Exclusive: Shruti Haasan is back from her sabbatical and how!
After her self-imposed sabbatical from films, Shruti Haasan is back and this time around, she means business! We catch up with the songwriter, composer, singer and actress to find out more...
She was most recently seen in Laabam, opposite Vijay Sethupathi, prior to which she had four releases in 2021 — Krack, Pitta Kathalu, Vakeel Saab in Telugu and The Power in Hindi. Shruti Haasan has been busy and how! After a self-imposed break in 2017, the actress returned to mainstream cinema in 2020 with Yaara in Hindi. All the while, however, she continued to make music as an independent composer and songwriter. Now ready for two big releases post Deepavali, we catch up with the proud Chennai girl, with a 13-year-career in films to find out about her path ahead, her life in Mumbai, her opinions on faith, fashion, fitness, feminism and food; and how the pandemic helped her find more clarity.
She is seated quite comfortably as we catch up with her for a quick cuppa. She’s down for the birthday of her younger sister, Akshara (October 12) and is now meeting producers and directors in the city to discuss possible projects. She looks fresh as ever, dressed in colourful cotton casuals and has no airs about her. We greet each other and quickly get chatty. Excerpts:
Q. You seem to love dressing in black? How come you’re dressed differently today?
Today is the only day I am not completely all in black. I’m totally Goth and have always been that way. When I came into the industry, I was proud of it and then I was beaten down to pinks and oranges. It wasn’t just about clothing, it was also about presentation and communication.
Q. So, when did you decide to give into your inner Goth?
After a while though, I asked myself: why are you calling it acting, when you’re anyway playing a role even in your real life, for free and even in your free time! I was really not able to differentiate myself from the characters I was playing on screen. That’s when I had to discover the inner Goth in me and find my true self, in a way. Now, I’m a very proud Goth. It represents a lot of me. Goth for me is about living in the gray. I don’t look at life as black and white or good and evil, or right and wrong. It’s all subjective, so for me it’s about enjoying that in-between space. Even now, though, I get the occasional: are you a chudail (witch)? And all of these attitudes, to someone who presents like me, hark back to crazy stuff like witch-burning and the Salem trials and all of that.
Q. But has it changed for women since?
Nothing seems to have changed for women since then, honestly. So much so, we now have many more stakes to be burned on, metaphorically. The amount of trolling women are subjected to, every single day online, the increasing number of crimes against women, it just never seems to get better, ever!
Q. Shifting to your career, it’s been 13 years; do you think you’ve finally found your footing?
Being completely honest and I have no shame in saying this. I think this is what keeps one young as an artiste and I don’t mean physically, but in your head — the need to want to create, curiosity and the fact that I am still finding my footing. Gravity will teach you about stability and instability and it has to be the same way for an artist. I don’t think any artiste who says, ‘this is concrete, this is where I stand,’ is going to grow from that point. God knows the earth could open up and swallow you at any moment. So, I like to say that I’m still trying to find my footing. I’m still growing. Especially after the break I took and then came back, I feel like I’m open to opportunity and change and growth.
Q. You’re often tagged as a ‘commercial film’ heroine? How comfortable are you with that?
I like the kinds of films I’ve received. I get a lot of flak for doing certain ‘commercial’ films and people keep asking me if it was for the money? But money is like water, it comes and goes. You only crave for water when you’re thirsty, no? It doesn’t even cross your mind otherwise. What people seem to not consider is that these commercial projects took me to more people, into more houses and onto more televisions. It gave me the freedom and confidence to control my own career. People tell me I should be frightened of being cast in a mould as a commercial heroine, but instead this career choice has given me the power to tell my audience: hey! This is me. But that is also me. Social media has also played such a big part in giving me the freedom to control my own narrative.
Q. But wait, you’re probably the first Goth to have two Disney associations — the voice of Elsa from Frozen 2 in Tamil and Anaganaga O Dheerudu in Telugu?
I just want to say that all my associations with Disney have been very Goth, okay! Elsa is ‘moody,’ she’s not gray, but she’s freezing stuff, man! She’s alone and she’s misunderstood. She has a temper. I mean, come on! Textbook Goth! (laughs). And in Anaganaga O Dheerudu, Priya’s from a lineage of witches. It doesn‘t get more Goth than that.
