Rashmika Mandanna has a lot going for her. With a bank of big projects in multiple languages – right from Pushpa opposite Allu Arjun and Fahadh Faasil, to Goodbye with Amitabh Bachchan – she has much to look forward to. The actress talks about juggling between the industries, the challenges involved, dealing with trolls and working on her forthcoming Bollywood films.
Anupama Chopra: I believe you are one of the busiest stars in the country right now. You are currently juggling six films in various languages. You are perhaps the only actor working with both Allu Arjun and Amitabh Bachchan. I love that your fans call you a national crush. Was this pan-India career always a part of the larger strategy?
Rashmika Mandanna: Honestly, I hadn't thought this far. Initially, for me, it was one film and out, and after that another film gave me another opportunity in another industry. And once it was that industry, it was again one film and out. So it's always been just one film, do my work, just have fun, make memories and out.
I had never thought about Bollywood. I used to think, 'Kannada is big for me, Telugu is big for me, Tamil is big for me. Bollywood is too big for me. So, I don't know how this is going to happen.' But one thing led to another and here I am, working in many industries because I like the script and I like the directors I'm working with. I go with my gut feeling, so if I have to listen to a script, it is generally, 'Would I like to see myself in this role? Would I sit and watch with an audience and say that I did a good job?' Because you too are an audience at the end of the day, watching yourself.
So yes, it [my work] is everywhere. I'm doing and learning all these new languages. It's just one whole world I'm in.
When the idea of a Bollywood debut came about, what was your criteria and how did these films meet it?
The release of Dear Comrade gave us a lot of audience from the North, and a lot of my friends, well wishers and audiences have been telling me that they want a Hindi film. But for me, it was too far of a journey.
Mission Majnu happened during the first lockdown. I got a call from my manager who told me that there was this team looking out for me, and it was a Hindi film. I said, 'Are you sure? It can't be true.' He said yes, and that we should hear the script. And so I did. I think it was a film which I had to do in the initial part of my career. I will not be able to do that once I make my debut in Bollywood. So I knew that it was the right film. Mission Majnu is one genre and then there is Goodbye, which is completely different. It's good that both of them are happening together, because now my audience would be like, "She can do that, and she can do this as well."
For Goodbye, Vikas [Bahl] sent me the script and I read it. If I can read a script in one go, say finishing off the 152-160 pages in say an hour and a half then it's a go for me, because that's not normal. I usually take 2-3 days to read a script. But I finished this off in an hour and I was like, 'I'm doing it. This is mine. I'm this character.' It all just happened.
AC: What are the challenges of this? The filmmaking process is the same no matter where you go, but cultures are different, languages are different, the tonality of performances and the pitch of acting is different. Do you customize as per the language you are in? Is there ever any culture shock for you as you move in between so many worlds or is it pretty seamless?
RM: I've always sort of been a hippie. Because I am everywhere. Even in school, after my 10th, I shifted my base to Mysore. After that it was Bangalore. After Bangalore, it has been Hyderabad, and now I have it in Hyderabad and Bombay. So for me, culture is always a new thing. I've been learning languages for a long time. I even had to learn my mother tongue after I got out of my hostel, because there, it was just English, and if not English, then nothing.
I had to learn Kannada for my Kannada film and Telugu for my Telugu film. I always find languages and cultures amusing but I can also see myself connected to them. So now, even when I go to Bombay, I have this whole new culture and language – people behaving in a certain way, talking in a different way. It's normal for me. I was shooting for Goodbye in Bombay and felt, 'This feels like my place. I feel like I'm born and brought up here.' It's that simple for me. The only problem for me would be my accent. Everywhere I go, people say, 'This is not from here, your accent is different.' I speak in Kannada, they tell me I have an accent. I speak in Telugu, they say I have an accent. I speak in Hindi, they say I have an accent. So I'm like, 'Where do you think I'm from? I've got to be from somewhere!' (laughs)
AC: You've only been an actor for 5 years. But in this time, you have seen personal and professional highs and lows. Dear Comrade was underwhelming at the box office and it was a very hyped film. That must've been crushing. Your engagement with Rakshit Shetty made headlines. And post breakup, you were trolled incessantly, which is very tough. You started acting at 19 and that's a very young age to be processing so much. How did you go through it and how did it shape you as an actor?
