If it hadn’t been for the poster of a “cheap” (read, adult) film called Diana, Nayanthara as we know her today may never have existed.
It was 2003, and Malayalam filmmaker Sathyan Anthikad had just cast 19-year-old Diana Mariam Kurian in his film Manassinakkare, which was being shot in Pattambi village in Palakkad, Kerala. He’d recently spotted the college student in a jewellery advertisement in Vanitha, a Malayalam weekly, and had known she would be perfect for his latest project.
“Her graceful face caught my attention,” said Anthikad. “She did not know acting back then, but was quick to learn. During the first few days, she’d arrive, place a chair next to me and watch the shoot. It was only after she gained confidence that we began shooting her scenes.”
But when Anthikad happened to see the lurid Diana poster on his way to work, he felt that the debutante’s name should not be associated with it. Three new names were shortlisted and the clapboard boy at the shoot picked his favourite: Nayanthara.
She has come a long way since then. The fresh-faced, long-haired Diana who started out as the quintessential girl-next-door in Malayalam movies would go on to become the “Lady Superstar” of Kollywood (the Tamil film industry)—the gendered moniker a testament to how the realm of superstardom is generally reserved for men in the region.
Over her reign in the next two decades—which is unprecedented staying power in an industry where most leading ladies become “character actors” in the flash of an eye—Nayanthara has taken on an unusual variety of roles, from a gun-wielding gangster in Billa (2007) to Sita in the Telugu movie Sri Rama Rajyam (2011) to a hearing-impaired woman seeking revenge in the comedy-drama Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015).
“Nayanthara has been able to keep upgrading her image constantly, which has been a key to her...