The first look for Fidaa, Sai Pallavi's Telugu debut film is out. The actor, who shot to fame with the Malayalam blockbuster Premam, is also making her first credited appearance in the Tamil industry with Karu.
By her own admission, Sai Pallavi looks nothing like the heroines who rule the roost, especially in the Tamil and Telugu industry where "glamour" trumps everything when it comes to casting the female lead. Often, we see more of the heroine's bare stomach or back than we do of her face. The objectification is so routine that a Telugu film Hyper actually had a hero who falls in love with the heroine's back and makes it his mission to see her "front".
In Tamil, the famous scene from Chinna Gounder where Vijayakanth sets a top spinning on Sukanya's navel is still imprinted in the minds of those who grew up in the '90s and the obsession with the midriff is yet to die down. In fact, the heroine's role has been becoming more and more negligible over the years despite the industry looking to experiment in terms of theme and genre.
There are, of course, a few films which break away from this reduction and offer substantial roles to the women characters but we don't see this happening too often. And even then, the roles go to heroines who fit a standardized perception of beauty.
In comparison, the Malayalam industry in which Sai Pallavi (who is from Kotagiri in Tamil Nadu) made her debut does not place as much emphasis on "glamour". While the preference for fair skin, which is prevalent throughout the country, is definitely present, the heroine in the average Malayalam film has more to do than dance around trees in strange clothes.
For instance, it's unthinkable that Rajinikanth would now pair up with Meena (who acted with him as a child star and later heroine), but she has quite comfortably played Mohanlal's heroine in films like Drishyam and Munthirivallikal Thalirkumbol.
The women working in these industries know it, too. Aishwarya Rajesh, who has a dusky complexion, told TNM that the major difference she finds between the Tamil and Malayalam industries where she has worked is that the Malayalam industry is more particular about the heroine looking the part than fitting a stereotype. As Sudhir Srinivasan of The New Indian Express points out, way too many Tamil films miscast the heroine, compromising the integrity of the film to accommodate what they think the audience wants.
Sai Pallavi's beauty is not of the kind we see romanticized on screen. Out of the industrial line-up of straightened hair and smooth as butter heroines, she reminds us of what good-looking women really look like, with all their imperfections, before the make-up artist transforms them into bots.
There is a "girl next door" category, the consolation prize for heroines who are not quite in the league of, say, a Nayanthara, but this is not her place either. One is hesitant to use phrases like "real beauty" (those patronizing Dove ads...ugh) but that is indeed Sai Pallavi's USP - her ability to look real and full of vitality. There is intelligence in her eyes and she looks like a woman with a personality.
Her casting in Premam was so original and refreshingly different (kudos, Alphonse Puthren) from the usual heroine that she became the most popular among the three female leads from the film. When the film went to Tollywood, however, the role went to Shruti Haasan who is popular in Telugu cinema for her "glamour".
Of course, Sai Pallavi's brand of beauty wouldn't have captured so many hearts if she could not act. She's only two films old so far - Premam and the road thriller Kali - but she has proved herself to be a capable and convincing performer.
While Karu seems to be a woman-centric film, Fidaa is in the capable hands of Sekhar Kammula who has given us decent heroines in the past. And thankfully, from the first look of both films, Sai Pallavi hasn't been ironed out to look like everyone else.