Nivetha Pethuraj: I'm rarely offered strong roles in Tamil cinema
Nivetha Pethuraj talks about balancing her career in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, her tryst with F1 racing, and how her choices have evolved over the years
Nivetha Pethuraj’s WhatsApp profile doesn’t have a picture. She attributed it to the messages she receives from fans, with the no-image profile allowing her to tell strangers that they have got the number wrong. Thankfully, she did no such thing when I approached her for this conversation ahead of the release of Pon Manickavel, which marks her first Tamil outing in two years. The actor, however, has had two Telugu releases this year: Red, the remake of Thadam, in which she played an inquisitive police officer, and Paagal, an underwhelming romance in which she still managed to stand out.
In retrospect, she has played far more compelling roles in Telugu, and Nivetha too acknowledges this. “It helped that I did a film like Mental Madhilo early in my Telugu career, and filmmakers began approaching me for stronger characters. The only Telugu film I chose for commercial reasons was Ala Vaikunthapurramulo. I picked all the others because they had scope for performance. However, in Tamil, I haven’t been given a chance to break my image as a ‘commercial heroine’ yet, and I’m seldom offered fleshed-out characters. It’s surprising because it’s often the other way around,” Nivetha says.
Her favourite character in Tamil cinema so far is “Madonna from Thimuru Pudichavan. I had complete liberty working on the film. Most of my dialogues and performance were improvised and the director went with it.”
The actor, however, feels that the advent of streaming platforms is compelling writers to come up with content-driven films and better roles for women. Nivetha has a qualm though. “Several filmmakers are approaching me with women-centric scripts but I’m a little scared to carry the burden of a whole film. Of course, Nayanthara and Samantha are doing such films, but they have been in the industry for a long time and have a different kind of market; they are superstars. For newcomers, this can be a tricky decision. I’m in a phase where I just want strong characters.”
Nivetha, however, has signed a women-centric film directed by Chandoo Mondeti. “Though it’s based on three characters — played by me and two other actors — but my character drives the story.” She also admits that the makers' decision to release the yet-to-be-titled film directly on OTT comes as a relief. While on streaming releases, Pon Manickavel marks her first direct-to-digital release, and she admits that it’s a “brief role” that required work from her for around 10-12 days. “When the producers, who also bankrolled Tik Tik Tik, offered me Pon Manickavel, I was not sure about the kind of characters I wanted to play. I then realised that doing commercial roles is important if I wanted to grow in this space.” This is why Nivetha has no condescension for commercial films. “Two of my upcoming Tamil films, Jagajaala Killadi and Party, are such outings, with songs and other commercial cinema flourishes. Working in both films was absolutely fun.” She believes in forging her own path. “My career has been unplanned right from the beginning. I have not taken advice from anyone; I have not tried to ape someone’s pattern. I have gone with the flow, choosing scripts I feel would help me.”
Her takeaway from Pon Manickavel, another crowd-pleaser like her previous outings, is getting an opportunity to shake a leg with Prabhudheva for the song, ‘Uthira Uthira’. “It was the first dance number I shot for in my career, and naturally, I was nervous. I took half a day to settle down; slowly, I began to understand how the moves translate to visuals, and Prabhudheva sir helped me a lot.” Seeing the finished song with her parents, she says, was a strange experience. “I was scared initially as the song is slightly intimate. However, when I told them that, they asked, ‘So what? You are an actor. It’s fine.’ They told me they see it as an art! I was shocked and pleasantly surprised,” Nivetha says, breaking into laughter.
Nivetha’s tryst with Formula 1 racing goes a long way back, even beyond her acting career, which began in 2016. Having completed the Level 1 of the Formula Race Car Training Program in July, she continues to harbour big plans on the racing front. “I worked for F1 racing in Dubai and my passion for the sport grew. It’s a niche, not to mention, expensive, sport. I couldn’t pursue it earlier as I didn’t have enough financial backing, but having saved a part of my earnings for racing, I’m now giving it a shot.” She’s trying to focus on the national championships and planning to participate in a December event. “I’m skeptical though, as I have a shooting schedule clashing with it. I’m trying to balance both.”
Nivetha is serious about pursuing the sport and a shift in her priorities is imminent. “In about two to three months, the sport will turn into my full-time job.” It doesn’t mean she is bidding adieu to the acting. “Acting will turn into my part-time profession,” she says. I ask her if this move means limited but better roles. “Yes,” she says, confidently.