’m going to be super poised, but my heart would secretly be exploding.

I also realised that I am a lot like Dr. Annu in that sense. It’s just that I have mastered the art of being calm on the outside, but not everybody is aware that I am, in fact, sweating buckets at certain times when that facade is brought to the fore. I have always found ways to connect with characters in this way much later.

I do believe that we are everyone. I can easily be you. It again goes straight back to the thought that if I were in her place, I would have done the same thing. For me, playing a real character meant that I have a live version in front of me. If they are generous enough to share themselves, I will just imbibe them as much as I can, then use what the directors and writers think works or drop what is proving to be a distraction. We can pick and choose accordingly. That was exciting to do for Virus.

 

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS

When it comes to prepping for a character actor or a supporting actor, I can say that my prep and investment don’t change one bit. The number of scenes do not inform my prep time or the investment in it. It’s the same thing that you’ve heard me speak about for every single character. My understanding of the character’s consequence in the larger narrative has to be a bit more in the forefront every time I come in and perform, as in the case of Sarah from Bangalore Days, which is another Anjali Menon film that I worked on, the other being Koode where I played Sophie.

Primarily, Bangalore Days is about three cousins, and Koode is about Joshua and Jenny (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran and Nazriya Nazim), a siblings’ story. The question that I pose for myself is how does Sarah become of consequence in Arjun’s (played by Dulquer Salmaan) life and Sophie in Joshua’s life. This becomes a very important plot line for me to hold onto because that always gives me a sense of not getting too lost and indulgent in fitting everything into my performance. Then there is the danger of bringing the entirety of her personality, hence creating traffic which doesn’t do any good to the larger narrative anymore.

Parvathy as RJ Sarah and Anjali Menon

First of all, you don’t need to have such insecurity. This is what I realised very early on because if I’m choosing a character, like a supporting character in a story, it’s primarily because I genuinely believe in that story, even if the protagonist is not played by me. I feel that it’s a story that must be told.

“The number of scenes does not inform my prep time or the investment in it.”

And second of all, directors like Anjali usually make sure that the supporting character, is of consequence. If you remove that character from the larger narrative, then there is a big void. So, that’s also how I sometimes gauge characters that come to me, which are not protagonists, which is that if I remove this character that you’re offering me, does that affect the plot at all? If not, then why do you have the character in the script in the first place? I would not dismiss the story, obviously, but I like to understand that since I’m not finding a consequence, can I be informed about what I’ve missed? So, Sarah and Sophie’s arc in their entirety is a space of collaboration to die for.

Koode was shot in November, and I think in the first week of October, when they were doing recce and prep, I went to Ooty and stayed there for two days, and we just had long conversations over food just talking about Sophie.

Sophie in Koode (2018) by Anjali Menon

I remember Anjali never spoke of her supporting characters with lesser regard as compared to her protagonists. She always speaks about them as if it were their own story, and your character was a witness to it during the narration. You never feel short-changed that your presence is not important.

Since Sarah is a paraplegic, you can see that she has gone through a disease and she’s unable to walk. But another thing that Anjali pointed out to me was that it shouldn’t be the first thing to be noticed. That’s our job to do. The first thing that we see is her smile, her personality, and that’s something that she has made sure happens. She ensured that if she’s seen as a disabled person, then that’s their disability, not her doing anymore.

In Koode, Sophie goes through domestic abuse and comes out of it. It may be Joshua and Jenny’s story at the core, but you can still see that Sophie too has a beautiful arc: a beginning, an end, and closure.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Sudhir Tandon: As a method actor, where does spontaneity feature in your process?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: I had to learn it the hard way. The first few films that I did, I struggled personally because I realised that the prep that I was doing was building more walls. I was not keeping it loose and ready to let that also fall away if required.

See, I am by nature a person who functions better when I have information. I do hoard information a lot. It’s about making sure that that becomes a tool or weapon for me rather than intimidating my performance, and I could acquire that only over a period of time where when the execution happens, I don’t sit on set and merely read out what the character has done. Aspects such as not wearing a garment that she had worn two weeks back since she has put on an additional two kilograms are all notes which inform the performance. This aspect of the backstory becomes so lush and heavy that when I go on set, I let it loose. Then I have to just trust the fact that it will seep out and come through me in my performance when I’m just being her.