Q. You moved to Mumbai a while ago, how has that shift been?
I like Mumbai a lot. I love the energy that the city has. Just that people still think that I live in Chennai, especially people in Mumbai! The city is wonderfully cosmopolitan, but it doesn’t make it immune to ignorance when it comes to cultural understanding. There’s laziness when it comes to understanding South Indians there. I still get the random: do you speak Malayalam? Their understanding of South India is really convoluted. That makes me become an even prouder flag-bearer of South Indian culture and languages. I do not miss a chance to educate anyone. It wasn’t tough to find a footing there though, cause my mother (Sarika Thakur) is from there and I spent a bit of my childhood there too.
Q. Has Chennai let go of you since the move?
Chennai has always seen me as different. I was this proud metal head walking around in Besant Nagar and you’d see me on the beach with pink hair. I was here till I was 17. I am, was and will always be a proud Tamil, Chennai girl. I don’t think I give the city an option about accepting me or not.
Q. Beyond cinema, you’re known for your love for music…
My interest in music began when I was in school in Chennai. Chennai is so inundated with talent. It’s filled with quiet pockets of talent. We don’t feel the need to be all glammed up or to scream from rooftops. Some of the best musicians I have ever come across have come from this city. I spent most of my earlier years as a musician shuttling between the scenes in Bengaluru and Chennai. I began training in Hindustani Classical music when I was in 9th Standard. This was in Mumbai during my summer vacation. I began learning the art form under the late Pandit Manohar Kulkarni and he was my biggest influence. I also did music in Abacus Montessori School, Chennai instead of math. And then I went to Lady Andal Venkatasubba Rao School, Chennai which is also huge on the cultural scene and played with a band there. I went to Mumbai later in life and played with quite a few bands there, but it was when I came back to Chennai that my dad (Kamal Haasan) insisted that I get into composing and writing and he was like: start writing stuff. I then applied to Musicians Institute (MI), Los Angeles, California and that’s where it all began professionally. More recently, I didn’t write any music during the pandemic. I released my last song in August 2020 (Edge, which has already received more than 1.8 million views on YouTube). The pandemic began in March and till July I couldn’t get myself to write anything. I felt it would be very petty of me to write during the pandemic. I write very autobiographically and I asked myself: are you going to really make it about yourself when the whole of humanity has had this mass shift in consciousness?
Q. And what is the kind of music that you make?
I am a singer-songwriter by heart. I’ve always had a problem because I went to an English medium school and grew up listening to English music, but I love rock and roll and metal and I love traditional South Indian folk music. The common element is rhythm. But I’ve always struggled because people always ask me why I don’t sing in Tamil or Hindi. English has by default become the connecting language in the country and for some strange reason; we don’t want to admit it. My fluency and my ability to write lyrics are in English. But my ability to sing is in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. So for me, it’s really interesting to mix these things in a way that is true to me and not be gimmicky or just for novelty.
Q. And do you play a lot of instruments?
Just the piano. I don’t play the guitar, contrary to belief. I’m terrible on the guitar but yes, I can fake it well on screen if I have to (laughs).
Q. With a voice like yours, how haven’t you considered classical singing?
Just because you have a great voice, you needn’t sing a Figaro. I like that my voice suits a Kannazhaga (from the film 3 released in 2012) and a Semmozhiyaana (anthem from the World Classical Tamil Conference 2010). I like having diversity. For me singing has been so greatly influenced by my acting. It’s not about scale, range, pitch or power. It’s about what emotion do you carry in your voice? I love to act with my voice.
Q. What did you manage to learn from all the isolation thanks to the simultaneous lockdowns?
I realised that I really enjoy my own company, more than I probably should. People who are even in their 40s and 50s are so afraid to be alone. They don’t admit it. They’re like closeted clingers. They need people and they need company. I used to be like that. I needed my friends around me, I needed a relationship. And I don’t know, I think, through my work with therapy and just being an actor on the road alone, so much… I started really enjoying my own company. So, it was just me and my cat. The pandemic gave me clarity, but the thing is, it’s not just the pandemic, the pandemic was a full stop to a sentence I had already started writing. I’ve been in therapy; I’ve been on a path of sobriety. And so, the pandemic was that really perfect dark full stop for me. I’m also really blessed and thankful to God to be at this position where I’m happy about being an artiste. Especially after the beginning of the pandemic, everyone has had to adapt and innovate. What it means to be a person has changed, let alone a woman. And what it means to be an artiste today is to be free-flowing and innovative. So, I’m excited to create so many different things. And I’m excited about people, because I think you will agree, there comes a time when you get jaded with people. And for me, this time alone has made me excited about people again. I only want value-adds in my life and I only want to be a value-add to someone else’s life.
