Southern superwomen: Nayanthara to Samantha, Hindi films turn south for their leading ladies
Indian cinema from its inception has been culturally diverse. Film crews and actors from different backgrounds worked in the industry and this was most evident within south Indian cinema as well.
Nayanthara is starring with Shah Rukh Khan in Atlee’s film, tentatively titled Lion. Samantha Ruth Prabhu Akkineni, learning Hindi for her Mumbai debut, is as much in the news for her fierce portrayal of Raji in Amazon Prime Video’s The Family Man. Priyamani is the ever-reliable Suchi of the same series who went on to play roles in Maidaan and Atlee’s new film, while Nithya Menen and Keerthy Suresh are picking and choosing their pan-Indian films and series at leisure.
The southern film heroine, once in demand purely for her dancing skills, is now being discovered by the rest of India for the intensity of her craft, fluency in languages, and increasing adaptation to Bollywood’s obsession with thinness and fairness.It helps that she brings in an additional audience, with those who have been fed on dubbed versions of southern films either on television or on streaming. It’s something Nithya Menen discovered even before she ventured into Mumbai with the ensemble film, Mission Mangal (2019), and the web series Breathe: Into the Shadows (2020). As she says, “I always thought it would be difficult for me to get privacy no matter which city I go to in the south because I work in so many languages. In my head, I thought Mumbai would be really chilled out and I could relax. So I went to dinner with a friend and when I came out, waiting for my car, people gathered around me and started asking me about my work. I was in shock. I had no clue south Indian films were so popular because they were being dubbed.” From taxi drivers to students, everyone she met told her they preferred to watch films from the south, no matter their original language.
After Mission Mangal and Breathe 2, she says she gets more calls from the south but also for films by Bengali directors. “But I’ve always chosen content over quantity in the south and am looking forward to recreating that in Hindi,” adds Menen. Indeed, Menen’s career has been studded with unconventional choices, whether it is as a young architect who chooses to live with her partner without marriage in Mani Ratnam’s beloved OK Kanmani (2015) or playing one-half of a lesbian couple in Awe (2018).
But how much of this renewed demand is because of a certain standardisation of beauty across the country? Many women in film industries across India (barring Malayalam perhaps) have resorted to plastic surgery to conform to culturally accepted standards of fair skin and size zero so their market widens. Vyjayanthimala, trained in Bharatanatyam, was perhaps the first of the southern actors to move to Mumbai for movies, followed by Waheeda Rehman, also a classically trained dancer. Recalling Bahar (1951) that marked her entry into Hindi films, Vyjayanthimala once said in an interview: “Bahar took the north by storm because till then they hadn’t seen real dance in films. All the actors did was sway to the music. There was no footwork, mudras or facial expressions. I became an all-India star overnight.” Her grandmother, Yadugiri Devi, who was her guiding light, also imported Kathak-trained maestros B Sohanlal and Hiralal to Mumbai. Sohanlal’s assistant, chosen to rehearse with Vyjayanthimala in the now iconic-dance-off with Helen in Dr Vidya (1962), was Saroj Khan.
Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman paved the way for Hema Malini and Rekha. Sridevi moved to Hindi films after a full career in the south, having to unlearn a lot and relearn how to dress, behave and maintain herself. As Satyarth Nayak writes in his biography on her, Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, “Rekha had taken her under her wings and was coaching her in the ways of Hindi filmdom.
Perhaps they had found a kindred spirit in each other, both having coped with body shaming, language issues and the migration from south. Sridevi would also often write letters to Rekha while shooting away from Bombay. While Star & Style carried a cover story of Sridevi declaring ‘Rekha is my only friend’, Rekha gushed in Filmfare: ‘Sridevi is No. 1. Give her six months more and she will redefine the rules of the industry’.” Deepika Padukone and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan have had very successful careers in Mumbai regardless of their ethnicity because they fit the beauty ideal. But increasingly, Mumbai filmmakers are casting according to the demand of the role, focusing on authenticity and diversity. The Family Man’s Suchi, played by Priyamani, a Tamil-speaking Palakkad Iyer, is a case in point. But equally, Menen played Asha Sabharwal in Breathe 2, with no direct mention of her ethnicity.
Indian cinema from its inception has been culturally diverse. Film crews and actors from different backgrounds worked in the industry and this was most evident within south Indian cinema as well. Starting with Mani Ratnam’s blockbusters Nayakan (1987), Roja (1992), and Bombay (1995), which were simultaneously made in multiple languages (Tamil, Telugu and Hindi), south Indian cinema attempted to break into the Hindi-speaking market. Multilingual productions became more common and made financial sense within the south Indian film industries but were almost non-existent in Bollywood. This was possible because of the casting of an array of actors who appealed to India’s different regional audiences. “More importantly, while Bollywood sees itself as the epitome of Indian cinema, it nonetheless speaks to a narrowly-defined idea of pan-Indianness, says film scholar Selvaraj Velayutham. “What south Indian cinema has done is reinvent the Indian national imagination by adding greater diversity, new stories, and different ways of being Indian,” he adds.
Says Tanuja Chandra, one of the first few directors to cast Parvathy Thiruvothu, then largely unknown outside Kerala, in Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) as Jaya Shashidharan with Irrfan Khan, “Fortunately Zee was happy to have Parvathy because they have a thriving production in the south. In many films, I imagine there might be plenty of reluctance to cast an actor from the south who’s not considered a perfect fit for Hindi films in terms of looks—this I think is shortsightedness and a mistake and once again our producers aligned with my vision of having a lead who’s a woman like any of us, a commonly seen urban, working woman with her own set of dreams and a longing in her heart to find love.” She doesn’t have to be infantilised or homogenised to be accepted.
