Tracing how Nayanthara has made a career out of balancing hero-led films and performance-oriented parts

Neelima Menon
·8-min read

From her beginnings as a village girl in a Sathyan Anthikad film, Nayanthara has grown to be a formidable presence in the South Indian film industry. She has managed the rare feat of breaking through to the superstar level in an otherwise male-dominated arena €" all while managing to straddle performance-oriented films and masala flick performances with equal ease.

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It is a crucial scene in Bigil, a film headlined by Vijay in twin roles. The stage is set for Michael Rayappan to break into a self-righteous sermon to a man who refuses to let his wife pursue her dream as a footballer player. Just as he wriggles his hands, readying to explode, his lady love Angel places her hands over his and calmly takes the mic, wording a rapturous speech on gender equality.

Considering the screen space for a heroine in a Vijay film is disappointingly decorative, Nayanthara did raise the bar a few notches with this scene. And that, by no means, is a small feat. In a way, it showcases Nayanthara's progression as a superstar in Tamil cinema. From being a quintessential embellished commercial heroine to a superstar who can shoulder films single-handedly to getting substantial screen space in superstar films, here is an attempt to document Nayanthara's phenomenal journey in cinema.

Her debut Malayalam film Manassinakkare (2003), directed by Anthikad, placed in the backdrop of a village in Central Kerala, is about this unique bond between a neglected old woman in a rich Christian household and a local villager. Nayanthara (whose original name is Diana Mariam Kurian) plays this practical girl who tightens the purse strings of her house. A year later, she did Fazil's Vismayathumbathu, starring Mohanlal, in which she was seen as a wandering spirit. Both performances were lauded by critics.

Though her sister act in the Mohanlal film Natturajavu was nothing much to write home about, Nayanthara had clearly created a positive public opinion. So it was a huge surprise when she quickly migrated to Tamil cinema the next year, starring opposite Sharath Kumar in Ayya. "After seeing her in Ayya, I thought she would be one more of those actors from Malayalam who had gravitas," says Subha J Rao, an entertainment journalist who covers Tamil and Kannada cinema.

Her breakthrough came the next year €" Chandramukhi, loosely based on the Malayalam film Manichithrathazhu, where she played Rajinikanth's love interest. Soon she was featured in films of most South Indian superstars (Vijay, Ajith, Suriya, Mammootty, Venkatesh, Nagarjuna, and Prabhas), though she was largely confined to playing the hero's love interest, with the token song-and-dance. "In cinema, if you are paired opposite little-known actors early in your career, the commercial viability of a star diminishes. She did a song with Vijay in Sivakasi, and then the doors opened for her. Rajinikanth used to think she was lucky for him (she made special appearances in Sivaji and Kuselan). Whenever she worked with a bigger star, the film was a hit, and it rubbed off on her popularity," observes Sreedhar Pillai, trade analyst and film journalist who covers Tamil cinema.

Between her debut till Sri Rama Rajyam (2011), where she played Sita, Nayanthara largely played various versions of the "loosu pennu" prototype. Though there have been attempts to reinvent her image €" her toned bikini appearance in Billa was much talked about as heroines rarely attempted such makeovers back then. Then there was the little-known Malayalam film, Electra, where she played a daughter who is jealous of her mother's closeness to her father. That was Nayanthara attempting to explore the actor in her, and also remains one of the first films where she dubbed herself. Even in the Siddique-directed Bodyguard, Nayanthara had a sizable role and she delivered a commendable performance.

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After a bitter breakup, Nayanthara had to rejig her career plans. "Normally a heroine goes for one round. But Nayanthara had successfully managed second, and is now currently going through a third round," says Pillai. In her second coming, the actor was anxious to discard all traces of her previous glam-doll image. One of the first things she did was to sign on smaller films. This time though, she was hell-bent on being a star, a presence on screen.

"The success of smaller films (Maya, Aramm, and Kolamavu Kokila) earned her the tag of superstar. She has constantly reinvented herself on screen. And she became an accessible style diva. Be it her checked Chettinadu saris in Viswasam or linen saris in Aramm, they became the rage. Whatever happened in her life has given her midukku (regality) on screen, and the Tamil audience really roots for her," maintains Rao.

