Nayanthara is among the handful of reigning women stars in south Indian film industries, and Kollywood in particular, who enjoy the same level of idolatry as high-grossing male stars.

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Flix Kollywood Wednesday, June 08, 2022 - 11:47

A striking scene from Netrikann (2021) that depicts the film’s lead Nayanthara delivering a strong punchline against victim-shaming and sexism was perhaps the first of its kind in Tamil cinema. “Why do you care whether she is opting for an abortion, dressed ‘inappropriately’, if she is nude, or whether she is a good or bad person? Regardless of what she does, it’s her life. Just because you think she is wrong, do you get to do whatever you want?” questions Nayanthara, who is fondly known as Lady Superstar.

In a light-hearted sequence from Soodhu Kavvum (2013), protagonist Pagalavan (Bobby Simha), shown as an ardent fan of actor Nayanthara, gets in trouble for installing a statue for her. What is common between both the scenes is the fact that Nayanthara is perhaps the only reigning woman star in Kollywood who enjoys the same level of idolatry as high-grossing male stars, both on and off-screen.

Thanks to her loyal fan clubs, the 37-year-old actor – famed for her fierce looks in dewy makeup, smokey eyes with winged eyeliner and mini-bouffant/ curly hairdo – has managed to remain popular on social media with stills, videos and updates about her films going viral online, despite her not having personal handles on any platform. The latest announcement about her wedding with her fiance, filmmaker Vignesh Shivan, is a case in point. It was only a matter of a few hours before scores of fans took to social media to rejoice and celebrate the wedding announcement.

In a career spanning close to 20 years, Nayanthara has made a mark with her unique filmography – a blend of commercial and content-driven films revolving around the female lead.

Debut and formative years

It is astounding that Nayanthara’s 19-year-long stint in cinema was not charted out after careful consideration, but fell in place through instantaneous choices. Nayanthara was only 18 when she bagged her debut project in 2003 – Sathyan Anthikad’s Malayalam film Manassinakkare – when working as a model.

She has shared in several interviews that she wanted to become a chartered accountant, and it was only after signing a few films that she realised that she wanted to take up acting as her long-term career. She quickly shot to fame with films where she shared the screen with well-established male stars. The long list of films includes Ayya (2005), Chandramukhi (2005), Vallavan (2006) , Lakshmi (2006) , Boss (2006) , Villu ( 2009) and Super (2010), co-starring actors Sarathkumar, Rajinikanth, Silambarasan, Venkatesh Daggubati, Nagarjuna Akkineni, Vijay and Upendra respectively.

This was also the time when Nayanthara displayed versatility as an actor, albeit in the commercial space. She was praised for her glamorous makeover in films like Ghajini (2005) and Billa (2007), but at the same time she also wooed audiences with her roles in family dramas like Yaaradi Nee Mohini (2008) and Boss Engira Bhaskaran (2010).

Still from Yaaradi Nee Mohini. Credit: Screengrab/ YouTube

Still from Billa. Credit: IMDB

Still from a song in Chandramukhi. Credit: Screengrab/ YouTube

The making of Lady Superstar

Following a series of hits and misses at the box-office and a rumoured break-up with then boyfriend, actor-filmmaker Prabhu Deva, Nayanthara took a 11-month hiatus from work towards the end of 2011. It was perhaps the calm before the storm, for it set the stage for her to return to the Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil film industries with a bang, picking roles that would eventually lead her to becoming the ‘Lady Superstar’.

She made her comeback with the 2012 Telugu action-entertainer Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum co-starring Rana Daggubati, followed by the Tamil romantic drama Raja Rani (2013), where she shared the screen with Arya, Jai and Nazriya in the lead. While she continued to sign commercial films like Arrambam (2013), Idhu Kathirvelan Kadhal (2014) , Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019) and Nannbenda (2015) , she was no longer playing characters that did not add to the script. Raja Rani’s Regina, for instance, was the central character that moved the plot forward.

