Nithya Menen: The success of a film hinges on its women

Actor Nithya Menen opens up about all the love pouring in for Thiruchitrambalam, what she thinks about her character Shobana, and not believing in having a plan for her career
Nithya Menen as Shobana in Thiruchitrambalam
Nithya Menen as Shobana in Thiruchitrambalam

Theatre legend Konstantin Stanislavski once said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Nithya Menen's recent filmography makes it clear that she doesn't really place too much importance on screentime, or whether the cast has other heroines. "If people think I'm unique because of these choices, that makes me sad. I think any true actor should be like this. We must not take ourselves too seriously. What is the point of planning our careers--as though cinema were a corporate job? This, in fact, is the beauty of being in a creative space. We don't have to be so cerebral or think about climbing the ladder,” begins Nithya, who is currently relaxing in Bengaluru, away from all the bustle surrounding her recent release, Thiruchitrambalam, and her seminal role of Shobana.  

Excerpts from a conversation:

The responses to Thiruchitrambalam and Shobana have been crazy. A lot of people are seeing themselves in Shobana, or want someone like her in their lives…

Honestly, I am very cut off from everything. Of course, I am happy about the recognition for the work we do, but I don’t keep myself at the centre of these things. In fact, I am really not sure about the extent of these responses. 

Did you also not come across some of the not-so-positive responses to the film's end?

I think it’s important not to confuse cinema and real life. Shobana is not a real person. She is a character. How can a writer tweak every aspect to cater to every opinion? Talks about Shobana getting a raw deal are weird. People over-analyse films and say, ‘It should have been like this’... NO! That’s your opinion. When you make a film, make it with your opinion. This is someone else’s opinion. A lot of people have liked Thiruchitrambalam. There are hundreds of opinions, and it is better if we stop taking all of them so seriously. 

This year, we have seen you in Bheemla Nayak, 19 1(a), and now, Thiruchitrambalam. They are all very different films, across different languages. Is this a result of planning or do you just go with the flow?

I just look for real and honest stories. There is no over-analysing at all. Mostly, my choices have been about my gut feeling. Even if certain nuances or a small aspect of the character connect with me, I’ll do the film. I don’t understand the need for a plan. I can speak all languages, and when a story comes from a particular language, I do it. One shouldn’t treat cinema like rocket science. I just do what makes sense to me.

Is there a switch that separates Nithya, the person, and Nithya, the actor?

Not really. My acting isn’t external. It comes from my soul. Not just acting, any interaction I have in life comes from something deep. I am a spontaneous actor. I don’t carry my roles back home. In fact, that’s the last thing I want to do. What comes home is the mental or physical exhaustion of a particular character. I have to get out of that exhaustion to just give myself some time and space to recuperate. 

Prakash Raj called you a ‘nadippu rakshashi’ at the Thiruchitrambalam audio launch.

I‘ve always felt extremely grateful and almost get taken aback by love from my contemporaries, peers, and co-actors. In fact, I have never met a heroine, who hasn’t come up to me with absolute love in her eyes. Be it Priya (Bhavani Shankar) or Raashi, they take time out to show me so much love and appreciation. They tell me they are fans and that's really the ultimate compliment.

Filmmakers write roles keeping you in mind. Is that validation for your choices?

Even when I’m doing a commercial film like a Bheemla Nayak or a Mersal, it is clear that the writer and filmmaker have a deep love for my character. In Mersal, for example, she is the soul of the film. I worked on Bheemla and 19 (1)(a) simultaneously, and it is clear that I don’t have any restrictions about the kind of films that I do. Filmmakers are aware of how approachable I am, and if what they bring is good and makes sense to me, I’ll just do it. Many a time, filmmakers say they had written the role keeping me in mind. Even Thiruchitrambalam was like that, and yes, it is a great honour for me. 

As someone who gravitates towards strongly written women roles, how do you see the evolution of the female gaze in our films? 

The success of a film depends on the strength of its women characters. If people recognise their importance, good for them. Across genres, it is important that women have work to do. Take, for instance, a Kushi, Ala Modalaindi, or Fidaa... they achieved cult status because the lead woman was appreciated. This is something filmmakers should open their eyes to; if they don’t, it is their loss.

As a writer yourself, do you shape the character that is offered to you? Also, do you find time to write with your tight schedules? 

I am particular about not tampering with something that isn’t my creation. I wouldn’t appreciate something similar happening to my writing. When I am convinced of a filmmaker, I surrender to their vision. I only contribute from an actor’s perspective. And the exhaustion that comes from being an actor is the biggest hindrance for the writer in me. Exhaustion and inspiration don’t go well.

Does social media make it harder to balance the personal and the professional?

I know a lot of my fans, and it is nice to use social media to connect with them. I consciously ensure it doesn't overpower my personal life. I let rumours go because I see them as a waste of time. Where do people have the time to talk about someone they hardly know? But some recent rumours were intense, and I wanted to clear them once and for all. I understand that this is the life I chose, and I just keep on moving, on my own terms.

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