I have also worked with actors who don’t do any of this, who come and perform and go. That seems to work absolutely well for them. I’ve had a great time working with actors who don’t have to think about wearing the same innerwear as the character does. But it helps me get into a space which is not me because if I have the inclination of getting stuck about what Parvathy thinks because by nature I can get stuck there, then I will do all that it takes to move Parvathy out a little bit. So, all of this prep only helps me in that respect, but then I let things loose and never cling, as I said, at the beginning of the session, or invest too much in the prep.

Shreya Sudesh: What is the kind of work you do on yourself, in terms of mental conditioning and personal growth, to be malleable and shape-shift?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: As for a cameraman, there is the camera and lens, similarly, for me, my camera would be my body. It’s not to do with how good it looks. But can I expand, shrink and make it different for a character? Do I have enough stamina and health to go through a rigorous day of shoot? Do I have that personal discipline that when I have started shooting, everything else is kept aside? I don’t indulge or get distracted.

My friends, my family are already used to the fact that once the shoot starts they don’t really see me until it’s over. They do get snippets of how I’m doing and all that. So, there’s a certain kind of cut off that really helps me. Mentally, of course, through all of the reading that I do, all the regurgitating and writing of it that I do. So, I don’t hold it in my head. I always put it out, every thought on a paper, and the moment it’s out of my head, I’m not carrying it in anymore. This is a constant process, even when I’m not working.

Working does not only take place for me on a film set, it’s also happening right now. I am preparing for a part that I have not signed yet, but I need to be ready for it. This has been my journey throughout my career because I never knew where my work would come from as most actors would relate to. But your physical and mental system need to be pliable enough to do that. For me, all the silence and the travel that I do are ways of keeping these muscles ready to go and take the shape of whatever that it needs to fit into.

Samman Roy: How do you adjust your performance according to the lensing of a shot?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: That’s a brilliant question because it’s so specific when it comes to execution on set. I have not done a lot of theatre but I’ve done theatre workshops where a certain throw of your voice, use of your hands, legs and everything are used all the time.

When I started off, I was so rigid in my structure that if it was a close shot, only my face would function, and the rest of it would just flail, like a stand on the head. I learned on the job. I did not go to film or acting school. For a very long time, I hadn’t done an acting workshop.

For example, I’m holding a cup which you can’t see. During a performance, I can very easily leave the cup aside and just act like I’m holding the cup. You can’t see that I’m not holding the cup. But since the cup has a certain weight that informs the tension on my neck, then that gets connected and it becomes a truthful performance for me. This aspect of the strained muscle around my neck because my shoulder and my arm is holding this cup also affects the characters in terms of how they say or respond to a line. Their physicality then translates to the tension that they’re feeling to the audience.

The set department is amazing in that regard because they come and tell me to leave an accessory, a bag, for example, because it is a close shot. I’d rather hold it. Initially, they’d wonder what’s wrong with me. Their expressions would funnily betray their mocking of method during those times. But, for me, it has eventually better worked in favour of my performance.

Another aspect is facial expressions. I can’t say that I have a particular pattern or an equation that I apply, but I do know that if it’s a long shot, I don’t exaggerate an expression; unless the director and the people who are seeing it through the viewfinder are saying that it’s not getting communicated. That maybe we need to change the angle, put an extra light somewhere, or that I need to do something else altogether to communicate it. We need a long shot, but we can’t come close to show what you’re feeling. So then I perform accordingly.

Other than that, I try to keep it as real as it is on a close-up shot, which is what you get on a long shot as well. But then it changes from performance to performance and director to director.

Khwahish Khan: When it comes to characters that are moderately unfamiliar, like those in thrillers, how do you leave trails of their backstory which build up the audience’s curiosity?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: The amount of information that comes in terms of backstory and research is something that you imbibe in terms of nuances when you perform; like when you’re reading a scene, while you’re working it out with a co-actor and the director too, there are actions that you figure out your character is doing in that scene, and what is their relationship with a particular thing or a person in that scene can say a lot.

That may not be the primary objective of that scene. The primary objective could be something else altogether, but the way they handle that particular item or speak or dismiss another character can be from the backstory. For example, one of the reasons why a character could be curt in her conversations could be simply because of the fact that she has never enjoyed speaking to a man who is dismissive of her.

