By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Nimmi Harasgama’s love for acting can be traced way back to her childhood to the time she spent in Sri Lanka training at a drama club. Her acting debut was in Alibaba and the Forty Thieves when she was just 10 years old. Nimmi’s lifelong love affair with acting was cemented and she went on to pursue a career as an actor.
Although she has played numerous iconic roles in Sri Lankan cinematic (as well as in international productions) masterpieces such as Ira Madiyama (August Sun) and Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky), most people know and relate to her for her epic comic personas as “Auntie Netta” and more recently as the Instagram sensation “Brulee Silva”.
When Lankan audiences finally gave up the hope of ever seeing Auntie Netta gracing their screens again, she aptly defied all odds and made a comeback. Nimmi felt this was the right time for Auntie Netta to return – a time when people need comic relief more than ever. People need laughter during these troubled times, when they are cut away from those they love and removed from the comfort of their daily routines. Auntie Netta brings back nostalgia of happier days and breaks through the morbid curfew silence.
Nimmi shared how Netta, everyone’s favourite, clueless yet brutally honest auntie, made a sudden re-appearance, while she (Nimmi) was quarantined at home, responsibly practising social distancing. The character just resurfaced in reaction to the need for occupation and enjoyment. This was ideal as for Nimmi not working (or being busy) is something she absolutely detests. She got to work on Auntie Netta, catching her up on the times and on her niece’s success as an influencer. She started by posting Netta’s first comeback video on YouTube of her simply making a cup of tea. Following the overwhelming positive response it received from viewers, she continued to make more content.
Netta from a production point of view is ideal for quarantine times; there is no need for makeup or fancy effects, just a bit of lipstick and the notorious wig is all she needs to come to life on screen. In reference to Netta’s unplanned reappearance, Nimmi confides: “To be honest, it is funny when Netta says ‘I am a bit dippa’ because it is somewhat a way for me to reflect on how I am also feeling,” adding that “doing Netta, makes me happy, knowing she makes other people happy”.
Speaking about the many characters Nimmi has portrayed for us, we cannot ignore her most recent and possibly her most drastically different character – “Brulee”. Brulee is an EXTRA, in-your-face parody of Instagram personalities and influencer culture.
Last year, Nimmi was exploring the idea of doing something completely different, outside her comfort zone in the digital realm. She knew it would be challenging to prepare material for a new platform and audience, as there is lots to take on and learn. She had to really look at “this social media circus and Instagram influencer lifestyle”. The idea of parodying influencers started off just as an experiment, content-wise, when she was thinking about how to develop a new character for social media platforms. The popularity and attention Brulee received was unexpected but “of course it is fantastic, and I am thrilled that she gained so much popularity”, Nimmi shared.
After splitting her time between Sri Lanka and America for a few years, Nimmi and her family are currently residing in Sri Lanka semi-permanently due to her commitment with filming The Good Karma Hospital, a British production executed by the same group responsible for the hit series Peaky Blinders.
We spoke to Nimmi about what it is like being a South Asian actress and looking for work abroad, to which she quite candidly responded saying how unless you are an A-lister, it is quite an unpredictable profession. It is not like having a typical nine to five job and there are a limited number of roles available. Competition is tough; there are so many brilliant South Asian actresses trying for the same roles, and while there are a lot more opportunities now than in previous times, it is still not easy. There was a time when she was first starting out where she was not getting any work at all, which was actually how and when Auntie Netta was first created.
“I wasn’t getting any work and YouTube had just started, so I tried out a couple of characters and Auntie Netta was one of them. Netta became quite popular in Sri Lanka and also in the UK. After that, she kept posting videos as Netta. She did this mainly to build a body of work to share with casting directors. As an actor, you have to keep acting – you have to keep honing your skills,” she said, and because she kept at it, she was then commissioned to write a one woman show and take it to the Edinburgh Film Festival. After that, she was also offered a chat show on ETV, which is how most of us came to know Auntie Netta.
However, Nimmi shared that after the success of her YouTube material, she had to put Netta to bed because she did get multiple auditions as a result of it and didn’t have enough time to dedicate to Netta.
We asked Nimmi what the reason was for Auntie Netta’s rise to fame according to her, and she said that she has “no idea”. However, she feels that people like the relatability and candour of Netta. Netta is real; “she is the archetypical auntie, be it Sri Lankan, Indian, or English, (and) her character is someone people are familiar with and can relate to,” she said, adding: “People enjoy her honesty – she says it as it is and she gets away with it because she is an auntie.”
While most aunties we know tend to practise emotional terrorism and cut to the bone with their scathing comments, all in the name of love and good intentions, thankfully Auntie Netta somehow strikes the perfect balance of being cheeky and lovable.
In relation to both Aunty Netta and Brulee, there was one thing we absolutely had to ask, and that was if Nimmi remains in character when the cameras are not rolling. Her reply was: “Technically, the rule is, you always stay in character while the camera is rolling.” However, she said she remains in character on set, even if the camera is not rolling, and generally gets into character even before leaving the house, adding that there have been guests on set who have been cross with her as she would remain in character off camera. She refuses to switch as she wants to maintain the authenticity of the role. However, she said the above is only applicable to Brulee and Netta.
When it comes to Brulee and Netta, “as soon as that wig comes on, I am her for the rest of the day”. Nimmi then added that “maybe that is because there is so much of them in me”. So if you ever go to visit Nimmi on her Auntie Netta set, it is unlikely that you will meet Nimmi Harasgama; you will probably end up having a strange conversation with Auntie Netta herself.
On a closing note, as someone who has been involved in highly acclaimed local cinematic works and who also has exposure in the international cinema industry, we asked Nimmi her thoughts on whether Sri Lanka has improved since she first stepped into the professional acting scene here. “I wouldn’t say it has improved, only because that implies that it was lacking,” she said, sharing that there are some amazing genre films being made here.
Recently, after being on the judging panel for a Human Rights film festival titled “Article 14”, she said she saw some amazing short films from across the island. She said that she was very impressed by the quality of the overall body of work. “There is undoubtedly a wealth of talent in Sri Lanka, but there is a lack of funding for the arts, but that is of course up to the powers that be,” said Nimmi, and continued: “In terms of ability and skill, we are already there.”