Along with commercial cinema, Nayanthara parallely appeared in titular roles in content-driven projects that were entirely dependent on her, the lead star. If Anamika (2014) , the Telugu remake of Kahaani helmed by director Sekhar Kammula, had her playing an IT professional avenging the death of her husband in a gripping murder mystery, her neo-noir horror film Maya ( 2015) , directed by debutant Ashwin Saravanan, went on to become one of the highest-grossing Tamil films that year. Director Ashwin even revealed in media interactions that the film was conceptualised as a small-budget film, but garnered the attention it did because of Nayanthara.

Still from Maya. Credit: Facebook/ Potential Studios

Still from Naanum Rowdy Dhaan. Credit: IMDB

Screengrab from Visvasam. Credit: Digital Native

Bucking the trend of restricting her filmography to a specific genre such as ‘women-centric’, ‘arthouse’, or ‘commercial’ – a strategy adopted by some of her contemporaries – Nayanthara picked quirky or intense scripts like Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) , Thani Oruvan (2015) , Airaa (2019) , Imaikaa Nodigal (2018) , Aramm (2017) and Dora (2017) , which had room for reinvention. And soon enough, the actor started reaping its benefits.

Dramatic and elaborate entry sequences written for her, whistle-worthy punchlines as she takes down villains, in-jokes and callbacks to her previous films, and box-office success – privileges conventionally reserved for male stars. Kolamavu Kokila (2018) was among the first few movies led by a woman star to have 6 am shows at the time of its release. Notably, she was the only south Indian woman actor to make it to the list of highest paid celebrities released by Forbes in 2018. The top-grossing actor might be playing safe by not picking challenging roles that put her acting skills to the test, but she makes up for it with her spectacular screen presence.

Even in star vehicles where she shared the screen with popular male actors, Nayanthara appeared in some of them as a protagonist with agency. Take Viswasam for instance; when Niranjana (Nayanthara) walks away from her marriage with Thooku Durai (Ajith), she is not shamed for her choices, as is usually the case with family entertainers in Tamil cinema. In Vijay’s Bigil, it is Nayanthara who breaks into an important monologue about encouraging women to pursue their dreams, not Vijay.

Nayanthara’s staying power

The actor’s longevity and ability to deliver hit films in multiple languages and across genres in a hero-driven industry can be attributed to multiple factors. Foremost among those is the actor’s commitment towards signing films with new and upcoming filmmakers. Starting from Atlee’s Raja Rani to Nelson Dilipkumar’s Kolamavu Kokila, RJ Balaji and NJ Saravanan’s Mookuthi Amman (2020) and Dhyan Sreenivasan’s Love Action Drama (2019) , the actor has not shied away from working with debutant filmmakers.

Though Nayanthara stopped speaking to the media and giving interviews since 2011 citing that she is a private person and would like to avoid being misquoted, the resultant exclusivity has worked in her favour, as it has for her male counterparts like Ajith, Vijay and Rajinikanth, whose media interactions are also limited to audio or trailer launch events.

Nayanthara in promotional video for Rocky. Credit: Screengrab/ YouTube

However, in an interview with Forbes last year, the actor revealed that it was the connection she has with the audience that matters to her. “There are a lot of people who make a fortune out of social media, which is fine, but if you say your success or your identity depends on the number of followers you have on Instagram, then something like that can be short-lived,” she said. In an earlier interview with Vogue, she had stated that she is a private person and does not think she is good at interacting with large crowds.

As for what’s next, the actor, who defines herself as a workaholic, is all set to dive into uncharted waters as she gears up for multilingual or ‘pan-Indian’ projects like the Atlee directorial Jawan, co-starring Shah Rukh Khan. She is also set to charm audiences in  upcoming Malayalam films Gold and Pattu, and the Telugu actioner Godfather. After the Lady Superstar donned the producer’s cap with the launch of Rowdy Baby Pictures and co-produced critically acclaimed films like Rocky (2021)  and Koozhangal / Pebbles (2021) along with Vignesh Shivan, fans are also eagerly waiting to see what she has in store on the production front.


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