BEHIND THE LINES
Interview by: Sheryl-Lee Kerr
Whats a Sydney law student doing teaching Beginner Bodypainting
For Bards and facing down evil shamanesses? Well why the heck not?
SHERYL-LEE KERR reports exclusively for XIP.
The first time the tiny Tharini Mudaliar, standing all of 5ft 3inches (minus the apple crate) as Naiyima, realised she was going to have to square off against the six-foot tall, cloud-scraping Claire Stansfield (the dastardly Alti), she knew it was going be one awfully short fight. It didnt matter one hoot what the script called for in the closing fight of Between The Lines because Tharini (pronounced Ta-ree-nee) knew the real deal. And it sure wasnt gonna be pretty...
"When we came together they were almost going to stand me on an apple crate because I was so much smaller than Claire was," Tharini recalls with a chuckle. "They didn't actually have to in that fight scene with Claire in the end, because they shot it upwards from my point of view.
"Im pretty small. If youd ask me, Id say she (Claire) was even taller than six foot. Rick (Jacobson) the director said Okay, I want you (Claire) to put your hand under Tharinis throat.
"And they had the wind machine going. The wind machine is like a whole wall of a room that is a big fan and they get it going to create this wind. And I was falling over in the wind. I couldnt stand up. It was like ha-annggg onto a treeeeee.... The wind was just blowing me over.
"And there was Claire with her hand under my chin and I was like "Nup, shes gonna win. Nup. Cant do it - how am I supposed to beat her?! Shes HUGE," Tharini jokes.
Fortunately for Tharini, the windblown Naiyima somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and lived to tell, er, pulsate, whatever, for another day. Although, her glowing finale was a little different to how they filmed it.
Tharini reveals a little editing snip to her grand exit that fans wouldnt have seen:
"Before Naiyima goes up in her ball of light, there was a shot of the villagers on their knees and the executioner guys like: We didnt know, we didnt know you were the Enlightened One; forgive us."
"And she sort of benevolently smiles at them and goes up into the ether.
"I dont know what happened (for that to be cut). It just goes to show the whole show is really about Xena and Gabrielle and the characters come in to complement them, but you really dont need closure about the (other) characters...whatever happens, happens."
Xena guest spot roles are not exactly your typical side job for Sydney University students, where Tharini spends her days in her final few years of a law degree. But its a nifty sideline for her; wherever it takes her.
The 22-year-old South African-born Indian, who moved to Tasmania when she was only one, and then to Adelaide, South Australia, a few years later, sounds like your average bubbly, fun Aussie - her voice actually not dissimilar from that of her cousins, SBS newsreader Indira Naidoo. Nonetheless Tharini had to bung on a fake "flavour of India but not Indian" accent as per the directors orders for the job.
Weird as that accent request sounds, undefined accents seem to have become Tharinis forte: Her first major acting role was at age 19, in a nine-month stint in the last season of the acclaimed Australian childrens TV series Ocean Girl. She played the smoothly evil Shesheba, an Egyptianesque bad gal with the intriguing but, again, never defined accent to match.
Fortunately, Tharini had the exotic look to go with her flexible voice and it proved to be just what the Xena casting department was looking for. But there was another thing they wanted for their Naiyima, too:
"(My agent) said: Look, they liked your audition and they wanted to know if you can dance. And Im not a dancer, Ive never had any dance training," Tharini recalls. "So she said, Shes not a dancer but she can move.
"So they sent back saying, Would you be happy to work with a choreographer for a week and just learn some classical Indian dancing? And I said Yep, yep I would.
"And I had done maybe a year of classical Indian dancing when I was about five in Adelaide. We said, Yeah yeah, shes had a year of classical Indian dancing. We didnt say it was when I was five! "
After she got the role, she found herself in New Zealand, and in a different world entirely.
"I went over there and the producers welcome the actors and make an effort to introduce them to all the people who work on the production. You do your costume checks and its like a whole other world," Tharini says. "And the world is amazing: theyve got warehouses, full of costumes, people working day and night because its their job - they go through actors every week and they really look after you."
She says it was such a positive experience shed be on the next plane back to New Zealand if she was ever asked to reprise the role.
"It was great, a great mood. Open and friendly," Tharini says. "The crews are always cool - just good people. Loved their work. The whole production of Xena was awesome, like a well-oiled machine."
