Trisha’s Story, from Tamil Nadu’s ‘chellam’ to Ponniyin Selvan’s Kundhavai
When director Radha Mohan wanted to make Abhiyum Naanum (2008), a film about a father-daughter relationship, there was only one star he could think of to play the lead – Trisha. She was 25 at the time and had to portray the changing dynamics between a schoolgirl and her overprotective father as she grows into adulthood. Interestingly, the father's role went to Prakash Raj. Four years earlier, Trisha and Prakash Raj had acted together in the blockbuster Vijay film Ghilli (2004). Imprinted upon audiences’ minds was Raj as the film’s villain, delivering the leery “Hi chellam!” line and the traumatised, cringing expression on Trisha’s face in response to Raj’s dialogue.
Mohan, however, trusted his actors to work out a new on-screen chemistry. “There were people who told me that it’s difficult to see them as father-daughter after Ghilli, but I was very sure about who I wanted in the film. I didn’t want to alter the story in any way to accommodate an actor’s stardom. Trisha heard the story and immediately agreed to do the film,” said the director.
Trisha, who won Miss Chennai in 1999 at age 16, said in an interview after winning the title that she had no intention of entering the film industry. It didn’t take her long to rethink her decision. She made her debut that same year with the romantic drama film Jodi (1999). Trisha wasn’t the heroine though. Instead, she was the ubiquitous “friend of the heroine”. While Simran was the film’s female lead, Trisha was barely noticeable in the film and was relegated to the background.
Her first lead role was director Ameer’s Mounam Pesiyadhe (2002). Dubbing artist Savitha Reddy, who was the voice of several heroines in Tamil cinema at the time, was called to dub for Trisha. “I was dubbing for both Simran and Jyotika back then, and I was called to dub for a new face who was going to be launched. Trisha was very natural on screen and she delivered her lines casually. But in cinema, directors expect more emphasis and clarity – that’s why I was brought in,” said Reddy.
Reddy went on to dub for Trisha in 24 films, in Tamil as well as Telugu. This includes her blockbuster Telugu hit Varsham (2004), a romantic action film in which Trisha starred with Prabhas. “Trisha doesn't over dramatise anything, not even for a tense scene,” added Reddy. “She is someone who remains her true self in the films she does, and acts with her eyes and lips more than anything else.”
An actor who has largely worked in hero-centric commercial films, it’s easy to be dismissive of Trisha’s acting skills. But, the subtlety of emoting distinguishes Trisha among her peers. Speaking to the website Silver Screen about 96 (2018), a heartbreaking film about childhood sweethearts who meet as adults in a school reunion, director Prem Kumar said that he’d known he wanted to cast Trisha as Jaanu after seeing how she used fleeting expressions to pack an emotional punch in a song from Aaru (2005). Also starring Vijay Sethupathi, 96 is easily among Trisha’s best films. Watch her in the scene at a cafe where she reimagines the love story that could have been, if not for a cruel twist of fate. Though there is a storm within her, she narrates the story with a smile on her face and you ache along with her.
If there is a role to rival Trisha’s performance as Jaanu, it has to be Jessie from Vinnaithandi Varuvaya (2010). The actor plays a conflicted Syrian Christian Malayali woman who is in an on-off relationship with her Hindu Tamil neighbour (Simbu). Directed by Gautham Menon, Vinnaithandi Varuvaya’s magic lies in its poetic rendering of an ordinary, everyday love story. Jessie’s inconsistent heart is maddening, and yet the audience fell in love with Trisha over and over again. Not surprisingly, it features among her biggest blockbusters.
Trisha’s charming girl-next-door vibe may have made her a popular choice in romances, but she’s also selected projects that showcase the range of her abilities. When acclaimed Malayalam director Shyamaprasad was going to make Hey Jude (2018) with Nivin Pauly, he wanted a female lead from outside the Malayalam film industry. Someone who had a cosmopolitan air about her, and would fit right into Goa where the film is set. Trisha was the one he cast as Crystal, a woman with bipolar disorder.
Hey Jude is about the friendship that develops between Crystal and Jude (Pauly), a man with Asperger’s Syndrome. “The tone of the film is light though it talks about serious human problems – the inability to communicate or find love and reciprocate and so on. Trisha liked this mix when I narrated the story to her, and she got the character right away,” said Shyamaprasad.
