Samyuktha Menon: I love to break stereotypes
The actor talks about her journey in cinema, choice of roles, feminism, upcoming projects, and more
Samyuktha Menon, who started her career with "small" projects, is now part of films featuring some of South cinema's biggest stars. The actor, who hails from a non-filmy background, credits her passion for learning as the reason for her growth. Here are excerpts from a freewheeling conversation with a confident Samyuktha who is fiercely opinionated.
You started with an indie project like Lilli and now, you are acting alongside the likes of Pawan Kalyan, Prithviraj, and Dhanush...
I became an actor by choice, and there was no one to guide me on this path. Though I had done a film before Lilli, I fell in love with cinema only after it. I started planning my career with a proper vision. My focus is to keep improving and be the best. In fact, if Lilli was offered to me now, I’m sure I can do a better job.
What were your first reactions when a Malayalam big-ticket film like Kaduva was offered?
When Kaduva first came, I had two Telugu films lined up. But I didn’t want to miss out on this project. I’m a huge fan of Prithvi sir. I would call him a walking film school. So, as an actor and as a fan, I badly wanted to work with him. There was also Shaji Kailas sir, whose films I've grown up watching. When I got an offer from a combination like this, I didn't want to let go.
Of late, you've been doing a lot of Telugu films...
I didn't expect to make the transition to Telugu cinema so soon. But I guess that's the beauty of life. Honestly, I'm not someone who is after the luxuries I get in other languages. In Telugu, I actually felt like a debutante because the working style is different. In Malayalam, my acting process is -- I'll take time to think about my lines, do some basic makeup, and then deliver. But in Telugu, everything has to be on point; from hair to dressing, everything is cinematic. There are a lot of corrections and preps happening before a shot. Then they'll immediately go for 'take'. It was tough initially, but I'm gradually adapting to their working style.
It isn't easy to get into the skin of a character in other language films...
My travel experiences have been of great help as an actor. Though I was familiar with Tamil Nadu and its culture, I didn't know much about the Telugu land. So after the release of Bheemla Nayak, I started living in Hyderabad, and during breaks, I drive around observing the people and their lives. One of my upcoming films has me playing a rural character, but my idea of a village is only through films. So I put the effort to experience the lives of the people in farmlands.
Having been part of Bheemla Nayak and Kaduva, which both deals with toxic masculinity, what's your take on the issue?
My concern is always about the relationship between a toxic male and a female. You can't disrespectfully portray a woman. A few years back, women were shown in a way I can't agree with, but now, things are changing. Today, I wish to see subtle changes in such portrayal, which I hope will bring a change in society.
Do you take all that into account while choosing a character?
I'm trying my best to be careful with my characters, but the fact is, there will be instances where you don't realise certain things are problematic. For example, in my school, a boy would always be named the captain and a girl, the vice-captain. In schools, as punishment, girl students were asked to sit with boys. All that affected me when I was young and made me insecure. It's only after the recent feminist movements that I started realising a lot of problematic things. Today, I'm a strong and evolving feminist.
Recently, there were rumours about you walking out of Dhanush's Vaathi/Sir. How unsettling is it to hear such rumours so early in your career?
That was the first proper rumour about me. It was baseless but went viral. Earlier, you had asked me about my journey, right? Along with professional growth, my personality also grew during this period. There were days when certain comments affected me. I became cautious in interviews. It's not because I didn't want to speak my heart, but I was always wary of the reactions after that. Prithviraj is a perfect example of that. There was a phase when he faced severe backlash. But now, people love him for what he is.
As an actor, are you concerned about your image or the stereotypes associated with it?
After Lilli and Theevandi, people thought I would be fit only for rural roles. I wanted to break that stereotype. I don't want to be in a safe zone. For instance, in Vaathi, I play a saree-clad teacher who romances Dhanush sir, and breaks into a dance when needed. In Sai Dharam Tej's film, I play a rural woman in her early 20s. When I signed Bheemla Nayak, many asked me not to. I took the gamble because I loved how the role got adapted in Telugu. And as it turned out, that 20-minute screen time has fetched all the love from the Telugu audience. That's how I like to do it. I love to give an image and break it.