Exclusive: Nithya Menen on how she picks her scripts, her love for OTT platforms and desire to do only sensible films
DESPITE BEING A star in the Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu film industries and being a part of a mega-blockbuster in Hindi cinema, there is nothing about Nithya that comes across as manufactured. When she says she’s not eyeing any commercial success, and instead, is looking for roles that leave an impact — however long its length — you know it’s true. And, her filmography is a testament to the same. Be it playing Shahana in Ustad Hotel, a cameo in Bangalore Days, Tara Kalingarayar in O Kadhal Kanmani or Krishnaveni in Awe, Nithya has managed to leave quite an impression.
This year, in particular, seems to be very interesting for Nithya, whose hands are full with films across industries, languages and genres. The beginning of the year saw her playing the sole actor in the Malayalam psychological thriller Praana, the middle of the year saw her Bollywood debut with Mission Mangal, and the end will see her in the Tamil film Psycho apart from her indie Malayalam film Kolaambi, which will premiere at the 50th International Film Festival of India in Goa. Besides all of that, she will be essaying the role of the late J Jayalalithaa in The Iron Lady, while also making her digital debut in the second season of Breathe, which will also feature Abhishek Bachchan. Amidst her busy schedule, Nithya took time out to speak with us about her movies, her Bollywood debut, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You’ve worked across several film industries, and we hear that you like using your own voice in all of them. How many languages do you know? And, has there ever been a problem?
Since childhood, I have been interested in learning new languages. I love speaking to people in their own languages and luckily, I pick up languages very fast. I know six languages right now — Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and English. The only language that I had to learn was Telugu, because I’d never spoken it. When I did my first film, I didn’t know Telugu at all. I learnt it on the job and by the time I did my third film, I was fluent in Telugu. It came to me so easily. Even now, I am most comfortable speaking in Telugu.
Q: What about other languages?
We are a Malayali family, but we have been in Bangalore for some generations now, so I grew up speaking Kannada. Malayalam is my mother tongue. Besides, my mother’s native place is on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, so our Malayalam has a lot of Tamil influence. And, we were always surrounded by Tamilians. My parents speak Tamil very well, so I grew up knowing the language. I studied Hindi in school, it was our third language.
Q: Is there a difference in how these different film industries function? Which industry do you find to be the most comfortable to work in?
Yes, there is a difference, especially culturally… The way people are, and the way they behave. Each state has some basic differences among people, perhaps culture, that seeps into the people as well. I find the Telugu industry to be the most comfortable to work in.
Q: You also made your Bollywood debut this year. What brought you to Mission Mangal?
There comes a time when you want to expand, and do something different. I am someone who gets bored doing the same thing over and over… the stagnation gets to me. It was around that time that Balki Sir called me saying that he’s making a film, the subject is very interesting and although it has many actors, there is one specific scientist that he wants me to play, and it sounded very interesting. I have been offered many Hindi films earlier, but I never found them a match for me. However, this seemed good, and so I heard the full narration. The director Jagan Shakti is a South Indian — he is a Kannadiga, who has watched my films. So, when they were approaching me, they knew why, and that is important. It wasn’t like there is a South Indian actress, and we will make her Bollywood debut.
Q: When you say, your earlier roles were not fitting right, what exactly was mismatched?
I think it is the sensibilities more than anything. I don’t want to do films that just cater to the masses or are made to make money. Of course, as an actor, you have to do it at some point, but I try to stay close to roles that are more real, where people are trying to tell stories that have something authentic in them.
Q: How would you describe your sensibilities?
It is not about a character. One thing I look for is that the character has to have some substance and some consequence to the film. I don’t look for screen space. It doesn’t have to be very long, but that character should make an impact in the film, and if it does, I don’t mind doing even a one-minute role. More than anything, the first thing I see is how the film is getting made, and if there is genuine storytelling. I don’t want to do films made to cater to people, for money or commercial gains. I want to do sensible films.
Q: Tell us about The Iron Lady? When does it go on the floor?
The Iron Lady is a massive project and not something that we can put together just like that, and start shooting. The director Priyadhaarshini and the whole team want to do the film really well, as opposed to just cashing in on it. And, I stand by the director completely. She wants to get the casting right, which is very important because there are a lot of important people who are a part of this story. We are taking our time with the pre-production and we will be starting very soon, probably by the end of this year or the beginning of the next year. My director is approaching it in a very different way, she is very passionate about it, and she doesn’t want to compromise on quality. That’s why taking time is not something that any of us involved in the project mind too much. We had a discussion to say, let’s not compromise on anything, and think about the quality of the film, and not burden ourselves with the deadlines.