Even if she does conform to the cookie-cutter Barbie trap, she retains her independence in thought and speech. None of the young women who are making their way from the southern industries to Mumbai can be considered intellectual pushovers. They’ve all had culturally varied backgrounds, with schooling across India and been exposed to worlds other than entertainment. Even Keerthy Suresh, daughter of a film producer and actor, has a degree in fashion from Pearl Academy in Chennai, and had to find her own way into the movies, unlike a vast number of actors in Mumbai who come either from film families or the world of modelling.
The richness of their life experiences shows onscreen. One of the most stunning transformations in recent years has been of Samantha who quite disappeared into character as Raji, the Sri Lankan Tamil rebel in The Family Man, miles away from her self-described “cute girl” image. Says Samantha, “The last few years I have come into my own and am just about understanding the sentiments of theatre-going audiences at home. I am now at a comfortable space to pick and choose what I want to do. If a role does not challenge me and give me sleepless nights I’d rather sit at home.” That’s not likely to happen, with the kind of accolades coming her way across India after The Family Man.
“Fear has always driven me,” she says, “I am an anxious person which inhibited my growth in many ways at the beginning of my career. But then I started to enjoy fear and anxiety, and play this game with it. If I am fearful of something it’s exactly what I will do,” she says, adding that much of it was because her first film, Ye Maya Chesave (2010), a romance with husband Naga Chaitanya, which was a hit. “I arrived from nowhere. People can handle success in two ways, relish it or beat themselves up asking why me, what’s so special about me,” she adds. She’s not rid herself of the fear but learned to live with it. One has to work on one’s self every day, she says. “You need food for the soul as for the body. Only you can help yourself.”
Now, from all accounts, Samantha doesn’t just want to wait around for good films to happen to her, but actually make them happen. She is looking for talented female writers and directors and wants to get involved in the project much earlier than an actor typically gets involved. She has shown such generosity before, accepting smaller roles in breakout movies such as Mahanati (2018) and Super Deluxe (2019), making the films commercially viable with her presence.
It is a path chosen by Nayanthara, known as the Lady Superstar in the male-dominated Tamil film industry. Born Diana Kurian, she has literally carved a new identity for herself, choosing to convert to Hinduism, adopting her mononym as her official name, and becoming a commercially viable lead of her movies, no matter who the hero is. It hasn’t been easy. She’s paid her dues, acted opposite all the regional superstars, from Mohanlal to Rajinikanth, done item songs, had her voice dubbed and physically transformed herself to fit into the accepted ideal. In doing so, she has also maintained her aura, her enigma, and her mystery. RJ Balaji, who directed her in Mookuthi Amman (2020), says it is down to her discipline. “Beyond a point talent is not enough.You need to be extremely professional. Normally heroines take a lot of time to get ready for a shot, but with her, it’s just like magic. If the call sheet says 7 am, she will be on the set in full costume and make-up at 6.45, even if she is playing a goddess, with heavy jewellery, the sari, and the hair.” He also refers to her unique brand of stardom. “She is a star, like in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, before the advent of the Internet. These days anyone and everyone has access to the topmost stars through social media, even Amitabh Bachchan. If he tweets at 8 am, someone will tweet and tell him to go back to sleep. But she rarely does interviews, barely promotes her movies and usually doesn’t go to industry events. She has managed to maintain the air of enigma around her. She is a star and she will shine wherever in the world she goes,” he says. And when she speaks, she does it on her own terms, whether it is against the proposed ban on Jallikattu or in praise of the encounter of accused rapists by the Telangana police.
Nayanthara is not a prisoner of any image. Just like Priyamani, her co-star in Atlee’s next film, who says, “Earlier in my career, I was focused on being the lead; at that point if you played the lead you were bound to get more recognition and more offers. But now the vision of the industry has changed and the audience has changed. Right now important roles are written for women and men. Once all a woman got after marriage was the role of a sister or sister-in-law, but not anymore.” She has been in crossover movies before, in Raavan (2010) and in Chennai Express (2013), but the response after The Family Man was of a different order. “I got so many messages from Mumbai for my work. Many people sent me messages for Suchi and said they loved my body of work too,” she says. She now lives in Mumbai, and is taking it one step at a time, seeing where it takes her.
That is exactly what Keerthy Suresh did after Mahanati, where she played Telugu superstar Savitri Devi. She took a break for seven months, gathered scripts and listened to narrations. She was offered the role of Ajay Devgn’s wife in Maidaan, the biopic of one-time football coach Syed Abdul Rahim, but she turned it down, saying it would age her. And though she is acting with superstars Mohanlal and Rajinikanth, it is not in romantic roles opposite them.
None of these southern superstars is in a hurry to break out, assured as they are of the fame that comes within their own industries. When they do step out, as Nayanthara and Samantha have done, they do so on their own terms with top billing. There was a time when the southern film industries were known only for the women they imported from the north, and sometimes, as with Liverpudlian Amy Jackson, even farther than that. It’s time for the cultural flow to be reversed. Add to that Hindi remakes of Nayanthara’s Kolamavu Kokila (Good Luck Jerry, starring Jahnvi Kapoor) and Samantha’s U Turn (with Alaya F) and the reverse journey is complete.