I Get Pulled Up A Lot Because People Aren’t Used To Such Brutal Honesty: Samantha

The actress tells us about making the mythology of Shaakuntalam relevant to modern audiences and why she doesn't let any calculations drive her script selection

If she was the brazen nautch girl swinging a leg to ‘Oo Antava’ in Pushpa: The Rise (2021), Samantha, in Gunasekhar's upcoming mythological fantasy film Shaakuntalam, is the polar opposite. Dressed in white and with a deer by her side, Shakuntala is the picture of a naive young woman who is just about to discover that the world is a cruel place. 

From exploring action and comedy to romance and drama, Samantha has had a busy few years. The actor, who shot Shaakuntalam during the pandemic, is looking forward to the release of the ‘Disneyfied’ mythological film on April 14th. Co-starring Dev Mohan, Shaakuntalam will be released simultaneously in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. Excerpts from an interview with the versatile star: 

The image of Shakuntala that we all have in our minds is the Ravi Varma painting where she coyly looks at Dushyanta while pretending to pluck a thorn from her foot. How do you make such a demure character relevant today?

It’s true that Shakuntala starts off being this demure character. But I think that’s all of us when growing up! Then the circumstances in our life make us rise to the occasion. That is what is relatable about Shakuntala. She has big dreams, belief in a Prince Charming – we all grow up that way, don’t we? Reading fairytales, hoping to be whisked away by Prince Charming and having a happily ever after. But that’s not what happens. 

Ravi Varma's painting of Shakuntala
Ravi Varma's painting of Shakuntala

Shakuntala handles herself with such grace and dignity when she faces challenges. She went against societal norms back then – the character was written so many years ago. She was so brave when she was ostracised by society. She was a single mother who raised a son who’d become Prince Bharatha, the first king of India. 

An interesting observation that director Nandini Reddy made about you is that you do something unique with every character that makes it difficult for people to imagine anyone else doing the role. How did you make Shakuntala your own?

I didn’t play Shakuntala as a very dramatic character. That’s why I was very particular about dubbing for the film myself. I didn’t want to play her old school. I did make an effort with the way she walks and talks because it’s important to get the body language right. She’s very far from how I walk, run and talk! But I played the role with a certain modern-day relatability. 

This is a big budget film and it's coming out in 3D, headlined by you. Is there too much pressure as a woman star to make sure that every such film succeeds? Because if it doesn't, the conversation becomes about women-led films failing…

You are absolutely right about that. I’m a nervous wreck right now. It is extremely pressuring and dreadful. It just takes one film failing at the box office for people to dismiss all heroine-oriented films. It’s important at every step for such films to succeed. I hope I have done enough for Shaakuntalam for it to be a box office hit. It’s releasing in the summer, and I’m hopeful that people will be able to connect to it.

We usually watch Marvel film series, but those films aren’t from our culture. Shakuntala’s story is one that all of us know from our school days, and it’s coming in 3D. It’s a film that’s been made with a lot of honesty, and I think people will enjoy this with their family. I’m quite happy with how the 3D has come out. A lot of effort was put into getting the angles right. I watched bits of it in the premiere show, and I was very happy with the output. 

Samantha in 'Shaakuntalam'
Samantha in 'Shaakuntalam'

You do films that are hero-centric and also films that revolve around your character, like U-Turn (2018) or Yashoda (2022). Is it important for you to keep that mix going? 

Frankly, I don’t do such calculations. I did Mahanati (2018) which wasn’t hero-led but I wasn’t the central character either. I don’t think I was playing second fiddle to Keerthy Suresh. I’ve only gone with my heart when I do a film, and my heart has always given me what I need. I don’t think that right after I do a heroine-oriented film, I should do a masala film. Whatever film comes to me, I listen to the subject and if the character moves me, that’s all I care about. 

Last year, you did Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal (2022) with Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi. At one level, it was amazing to see two women superstars coming together to do a comedy. But the film was also criticised for turning bigamy into humour, which is actually a pretty old trope. What made you say yes to the script?

