Sometime during the shooting of Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, a film that would end up making a big difference in Nayanthara’s professional and personal life, director Vignesh ShivN hesitantly approached ‘Maam’ and asked her if she could get out of an autorickshaw and walk on a regular road for a full minute, crying. He told her they could not afford to barricade the road, and that she might have to risk fans walking into the frame, but should not get distracted. “I dropped her off in various locations in Puducherry, and she did that scene seven times, with the same dedication. She did not make a fuss and said that she would repeat the scene 700 times if necessary.”
This work ethic made a huge impression on Vignesh, whose debut film Poda Podi was a wash out and he was low on confidence while making his sophomore film.
Buzz around the Nayanthara-Yogi Babu-starrer Kolamaavu Kokila (KoKo), which released on August 17, has been building ever since the film was announced. Have we never had women-centric films, or actresses who’ve gone on to make a name for themselves across the ages? We have. Then why the fuss over Kolamaavu Kokila? Because, this is possibly the first heroine-centric film honoured with the much-prized 6 am show at GK Cinemas and Rakki and the 7.45 am show at Kasi. This probably best explains the standing power of Nayanthara, an actress who has charmed the collective conscience of three South Indian film industries (Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu), and briefly flirted with the fourth (Kannada).
Any other artiste would have gone all over town to promote the film, but Nayanthara’s silence speaks, as she trusts it to. For some years now, she has let her films do the talking. Like a publicist remarks, she’s cracked the code of how to stay in the news without contributing too many bytes. However, in a recent interview to a TV channel to promote KoKo, she said: “Every day, the way the world perceives you changes. I can’t live my life if I keep worrying about what people say. I have done stupid mistakes in my life. But, I should be true to myself.”
Two days before Christmas in 2003, the Kerala audience got introduced to Diana Mariam Kuriyan, who took on the screen name of Nayanthara, in Manasinakkare. She was a Sathyan Anthikkad discovery, and her portrayal of Gowri brought her laurels, including Asianet’s Best New Face Of The Year award. Two years later, the Tamil film industry fell for her charm in Ayya, and there seemed to be no stopping the actress with a winning smile and a dignified demeanour.
The team that initially managed her ensured she did not take up every film that came her way, and only chose projects that required her quiet, confident presence. They kept endorsement deals at bay and vetted every script. Chandramukhi with the Superstar followed the same year (2005). She did a Telugu film and then worked with Simbu in Vallavan. She was stuck in an image trap of the ‘girl next door’, and it required a stylish turn in Billa to break that for her. Films such as Yaaradi Nee Mohini, Kuselan, Sathyam and Boss Engira Bhaskaran followed. In between, her relationships with Simbu and Prabhu Deva failed and she took a year-long break to regroup.
For all practical purposes, her second coming was marked by the Telugu Krishnam Vande Jagatgurum (2012) and the Tamil Raja Rani a year later. Apart from the roles she chose, Nayanthara also ended up creating an image for herself — she would not talk to the media and was not active on social media unlike her peers, her dressing changed to feature mostly saris for official events, and she carried herself with an air of dignity. And yes, the eyebrows got a makeover too. There’s a sea of difference between the innocent girl dancing around Sarathkumar in Ayya and the confident professional of Raja Rani. In between, Nayan took on smaller projects where she played the role traditionally played by the male lead. Think Maya, Dora and Aramm, for instance. The films needed her star power to push them forward. She also was a part of Velaikkaran, a Sivakarthikeyan vehicle that needed a thinking heroine! A common headline those days was ‘On Cloud Nayan’, a happy pun on her name and the position she rose to!
A little before, she also teamed up with former flame Simbu for Pandiraj’s Idhu Namma Aalu. Anyone expecting a certain stiffness in their scenes together was disappointed. Every review spoke about their fabulous onscreen chemistry. Nayan had moved on, and how! The behind-the-scenes videos from the set saw the actors cracking up with laughter for every blooper.
Vignesh ShivN, director and Nayanthara’s partner, recalls the first time he saw her on the big screen. “She was very good looking, yes, and I was a fan of her screen presence. I think I watched both Ayya and Chandramukhi, and if anyone had told me then that I would direct a film such as Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, I might have laughed. That said, she makes it a point to work with young directors with fresh ideas. She’s a delight to work with, because as a newcomer, you have your own insecurities and low confidence levels, and she provides you with a great comfort zone.”
Nayanthara is also known for taking the onus of the look and feel of her character, and working to lend it a certain uniqueness. “She’s one of those people who can convert what you want from paper to the screen effortlessly,” he adds.
