Cover story: The unstoppable Lakshmi Manchu
Lakshmi Manchu is both a dreamer and an achiever, who charts her own path and has no regrets. The Tollywood actor-producer talks about cinema, telly, social media and more.
If we were to pick one element that describes Lakshmi Manchu – it would be Mercury. Shiny and fluid – the actor, producer, television artiste, singer, entrepreneur and philanthropist fits into all her roles seamlessly and what’s more, she remains unfazed in the midst of all the bustle. With a web series (Mrs Subbalakshmi), a thriller film and two new shows (Maharani and Memu Saitham season two) in her kitty for the first half of 2018, Lakshmi has certainly got her hands full.
We’re at her house in Film Nagar. Decked in a white and pale blue cold shoulder dress, we see the actress send quick WhatsApp messages, finish her green tea in seconds and pose for photoshoots. Despite the many tasks at hand, she appears composed throughout. So what’s the secret to her powerhouse of energy, we ask her. “Discipline, time management and planning. I wake up at 4 am to do a 90-minute yoga session every day,” she says, with a smile, and quickly fills us in about her new TV show, Maharani airing on Zee Telugu. The game show brings together 10 female celebrities who have taken life head on to overcome hurdles. “It is an empowering game show filled with play and humour. In one of the episodes, I milked a cow. The city life we’re living doesn’t give us such opportunities. We’ve put together tasks that will connect us back to our roots, while also giving the participants oppurtunities to share their incredible stories,” says the 40-year-old actress, who has also been a part of American TV shows including Desperate Housewives (2008) and Las Vegas as Sarasvati Kumar (2003).
Home and the world
Lakshmi is a multifaceted artiste who traversed from Tollywood, Hollywood (read Basmati Blues, starring the Academy Award winner Brie Larson) and television, both in India and abroad. Transitioning from one role to another comes easily to her – be it playing a newly-wed village girl stuck in a flood in Gundello Godari, or hosting Memu Saitham, a TV show that helps people from humble backgrounds achieve their dreams, now into season two. “This time around, we want to identify selfless people who are working for the society.” Her biggest takeaway from the show, she adds, is the feeling of togetherness, irrespective of one’s cultural and social background. “Through this show, I met people with no family or support. For them, life was all about the survival of the fittest,” says the Chennai-born diva, who garnered immense popularity on regional television with her first celebrity talk show, Prematho Mee Lakshmi.
Having spent almost a decade in the Indian television scene, Lakshmi agrees that there’s a long way to go for us, in terms of the content that’s aired on national TV channels. “The day we stop making these saas-bahu daily soaps, is the day we progress. Women can’t be taught that being tortured or being a mean mother-in-law is okay. It’s time we start experimenting before the new-age-entertainment portals take over TV completely,” she confesses.
Carving her niche
Born to Telugu actor-producer Mohan Babu, aka the Collection King (as he is fondly called), it was only a matter of time before Lakshmi stood in front of the camera and continued the legacy of her father. Despite being a star kid, she chose to begin her journey as an outsider in the US, battling against the odds all by herself. A theatre graduate from Oklahoma City University, in her initial days, she starred as a background artiste in Boston Legal, an American comedy-drama series. “It was a struggle for me. I needed three SAG vouchers to be a member of the union. You won’t get a voucher if you have no dialogue in the show. It’s also tough to have a dialogue if you’re non-union. It’s a double-edged sword,” she explains.
Lakshmi faced quite a few challenges before she got opportunities to prove herself. Nevertheless, what kept her going was a line her professor from the University shared – ‘the more you audition, the more no’s you get out of your life and the closer you’re to a yes’. “Ever since, I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to be a bridge between India and America. That one line he said stayed with me throughout,” she says.
No room for numbers
What’s notable about the actress is the unconventional roles she continues to do, without caring too much about box-office consequences, considering we’re at a stage when numbers have become the centre point of cinema. Right from her debut as Irendhri in Anananaga O Dheerudu (2011), where she played an antagonist in the fantasy-adventure film co-produced by Disney World Cinema, she’s set a benchmark for herself. Her role as the vicious sorceress won her many accolades including the Nandi Award for Best Villain (the highest award for excellence in Telugu cinema). “I wanted to be unapologetic in how evil I could actually be. For years to come, instead of saying ‘Boochodu ostadhu’, I wanted parents to tell their children, ‘Irendhri ostundhi’,” states Lakshmi, who also won big awards for her role in Gundello Godari.
Speaking her mind
Lakshmi is known for calling a spade a spade, be it on social media or in her interviews. “Sometimes, I wonder if I should think before I tweet or say anything. But that’s not who I am. I recently retweeted RGV’s (Ram Gopal Varma) post saying I finally understand something he said. He gets that kind of sense of humour. Others who are randomly commenting might not get this and that’s precisely why they should stay out of it,” she clarifies.
With more than one million Twitter followers including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lakshmi also retweeted Swara Bhaskar’s open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali regarding his recent period drama, Padmaavat. Talking about the film, she says, “I understand what Swara felt but I might not have the same opinion after watching the movie. During the whole debate, I was outraged. It was an ode to the Rajputs and we had people protesting without even watching the film. As artistes, it’s their right to be able to tell a story from their point of view.”
Mother on duty
Apart from being a fabulous actress and filmmaker, Lakshmi is also a doting mother. If you’re one of her three lakh Instagram followers, you’re sure to have seen adorable pictures and videos of her with her daughter, Nirvana, setting mother-daughter goals. Her daughter also has her own Instagram handle (follow her at @VidyaNirvanaManchu). When Lakshmi decided to name her (daughter) Nirvana, she received a lot of backlash, considering ‘nirvana’ is associated with afterlife. “When they talk about the ultimate bliss for a human being, it’s nirvana. And I want that for my child. Let her live the best life right now and not have some afterlife.” An indulgent mother we think, and she proves us right, as she speaks about her biggest decision of life – not her career or her marriage, but the school she should put her daughter in. “I’ve never been as stressed out as I was those few days I was deciding the school for Apple (as she fondly calls her daughter). I want her to imbibe good values, which will make her a
conscious and loving human being,” she informs.
At 40, Lakshmi seems quite content and at ease with the way life has turned out for her. Whether it is playing a character with shades of grey, carrying off a denim sari or spending quality time with her daughter through her growing years, she certainly gives her 100 per cent to every dimension of life. “I’m lucky to be born into this family and thankful for the values it has given me. But as I live my life, I make my own rules. When you get older, you realise you should stop thinking about what others think,” says the star, and she wraps up the interview, dabs some makeup and gives her million-watt smile, we know she is just unstoppable.
From the fashionista:
As for her fashion choices, like her professional decisions, they are based on research and analysis. A big fan of designers Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Anamika Khanna, Lakshmi says, “Comfort is the most important thing for me. My designer’s chat on my phone is filled with pictures of various outfits and we pick them together.”
Web series called Mrs Subbalakshmi, also starring Srinivas Avasarala and a cameo by Sudheer Babu. Summer release of her upcoming thriller W/o Ram with a debutante director, Vijay Yelakanti. “I love introducing new talent into the industry. When I was in America, it was the belief of people that helped me. Today, when I have the power, I want to be able to give hardworking and talented people that opportunity,” she says.
Tre-Forni Restaurant and Bar, Park Hyatt
Golden Dragon, Taj Krishna
“Follow your values. They’ll guide you through the dark.”