She is said to be the only female actor who can guarantee houseful Friday morning shows as well as the only female actor to get a wider release. She has a solid fan following in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. Sources close to her talk about her smart strategy to balance her choice of films.

For each Aramm or Kolaiyuthir Kalam, she has a Bigil and Darbar. She has not withdrawn from being part of superstar films despite heading women-centric films as well.

Also, note the variety of roles €" in Aramm, she is a district collector assigned a crucial mission in a village; in Kolamavu Kokila, she gets involved in a drug racket to earn money; Maya has her play a single mother who has a spooky encounter; and in Mookuthi Amman, she is a formidably flashy ancestral goddess who teams up with a reporter to expose a godman.

"She not only gets 'intro' scenes written for her just as they are for male stars, but the script also weaves in references to her other films. Such 'in' jokes assume that the audience is familiar with the star's work, and will immediately catch it, and that's a privilege usually reserved for male stars. I believe she has redefined what a 'woman-centric' film means. A heroine-led film is generally assumed to be about women's issues, whether that's sexual violence or some other form of patriarchal oppression. But in many of Nayanthara's films, the gender of her character is incidental. She is positioning herself as a 'mass' star rather than carving a niche space, even as she continues to appear in the big-budget films of male stars with limited screen time," says Sowmya Rajendran, film critic with The News Minute.

Today, it is said that when she signs a film, she gets a free hand in choosing her look for the film. But there are many who are not pleased with her obsession in looking flawlessly turned out. In Kolamavu Kokila, for instance, it was difficult to buy her character's financial struggle considering her bronze-streaked hair, expensive shoes, and Fabindi-like skirts and tops. Her CBI officer (Imaikkaa Nodigal) who is tracing a serial killer chases him in stiletto heels, designer jackets, and expensive accessories. Even in the Nivin Pauly-starrer Love Action Drama, with not a hair out of place and a flawlessly made-up face, the actor looks out of place and out of depth, leaving us in no mood to invest in her character. From the moment she walks into the frame, she remains oddly out of focus. "She doesn't allow the character to take centre stage. You only see Nayanthara on screen. Even when she cries, the look takes centre stage, and the emotion comes next. But if there is one thing, she has a terrific screen presence, something actors fight to achieve their whole life," notes Rao.

Rumour has it that she was the first choice to do the item number with Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express, but the actor declined it. And Pillai thinks it is a smart move to keep her focus down South, considering the exodus of South actors into Bollywood has practically dried out. It is said that the RJ Balaji film Mookuthi Amman is a huge hit on Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex, thereby cementing her popularity on such platforms.

Nayanthara has also maintained her aura off-screen as well, and remains inaccessible to the media. You rarely see her promoting films. One can draw parallels with Malayalam superstar Manju Warrier with respect to how successful they were in their second coming in their respective industries. Both rose like phoenixes from their personal crises, bagged some of the best roles of their careers, headlined female-oriented films, found substantial space in superstar films, are tightlipped about their personal lives, besides being the highest paid female actors in their industries. There are rumours that Nayanthara has walked out of big projects citing payment issues (she is said to charge Rs 10 crore for a film). "She's aware of her worth in a film, and is not hesitant to demand what she believes she is owed," observes Rajendran.

Her upcoming films are interesting. There is Netrikann (directed by Milind Rau), produced by her beau Vignesh Sivan, which is rumoured to be a remake of Korean film Blind. The actor plays a promising cadet at the police academy who loses her eyesight after a car accident. Kaathu Vaakula Rendu Kadhal (directed by Vignesh Sivan, and co-produced by Sivan and Nayanthara) is expected to be a triangular romance, where she shares screen with Vijay Sethupathi and Samantha Akkineni. She has also signed a Malayalam film Paattu with Fahadh Faasil, to be directed by Alphonse Puthren. And then of course the biggie with Rajinikanth €" Annaatthe, (directed by Siva), where she reportedly plays a pivotal part in a large ensemble. Again chosen with precision, a clever balancing act to satisfy the star and the actor in her. And so far, that strategy is working perfectly for her.

Nayanthara's new film Nazhil is now available in Indian cinemas.

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