Directors vouch for her ability to constantly learn to become a better actor and maintain her looks, something that gets difficult after a certain age. Vignesh, whose social media accounts are a rare source of candid shots with Nayanthara, also points out that she’s reached where she has because she’s consistently delivered, with a smile.
That learning comes from web-shows (House Of Cards, The Crown, Suits, etc) and streaming sites such as Netflix, which Nayanthara studiously watches for fun and to keep pace with global trends. “It also helps her decide what kind of films she wants to be a part of. For instance, KoKo is not a regular-format movie, but it still managed to pique her interest.” Where Nayanthara has also succeeded is in rejecting wisely too. Not too many films fall under the same genre.
With Sivakarthikeyan’s 13th film, Nayanthara becomes one of those rare heroines to have acted with four generations of actors. Sarathkumar-Rajinikanth; Ajith-Vijay-Suriya; Simbu-Dhanush; and Vijay Sethupathi-Atharvaa.
Writer and movie critic Baradwaj Rangan says one of the reasons why Nayanthara became the star she is today is because she chose a mix of star vehicles and films with newcomers that she headlined. And so, while she never stopped being the ‘heroine’, her choices ensured that she also ended up being the hero in some films. “She did a Raja Rani, then a Maya, Kashmora, Aramm… this is a very interesting career strategy. With a bigger film, she’s part of a hit, but with a smaller film that needs a push, the success becomes hers.”
Despite some of her glamourous roles, many still relate to her innocent act in Ayya, and that’s the girl they’ve been rooting for all these years. Over time, she has picked carefully-crafted roles that establish her star presence minus the heroine tropes. “If you notice, in the past four-five years, she’s not been seen in the kind of silly roles that heroines are usually asked to do,” points out Baradwaj.
Today, if fans scream her name and whistle when any promotional material of KoKo hits the screens, it’s not like any other star’s journey. Less than a decade ago, Nayanthara had decided to quit movies and marry the then love of her life. She had faced the anger of many women’s associations, who even tried to burn her in effigy – they accused her of breaking up cinematographer-actor-director Prabhu Deva’s marriage. To get from a negative rating to an overwhelmingly positive one in an industry where fortunes change every Friday calls for tenacity and a clear career plan. And, all this happened, without her actively promoting herself. Her silence promoted her, literally.
A rare occasion when she spoke her mind on something other than her films was after director Suraaj’s disparaging remarks against women. “Does he think that heroines are strippers who will come and shed their clothes just because they are paid money?” she asked, adding “No one has the right to think that heroines can be taken for granted”.
Two things helped her become the ‘Lady Superstar’ – she made herself very exclusive. The perception was that if Nayanthara signed a film, it had to be good. Two, she looks very self-assured on screen, and even if a scene is silly, it does not rub off on her. “She’s proved that she’s it in for the long game,” says Baradwaj.
No one knows if the exclusivity was a conscious choice or a hurt actress protecting herself, but it helped create an aura around her, the kind only enjoyed by a male star like Ajith in recent times. She’s not readily available, and like the olden days, the only place to see her is at the movies. That aura has made directors look up to her and also helped her land standalone heroine projects, which are usually difficult to get.
The Tamil film industry is not known to groom its actresses; they have a very brief shelf life. A fresh crop of heroines come in every few years, while the older lot takes on ‘character roles’. It’s happened to the best of them. “In this scenario, to survive for long, one has to have a different strategy. She seems to have got that right,” says Baradwaj. That’s something to ponder about. In the current spot she holds, not many would take up the role of a potential romantic lead’s sister — she plays Atharvaa’s sibling in Imaikaa Nodigal.
Aramm producer K Rajesh, who is also working with Nayanthara on her next with KM Sarjun, says that Nayanthara’s market is not an “artificial one”. “She’s not an actress who finishes her shot and leaves the sets. She is deeply involved in the subject. Only she can fill up the seats for a women-centric film. She has real reach and the pulling power to draw in audiences even in the second week.” Sarjun’s film, he says, will show the audience “a very different Nayanthara”.
Much has been said about how much effort Nayanthara puts into her roles, be it deciding her look, or minor character value-additions. It was apparently her idea to get Naanum Rowdy Dhaan’s Kadhambari, who is hearing impaired, to sport ear piercings, something everyone noticed. Vignesh says that she shoots about 330 days a year, taking a break of just a month, where she relaxes and does all the things that a regular person does. And then, there’s Netflix!
RJ Balaji, who has worked with her in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, says she’s grown in stature over the years, both in the industry and among the audience, but her core has not changed. “People no longer look at her films as heroine-centric films. They are just films featuring the star called Nayanthara.”
All this hard work has to reap rewards, says a co-star who watched a special preview of KoKo, days before its release. “By this weekend, her moniker will find itself short of a word. She’ll just be Superstar”.