I don’t take myself too seriously. I love doing comedy. When I’m really tired, I like to watch a film that makes me laugh, and I like to do such films as well. I had so much fun doing Kaathuvaakula. It came to me when I was doing other things like action and serious drama with high emotions. It was nice to do something breezy that didn’t require so much of an effort. I’ve always wanted to work with Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi, and I got to do that in one film. They’re great actors. 

Usually, when there are two heroines in a film, they don’t get too many scenes together. But Nayanthara and I worked together in so many of the scenes. That was quite a novel idea. I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t ever want people to say that this is a role Samantha would do and this is a role Samantha won’t do. I don’t want to be put in a box.

Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi and Samantha in 'Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal'
Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi and Samantha in 'Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal'

You may not take yourself too seriously, but you’re one of our few outspoken stars in the south. So, people end up asking why Samantha who speaks up about women’s rights and #MeToo did an ‘Oo Antava’. Does your outspokenness also mean you’re placed under too much scrutiny for your choices?

All I can do is be transparent and honest. That is all I can do and that is what I do. I get pulled up a lot because people are not used to such brutal honesty, but that’s how I’ve always been. I’m not saying I’m right or wrong, but I’m saying this is what I am. I can’t be the flagbearer of everything that’s righteous (laughs). I can tell you the truth without hiding anything. I’ve chosen to be this way because it’s only when you put up a facade that it becomes tricky. You always have to live up to that persona that you’ve created. The things that I say in public are the things I’d say to a group of friends in my house. I’m not two people – one for the camera and one otherwise. I am the same person.

The Family Man 2 saw you in a breakout role, but a lot of Sri Lankan Tamils were upset about how your character – Raji – was written and the portrayal of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in general. What did you think about their response? 

To play Raji, I locked myself up three days before the first day of the shoot in a hotel room. I watched video after video about the movement. It really disturbed me, and I wanted to do my absolute best for the role. That scene with the Tamil oath was just one take, and even after saying it, I was shaking. This character and how I presented it was that important to me. 

I was very, very sad that I had hurt sentiments in the process. But I believe that I gave it my all. I didn’t play it as just another role or as a chance to show my acting range. I played the role also to get it right. At the end of it, there were many who said Raji wasn’t the villain of The Family Man 2. That was my biggest victory – that people did not think she was wrong.

Samantha as Raji in 'The Family Man 2'
Samantha as Raji in 'The Family Man 2'

Do you enjoy doing action? 

Yes. We’ve come a really long way from the hero saving the heroine. From being saved to becoming the saviour. My role in Citadel as well is so strong. I believe that the roles I will be playing in the future can be played by a man or woman. I don’t think films headlined by women in the future will be about being a victim or standing for a social cause. I think they will be films that have a hero at the centre, and the character can be played by a man or woman. That’s the place we want to be. 

Which of your films would you say helped the audience discover a new side to Samantha? 

From Ye Maaya Chesave (2010) to Eega (2012), Neethane En Ponvasantham (2012), Rangasthalam (2018) and Super Deluxe (2019), I think these were all important steps for change. Not just with the audience but with me and my greed to explore the different facets of my capability. Before that, I was just seeing what the other women were doing and trying to do that. But the moment I stopped doing that and focused on what I had done last and tried to better that, I noticed a huge and drastic change in my performances and the way people were receiving them. 

Ram Charan and Samantha in 'Rangasthalam'
Ram Charan and Samantha in 'Rangasthalam'

You've done action, comedy, romance, horror...is there anything that you haven't done yet but wish to do badly?

I’ve also done Disney now with Shaakuntalam! I think I’d like to go back to doing intense dramas. It’s been a while. But I have my hands full right now with Kushi and Citadel coming up. I want to finish my pending projects and take a break to concentrate on my health and get it back to 100%. Right now, that’s my priority.

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