In Ashwin Saravanan’s debut film Maya (2015), Nayanthara’s Apsara is introduced to us as an aspiring actress. In an audition, she is narrated a sequence and asked to improvise. The narration: On her wedding anniversary, she learns that she's pregnant and also that her husband is cheating on her. She goes on to poison his drink, and he eventually dies. But Apsara is asked a question: what she would say at this unfortune moment? Apsara closes her eyes as if to process all the details. As she opens her eyes, the camera zooms in to the brimming tears she is holding back, her kohl-lined eyes adding to the effect. A single tear rolls down as she pretends to takes a sip of the "poisoned" drink and says, “Happy Anniversary”.
The actress has a certain gravitas, and often resorts to a reserved performance to give life to her characters. Be it the confident cop in Imaikkaa Nodigal or the vulnerable girl who somehow wants to help her dying mother in Kolamaavu Kokila, there is always a certain restraint she exudes. If it is in the form of cool swagger in the former, it is a well-guarded veil in the latter. That said, sometimes this reticence is also what makes it hard to read her characters. But Nayanthara owns the screen like no other — when she shares the screen with stars like Vijay or Ajith in films like Bigil, Billa and Viswasam, or even when her character has very little to do in a film. The actress always ensures that we never take our eyes off her.
In her latest outing Annapoorani, Nayanthara has an elaborate title card featuring the multiple characters she has essayed over the years, celebrating a massive feat: her 75th film. Come December 25, Nayanthara will complete two decades in the industry. 75 films and 20 years in the industry are perfect milestones that warrant a look at some of the Lady Superstar’s best performances — a fine balance between the actor and star in her. Here is a subjective ranking of her top 10 best performances in Tamil cinema.
Airaa came at a time when Nayanthara had given back-to-back hits with Kolamaavu Kokila (2018), Imaikkaa Nodigal (2018) and Viswasam (2019). It was also a period when she had already established her space as a bankable star who didn't need a hero in the film. Not just in terms of box-office success, but she’d also proven that she could single-handedly shoulder a story with her performance in films like Dora and Aramm. So there was a genuine curiosity when Airaa was released, especially since the film featured the actress in dual roles.
As Yamuna, a journalist, Nayanthara charms us with her usual confidence, but without much help from the writing, her performance comes off as bland. It is in her other role, where she plays Bhavani, a timid woman who is mocked to be the bearer of bad luck, that Nayanthara shines. In general, Nayanthara is an actress who conveys a lot just through her body language and confidence. But in Bhavani, she brings a form of hesitance in the way she walks, talks and even cries. When Nayanthara cries as Bhavani, there is an explicit expression of vulnerability that the actor hardly shows in other films. Even when she is at her happiest, Nayanthara limits Bhavani’s dances only to a few joyful head bobbles. We might have seen Bhavani only for a limited time in the flashback, but she gave us a Nayanthara that we rarely see on screen.
How often have we seen a female vigilante cop in Tamil cinema? The film celebrates Nayanthara, the star without interrupting the CBI officer Anjali that she plays. The investigative thriller offered Nayanthara what few films managed to do — the space to explore a range of emotions. If she is the self-assured, intrepid CBI officer in the first half, her turn as the cold-hearted serial killer, even if only for a few minutes, adds to her memorable performance. The inner transformation of her character from a lovely, happy wife to a serial killer and then an experienced officer is depicted through Nayanthara's varying performances like when her saccharine talks take a back seat, and instead, she uses her restraint to lend the serial killer scenes an eerily cold vibe. Even if the film begins to falter a bit in the second half, Nayanthara holds it together.
After a brief hiatus in Tamil cinema, when Nayanthara returned with Raja Rani in 2013, the determination for round two was clearly visible. Although she had done films like Bodyguard and Elektra in the neighbouring industry, after the initial chances in Chandramukhi and Ghajini, she didn’t many opportunities to display her acting chops in Tamil cinema. Her image isn't diminished in Raja Rani but it only adds to her performance as Regina, a young woman struggling to get past a love failure even as she tries to make peace with her marriage. Similar to her stints in films like Satyam (2008) and Aadhavan (2009), Nayanthara also gets to do some comedy here. But it is in the more emotive scenes — the scene when she breaks into fits or the one where she learns that her lover, Surya has died — that the actress gives a moving performance.