Describing Trisha as an “intelligent and skilled actor”, Shyamaprasad said her liveliness had been evident in all of her films until then, but it was Hey Jude that explored a wilder side. “Jude and Crystal constantly have fights in the film, but there is that big fight where he understands that he was only taken in as a guinea pig for a test,” recalled Shyamaprasad. “He bursts out in anger, and she goes and hides in her favourite place – a bathroom with a tub. She wallows in it and her father comes and takes her. It’s a deep and melancholic patch in a film that’s otherwise a panorama of merriment and excitement. Trisha immediately captured it, and I was so impressed with her. That moment showed what a performer she had become.”
Though she has had many memorable roles, Trisha’s had less luck with films in which she plays the solo lead. The long-delayed film Garjanai, a remake of Anushka Sharma’s NH10 (2010) with Trisha as the protagonist, is yet to see the light of day. A number of duds like Nayaki (2016), Mohini (2018), Paramapadham Vilayattu (2021) and Raangi (2022) have cemented the perception that Trisha isn’t in the same league as Nayanthara, the highest paid woman actor in the southern industries and one who has delivered solo lead hits. However, this is arguably an unfair contest and pitting these two actors as competitors only serves to highlight how few women-led films are made in the ageist and patriarchal Tamil and Telugu film industries where they primarily work. In addition to the limited opportunities, women actors are not given the same leeway as the men to fail and recover from failures.
Just as it seemed as though her career was dipping, Trisha made a stellar comeback with the first part of Ponniyin Selvan (PS-1, 2022) and she’s expected to make as much (if not more) of an impact as Princess Kundhavai in the upcoming sequel. Dubbing artist Krithika Nelson, who was also an assistant director on the sets of Mani Ratnam’s two-part historical fiction film, is a self-confessed Trisha fan. She has dubbed for Trisha previously and lent her voice to her role as Princess Kundhavai in both Ponniyin Selvan films. While Trisha has a large fanbase in Tamil Nadu and beyond, she has also faced criticism for speaking Tamil with an anglicised accent and not dubbing in her own voice for most of her films. Nelson, however, said that Trisha did a near-perfect job for Ponniyin Selvan because she had dedicatedly practised speaking in senthamizh (classical Tamil).
“It was only a few words here and there that were off, and that was the only reason I was asked to dub for her,” said Nelson. “I didn’t have to do anything other than follow her exactly as she had recorded it for the most part.” In fact, there was one line that Nelson struggled with but Trisha had managed to enunciate in the first attempt: “Sitrarasargal ellam ondru koodi pesi kondirukeerargal (our allies are meeting and discussing what to do next).” Trisha says this line to Prakash Raj who plays Sundara Chola, and Nelson said she’d found it challenging to get the pronunciation of “sitrarasargal” right in the flow of the sentence. In contrast, Trisha had cracked it right away because she had memorised her lines so well.
As someone who watched Trisha on the sets during the shoot and later dubbed for her, Nelson said the star was like a “sponge” and that she completely surrendered herself to Ratnam. “I think she’s one of the most underrated actors out there. There are certain films that bring out her best, and Ponniyin Selvan is one of those. I’m such a huge fan that at times, I would forget that there was a cue while dubbing and just stand there, gawking at her,” she added with a laugh.
Nelson pointed out that in most of her films, Trisha has played a city girl, but she was still able to play a character from another era like Kundhavai. She loves Trisha in a number of films — including Saamy (2003) and Ghilli (2004) to Vinnaithandi Varuvaya (2010), Yennai Arindhaal (2015), Thoongavanam (2015), and 96 — but believes Ponniyin Selvan is her best work yet. “Not everyone can carry that high kondai and strapless blouse, and still perform and look graceful. She never looked glamorous or vulgar in it. She only looked dignified, and that comes from the actor’s body language,” said Nelson.
Trisha’s next big release is Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo in which she co-stars with Vijay after 14 years. Radha Mohan said Trisha has had a fantastic journey, considering the odds against her. “She didn’t become a big star immediately. She had to wait for a few commercial films that pushed her into the A-list, and it’s amazing that she’s still doing films like Ponniyin Selvan. She has stayed fit, and looks the same as she did 10 years ago. That takes hard work too,” he said, adding that in Abhiyum Naanum, Trisha blew the crew away when she arrived on the sets looking every bit convincing in a school uniform. “I think she can still pull that off,” he chuckled. Few would disagree.