For all that she turns twenty one in a few months, Karthika Nair is a bit of an old soul. The trappings of a young girl are all there – she is given to fits of giggling, adores pop music and is never more excited than when there’s a sale in town. But as she answers questions with rapid certainty, brushing away the inconvenient ones casually, we realize she’s good at this sort of thing. Very good, in fact.
It’s late in the day when we talk, and she’s coming off a gruelling day’s shoot for her new film in Hyderabad. The faint strains of an old Lana Del Rey song can be heard in the background, punctuated by incessant little beeps from her cellphone. We politely offer to postpone the interview if she is busy. Eerie silence follows our comment, and we wait.
She suddenly turns the tables on us and pretends to be a journalist, complete with a no-nonsense, mock serious voice. Relieved, we play along. We’re instantly reminded of her character in her debut Tamil film Ko, where she played a journalist, Renu. She couldn’t have chosen a better movie to debut in Tamil, we tell her. With KV Anand at the helm and popular actor Jiiva in the lead, the movie was guaranteed a good run at the box office. But, Karthika insists that it was Ko’s racy storyline that drew her in. “Let me be very clear. To work with such big names in my very first Tamil movie was obviously a very great honour. But, I signed on for the movie only after hearing the plot. All those twists and turns..were so exciting! It was like a Hollywood action flick!” she gushes excitedly.
While the movie went on to be a huge success and received some major awards, it did not get Karthika the kind of movies she wanted to do. “You know the worst thing about doing challenging roles? People will love the role and if the movie becomes a big hit, you’ll only get the same kind of roles. Just because you won over the audience doing a certain kind of role doesn’t mean that you have to do the same thing in every movie. I was offered roles very similar to my character in Ko, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.” [quote align=’right’]I had a normal childhood, and grew up far from the limelight.[/quote]
So is this why she has stayed away from Tamil cinema ever since? “I did do Annakodi after that with Bharathiraja sir,” she reminds us. “Infact, he saw Ko in a movie theatre. He usually only goes to preview shows. So after he saw the movie, he congratulated me and gave me this huge maalai and a ponnadai.”
This was when she realised that there was ‘no way back from this.’ “I don’t know why I felt like that. I got bitten by the acting bug, I guess. Acting was no longer just a whim for me. It became everything.”
But, didn’t she always want to be an actress? After all, her mother and aunt were very popular heroines, we ask her, confused.
She explains patiently. “I had a normal childhood, and grew up far from the limelight. I was doted on by my parents and to me, my dad was the coolest person ever. In fact, I had no idea my mom was a popular actress till very late. She was just mom to me.”
[quote align=’left’]Just because you won over the audience doing a certain kind of role doesn’t mean that you have to do the same thing in every movie.[/quote]When the family ventured south for their holidays, things were very different, she tells us. Her mother was stared at and made a general spectacle of. “It was very weird for me. Everywhere we went, my mother was stopped by someone who wanted to speak to her. I didn’t understand it at first. It was later that I came to know that she was one of the most popular heroines of her time.”
This discovery did nothing to change her. “I didn’t suddenly decide to be an actress, man. That kind of attention from people did nothing for me.” Life was the same as before. She dreamed of a ‘less glitzy, more satisfying’ career in hotel management and wanted to make it big like her father. “I slogged and slogged for my board exams. I thought if I scored well, I might get a trip abroad as my reward. What eventually came my way really surprised me.”
Instead of an overseas vacation, Karthika Nair was offered a film role. In a Telugu movie, no less. “I was shocked and surprised. But I got over it quickly enough. One day I was listening to my mother explaining the movie offer carefully to me and the next, I was actually shooting for the movie.”
She really wants us to know that she had no training whatsoever. While her then co-star, Naga Chaitanya went to various classes in a bid to get ready for the movie, Karthika went in woefully unprepared. “The Telugu movie Josh was essentially a college movie. I had the looks of a college girl and so they took me on. What helped me the most working on the film was that I had an open mind. I was spontaneous about everything and it showed onscreen.”
