Lucky Thirteen: The Rise and Rise of Samantha
When Raj and DK were making The Family Man Season 2, a crucial scene was that of Raji taking the pledge of the Tamil tigers, when she receives a call asking her to be ready for a mission. The directors assumed that Samantha, who played Raji, would recite the pledge monotonously since the words would have been memorised repeatedly by the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) cadre. But Samantha had different ideas about how to do the scene. Her face steely and her voice quivering with passion, she delivered the pledge so powerfully that everyone on the set had goosebumps.
“Samantha had shut herself up in her hotel room and was preparing for the scene by watching documentaries on the LTTE and the plight of the Tamil people. She was in a very dark place. She was building up her rage, and we didn’t know that this was her process. She was so charged up that she surprised us,” said Raj and DK while talking about their experience of working with the actor. The scene convinced the director duo that they were right to place their bets on Samantha pulling off this challenging role which demanded action and emotion in equal parts.
It’s been 13 years since Samantha made a magical debut with Ye Maaya Chesave (2010), and the actor recently shared a gratitude note for the film’s anniversary that began with the line “The older I get.. the farther I go…” There isn’t a better description for Samantha’s career, going from the feminine, conventional ‘love interest’ in commercial blockbusters to shouldering films and roles written specifically for her.
Samantha is working with Raj and DK once again for Citadel, the Indian edition of the Amazon Prime Video web series that was created by Patrick Moran and the Russo brothers. The announcement came even as Samantha’s struggle with her autoimmune condition, myositis, made the headlines. But then, the actor has always managed to rise above the obstacles that come her way. So much so that director Nandini Reddy, who is also Samantha’s close friend, described her as a “mountaineer” – a person whose life has been full of challenges but surmounts them each time.
Reddy has directed Samantha in two Telugu films – Jabardasth (2013) and Oh! Baby (2019). The first is a romcom while the second is the remake of a Korean fantasy comedy which is about an elderly woman (Lakshmi) who parachutes into the body of her 24-year-old self (Samantha). Reddy knew that Samantha was a talented actor, having watched her from her early days in the industry when she made her debut with Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Ye Maaya Chesave, but the Oh! Baby role was nothing like Samantha had done earlier.
“The role needed someone with some life experience. The actor was required to play a 70-year-old in the body of a young person, so she should have faced some struggles and hardship in life. She should have understood pain to express the emotions that Lakshmi amma’s character is feeling. The body is young but the eyes have to reflect the old soul,” explained Reddy. Samantha, Reddy said, fit the bill. The actor did not have an easy life – she was a topper who wanted to study, but had to take up modelling and later films due to financial constraints. Despite the curveballs that life has thrown at her — or perhaps because of them — Samantha has a wry sense of humour and often drops sarcastic one-liners in conversation. This was exactly what Reddy wanted for her film.
“She’s never happy with what she has done. She wants to keep pushing the bar higher, and it keeps the rest of us on our toes,” said Reddy. To prepare for the role in Oh! Baby, Samantha arrived on the sets two days early, just to watch actor Lakshmi play the elderly woman and observe her body language. Reddy and Samantha also went to old age homes and spoke to people there to understand their mindset and insecurities, what kind of sense of humour they have and so on.
Samantha, who hails from Chennai and has worked on a number of Tamil and Telugu films, married her co-star Akkineni Naga Chaitanya in 2017. It was a fairytale romance, and the actor broke the norm in the south Indian film industries by refusing to take a break from work post-marriage. Instead, she spoke about how she wasn’t getting new films because people assumed that she was quitting, now that she had married into a famous Tollywood family. Samantha soon did Sukumar’s period action drama Rangasthalam (2018), playing the bold and seductive Ramalakshmi opposite Ram Charan. She followed it up with critically acclaimed films such as Mahanati (2018), U Turn (2018), and Super Deluxe (2018).
When the couple divorced in 2021, Samantha was subjected to a barrage of ugly, misogynistic abuse on social media. From questioning her character to accusing her of having a secret abortion, the attack was so severe that the actor was forced to file against the rumour mongers. She was at the top of her career, having won rave reviews for her performance in The Family Man Season 2 earlier that year, but the trolls couldn’t see beyond her personal life. While it was undeniably a difficult period for her, Samantha did something that nobody expected her to do at that juncture – an item song in Allu Arjun’s Pushpa: The Rise.
“Oo Antava” and its translated versions became massively viral, and the song was among the reasons for Pushpa’s unprecedented popularity beyond the Telugu states. The song may have pandered to the male gaze while claiming to subvert it, but it was nevertheless a loud message that Samantha was sending to her detractors. She was in control of the narrative around her, not them.
Singer Chinmayi, who has dubbed for Samantha in several films, views her as an actor who has crossed several language and gender barriers. “She has repeatedly broken every glass wall that is built around women actors in this country,” she said. In 2018, when the #MeToo movement broke out in the Indian film industries, Samantha was among the few stars to vocally express her support to Chinmayi who had stirred the hornet’s nest by accusing poet and lyricist Vairamuthu of sexual harassment. Chinmayi also faced a ban from the dubbing union for sharing #MeToo allegations about its president, actor Radha Ravi.
“Samantha stood by me during #MeToo. She was one of the few, if not only, voices of stature to believe me and continue to give me work. I’d even go out on a limb and say she got me to dub for her even when she was fully ready to be dubbing for herself,” said Chinmayi, who was ostracised by many in the film industry for speaking up against powerful and politically connected men.
Producer Neelima Guna, who worked with Samantha in her upcoming film period drama Shaakuntalam, called the actor a “thorough professional”. Guna’s last production was Rudramadevi (2015) with Anushka Shetty in the lead, a film about a princess who dresses as a man to defend her kingdom. Guna believes in investing in films with strong women leads, and Shaakuntalam, which is about a naive young woman’s journey through love and betrayal, is another such project.
“Samantha has never let her personal struggles affect even a single day of shoot. The second COVID wave was going on in 2021 when we were shooting Shaakuntalam, and we had erected very big sets for it. So many were falling ill, but Samantha sat me down and told me that she would be there and complete the shoot. She stood like a pillar for us. She was going through a lot of personal issues then, but I only got to know of all that later,” said Guna.
While she doesn’t let her personal issues affect her work, Samantha is among the rare south Indian celebrities to speak about what she’s going through on social media and in interviews. Reddy said the actor shares a unique relationship with her fans – one of candour and honesty. Her Instagram page is a mix of films, promotions for her fashion brand Saaki World, partnerships with other brands, her dogs, workout videos and her biggest support network – her friends who’ve stood by her through thick and thin. And they can’t be happier for her as she joins the cast of Citadel.
So, what can we expect from Samantha in Citadel? Raj and DK are understandably tight-lipped about the project, but here’s what they promise: “We’ve started shooting with Samantha and Varun (Dhawan). It’s a really strong, auteur backed role. The idea is to use Samantha’s abilities and challenge her more, to open up a few more aspects of her acting.”