Maya was Nayanthara’s masterstroke. It paved the way for several such solo films to come. Although Nee Enge En Anbe was her first try at a women-led film, her streak with success began with Maya. This film also led her to signing many horror entertainers such as Dora and Airaa. She plays a single parent who is struggling to meet her daily expenses. So, when a team offers her money in exchange for watching a horror movie all alone in a theatre, she takes up the challenge. In the survival horror thriller, Nayanthara brings out the troubles of a single mother and an aspiring actor quite effortlessly. There is a lot in the writing that aids her and it was refreshing to see her in a horror setting, taking the entire lead. But when she enters the horror zone, where she literally walks into a horror movie, her fears are felt more so owing to the setting than her performance.
Naanum Rowdy Thaan is a well-written film, but its quirkiness could’ve easily gone overboard. The title may refer to Vijay Sethupathi’s Pandi who wants to become a big thug, but the film is actually centred around Nayanthara’s Kadambari, who wants to seek revenge. She has lost her hearing ability because of the same gangster who killed her parents. There is a charming innocence that Nayanthara brings to the role, ensuring that you laugh at her or along with her, but never pity her. Of course, the fact that it is an author-backed role helps her shine. But like the film, Kadambari could’ve become irritable with her unbelievably naive antics, but the actress makes you buy into her role with earnestness. Naanum Rowdy Thaan was released the same year as Thani Oruvan and Maya, making 2015 a game-changer of a year for the actress.
Netrikann (2021) isn’t a perfect film. An adaption of the Korean film Blind (2011), there are a lot of rough patches that are too evident to ignore. But Nayanthara makes up for everything. When Durga, a blind woman who happens to be an ex-cop, accidentally meets a serial killer, she decides to hunt him down. With barely any makeup on, Nayanthara takes us closer to Durga, who has a regretful past. In a few of her films, her flawless looks have kept us at a distance, unable to understand the character’s emotions. But Durga’s guilt-ridden actions are so easy to buy into because even when she is in pursuit of something larger, like chasing a serial killer, she makes space for her personal feelings and Nayanthara discernibly presents her painful emotions. It makes you want to assure her that to err is human.
In this remake of a horror classic, it’s easy to overlook Nayanthara’s role as Durga, given the outshining performances of Jyotika and Rajinikanth. But in only her second Tamil film, the actress manages to hold her own alongside acting giants. The limited screen time does not affect her character, as Nayanthara goes on to establish Durga as an independent, free-spirited and happy woman. There is a very carefree Nayanthara in the ‘Kokku Para Para’ song. Between matching the comedic deliveries of Rajinikanth and struggling with stutters while being emotional, she also makes Durga in Chandramukhi a very likeable girl next-door.
Kolamaavu Kokila is undoubtedly a feather in the actresses' hat. A woman drug peddler driving the plot of a crime comedy was probably a one-liner unheard of in Tamil cinema before Nelson's Ko Ko came along. Nayanthara’s Kokila is neither innocent nor clever, but she shows how far an individual could go to when they are pushed. Nayanthara, the star, disappears, easily settling into Nelson’s quirky world. It is a very uncanny atmosphere but Nayanthara makes Kokila a relatable character that you root for. Although she has always had a knack for comedy, it is in Kolamaavu Kokila that her skill is put to the test. And the result? A laugh riot.
Nayanthara’s Madhivadhani is a bold, unapologetic and straightforward district collector in Aramm. She is an officer who wants to do honest service. So when a young kid falls into an open borewell, Madhivadhani steps in to save her. This is a tailor-made role that Nayanthara carries with ease. She is restrained throughout, breaking down only towards the end, for the responsibility lies on her shoulders. Her characterisation easily lends to bold sequences where she strongly opines against an MLA or walks out of the job if it means she needs to compromise on her policies. And such scenes are treated with close-ups and slo-mo shots that celebrate the star, making her moves heroic.
Dora isn’t the best of Nayanthara’s films, even when it comes to her women-centric choices. It is a horror film centred around a car. But she is perfect as Pavalakkodi and has excellent humour timing with Thambi Ramaiah’s Vairakannu (her father in the film). When a car automatically drives itself, she runs away, terrified. But when she decides to change gears and become a vigilante, she switches on her beast mode.
Like the mass transformation scene of Ajith in Vedhalam and (if we had to exaggerate for dramatic effect), Vikram in Anniyan, Nayanthara acts innocent when framed for a murder, even as she coldly blackmails a cop inside a police station. This stretch is enough to prove the performer in Nayanthara; her icy-cool demeanour throughout the film, and her slo-mo walk post the climax, take the cake in this list.