The language was a bit of a problem. Karthika Nair grew up in a typical Malayali household and was fluent in Hindi and Malayalam. She could understand Tamil, but Telugu was more of a challenge. “I have never studied so much even for my boards…”
“So you slogged again?” we interrupt.
Giggling delightedly, she continues, “It was true. I slogged again and I got it right. I’m a bit of a perfectionist but I’m no drama queen. That would be my sister Thulasi (Nair).”
So was she hesitant about her little sister’s entry into movies? “Never,” she exclaims. “In my family, the biggest surprise was me acting. We always took for granted that Thulasi would one day act onscreen. She’s a little dynamo and is naturally expressive. She has absolutely no inhibitions and I think she’s got all the right ingredients to make a good heroine.”
Spanning a good five years, Karthika’s career is a mixed bag. She has had more than her share of hits and flops, but is unfazed by it all. In an age of actors and actresses with their well-oiled Public Relations machines, she’s a breath of fresh air – someone who’s no fan of lobbying for roles or promoting herself. Apart from an official social media page, through which she constantly interacts with her fans, the actress stays away from the promotions game.
“Listen, I’m not here to survive or make money to support my family. I don’t have a PR guy and I don’t need one. I am doing movies because I genuinely respect this medium!”
Even when Annakodi failed to make an impact at the box office, she dealt with it on her own terms. “For me it was the experience. Working with Bharathiraja sir is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I’m not fool enough to let go of something like that. Here’s the director that introduced my mom to movies, and he’s offering me a role in his next. Damn right, I am going to say yes to him!” She had to let go of a few movies while working on Annakodi but has no regrets. “I prefer quality over quantity, and will always do so,” she explains.
After a couple of years away from Tamil cinema, she is back with an ‘interesting role’ in Purampokku. Directed by National Award winner SP Jhananathan and starring actors Arya and Vijay Sethupathi, the movie promises to be a stirring social drama. Despite her youth, the actress is already ten films old and has developed a reputation for working with the best. “I guess it’s my luck. All the movies I’ve been offered were written with me in mind for the lead role. Be it Bharathiraja sir or Jhananathan sir, they all took one look at me and decided I would be their heroine.”
[quote align=’left’]“I guess it’s my luck. All the movies I’ve been offered were written with me in mind for the lead role.[/quote]Her Purampokku experience is different from the rest of her movies. For starters, she had to shoot up north under freezing conditions. And no, she was not wearing glamorous clothes for the scenes (we actually asked!). “Are you kidding me? It was so cold there and I was literally crying throughout the day. We all had sensible clothes on because the scene involves us working in the snow!”
We try to veer away from the subject at hand and to our relief, she gracefully moves on and tells us a tall tale. “I don’t know why people make such a big issue out of my height. It’s not like I’m the only tall person here. Kajal and Anushka are tall too,” she pauses before continuing, “The first thing that people see when they look at me is: Tall Girl, Long Legs. It’s my USP and it’s worked so far. Guess people will have to deal with it.”
Despite the support of her mother and aunt, she had to endure some unpleasantness over the course of her career. When her debut movie released, Karthika was subjected to criticism directed at her looks. She blames herself for the mess. “I was just sixteen and didn’t really know how to project myself at my best onscreen. After Josh and Ko, I became more interested and took larger control over that area.”
After Ko, the ‘Karthika Look’ became popular in Chennai circles. “That’s how fickle life is. I still look the same then and now. A couple of months after Ko, someone that works at a beauty parlour called to say that that people come in and ask for the Karthika Nair eyebrows,” she laughs. As always, there were downsides. Cosmetic surgery rumours began to surface, but a hurt Karthika decided to let the rumours run their course. “Besides, after a couple of my movies became hits, the same people that criticized me became my fans,” she says before adding, “As long as you understand the fundamental truth behind all this, there’s no way you get hurt again”. Intrigued, we ask her what this fundamental truth could be.
“It’s all business, man!” she laughs and rings off with a cheery good night. And we realise that for all that she turns twenty one in a few months, Karthika Nair is a bit of an old soul. A wise one at that.