Nithya Menen had no plans of becoming an actress, but director Nandini Reddy convinced her to get in front of the camera rather than behind. Today with over 35 films to her credit, Menen, 27, is being hailed as one of the best actresses in the south. Her two recent releases in Tamil – Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani and Raghava Lawrence’s Kanchana 2 – are blockbusters and showcase her versatility. While audiences are applauding her performances and the cash registers are ringing, Menen has gone on her annual break. From her retreat, the elusive actress spoke about what attracts her to roles, her recent blockbusters and more.
Tara in O Kadhal Kanamani (OK Kanmani) and Ganga in Kanchana 2 were very different roles. How do you choose your roles?
I just go by intuition most of the time and my state of mind – what I feel like doing at that point. Nothing more than that. Of course, I also look at how important my character is in the film and if it’s sensible. I shouldn’t have a lot of screen presence and nothing to do in the film. Each of the characters I have played must have excited me in some way and that’s why I have accepted them.
People say you’re an intellectual actress. You’d never play a glam doll.
Obviously people say that because I don’t do it. I am very clear on what I do and don’t do. I’m an actor and at the end of the day, an actor has to do what an actor has to do. You can be a non-actor and still be in the industry. But if you are an actor, you have to creatively satisfy yourself.
You didn’t want to be an actor. With more than 30 films to your credit, how do you feel now?
I feel I have accepted it far more now. I have made peace with it. I believe that if the universe wants to test you and make you go through a lot and learn a lot, it makes you an actor! I believe that this is what I am supposed to do and I find my happiness today in my work. I make sure I work with good people and this is one of the important things for me now which I enjoy every day.
Dulquer Salmaan and you had great chemistry in OK Kanmani. Is it there a comfort level because of your earlier films with him?
No, not at all. The first film we did was Ustaad Hotel, where I think we hardly interacted. We didn’t know each other at all. The next two films – 100 Days of Love and OK Kanmani – happened together. So it’s not like we were already comfortable with each other. When you’re doing an intimate, romantic film, you’re together most of the time, so that comfort factor has to grow. We started to understand each other’s body language and it got it easier through OK Kanmani.
How was it working with Mani Ratnam?
It was nice because he’s not someone who has any ego and for me, working with egoistic people is the toughest thing to do. The work itself is not tough, but it’s people who make it tough. That way Mani sir has no absolutely ego. When you are working with him, it’s just about the work – he cares about the work and I care about the work and it’s easy. There’s no drama. For me, I like that situation and it’s easy to work with someone like that.
Did you learn anything from Mani Ratnam, the director?
This is a question that keeps getting asked – I can’t force myself to learn something because it’s Mani Ratnam! Just because it’s a Mani Ratnam film, it doesn’t mean you learn from it. It can be a fun experience; it can be about sharing; it can be so many things. I learn from a lot of things in life – I even learn from small children. In fact, I think I have learnt the most in my life from Kanchana 2.
What was it about Kanchana 2 that made you sign it on?
I remember meeting Raghava Lawrence and he was narrating the first scene, where I am walking and kicking open a door and I’m really angry. As he was narrating, I remember thinking that this is the first time in my life where I was not able to wrap my brain around a character. Usually, I have an emotional intelligence to be able to understand the depth of any character, and that makes you an actor. But this particular character, I just could not understand how I would play it. She was so different from me. And then I thought, I have to sign this film, I can’t let this go. I have to find out how to play her. That’s really why I said yes. I was so curious; I had to solve this.
After you played Ganga, what did you feel?
It was tough. I remember journalists asking me about other roles, whether it was tough and I used to be like, ‘What is there to be tough? It is something that comes to me easily’. But this – for the first time in my life – was tough and that’s why I said I learnt so much from Kanchana. Nobody asked me what I learnt from Kanchana, but that’s the movie I have learnt the most from!
I learnt that even today something could come by and it could be tough for me. I have done about 35 films till now and I have done them with ease. For the first time, I had to tell Lawrence show me what to do and I had to watch him and follow him. Usually I do it my way, but this time I couldn’t. It was physically very challenging also; I got hurt a lot as there’s a lot of physical violence involved. In every way, it was tough and it was the biggest learning ever.
Ganga is very unlike me and I had to go against my grain and act. Usually, I channel who I am and my experiences and understanding, and use that to do a film. In this film, I had to put all that aside. I’m extremely fond of Lawrence; he’s a fantastic human being. We got along like house on fire.
So what next for you in terms of roles?
I am always looking for stimulation. I don’t want to do something easy and make quick money. I am going to pick roles that make sense to me. But probably not another Kanchana because I’m done with that. (Laughs) It takes a lot of your energy!
You’re hailed as one of the best actresses now in Tamil cinema. What do you feel about that?
I think I have the basic qualification to be an actor – I think that’s all it is. I don’t think I’m really awesome. I’m just good and I have the basic thing that anybody needs to have to be an actor, to do this job. I believe that today the standard has dropped so much, that there are so many non-actors, that the minute somebody can act they become super awesome. (Laughs) I don’t think that – I’m just an actor.