Q. You speak so openly about mental health…
I’ve been a huge advocate of mental health because I’ve been a great beneficiary of the process. I’ve always felt when people are ill, they have a headache or a migraine or even a stomach ache; they don’t feel the need to justify why they need to go to a doctor. And the brain is an organ as well. It has chemicals. It’s a part of the whole physio-biological process, but there’s been a stigma around it. There’s a beautiful culture in India of families being close knit and speaking with each other. But sometimes this is a hindrance because the people who are a part of the problem cannot be a solution to the problem. This is not a negative connotation. If you need an aerial perspective, you cannot do it sitting in the same house. I’ve greatly benefited from talk therapy, because I realised I was talking a lot but not talking about the things that really mattered and not talking with myself. And this was with a trained professional, just like you have a fitness instructor or a nutritionist, or a yoga expert; this is someone who helps you with your mind. And I definitely am proud to say, I’ve overcome my own issues with anxiety. You know, being in a business, from the family I’m from; being in a business that requires heightened functioning all the time, I felt very inadequate, not being able to deal with my anxieties. There’s no right or wrong. To me personally, it has been so freeing to speak about it, and not pretend to be perfect and okay, but to say: it‘s okay to not be okay. That, in fact, made me stronger as a person.
Q. Where do you see yourself in a year?
Working, still wearing a mask and sanitising. The pandemic doesn’t go away on a stroll and leave you alone. I mean, if you read about pandemics and you know how these things work, they’re pretty long drawn.
Q. And do you read or write a lot? What are you reading and who is your favourite author?
I love Neil Gaiman. I am his biggest fan and I’m so glad I get to speak to him often and call him a friend today. It’s literally one of the secret jewels of my life. I read Neil Gaiman when I was 14 and I knew I wanted to be friends with this person. I was like: God! Please make this happen. And it did. I’m currently reading The Maidens by Alex Michaelides. And I am working on my own poetry and stories as well. Hopefully, you’ll see it soon.
Q. What are the kinds of roles you hope to get in the future?
Women who have more layers? I think we‘re getting there. But I think we still get stuck in a palette that doesn’t belong to our feminine energy, because it’s from a male gaze. I think there are too many societal stereotypes of what a good woman is. What is a bad woman? What is the perfect woman? I just haven‘t come across the human one yet.
Q. Your advice to people beginning their career in films…
Go in with good intention and hard work, it really ultimately pays off. And I would say, don’t listen to others about others. And don’t listen to others about you. And don’t make judgments based on what people say either. Not just for cinema and any business if you‘re going to join a clinic or a corporate office or a bank, I‘d say the same thing.
Q. What next?
Currently, I’m working on Salaar with Prabhas which is spanning across all languages and my first series for Amazon Prime Video is in its post production phase. It’s being helmed by Mukul Abhyankar and is an adaptation of Ravi Subramanian’s 2015 novel, The Bestseller She Wrote.
Take-5 with Shruti
Fashion: I think my fashion sense is inspired by musicians because I grew up seeing each of my favourite musicians using fashion and clothing as a statement of their state of mind, so, that you could immediately identify them. It’s like a uniform that can showcase defiance or fitting in or being pleasant.
Favourite Song: For my Goth image it’s really the polar opposite but it’s Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles. I think it’s because of the memories I had as a kid that it has stayed in my head as a favourite.
Fitness: I think there was a time in between when I was really, really out of shape. It was a very difficult time for me. I have struggled a lot with my weight because of PCOS. I have major hormonal imbalances. I’ve had them throughout my career. I can’t eat as much of whatever I’d like. I train in MMA all the time and I dance with myself.
Food: I love South Indian food and I have always searched for good South Indian food wherever I’ve gone. I had to teach myself to cook because it’s very tough to come across good Tamil food anywhere outside the South. I make a fine vendakkai kuzhambu, vatha kuzhambu and everyone dies for my sambar.
Faith: I pray with gratitude. I have to do that for my day to end. Religion and spirituality have found a beautiful balance in my life. To just be in that moment, and feel thankfulness, that’s where I am.