Shruti Haasan enjoys hopping between industries. Having worked across Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinema, she’s now pursuing her music career – her original focus before working in films.
The actress is just re-emerging from a 2-year hiatus from the movies, which she took to focus on music in London, but also to reassess the kinds of projects she wants to be a part of. She’s now back with a small role as a sleeper agent in Amazon Prime Video’s new Bourne spin-off series Treadstone.
Haasan says she’s now getting the offers she’s always wanted. She has two upcoming releases – the Telugu film Krack and Tamil film Laabam with Vijay Sethupathi. The actress spoke to me about what music gives her that acting doesn’t, working with Sethupathi and why Bollywood is yet to fully embrace actors from the South:
How did you come to be a part of Treadstone?
About a year and a half ago I started transitioning internationally with music. I had this company helping me because I’m not the most social person, I don’t know how to schmooze. I find it hard enough navigating India. They suggested I get an acting agent as well, and I wasn’t really focused on it. I was looking at it more in terms of a music venture. But I got an American agent who said the Treadstone role would be really interesting because I was very clear that I didn’t want to be cast as the typical yoga teacher or 7/11 shop owner or cab driver. But for some reason they never cast brown female cab drivers so that would actually be weirdly progressive (laughs). But this was really interesting because the show is set across different countries and nationalities and the Bourne series is so amazing.
You’ve taken time off films recently. You said it was to take a step back and reassess the kind of projects you want to be a part of. Did a lot of people tell you that’s a bad idea?
Yes. Some people, especially in the Tamil and Telugu industry did say that that this was the wrong time to take a break. But it’s my tenth year and if you’ve given a good eight-and-a-half years and you’re not able to be as productive as you want, then it doesn’t matter what anyone says. In every profession there comes a time where you need to reassess and take a step back. I’d much rather people say ‘why’d she take a break?’ rather than ‘okay we’ve seen enough of her. We’re tired’.
I was doing 6-7 films back to back. I didn’t have a moment to rest and I wasn’t a very nice person. I was always dieting and working out and I just needed to breathe. I started to feel like I was making excuses for some of the projects I was choosing which isn’t right. That happens with so many artists where they have nothing left to give. Even in my own dad’s (Kamal Haasan) life, he did take a break for a year at one point to reassess and then came back and started doing some of his best work.
You’ve worked across multiple film industries. Is there a secret to breaking into a new film industry? Is it about finding the right ‘launch film’ or the right scripts?
Oh my god, have you seen my launch film? (laughs). I don’t think there’s a secret and if there is, I certainly don’t know it. I think for me Hindi cinema on paper seemed like an incredible launch so at the time it made sense. But when I did my first film (Luck), it wasn’t motivated by some great artistic endeavour. It was motivated by ‘I need to make money to pay my band’s musicians and buy equipment’ which is a very strange motivation, especially for someone from a film family.
In Telugu my launch was with Prakash in a fantasy film Anaganaga O Dheerudu in 2011 which was produced by Disney. In Tamil it was with A.R. Murugadoss and Suriya which was as big as it gets. None of these have been strategically planned. Some of these choices have worked out and others haven’t and that’s okay.
Is there a downside to hopping between industries?
I think the downside has been that people have felt that I haven’t focused on Bollywood enough. But the thing is, in terms of human bandwidth, managing Tamil and Telugu is tough enough.
With Hindi, I genuinely felt that for the longest time that I wasn’t getting the kinds of roles I wanted but then D-Day happened and people said that was amazing but then I went and did a Welcome Back which wasn’t in tandem with that mood of thinking. So I had to really split my energies and decide where I wanted to focus. Today the focus has shifted into acting and music. I’ve been a musician and I only get to express myself through music.
It just feels like the South embraces Bollywood talent much more than the other way around. I always say that on the world map we’re this teeny, tiny tail on the bottom, so why are we dividing ourselves so much? The beauty of India is that we’re like many countries in one and I think the beauty of art is to unite. If we can’t cross cast then it’s silly.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the barriers between industries coming down. Actors and audiences are opening up to other industries. Would you agree with that?
No, I don’t. I think there are certain people who crossover. I think someone like me has never felt those challenges, because I debuted in Hindi. But I see people in the South being open to Hindi films and they’re very open to casting from the North. You see Nawazuddin in a Rajinikanth film, but it doesn’t happen much the other way around.
There’s been Siddharth and Madhavan and Dhanush in the past but it’s once every 3-4 years and they didn’t stick. Whereas a Nawaz has been cast in multiple South Indian films. It just feels like the South embraces Bollywood talent much more than the other way around. I always say that on the world map we’re this teeny, tiny tail on the bottom, so why are we dividing ourselves so much? The beauty of India is that we’re like many countries in one and I think the beauty of art is to unite. If we can’t cross cast then it’s silly.
You’ve said one of the reasons you moved to London and focussed on music was to create as an artist, something an actor can’t always do. Have you ever thought about writing or developing your own projects?
I have considered getting into production but honestly, I didn’t because I have so many things going on and I didn’t want to handle money (laughs). I do write a lot and I have done that for many years. A lot of filmmakers and directors tell me I should write. Maybe someday I will.
I find acting satisfying in a certain way, but the dialogues are written by someone else, you’re taking cues from someone else… The magic is in creating this person, sure. But with music, it’s more personal. In order to have a comprehensive experience of art in this lifetime, just acting doesn’t do it for me.
— Ravi Teja (@RaviTeja_offl) January 14, 2020
You’ve got your Tamil film Laabam and Telugu film Krack both releasing soon and you’ve said the projects you’re getting now are the kind you’ve always wanted. Do you feel this is a new phase of your career?
Yes. I’m so excited about what I’m doing in Tamil and Telugu. Especially Laabam which is just such a lovely concept. It’s very political and socially conscious and my character is just fun. I love commercial cinema because I feel like if you can get a message across to more people then it’s amazing.
I’m a big fan of Vijay Sethupathi and I’m a bigger fan after working with him because he’s literally the chilliest, most sorted guy you could work with. I love his journey and story and his philosophy in life.
I read an interview where you said ‘I am looking for something that I haven’t done, something that breaks perceptions’. What perception do you think the industry has of you?
I don’t know and the trick is not to care anymore. How can you control how people perceive you after a point? I haven’t been slotted so far which is really good. I’m very lucky. It’s a great thing not to fit a mould but its also fun for actors when you get 5 romantic movies in a row and then you break the mould. But I haven’t been cast ever in a series of things in one genre. It’s a disadvantage in a sense but mostly it’s an advantage because when I look back after 20 years, it’ll be a really interesting graph.