When we manifest something, the universe has a way of making it happen for us. Call it a coincidence or a result of hard work, but it is one such moment that brought Nivedhithaa Sathish the opportunity of playing Thaenpasiyaar aka Thaenu, a dacoit in Captain Miller. Having liked Arun Matheswaran’s works and the way he pens his female characters, Nivedhithaa told him that she would like to be a part of any of his films if there is a relevant role. And that happened to be the same day when Arun had decided to have a female dacoit in Captain Miller. “Until that day, that character was a man. He then changed it to a woman character and he had also watched my performance in Sillu Karupatti. It all just fell into place. Arun romba romba rasichu ezhudhina oru character enodathu,” she animatedly says with a tangible satisfaction in her tone.
Nivedhithaa made her debut in Magalir Mattum (2017), playing Subbu (the younger version of Saranya Ponvannan), who along with her friends is a mischievous rebel. Her role was small but memorable, just like in Captain Miller. In one of the shorts in Halitha Shameem’s anthology Sillu Karupatti (2019) which was Nivedhithaa’s sophomore outing, she won our hearts as the friendly stranger we all would love to cross paths with. Now, she doesn’t always choose to play character roles. In Sethum Aayiram Pon (2020), a film about an estranged grandmother-granddaughter relationship, she leads the film as Meera, a make-up artist. But she doesn’t hesitate to do smaller roles either. Even before Captain Miller, she played Lakshmi, a young woman who is about to get married in Suzhal: The Vortex (2022).
There is an obvious pattern: all her characters have been bold, independent and determined, while the actor held the screen with such grace and charm. But there was also a hidden pattern. As Nivedhithaa and I began to talk about her acting choices and what exactly she was looking for in such scripts where her character had very limited screen presence, we chanced upon answers for why she intuitively said yes to these roles.
But to get to the root of her choice, we began to unpack details about Thaenpasiyaar through the eyes of Nivedhithaa, who says that she became the character right after hearing Arun Matheswaran’s narration. Thaenpasiyaar is a dacoit with whom Dhanush’s Miller teams up, and I feel besides the protagonist, her character is fleshed-out well. Walking out of the theatre, Thaenpasiyaar had left a deeper impact on me. If the period actioner Captain Miller is about an average oppressed community that simultaneously fights two different battles for freedom, then Thaenpasiyaar fights three: as an Indian, as an oppressed Indian and as an oppressed Indian woman.
Nivedhithaa too had a ray of hope that the character might leave a strong impression. “Irundhichu, ullu kulla konjondu irundhichu. (I had that hope, a small wish that it would be impressive)” But she admits being scared about having a lot of expectations because the film meant a lot more to the actor. “I have done lead roles and character roles. I have also been part of women-centric films and somehow landed these projects early in my career. That said, I needed a bigger film to pull off more on my own and prove my potential. That’s one reason why I did CM even if Thaenpasiyaar was one among the many side characters.” She had put in a whole year to train and shoot for the sequences. “All the actors in the film were way established and I am the only new person albeit been offered an equally important role. So I had to work harder. My mindset was that I had got the opportunity now, so even if it was going to be just a single scene, I had to steal the show. I always knew it was a win-win situation because I got to work with so many people on a daily basis and learn a lot. I didn’t expect more because I didn’t want to get hurt. But I am overwhelmed by the response.”
While Arun had written Thaenpasiyaar with so much depth, Nivedhithaa had to prepare herself physically and mentally to reflect the same intensity. It helped that the actor had won the Karate Championship when she was young, had been a dancer all her life and was athletic. Not that it made things easier to go off-roading with guns in hand or engage in physical combat. However, it helped her prepare for the role and do proper strength training. She would pester her brother who is a professional karateka to learn a few kicks. And when on set, she would ask the stunt boys to teach her a few tricks. Stunt Master Dhilip was overjoyed that he finally found someone who showed so much interest in practising some action. “He used to train me a lot. It was like going to a school.” To prepare psychologically, Arun gave her a lot of reference characters. “Most of them were my favourite characters while I was growing up. I forgot a lot of names but a few included Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, Phoolan Devi from Bandit Queen (1994), and Sonbai from Mirchi Masala (1987).”