And not just the crew, she notes.
"I was immensely impressed with Renee OConnor," Tharini says. "She was just stunning. Really I couldnt get over her. I had more scenes with her than I had with Lucy (Lawless). And Lucy, shes great, very down to earth as everyone always says; she is though.
"When I met her at the cast reading, she was sitting next to me and she turned around and said: Hello, whats your name? Im Lucy.
"And you almost dont recognise her. Its not that they pack on the make-up, its just that its different.
"Like, her character looks immensely different to how she looks in general. I suppose because they put a lot of tan on her. Shes got quite pale skin generally and shes a striking lady, very tall, but you wouldnt recognise her in the street if you werent looking for her."
One wonders whether Tharini would have recognised Lucy herself a year ago even if she was looking for her. The actress confesses she isnt exactly what youd call a Xena fan, having seen only her own episode and a few earlier ones last year. But Tharini seems ever curious, often throwing in questions of her own about the show and the fans. She is constantly amazed at discovering how big the global phenomenon actually is. And that can be a little daunting for anyone.
"Its funny," she muses, "But this is one of the things I find really hard about acting. Youve got to bear in mind that what you do is so localised: you go to New Zealand and you learn your lines and you go on set and you do what you do...
"I dont know if its a better thing to try and keep in mind or try and forget it, but what you do goes way way beyond your sphere of experience and realm of consciousness and its really quite a hard thing to grapple with.
"Like, I, in my Christmas holidays, went to New Zealand and did a job and came back and then there was this response that came out of the blue - like literally from the ether. Really its quite confronting. But its all part of the learning process.
"I wish Id been able to bear in mind that what you do goes so far beyond your realm of experience, and your consciousness and if Id been able to keep that in mind, I feel I might have been able to do a better job or maybe would have changed certain things."
But what would she have changed about her character with the benefit of hindsight? What could she have done? After all Naiyimas lot in life seems to revolve around avoiding being serenely chargrilled and providing paint-by-numbers classes.
"We had a houseguest a little while ago, a friend of my dads - a doctor from America, whose name was Bill Knaus, who said he doesnt believe humans are made to have foresight, foresight is something you can only have in hindsight," Tharini says thoughtfully.
"You can only think: Yeah, I should have done that in hindsight; you can never really concretely have the foresight that you think you should have had in hindsight. With Naiyima I would have perhaps thought more globally of the representation she was making of Indian women, rather than just taking it as a character and doing it as I did.
"I dont think I would have changed anything because youre never really capable of changing your initial reaction to a character or to what youre given. Just maybe I would have thought a bit harder about the fact she was making a global representation of Indian women. I suppose it is a stereotype, which is not always a bad thing; I dont think its a bad thing. After all, stereotypes do come about for a reason, they do represent whats out there."
So does Tharini actually agree with any of Naiyimas - albeit somewhat stylised - beliefs on karma and reincarnation?
"I wouldnt say a blanket statement, I believe in reincarnation," Tharini says. "I believe in the cycle of life; I believe in that spiritual cycle.
"Im still figuring out what I believe.
"There was an immense twisting of Indian myth (in Between The Lines). I was born into a Hindu family. One of the basic premises is theres one god with many names and you walk through the cycle of life and reincarnation is a big part of that: that your soul lives on until you reach nirvana.
"In the show I think this notion is purely mythical - and theyve done that with every culture I think. I wasnt offended by any of it because its essentially taking a part of someones culture and just embellishing it and making it a bit more intense."
Between The Lines may not have offended Tharini but she understands how some Hindus could have been offended by the now banned Xena episode The Way which was scheduled to follow BTL. The Way includes a scene with Xena meeting Krishna - at first mocking him (asking what hes "into: chanting, sacrifices etc...") and then, cynically praying to him, reluctantly asking for his help. He appears to her, benevolent, ever-smiling and amused by her affrontery. And, he decides to help her.
Tharini, who has not seen The Way but has heard this description and others, says she can understand why the episode was banned.
"From what Ive gathered, theyve taken the name Krishna and the form of the body of Krishna - Krishna in Hindu mythology is a blue god - and I think what theyve done is theyve taken the name and painted the actor blue and had his character sitting as if he were the Hindu god of Krishna but talking about anything and everything else.
