There were just three days of filming left for Adiwiraku when its lead actress Sangeeta Krishnasamy was admitted to hospital, showing symptoms of dengue. Throughout the shoot for the film’s climactic scenes, Sangeeta was already battling fever, constant vomiting and lack of appetite.
Nonetheless, she soldiered on after taking three types of antibiotics and drinking lots of water, as she didn’t want to let anyone down or for the production to incur extra costs because of her.
She insisted she could finish the final six scenes instead of going to seek proper treatment even though her heart rate was 45, her blood pressure was dangerously low and her body temperature had reached 40°C.
“The night before (I went to hospital), we were shooting a scene and I felt like I was going to die. I couldn’t feel my heartbeat, and I started to throw up,” she said, recalling the incident which happened a year ago.
After the night shoot, Sangeeta was hospitalised for seven days and lost 5kg in the process. “I am a person who can’t keep quiet for five minutes. So, being bedridden for seven days was just unbearable. All you do is drink water and wait,” she shared.
“I have a high threshold for pain. But having dengue was something I couldn’t deal with. After I was discharged, I went back to shoot the remaining scenes, and everyone was just so supportive.”
It would take six more months for a full recovery as Sangeeta’s joints were badly affected, forcing her to take a break from the physical activities she enjoys including martial arts – she practises aikido and kalaripayattu – and rock climbing.
This kind of persistence is something that is featured prominently in the movie Adiwiraku. “It’s an inspiring tale,” she said. “When (producer) Jason Chong told me the gist of the story, I had tears in my eyes. It really moved me. As an actor, this is the kind of role I have been waiting for. And the fact that this is based on a real person, makes it even more inspiring.”
Adiwiraku is the story of teacher Cheryl Ann Fernando (Sangeeta), who is posted to a rural school – SMK Pinang Tunggal, in Sungai Petani, Kedah – to teach English. Cheryl discovers that her students are stuggling both in their studies and their everyday lives.
Getting creative with her teaching methods, Cheryl gets through to the students. And being a caring person, Cheryl starts to be involved directly in their well-being outside of school too.
It all culminates when Cheryl and a fellow teacher manage to get 35 students from the school to a district-level choral speaking competition (recitation of poetry or prose by a chorus or ensemble), which is an achievement, considering that the students were not able to utter a single word of English before that.
The events in the film occurred in 2015. Sangeeta says she’s surprised she didn’t know about Fernando and the school’s achievement prior to this project. Worse, that some children in Malaysia are facing such hardships to get education.
“I realise poverty is still a problem in Malaysia. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon either, but it is still shocking to learn there are children in rural areas who don’t have the means to be at school, to get an education. I told Jason immediately that I wanted to be part of this story,” she said.
It is interesting to note that most of the students featured in the movie are actual students who participated in the competition under Fernando’s guidance. The film was shot at SMK Pinang Tunggal and featured some of the teachers from the school as well.
Sangeeta was understandably nervous about stepping into Fernando’s shoes as her students idolise the teacher. Although Adiwiraku is not Sangeeta’s first lead role – she was in films like Vetti Passangga and Vennira Iravuggal to name a few – the film does mark the first time the KL-born beauty playing a real person.
“I didn’t know how the students were going to accept me. That was the biggest challenge,” she shared.
But she didn’t have to worry, after all. “They just welcomed me with open arms. They were teaching me stuff. They would say, this is what Miss Cheryl would do. This is how she would scold us. I was very, very moved with how loving they were. They didn’t make me feel like a stranger at all. I suppose that is one of the reasons why Cheryl is so dedicated towards them.”
Perhaps the students recognised kindred spirits in Sangeeta and Fernando. When she was a teenager, Sangeeta would give English tuition classes to the younger students. This continued when she was earning her law degree from the University Of London’s external programme, and worked temporarily at a private college.
After graduating, she got into corporate life, and fell into a work routine which soon took a toll on her.
“I wanted to do something else. But I didn’t know what that was. I have always watched plays at KLPac and loved them. I thought I should give acting a try, and get into plays,” she said.
Sangeeta signed up for a 10-week acting workshop conducted by Datuk Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham. “It changed me as a person. It broke away all my inhibitions; you sort of get to reflect what’s inside and to explore yourself more,” she stated.
In 2009, she was called to audition for a TV show. That marked the start of her career as an actress, and Sangeeta says she has found her calling.
However, acting is not the only thing Sangeeta wants to do: “This year, I’ve applied to NY Film Academy where I want to learn scriptwriting. One day I plan to go into directing.”
She’s also in the middle of opening up a cafe at her condominium building, as a way to foster a sense of community with the people she shares a postcode with.
The cafe will offer a variety of food, including vegan cakes, which Sangeeta – who has been a vegan for four years – is learning how to bake. And get this, she is into woodworking too.
The desire to learn as much as possible is something she inherited from her late father, whom she described as her best friend.
“My dad was a reformist, always fighting for people’s rights. He taught us that money is not important, and nothing is impossible in life. You know the phrase, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’? My dad’s interpretation was, it’s better to be a jack of all trades – to always learn a little bit of everything, because that would make life interesting,” she noted.
Sangeeta also hopes to be a social worker one day, something that her brother is already doing. “My older brother works with people who are troubled – people with drug problems and abused women. I am so glad he is doing that. My dad was like that. I hope to follow in their footsteps.”