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In this chat with TNM, Nithya speaks about her films, working with woman superstar Anushka Shetty, and her flair for music and languages.

Dont want to do films where Im dying on screen again The Nithya Menen interviewFacebook/Nithya Menen
Flix Interview Monday, March 05, 2018 - 16:08

Nithya Menen is undoubtedly among the most talented actors we have in the south Indian film industry today. Having just delivered a knock-out performance in the Telugu film Awe, Nithya is in the news again for Praana, a film in which she is the only actor. 

Born in Bengaluru to a Malayali family, Nithya made her debut as lead actor in the Kannada film 7’O Clock. Since then, she has acted in several films across industries and established herself as a “single-take” performer.

TNM caught up with the actor to chat about her filmsher flair for languages and music, and just why we don’t see more of her on screen.

Being Awesome

Prashant Varma’s Awe is about a woman with multiple personality disorder and Nithya plays Krishna, one of the personalities the woman adopts. Nithya’s character is a lesbian woman who happens to be a psychiatrist. The film has a wide range of characters from a speaking fish to a magician caught in a toilet with a crocodile.

Was she tempted by any of the other equally complicated characters?

“Every actor in the film was so perfectly cast for each character. I think they were the perfect choice for each role. But then, one character which I really liked and thought was very different was Regina’s role of Meera. I thought that was a really interesting character to play, something very quirky and very new for an actress to play today. I found it exciting and I thought she played it really well,” says Nithya.

Awe references the Bhagavad Gita, which has Krishna counselling Arjuna, and interestingly, Nithya’s character, Krishna, meets her girlfriend as a counsellor, too. Was she at any point worried that people would take offence?

“No, if I’d thought on those terms, I wouldn’t have done this film. I don’t think about whether people would take it well – that’s not why I do films anyway. For me, this is work that I love to do and when I hear something that’s so exciting, the artist in me gets more excited than anything else. So I just go by that,” she shrugs.

On Praana

Nithya will soon be seen in VK Prakash’s ambitious project Praana. In addition to being a single actor film, it has been made in all four south Indian languages.

Speaking about the film, Nithya says, “Definitely four languages was quite a challenge. A film is usually made in one language, we do one take and we’re done with that particular scene or that shot or whatever. I usually don’t like even bilinguals because for an artist, it’s quite an irritating process actually. You finish something and you have to again revisit it and in another language! It’s not an easy thing to do. Four languages back to back, learning all the dialogues...and it was just me! So it was very challenging.”

Nithya goes on to add that she was insistent that the dialogues in all languages were as wonderful as the original Malayalam lines.

“The script was very beautiful. It had a lot of depth and it was written very poetically. I wanted the same spirit in all other languages also. I was the only one who knew all the languages. I had to get involved in the whole scripting and I was very particular in getting the lines right. It was quite stressful because the work was so much. I was acting and during the breaks, I’d be sitting with the writer. But doing the film on my own… being the only actor… was actually nice! At least I didn’t have to think about the other actors and I could just have my own pace,” she says with a laugh.

Praana was shot at a breakneck speed of 23 days, thanks to Nithya’s commitment to the job.

Considering she’s known to be a single take actor, how did she manage to stay spontaneous for the same scenes shot in four languages?

“Oh it’s definitely not easy and it’s not something I enjoy either. But I think that’s part of your job as an actor. You may not enjoy it but there’s no other go,” she says.

Nithya reveals that describing the film as a “thriller” is the closest to the truth. For now, the team is tight-lipped about any more details.

On music and language

Nithya recently recorded a jazz song in all four languages for Praana. She has sung for films previously as well, including a romantic melody in 100 Days of Love and a lullaby in 24. 

“I have had no training in music at all. As in acting or anything else. It’s something I’ve always been able to do since the time I was a little kid actually. It just comes to me. I can’t sing like a trained singer but I enjoy it so much and it’s one of my favourite things to do. I want to do more of it. Jazz is my favourite genre of music. I’ve always felt I had a voice for jazz. And Louiz, of course, is called the father of Indian jazz. So he’s the best person you could do your first jazz song with. It was an amazing experience. I LOVED it!” she says.