Something will inform the audience that she doesn’t seem comfortable with him, even though she hasn’t worded it, even if the scene is about something else. It’s in the fact that she has a really bad relationship with her mother, where she is constantly telling her what to do: pull up your shirt, stand straight, close your legs. Maybe the mother is not doing all of that in the scene, but the fact that her mother is there scrunches her up. It’s in her body language, right? So, what comes without saying is that her relationship with the two characters in the scene gets communicated through the performance in spatial relation to one character, whereas the main drama is happening with another character standing in front of you, with whom you’re speaking.

It’s also interesting because this person’s presence or this particular backstory’s presence is also going to start affecting your dynamic with the main one that’s happening.

Backstory can be brought in performance, in nuances a lot. I tend to ask my directors about actions that come naturally to me in a performance. Does that disturb the bigger scene? If something has happened in the backstory that I need to plug here, should I necessarily do it? That shouldn’t be the case. It’s just that it organically seeps in her behaviour with a particular item of clothing or a person. And suddenly it strikes me that this is how the character responds to that. I then ask the director or writer whether this will affect the larger perspective. They have always encouraged me to carry on with it.

When I know that it does not disturb the main plot line at all, then I do it. If not, then I try to curb the urge of filling in all that I know into that space.

Sweta Swaminathan: How do you prepare for transitions that begin and end on extremes?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: The director and writer had an incredible amount of literature on the subject. In Ennu Ninte Moideen, I honestly didn’t have to go beyond anything. They took me to meet Kanchanamala. They made everything happen. I met Moideen’s brother, spoke to the different departments. I’m not kidding you but the script was five books. It was just not one file or one book. It was five books. It was so detailed and picturesque, and every shot duration and division was also a part of the script.

Kanchanamala in Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015) by R.S. Vimal

So, what I went with is that love surpasses death. How does one live with a love that doesn’t come with the notion of completion in terms of being with that person? If the person is no more, then how do you still continue and become your own person?

When I met and spoke to Kanchanamala, they had letters that they had written to each other in code. They created a whole code between each other and found a way to get the letters to each other for 22 years. What also surprised me is that we, in general, by nature, tend to get used to certain things. I mean, people do end up doing really crazy things and even self-harm when their hearts are broken. But there was a certain rigour with which Kanchanamala and Moideen had decided that if not now, then at some point we’re going to be together, and until then we will be okay with it.

They tried every single way they could have tried. They got beat up, arrested in the room and they could not move or eat, but there was a certain acceptance too. ‘A certain grace’, as she had called it, which I personally, as Parvathy, have no patience to understand. If I’m put in such a situation, I wouldn’t know how to perform that. But keeping faith in what a person has actually gone through, recounting her story and all that she did makes it easier to understand.

What did she do during her time free and imprisoned? What books did she read? What are the conversations she had because even if they were far apart, they were together. They were writing letters not only about how much they missed each other or love each other. They were also talking about politics, geography and literature. They were living their lives completely in the companionship that they shared through it. That literature had especially helped me in terms of how to perform in scenes which finally started showing the change in time.

In Malayalam, there is a word called iditum, which means settling in. After a period of time, you live with grief in a certain way. It was on me to find what was her iditum, where did she find a little cocoon or cushion where she would patiently wait.

Vaisakh Shankar: You mentioned in an interview about looking forward to working with a director like Geetu Mohandas, (in the context of the brilliant performances in Moothon), and how you wish to rearrange yourself. Could you elaborate on how it would be different from your existing method or influencing your process?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: I am always in need to break mould. I have come to terms with the fact that I will always seek information. I will always ask for these things because I’m used to it. Now, if I had started off with a different director or team, which worked in a whole another loose manner, I probably would have structured myself differently. So, because I’ve worked and learned on the job, this is something that I have been priming and perfecting and needing. It has been working out well for me and my performances so far.

But Geetu, Rajeev Ravi and, to a great extent, Aashiq Abu, and a lot of other directors may not even have a script in their hand. They actually may even tell me not to think. “You just come to the set. Do you trust the story? Just come.”

I’m waiting to have such an opportunity to work because I see these things work well in my head, but if that can be deconstructed and this process can shape-shift into a whole another thing, then I almost feel invincible. Maybe that’s why they keep it from me. That’s the kind of power an actor should have.

