Nithya Menen on Mission Mangal, working in the Hindi film industry: It's more professional in Bollywood
'I was very happy to work here. I found the environment much more professional, and people easy going. There is less hierarchy,' says Nithya Menen.
Celebrated South Indian actress Nithya Menon is one of the few actors who is comfortable in all four languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada. Critically acclaimed, she has a flourishing career, with a wide range of unconventional roles in her filmography.
Nithya will now make her Bollywood debut as an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist with Mission Mangal, based on the Mars Orbiter Mission of India, alongside Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, and Kirti Kulhari. Her two films, Ok Kanmani and Kanchana 2, have a Bollywood remake each in the name of OK Jaanu and Laxmmi Bomb.
Excerpts from a chat below.
Did you have any particular kind of approach to Bollywood? Many a times since there is an expectation for that typical commercial launch, with a hero, and song and dance?
(Laughs) In the South or anywhere else, I have not done anything conventional ever. The way I started out, and the kind of choices I made with films those were all quite unconventional. What I did always caught attention and that is because I went with the flow, and how I felt in that moment. Actually this is because I never wanted to be an actress and that worked in my favour. I did what I felt like doing.
What attracted you to Bollywood?
It has been 10 years in the South industry, and I have been wanting to do something different as I was feeling stagnated. That was the time when Balki sir (Writer and co-producer R Balki) called me, and told me that he had an interesting subject. He told me that it has several actors, and he wanted me to play a specific scientist. I have got Hindi film offers in the past but I always felt it was a mismatch. I heard the whole narration. The director is from Bangalore, he is a Kannadiga (Jagan Shakti), and he had seen all my films, so they knew why they were approaching me. That was very important for me, and it was not that they just wanted an actress from South.
Did you not want a solo debut in Bollywood? Don’t you fear you will be counted as one of the actresses in the film?
Never has it ever been so important to me that I have to be the centre of attention and that it has to be only me. Never has that ever crossed my mind. Only when I am asked these kind of questions that I think about it. I always see myself as an actor, and for an actor, a film has to be bigger than them. That is the only way we can make good films. It is with mediocre films that an actor becomes bigger than the film. That is when everything goes unbalanced. I just want to play my character well. I will get noticed on my own merit. I don’t want to force people to notice me. There is no such need.
You mentioned earlier that you did not want to become an actor. So what did you aspire to be?
I studied journalism from Manipal Institute. But in my second year of journalism, I opted out. The first film I did was as a child artiste. It was an English film shot by French crew, so you can call it destiny. I didn’t plan anything. We were not from film family. I am from a normal middle class family which is education oriented, and where no creative things are appreciated or encouraged. No matter what I do, how I do they still don’t accept my work easily. But now, things are changing, and my family recently started watching my films. In fact, my grandfather was so happy and thrilled to know that I was playing a scientist, at least in a movie (laughs out loud), and I was like, ‘ Thank god, some way I could make them happy’.
What do you feel about Hindi remakes of movies from the South as two of your films have a Bollywood remake each?
Remakes in general cannot capture the original essence of a film no matter where. Whether you remake Hindi films in South, or vice-versa, you can never capture that magic of the original.
In Bollywood right now, quite a few films from South are being remade. Kabir Singh was a big hit, and now, Karan Johar has acquired the rights of Vijay Devarakonda’s Dear Comrade for a whopping amount. If you are offered a remake of a South film here, would you do it?
I would first see what the film is all about.
Your OK Kanmani was hugely popular. It was watched all over, and one did not feel the constraint of language. How would you react to the universality of the film?
For me, sensibilities have to match. I always try to as much as possible stay close to roles that are more real, people trying to tell a story which is genuine and authentic.
Taapsee (Pannu) once mentioned that South film industry is very male dominated. The call time given to actresses is way earlier than the actors. How liberating it is for you to come to Bollywood?
It is much more professional here in Bollywood. I was very happy to work here. I found the environment much more professional, and people easy going. There is less hierarchy. But it also depends upon the films you do. Lot of films that I have done in the South, I have played very important roles, so I was important to the film as well. I feel gender disparity is there everywhere but definitely in Bollywood, working atmosphere is quite professional and easy.
Tell us about the working atmosphere on the sets of Mission Mangal.
We were all like a team and we always stayed in a group. I had met Vidya (Balan) m’am as we had recently worked on the NTR biopic, it was just few weeks before I started shooting for Mission Mangal. Taapsee and I have done a film together but I had never met her before.
There is a kind of ignorance towards people from the South as people try to club Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu all as one. Did you feel that kind of ignorance when you worked here?
Yes, I did but it is not a vindictive thing. It is only ignorance. Here, people are very friendly. I felt they were much more accepting in Mumbai. I felt less gap. But of course, on set, I was the South Indian representative of everything that was happening in any part of South. Any development and Akshay sir would point out at me, and I would tell him, ‘But why are you telling me? I have nothing to do with it' , and he would say you are from South no. We used to have fun with all that.
Malayalam film industry is going through a revolutionary time where women are choosing to stay original, and do not want a 'plastic' face. How do you look at it?
It is very important to stay original. I sometimes wonder that how can someone say that, ‘This nose is not okay, fix it’. That is a very negative way for things to go. This can’t continue, and needs to be reversed. People have to start understanding that all of us can't look the same. All of us have beauty of our own. You have to encourage that in your children, and stop saying that they are fat or the shape of their nose is not good. So many trolls say that the actors face can be ruthless. I am sure that it affects people, and you have to be really resilient to understand and detach from it saying, ‘No, this is not correct’.
There is also lot of body-shaming that happens on social media. How do you react to that?
Yes, people are ignorant. People assume that you are overweight because you are lazy, and you eat a lot. Trust me, actors, we are not lazy. We stand for almost eight hours at a stretch. Sometimes it is a health-related issue. It can be hormonal imbalance, and that can create lot of pain and difficulties. They are already dealing with that. Along with that, if they are trolled, it can be disturbing. We need to educate people to be more kind and compassionate.
How do you deal with trolls?
I see life to be much vaster than films. Film is just one part of my life. So all this doesn’t hit me. I am very spiritually inclined. Of course, it hurts, and when I am in that state then I detach from it. I say, ‘No, this is not the right thing’. These people are ignorant, rude, and mean. I detach myself and say, ‘You would be fine, you would be okay’.
You have also stepped on to the OTT digital platform. How did that happen?
I just did Breathe 2 (opposite Abhishek Bachchan), which is an Amazon Prime (India Original) show, and I loved it. It was totally my space, and I enjoyed thoroughly. It was meant for an actor like me. I was given the space to be as subtle as I wanted it to be, as sensitive as a I wanted. The fact that OTT comes up with some great content forces everybody to up their game, which is a welcome change.
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