Nithya is that rare south heroine who dubs for herself across all languages. Is picking up languages something she just does, like music?

“I do have a flair for languages. It comes to me very easily. But also, I think it comes because I like to communicate with people and I like to understand people. I’m a very people person. I like to talk to people in their language, feel like we’re part of something together,” she says.

Besides, Nithya feels very strongly that as an actor, she must dub for herself.

“I make it a point to do it because I consider this a part of my work. I feel if I don’t dub in my own voice, if I’m not speaking, then my job is incomplete. That doesn’t make me feel good at all. I don’t think anyone else can say a dialogue the way I do. So I have to learn the language and speak it myself. I consider it mandatory – I have to learn it and I have to say it myself,” she asserts.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Bengaluru has helped, she adds. Both her parents speak Tamil and Kannada fluently and this has worked to her advantage.

“With Telugu, I learnt it on the job. I would insist on all my staff speaking to me in Telugu when I was doing a Telugu film. And even if I was struggling to answer, I’d do it only in Telugu. That’s how you become comfortable with a language,” she says.

On holding her ground in mainstream cinema

Mainstream south Indian films are usually centred around male actors and offer very little scope for women actors to perform. Nithya, however, has had memorable roles to play even in such films. In Vijay’s Mersal, for instance, Nithya’s role was one that stayed with the audience, as also in Vikram’s Iru Mugan, Suriya’s 24, and Junior NTR's Janatha Garage. Do mainstream directors write these parts keeping her in mind?

“A lot of times, yes. I have had directors tell me that I’m the only one they thought of to play this character and that nobody else can do it. There are a lot of films that have not happened because I didn’t say yes,” she admits.

Known to be selective, Nithya says that it’s not only her role in the film which matters to her but the overall product.

“I take a full narration. Part narration doesn’t work for me. I read the entire script. For me, the way the movie is going to be made is very important. So in the space that we have, I try to do my best… I try and pick films which are made with some creativity involved in it, some good writing,” she says.

But why does her character tend to be killed off so often, and does it annoy her?

Nithya laughs and exclaims, “YES! It does!”

She goes on to add, “I was speaking to somebody about this and I told them I’m never going to do another film where I’m going to die. They’re always killing me for an emotional high or something! I was saying I don’t like this and I’m not going to do it. But immediately after this, I got Mersal, and I told Atlee, I’d made up my mind that I’m not going to do a film where I die again and you’re again bringing this!” 

Nithya points out that all of us tend to typecast and put things in a box.

“If you do one scene in a certain way, people keep thinking of you only in that way. That’s why this happens. Hopefully, I’ll be able to break that pattern sometime,” she says.

Other than the top male stars of the south, Nithya has also acted with Anushka Shetty in Ruddramadevi. The film had Anushka play a princess who cross-dresses as a man and Nithya’s character marries her in the film. Was the dynamic different when working with a woman superstar?

“Yes, the dynamic is different. It is more simple, easy, and normal. We were just friends on the sets. There’s a little bit of a drama that happens when there’s a male superstar, especially in Tamil and Telugu. There will be a little bit of a different environment. When we were doing Ruddramadevi, it felt like we were all just actors and we were just doing our job. Anushka and I got along very well too,” she says.

On sexual harassment

There are many women actors in the south today who are opening up about the sexual harassment they’ve experienced, in the wake of the ‘Me Too’ movement in Hollywood.

Asked for her take, Nithya says, “I can only speak from experience. Honestly, I’ve not experienced any kind of sexual harassment throughout my career. There might be certain people who are sleazy but then that’s something very common. Even if you’re just walking on the road, as a girl, you experience that. In my career, I’ve only seen people being more nice to you because of who you are. Of course, it could have happened to others, but I can’t comment on it when it hasn’t happened to me.”

Though Nithya had several releases in 2016, Mersal was the only film in 2017. She says this is not because she has become even more choosy but because she wanted a break.

“It’s just that after so many years of working, I was feeling a bit exhausted and I felt the need to just put a little more attention to other things in life. In this profession, sometimes everything else tends to take a backseat. I used to work 365 days a year for something like six years. So I was feeling very tired… I just wanted to take some time and recuperate. Now I’m again ready to get back to films,” she says. 

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