Singaporean actress Ranjini, shining star of 1980s Malayalam and Tamil cinema, returns to movies after long break

Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo (above), who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO
Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo (above), who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO
Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo, who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990, above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO
Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo, who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990, above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO
Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo, who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986, above) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO
Singaporean Sasha Selvarajoo, who is better known as actress Ranjini in show business, with actor Mohan in Paru Paru Pattanam Paru (1986, above) and with actor Karthik Muthuraman in Kalyana Raasi (1990). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF SASHA SELVARAJOO

Sasha Selvarajoo is a well-known actress in Tamil and Malayalam films, but few people here know she is Singaporean

Singaporean actress Sasha Selvarajoo is a major movie star many of her countrymen probably do not know about.

Known by her performing name Ranjini, she was one of the shining stars of Malayalam and Tamil cinema from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

Her debut feature Muthal Mariyathai (1985) was a critically acclaimed and award-winning film by Tamil film-maker P. Bharathiraja, while her screwball comedy Chitram (1988) is reportedly one of the highest-grossing movies in Malayalam cinema of all time.

After a break of 23 years for studies and family, Selvarajoo, 43, finally made her big-screen comeback this year with action comedy Ring Master and mystery thriller Koothara.

Ring Master is centred on dogs and stars top actor Dileep. She picked it for her comeback, saying: "I thought this movie would attract people from all walks of life." The film is reportedly among the top-grossing Malayalam films this year so far.

It was her husband Pierre Kombara, 46, a Cochin-based businessman, who persuaded her to return from Britain, where she had studied, to India in 2008.

While she was standing in line at immigration in India, one of the officers asked: "You're Ranjini right? The actress who acted in Chitram."

She adds: "And when I walked out, everyone recognised me and I couldn't believe my eyes."

She did not rush back into the limelight. Instead, she set up an overseas education consultancy, Information Centre for Campus Abroad, in Cochin, where she is also based.

She kept turning down offers before finally appearing as a celebrity judge on television in 2010.

She says this was preferable to acting in a TV series because, as she puts it: "You meet ordinary people and you judge people on their, say, dancing skills or intelligence. I myself don't watch serials. There's always people crying or somebody torturing someone. I like to do something worthwhile and not conform to stereotypes."

Selvarajoo was born in Singapore and grew up in the Bendemeer area. She attended school at St Margaret's Primary and Christchurch Secondary.

Her parents, who distributed Tamil movies here, got to know some of the personalities in the industry. Top Indian director Bhagyaraj told them he was keen to cast their daughter in films but they turned him down.

Speaking over the telephone from Cochin, Selvarajoo recalls: "My parents said, 'No way, she's still young. We're not interested in movies and she's very keen on her studies'."

Thus ended what could have been her first brush with fame at the age of 13.

But Bhagyaraj had taken some photographs of her and these eventually made their way about two years later to Bharathiraja, who was impressed enough to make an overseas call to Singapore with a film offer.

Even then, Selvarajoo, the eldest of three children, was no eager wannabe with stars in her eyes. She says: "My mother and I were against it. We didn't know anyone in India and I was reluctant to go."

It was at the behest of her father that she and her mother ended up going to India for what they thought would be a "two-week break" from school.

That turned into two months of shooting, publicity commitments, more film offers and soon enough, Sasha Selvarajoo turned into Ranjini the movie star.

It was Barathiraja who directed her in her first movie, Muthal Mariyathai, and christened her Ranjini, which means light or joy in Sanskrit.

Her maiden film outing was not quite smooth- sailing. She says: "Everything was a shock, from the food to the culture. We speak a different kind of Tamil dialect in Singapore. They also speak Tamil but speak very fast and sometimes you can't even understand what they're saying.

"Saying 'hi' or 'hello' was considered to be rude and you had to say 'vanakam' or 'good morning' in a very formal way."

Her cast-mates included Tamil cinema legend Sivaji Ganesan, who said to her at their first meeting: "You will definitely be one of the leading ladies. He was blessing me in that way."

But she thought to herself: "After this movie, I'm going back, how can I be one of the leading ladies here?"

The director asked her to watch the movie in a cinema on its opening day. And the audience response finally sparked her interest in films.

She says: "I couldn't believe it was me up on the screen, the applause was humongous and I was very deeply touched."

She was soon in the thick of movie action, filming up to three films in one day as she flew from Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram to Bangalore.

Asked if she earned quite a bit as an actress then and she replies with a hearty laugh: "Yeah."

But she also adds that her family chalked up huge bills in airfares between India and Singapore and in long-distance calls.

One parent would be with her in India while the other would be in Singapore to take care of her two younger brothers.

She says: "Some people think it's very easy. Yes, we live in the limelight but for people who are so close-knit, it was difficult to sacrifice family for the limelight."

When one of her brothers was admitted to Imperial College in London, the family made the decision to put education first. Selvarajoo stopped acting and moved to London to study, along with her brothers. She says: "I was very happy to leave the industry because it was too tiring and it was hard work."

Her mother died from pancreatic cancer in 2009.

Her father still lives in Singapore and visits her and her brothers - one is a scientist in Japan and the other is a regional director at a technology firm in San Jose in the United States.

Selvarajoo went to London in 1990, did her O and A levels, then graduated from the Institute of Credit Management in 1995 and later earned a law degree from the University of Westminster in 2002. She later worked at major companies such as Thomas Cook and the Radisson group of hotels.

She now juggles her education consultancy work with acting and other entertainment gigs.

So are there any goals she would like to achieve as an actress now?

She says: "Not really. I've already worked with everyone in the industry and basically, I'm very proud that I've done something for Singapore. You watch some sport at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games and so-and-so is representing your country and you get noticed.

"I've been representing Singapore but I've been unnoticed for a long time back home."

She is still holding on to her citizenship though and says: "I won't give it up. Very proud to be a Singaporean."

bchan@sph.com.sg