"I dont find anything offensive about that," she decides, when given the above synopsis of Xenas meeting with Krishna. "Basically itd be like taking Jesus and making him a secular character who Xena had a conversation with and who smiled on Xena.
"It would be equivalent to Xena meeting Christ on the cross and saying to him, Hi, how's it going, what are you in for? The church would be up in arms, so its no wonder the networks are hesitant to offend Hindu people."
"This Xena depiction would be sacrilegious to someone who really believed in Krishna. See, I think all those incarnations of God are representational anyway. Krishna is the god of love. Almost like a cupid figure - hes a boy, a chubby boy in the mythological text.
"But this (Xena depiction) would be sacrilegious to the Hindu population who believe that Krishna is the god of love, and he is sacred - like Jesus or like Allah or like Buddha."
Tharini disagrees that only fundamental Hindus would feel this way about the episode.
"No, they wouldnt be fundamental at all," she says. "I think its easy to brand Islam and Muslim religions and Hindus and seikhs fundamental because, from a Western perspective, we see those fundamental elements as being destructive. I dont think its a fundamentalism. Itd be like a Catholic person would be offended if Xena belittled the Pope.
"You could see how a network such as Channel 10 would not want to unnecessarily offend a vast number of their viewership by putting on an episode that was offensive to people who believed in something. I think its like a matter of courtesy.
"I can see that would be a really considerate move as well for Renaissance Pictures to acknowledge they had, accidentally even, taken someone elses culture and made something of it that wasnt true and I think its quite admirable for them to acknowledge that and see that it could offend a lot of people.
"Its unfortunate for the Xena fans and the actors who put so much effort into the episode, its just a question of cultural tolerance."
Tolerance and Xena are two words that do often go together. Just one example is the way the actors and writers have been allowed to toy with subtext on the show, implying for those who wish to see it that there may be more to Xenas and Gabrielles relationship than mere sisterly bonding.
Tharini picked up on the "lesbian thing" when she was filming and says it is taken with "good humor" by those on the set.
"I think that the actors take it as a decision that was made by the writers and the producers to write that sort of stuff in, and they do it in good faith and good humor," she says.
"If they did (mention it), it was done in good humor like: Oh you know about our fans and our following?
"Its sort of like accepted I think - it didnt even need to be said, there was just the knowledge there was that subtext and it exists."
Tharini cites several examples she spotted from her episode: "There was some at the end where Xena creates the female sign on her foot. Theres also that thing where Xenas practically naked and Gabrielles painting on her."
Some fans considered that particular scene quite erotic.
"Well yeah, I can see that it would be," Tharini agrees.
And due to that scene, Tharinis character may be immortalised in high esteem by fans - given she gave Gabrielle her "How to paint your warrior" lesson - the mendhi results which the bard still sports many episodes on, after Xena reciprocated.
Not that Tharini had much to do with any actual painting. Or Renee or Lucy for that matter. Tharini reveals the makeup artists responsible were the same group who also worked on the intricate Maori tattoos for the New Zealand hit film Once Were Warriors and its sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.
"Every morning from when I started at like 5.30 / 6 oclock, it took about an
hour and a half; two hours to put all the mendhi on. They were transfers. Theres
apparently an American company somewhere that makes these henna tattoos that you paint on
with alcohol and print the rice paper down and peel them off and you touch it up with
brushes. Amazing; they worked so hard; they were very talented people."
As for Tharini now, its back to the law books and holding fort at a car yard on weekends to pay her way through law school, while waiting for the phone to ring for her next audition. Although, Tharini is the first to admit she cant actually see herself as a practising lawyer. Not that acting necessarily will be her chosen career, either.
"I am now in my fourth year, and its a five year course," she says of the law degree. "I am trying to keep up with my classes, Im having some singing lessons and wanting to do some acting drop-in courses, but essentially Ive got this far and would like to finish law just for my own sense of closure.
"Its a big thing being happy these days. For me, I want to finish it but I may not find happiness and fulfilment in being a lawyer so I want to go in search of something of else. And, if it takes you a long time to do that, if it takes me five years of a degree to figure out you dont want to do that, then great.
"I dont know I definitively want to go the other way," she says pausing
"If I could get more acting work that would be great but youve gotta take what comes."
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