But I’m also all about gloriously failing because all of these things that I have done haven’t always worked. They have also put me in problematic positions such as being too over my head. However, more often than not, they have worked out for me. When I hear that Geetu worked with Nivin (Pauly) in a certain way, or how Rajeev Ravi worked in Annayum Rasoolum with Fahadh (Faasil) and Andrea (Jeremiah), I die to work in such ways.

I’m hoping that I get an opportunity to do that because it really is about that safe space and trust that I spoke about. The moment I trust a creator, then I am moldable clay in their hands, or you do what you have to do with me. I will always walk away a winner from that.

Vamshi Krishna: What is it that you’d look for if I were to approach you as a young filmmaker?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: That’s a brilliant question as I have and continue to meet with a lot of debutante directors. I do. I don’t get to work with all of them, and I have worked with first-time directors as well. Like, R.S. Vimal made his debut with Ennu Ninte Moideen. He made feature documentaries before that. It was a massive project to take on, a massive character to take on. That leap of faith for me came in the initial meetings.

What works for me is if I meet you and we have a conversation and if you tell me that I can only really give you a synopsis, and work on the script and come back to you. That’s good. You just have to sincerely communicate with me why you want to make the film. Why this story? Why is it important to you? Because I’m here to only add to that. I’m not here to take it and make it mine. So, unless and until I know what is driving you to make the film, I don’t know how I can be a good tool to add and embellish it, how I can be a good ally to you.

Discussions have gone in different ways with new directors. Some people tell me a whole narration, they have a shot by shot narration. Sometimes, it takes about two and a half hours, and another one and half hours where I ask them questions. Some of them have not done well with narration, some come ahead and tell me that they aren’t good at narration because they digress too much, and would I mind reading it? I have happily said yes to it. So, just trying to connect with me as an actor and to say that this is a project that I genuinely wish to make is sufficient.

All I need to know is that if I can find that one taar to connect with, where I can now provide you with the surface to make that a reality, that’s all I look for, be it a veteran director or otherwise.

I have also met veteran directors for narrations, whom I would love to work with at a later time, where the stories have no connection or their intention of making a film has no connection. I’m very excited to work with their talent eventually. But that particular story may not have made a mark.

Do I just do it because it’s such a big director? I think then I would be lying to that director. I’d be lying to the project. That’s a very selfish and one-sided approach, and sooner or later I’ll be caught. I’ll be caught with my lie because I won’t give my hundred percent.

It’s usually after a good night’s sleep that I decide if I want to be a part of a film. There have been movies where I have said that I’m leaning into it a lot, I feel it’s a yes, but I’ll call you tomorrow morning. Because when I wake up and don’t even remember that I had a meeting the previous night, then it hasn’t stayed. If it is nagging and asking more questions, I know I need to have another meeting. If it’s coming up often and I need to know more about this character and when I can start working, I know it’s a yes. Some movies I have known for sure that we won’t gel together.

Prudhvi Raj: Can you share a few female filmmakers or films that inspired you to take the step to become a filmmaker?

Parvathy Thiruvothu: I have worked with Vijayalakshmi Singh in Kannada. She was the first female director that I worked with. I have worked with Tanuja (Chandra) and Anjali (Menon). My shift to wanting to direct was honestly not from the experience of having worked with female directors. It had nothing to do with that.

Every single time that I have worked with a director, they are just a director for me. They all bring different skill sets, understanding and empathetic views. There are no gender roles that I apply when I choose which director to work with. My shift happened purely because I had started understanding and enjoying storytelling as much as performance.

I am primarily a performer. I’ll only be a performer for a very long time. That is how I process information and emotions in my body – by acting them out through a character or myself.

When I started reading scripts, at one point I started seeing the story. I started seeing how it would pan out. I started discussing what if we had done something in another way, what information would go out about the character? Things about the making of a film started exciting me as well, not while I’m performing but apart from that. I started understanding that this is definitely exciting for me.

When somebody is telling me a story, I have an image, a visual grammar coming to me about how I visualise it. That became more and more clear as the years passed by. That’s the only reason I realised that I would love to tell a story and tell it my way while I’m at it.

I have great respect for all filmmakers; more female filmmakers, the better.

The performance came from a space where I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Now I feel the need to tell a story. Fail gloriously, if I should. But that need has to come out of my body for sure.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Parvathy Thiruvothu click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.

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