Q: Were there any apprehensions about doing the biopic on J Jayalalithaa?
Initially, I was in two minds since it is such a big subject, it has political strings attached to it, and so on. So, I thought, as a courtesy, I would just meet her and politely refuse. But when I met her, the way she presented the entire film to me, her confidence and the amount of work and research that she had done impressed me. It’s incredible, especially for a first time director. At that spur of the moment, I changed my mind and said, let’s go ahead and dive in, I will do it.
Q: The Malayalam film industry is going through a very revolutionary time with more and more women standing up for themselves...
I think that is very important. I see more and more, a sort of dissatisfaction with everything… how can one say to somebody that their nose is not fine, and they should fix it? This is a very negative way for things to go, and they can’t continue to go on like this. This has to be reversed and people have to understand that if we don’t look different from each other, how can that be okay? We can’t look alike. There are people trolling actors all the time for how they look. They are ruthless, they say all kind of names, and I think it affects people.
Q: Talking about reactions, how do you deal with people body-shaming actors?
I think people are ignorant about it. They automatically assume that if somebody has weight, it is because they are lazy and eat a lot. We actors are not lazy. We stand and work for at least eight hours. And, the weight is very rarely to do with being lazy. Sometimes, it is a health-related thing, and sometimes hormonal. People are already dealing with a lot and when you troll them, you add to the difficulties. If we educate people, to understand that weight is not really coming out of sitting around and enjoying, then they might be slightly more kind.
Q: How do you deal with such concerns personally?
When I am in that stage, I detach myself. I tell myself that these people are ignorant, who are trying to be rude and mean. I detach myself and tell myself that I will be fine. Besides, I see life as being much more vast than the films, which helps. And also, the fact that I am very spiritually inclined.
Q: You once said that you never wanted to be an actress. What did you want to be?
I studied journalism from Manipal University, but in my second year, I decided that I don’t want to be a journalist (laughs). Becoming an actress was in my destiny. The first film that I did was when I was eight years old — it was an English film, shot by French people. And, I didn’t plan it. I don’t come from a film family. I come from a middle-class family that is very education-oriented. No creative things were ever appreciated or encouraged.
Q: But, they must be happy now, as you are so successful...
My family continues to have an affinity toward education. It is slightly changing... they have recently started watching my films. But, no matter what I do, somewhere there is always ‘You could have been…’ (laughs). In fact, my grandfather was so happy that I am playing a scientist. He said he was waiting to see me as a scientist all his life!
Q: You are also making your digital debut with Breathe 2. How did you find the web-series format?
I loved it. It is totally my space, it gave me the space to be as subtle as I want. It is meant for actors like me. And, the fact that OTT comes with content and pushes and forces everyone else to up their game a little bit, is very welcoming. When it comes to films, we may have to compromise on certain things to cater to a vast audience, but on OTT platforms, we don’t have to compromise, because we know our audience, it is niche. I am doing Breathe 2 where I play the lead alongside Abhishek Bachchan. Mayank, who directed my movie Ok Kanmani, stood his ground, saying that he wants me to play this character.
Q: Tell us a little about your upcoming projects.
The film that is about to release next is Mysskin’s Psycho. The character I play in the film will come as a surprise for everybody. Then, there is the beautiful Malayalam film Kolaambi, which is coming to Goa at IFFI. It is an amazing film by national award-winning director TK Rajeev Kumar. The whole film has a beautiful cast and crew — the DOP is Ravi Varman, who also shot Mission Mangal, the Art Director is Sabu Cyril, and the sound recording was handled by Resul Pookutty. It was a bunch of amazing people coming together and doing a beautiful film, for the sake of the film. Of course, I have the very interesting webseries, Breathe 2. I am also doing a Malayalam film Aaram Thirukalpana and after that, I am doing a Telugu film about a mother and a daughter and then, there is The Iron Lady.
‘The film is bigger than an actor’
Never has it been that I want to be the centre of attention. For me, I always see myself as an actor, and the film is bigger than an actor. It has to be, and that is the only way we can make good films. When an actor becomes bigger than the film, we end up making a mediocre film, because everything goes off-balance. I will give my best to my character, but I don’t have any need to be noticed or anything… it will come for my merit.
‘Remixes cannot capture the essence of the original’
A remix, in general, cannot capture the essence of an original, no matter what. If you remake a Hindi film in the South or a Southern film into Hindi, you cannot capture the original’s magic