As an actor juggling Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam cinema, Nithya Menen truly redefines the idea of a celluloid beauty. She has an allure that isn't manufactured, but flawed, real and so perceptible on screen. When most A-list female actors have shied away from dubbing in their own voices, Nithya, with her astonishing flair for languages, has stubbornly insisted on using her voice. Interestingly Nithya never grew up on cinema—"I don't think I was so exposed to films as a child. And I don't watch many now".
In the early stages of her career, Nithya was one of the few female actors who showed no excitement to act with leading superstars. With roughly 50 films in a career that began in 1998 (The Monkey Who Knew Too Much in which she played Tabu's sister) to prepping for Jayalalithaa's biopic, Nithya Menen the actress has come a long way.
In Malayalam cinema, however, she has not been too active. Some of her signature roles include the Muslim girl in Ustad Hotel, the girl who knocks the socks of her salacious co-traveller in Kerala Café, or that charming cameo in Bangalore Days. This year, she has her hands full. The icing on the cake, of course, is playing Jayalathithaa in her biopic, apart from playing Savitri in the recently released NTR biopic. She is also doing two Malayalam films this year, a small indie film called Kolambi and a sports film with Kunchako Boban. Then there is Mysskin's Tamil, a web series in Hindi with Abhishek Bachchan on Amazon Prime and the Hindi film Mission Mangal.
Her next release is a Malayalam film, Praana, directed by VK Prakash, a psychological thriller, in which she is the only actor. Here are excerpts from an interview:
You are the only character in Praana. Was it a challenge?
I don't think any of us sees the single actor angle as a challenge. In fact that intrigued and excited me more.
Are there better roles written for female actors now?
I think it was always there. In the 80s and 90s, there were amazing films made in Malayalam and Tamil with layered characters for women. So I wouldn't say it has gotten better. It depends on what you want as an actor and choosing the right films. If you are going for a good commercial film, you might not find a finely written character. Right from my first film, I have been appreciated for the performances and invariably only such offers came my way. I was always selective, even when I wasn't established.
Between commercial and offbeat, what works better for you?
I prefer smaller, indie films…ones that are not too focussed on the market. Even when I commit to doing a big-budget film, I make sure it follows certain conditions for the actor in me. The boundaries are set even there.
You have spoken about changing dialogues, improvising on the sets, addressing issues that worry you as a female actor. Did that process take time?
No. I don't think you learn to do such things. It's who I am and what I feel from deep within that spills over as an actor. You can't learn it over time. Doing films don't necessarily help you learn life skills. If something didn't make sense to me, I always voiced it out. Thankfully, I have been with people who believed in my capability. We would have a discussion and reach a consensus and go ahead. I always definitely voiced my discomfort.
What would that discomfort be?
It could be a dialogue or certain words. It could be the way another person is talking to my character. It could also be whether this character would behave in a certain way without ever going out of the story. I am someone who keenly follows the detailing of a character. I really live that character.
Do you see a conflict between being selective and being limitless as an actor?
Selectiveness is what makes sense with my sensibilities and limitless is how every actor should be. You can't box yourself into categories (heroine, supporting actor, villain). You should simply act beyond genres and languages. There should be no specifics. Being selective really defines an actor's growth.
Should a role totally relate to you?
It helps if it can immediately catch my attention. But then I have done roles that I cannot relate to, like Kanchana for instance. The reason why you do a film is different each time. There is no formula, at least for me. I don't live life that way, with so many rules and restrictions. It's very spontaneous and instinctive. I simply do it.
Have you taken home any of your characters, say for a day or two?
I am not that kind of an actor. I snap in and out of a role. Once I finish the shoot, I'm back to being me.
How would you define a strong female character?
Ah! I think it's a that's a very misconstrued phrase in cinema. It's not about taking only female oriented films where women are present in every frame. I have done so many romantic films like OK Kanmani and Ala Modalaindi and it has always been a 50-50 equation. I have loved that my characters are very instinctive, impactful and relatable. It's all about impacting people in a positive way, where the female character isn't just a standby without driving the narrative forward.
How much has life experiences shaped the actor in you?
It helps a lot. Acting is not something you learn in a classroom. Acting comes from your personality; it's about the human being you are. The more rounded you are, the more it shows in your acting. I can only talk for myself when I say that it's very closely connected to who I am. I am not doing it externally. I am reacting as I would in a real situation. Having a lot of experiences that makes you mature will definitely add depth to your roles.
With the advent of social media, actors are expected to react and respond. And when that doesn't happen, you are judged. Being socially responsible is a tightrope when it comes to actors, don't you think?
Why just actors? Every person has to be socially responsible. It's not about being loud and constantly talking about being socially and politically responsible. For me, it comes down to doing things without being self-centred and without monetary gains. You think about how your actions will affect people 50 years down the line. That is being socially responsible. I don't think I have given my strong opinion about any such social issues so far. But I live my life with a sense of social responsibility—every single decision I take is accountable to the society I live in. it's a misinterpreted term in today's world.
Is there something that terrifies you about acting?
Nothing. I wouldn't be able to act if it did. It's something that comes naturally to me.
Has it become easier then?
It was easier before, when I was not conscious. But now I am more conscious about things, about improving myself. That makes it tougher.
Are you reading up on Jayalalithaa for the biopic?
I think as long as my approach is simply to understand her as a human being, half the work is done.