The secret life of Nithya Menen: The actress you knew, the person you didn’t
There’s always been an air of mystery about Nithya Menen, and when she talks, she’s careful about how she articulates her thoughts and ideas. Despite her popularity, the actress is hardly in news. Except for an occasional interview or two, she keeps to herself, and you sense a feeling that she’s quite guarded about her interactions with people beyond her close friends.
Perhaps it all started during an interview back in 2011, when she had just started her acting career in Telugu cinema. In the middle of the event, Nithya was asked if she would act alongside Prabhas, and when she spontaneously asked ‘who?’, her remark snowballed into a narrative that the actress did not know who Prabhas was. The incessant criticism that followed has, in turn, made her wary about her interactions with the media and she confesses that the incident really broke her spirit.
“Everyone was laughing during that interview which was more like a banter, and I thought they (the media) were my friends. As naive as it sounds now, I thought I was in safe company. Then, I realised that the world is different from what I think of it in my head. It was the first big thing that hit me,” she says, adding, “Even today, although I’m not a recluse, I find it very hard to connect with people if they are not on the same wavelength. I want to cut out noise from my life. I don’t like people talking about topics that have got nothing to do with me, and I don’t like being in the centre of things where such things are encouraged. That’s why I’m not on social media. Right from the beginning, I’ve not propagated myself like what actresses are expected to do. I have, for all practical reasons, always been artistically inclined. So, my interest has been to do good films, collaborate with wonderful artistes and carry on with my life.”
On top of it, she makes it quite evident that she is often clueless about what to say when she is asked ‘template questions’. For instance, one of the frequently asked questions is - “What did you learn from Mani Ratnam during the shoot of OK Kanmani?" She laughs when she recalls about such interviews in the past and says, “Do I really have to learn something? I love Mani sir, and he let me be, which is why there’s no learning. You learn something when you face obstacles. I learnt a lot while acting in Ganga because it challenged me as an actor. OK Kanmani was a breeze because we — Mani Ratnam, Dulquer (Salmaan), PC Sreeram and I — enjoyed each other’s company. It’s always a challenge to give interviews. Back then, maybe I was too straightforward. So, I find it better to not talk (laughs).”
But today, she’s a different person, in every sense. It is also obvious in terms of how she has switched her wardrobe from black to white. “I feel white represents me better now. I have become more calm,” she smiles. She drapes a zen-like calmness and admits that she is slowly finding peace in her life. When she is not working, Nithya loves spending time at her house which is so cozy that no one would want to step outside. It is her safe haven, so to speak.
When we meet her, she is deeply immersed in perfecting Yaman Raga. For someone who has never learnt singing, she has a soulful voice, and singing, she says, gives her an opportunity to connect with her soul. “Every time I sing, I feel a strong sense of peace and happiness. After moving to this new house (in Bangalore) at the age of 28, I wanted to explore music. I’m not doing this to become a better singer and I may not even perform for someone else. I find music to be so soulful that it connects with the divine.”
The more she talks, it becomes clear that she’s a firm believer in spirituality, and she says that every aspect of her life, including acting in movies and singing, is connected to spirituality. “I grew up in an atheist family but even as a child, I felt I was being protected by a divine power. I have always done things out of my own choice. I was never in competition with anyone and that has stayed with me even today. There was never a confusion about the choices I’ve made in my life. Every decision was driven by my soul and what I felt was the right thing to do, and none of that came from my mind. Having said that, acting in films was never on my mind. Although I was doing films, I was resisting it internally and I didn’t enjoy at all all these years, until now. I was constantly irritable. Now, it’s no longer the case. I have realised that I was meant to do this. I’ve finally made peace with my profession, and once you find a sense of purpose in what you are doing, you feel that passion and enthusiasm to do something nice.”
When she says that she wants to do “something nice”, she puts it in context saying, “In our films, there’s a lot of focus on bad things, negative emotions, bad people etc. The emotion behind most of the films is revenge and anger. Even when it comes to news, there’s a lot of emphasis on all the negative things. And I want to make a difference. I feel that through the films that I do, I want to do films which focus on love, compassion, happiness, empathy for others, caring, and sharing. I want people to experience films and feel those emotions - like holding a baby. Once you experience films at such a deeper level, that’s when it hits your heart. That’s what will get people talking about the good things in life.”
Meanwhile, all eyes are on her upcoming film Mersal in which she has, admittedly, played quite an emotional character. Directed by Atlee, the film has Nithya paired opposite Vijay in one of the three segments in the story. Talking about her role, Nithya says, “My character is the emotional pillar in the film which sets the tone for the rest of the events. What I really liked is how Atlee treated the two principal characters in the flashback episode, which is quite different when you think of a big budget commercial film.”
Set in the 1970s, the flashback sequence in Mersal explores the milieu of Madurai and Nithya confesses that she had a whale of a time trying to recreate the retro look. “I really love doing the whole period drama stuff. Not just Mersal, some of my previous films like 24, Rudhramadevi involved quite a lot of dressing up to look the part in that time frame.”
The actress is all praise for Atlee, who’s also one of the youngest filmmakers she has worked with over the years. “I sensed that he really wanted to work with me because he was fond of me. We got along pretty well. When it comes to work, he’s pretty focused and clear about what he wants. He looks like he has been doing this for a long time,” she says.
Currently, she’s shooting for a multi-lingual film in VK Prakash’s direction and the buzz suggests that Nithya is playing a writer. The film, titled as Praana in Malayalam and Pranam in Telugu, will also release in Tamil and Kannada. “I can’t reveal too many details about the project but I’m quite excited about what we are doing here. We are shooting it with surround sync sound, which Resul Pookutty is taking care of, and as a result, it’s almost like shooting for four different films at the same time,” Nithya adds. PC Sreeram is the cinematographer whereas Louis Banks will be scoring the music.
Although she continues to be praised for her body of work across the South Indian film industries, the long gaps between her films often makes people wonder if she is wasting her talent. “Why can’t she sign more films?” is a question that often pops up when people talk about her. However, she has a different perspective on this topic. “When you end up doing films which erode your talent instead of enriching it then why be part of such films at all? I really want to do good stuff and I believe that a lot of stuff that I’ve done so far has been very superficial. There’s an ocean out there left to be explored in me. I feel that I’ve just scratched the surface of what I can offer,” she says.
There’s something else that keeps bothering her and that is seeing millions of rupees being spent on making really bad films. “I’m looking forward to see a day when people don’t really pour so much money down the drain to make soulless and badly made films. You can actually put that money to good use, instead of wasting it on bad films. That will happen only when people stop accepting bad stuff and they start saying ‘no’ loudly and clearly. I’m waiting to see films being made with a limited budget, but with a lot of soul and heart,” Nithya adds.
One thing has not changed at all in all these years and that has got a lot to do with how much she values her privacy and solitude. “People are so restless that they are unable to be with themselves; they can’t be silent. I’m in a meditative state all the time even when I am doing my work. People might think I’m anti-social but that’s not the case. I’m okay with being alone. I find it’s a problem if you can’t be alone. Having said that, I don’t think I have found yet what it takes to be happy. Buddha found it. I’m on the way. I will be at peace before I die (laughs),” she signs off.