Initially, to be honest, it was extremely hard. It's never easy. I didn't have people telling me that this was normal. So it came as a shock. I didn't have a culture shock, I had a sort of an industry shock. Neither my parents nor anyone who I am related to is from the film background, so for me, everything was new. When people started trolling and commenting, I took it to my heart.
It gets suffocating, you find it so hard to breathe that you feel like, anything you do, people are looking at you and commenting on you. People are talking about your body, your skin, your relationship. So it's like you're stripped naked in front of so many people. And for a young girl, that's not easy. But I learnt all of this by myself. You start becoming hard. You don't end up being the punching bag for people. There were a couple of times when I found it extremely painful and I, in fact, spoke about it. I was like, 'Comment on my work, it's ok. But don't put my childhood pictures and comment on my family, that's not fair!'
There were people who were not from the industry who constantly told me, 'You know what? You should not give them so much light. Maybe this is normal for people in the industry. Because if people take everything to their heart, they won't be able to live through it. So you don't have to do this. Just let it be.' This has been happening since I was 19. Even before my film was released, there was this incident where people started trolling me. And I was like, 'Oh my God! My film has not even been released and people are already taking my case. So what am I supposed to do?' Over the years, it turned me into a rock in terms of [dealing with] trolling and commenting, because now they do and it doesn't even matter to me. I am at a space where I can take it lighter, I can laugh about it. I think most of the stars get immune to all this. This pain doesn't hurt them anymore. Because it is constantly punching and punching, till a point where the punching bag also says, 'I'll take whatever you give me.' I've become that. In fact, I sometimes want to give something for people to troll about. I'm like, 'Accha, chalo, take it. I've given you this.'
AC: What was the scariest thing about Bollywood?
RM: People. (laughs)
AC: Like who? Mr. Bachchan is totally intimidating. When he stands there and says, 'Hello Anupama' in his baritone, I'm just like, 'Oh my God, I need to sit down.' Did he have that effect on you?
I think that was, in fact, the first icebreaker for me. It was the same with Sid [Sidharth Malhotra] too. I had been watching his films, he's in the news, he's an actor. So for me, it was intimidating initially. It was not easy. I kept thinking, 'What do I do? How do I speak? First impression! What do I say?' But I had my icebreaker moment when we were shooting in Lucknow. We were shooting together, eating together, working out together. We all got really close.
When I came to Goodbye, I was in the first day with Bachchan sir. He had a shot while my shot was done. I had to shoot with him the next day. But I told Vikas that I would stay back just to say hi to him. Because tomorrow, if I have to come with a line and just start acting with him, I don't think it's going to be easy. So I stayed back that evening to introduce myself and say that I'm playing this character. The next day, when I started shooting with sir, he was just so warm. He was perfectly playing the character, which made me feel like I wanted to perfectly fit in to the character as well. So it was like two characters acting together. It was just wonderful. Later on, we had to do the patchwork of what we had shot the first day [Bachchan sir and I]. When I was watching the visuals, it was mind blowing because we just looked like those characters. I was like, 'Wow! This is good! This feels nice!' Because you're watching it as an audience and you know that it is Mr. Bachchan, and you're just you, and you're doing that. I was like, 'Wow! Now this is good stuff.' He was extremely warm and this was a huge icebreaker for me in Bollywood. But then again, I don't know how it is with the industry there. I don't know anyone personally. I don't know anything personally. So it's going to take a while, but once these two films release, then I'm going to be the one with no fear. (laughs)