Rewatching these films and slowly grasping the idea of what it means to be Thaenpasiyaar changed even the way she used to walk and talk. But the real transformation happened on sets. “We shot in extreme weather and that changes your mindset a lot. We shot in the forest and I had to be Thaenpasiyaar for me to survive. The set was fully men and I was the only girl. Naturally, when you are with them all the time, you imbibe their energy, the way they speak and other things. Since I started working right after my 12th exams, I have been surrounded by a lot of men and had this masculine, tomboyish feature in me and CM tapped into that side of me. I had to be her to even ride that bike. I don’t think I will be able to ride the same way as in the film. There was so much dust, fire and somebody was sitting behind me, the bike didn’t work, and there were a lot of guns. So much was going on and I had like really crazy experiences. I started adding layers to Thaenpasiyaar every day. Even when people used to talk about getting tanned while working on the sets, I would feel like if I began to worry about tanning, there was so much going on there and everything would get lost. I had to be her to pull it off. People would say that sometimes when you put in effort, it will show, right? That’s what it is.”
A lot of her conversations with Arun also helped develop her character and the way she behaves. “Thaenpasiyaar and for that matter every character in CM is an extension of Arun. He is an amazing writer and a director who lets you flow which encouraged me to give a lot of input. For instance, they had a table full of accessories during the look test and I chose the earpiece. I asked him if I could have that accessory and as soon as I wore it, he told me “Namma idha vechu oru stunt panrom (We are going to do a stunt with this)” Semma ah irunchu. He gives you that freedom to creatively collaborate with him.”
One of Nivedhithaa’s favourite things about Thaenpasiyaar was that she didn’t have any love interest in the film. Arun doesn’t add any term to the relationship she shares with Dhanush’s Miller. “He is closest to Thaenpasiyaar in the dacoit gang, she is like the bridging factor. But I am not his sister, not his lover…he just sees a flair in Thaenpasiyaar, something like what he saw in himself.” As the crew began to spend a lot of time together, Thaenpasiyaar being single became a running joke on the sets and people often tried to pair her up with some character in the film. “But whenever that happened, the character Thaenpasiyaar was paired up with somehow died in the film,” she laughs adding that Thaenpasiyaar not falling in love with someone made the character very real. “When I see her from her eyes, I don’t think she has any headspace for falling in love. She’s brought up in very tough places and she is always around men. So her second nature is like them. So I don’t know what about them will attract her. Besides, I kept telling Arun that we should let her fight her own battle.”
The discussion of the relationship between Thaenpaasiyaar and Miller and why Nivedhithaa liked films like Irudhi Suttru (2016) and Dear Zindagi (2016) led us to a more important factor that connects the pattern in her film choices than just the uniqueness of her characters. “The love genre is a cult and we have done justice to it. But being a GenZ, I just feel like I want to portray different relationships on screen - like father-daughter, mother-daughter, master-student, etc. There have been a lot of unusual ones. Even Euphoria (2019) is about two best friends. I want to do something different like that. Highway (2014) traces the relationship between a woman and her kidnapper. Likewise, Dear Zindagi is like a therapy and there is no love angle. There is so much depth in so many other relationships, and they are much bigger than defining it in one box. Even in Suzhal, I really like that I break up and walk away. It’s so normal. Why does it have to be a certain way?”
In hindsight, the actor who is also constantly worried about what’s next and being slow-paced in her career, quips that it is probably why she takes so long to pick scripts and is constantly waiting for the right one. “For instance, Sethum Aayiram Pon is about a grandmother and granddaughter. My grandmother died a year before that film so I badly wanted to do that. Even Sillu Karupatti is about a relationship random strangers share. Maybe I have this thought in the back of my mind and that’s why I subconsciously like these scripts. The relationship between Miller and Thaenpasiyaar is different too. I think I have put in effort in choosing such characters. Although there are talks about a sequel and prequel to Captain Miller, I don’t know where I will go and search for another character like Thaenpasiyaar. Meanwhile, inum neraya manifest panni, neraya indha maari script vandha nalla irukum (It would be nice if I manifest more such roles and get to be part of more such scripts).”