[Voxspace Life] Nithya Menen : An Actress Too Good To Be A Superstar

Analysis Of The Brilliance Of Natural Talent

As the end credits started rolling up, and people started clumsily standing up to leave, beyond crushing of popcorn cans, and the wobbly steps into the blinding lights, my colleague and I looked at each other with a perplexed feeling in our minds. We seemed to ask each other only one question –  What was the movie about? I am of course talking about the recent genre-bending Telugu movie – Awe! The movie, a mix of multiple genres, served as an arm’s length reflective of the socio-fantastical narrative made popular by writers such as Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. Magical realism was not often tried out in Telugu Industry, and Awe!, despite its narrative flaws (yes there were quite a few), was a wonderful attempt at introducing the genre to us.

But this article is not about the movie, nor about its humbly conceived idea of fusing magical realism with social stigma, or it’s ensemble cast who mostly remained under-utilized. This article is rather about Nithya Menen, who as we walked out of the cinema hall, made a lasting impact on us, as she’s often done over the span of her career. She was the north star, who shone, nay dazzled brightly, in the roughly 15 minutes of on-screen time that she had in the movie. She remained the biggest take away from the movie, and everyone, including Kajal Aggarwal, arguably the biggest star in the movie, seemed bland in front of her. That got me thinking or rather counting, the number of times I’ve seen Nithya Menen on screen and felt frustrated that she was grossly underutilized. This article is, therefore, a wondering about what makes an actor click, and what does it take to be a star in the age we live in.

What Does Brilliance Deprive?

Here’s an interesting thought. Nithya Menen actually reminds me of Rohit Sharma, the ace Indian Batsman. Like our actress, Rohit Sharma is so eloquently talented, that it frustrates any sports follower when he loses his wicket to a poor shot. Nithya Menen, to draw a parallel here, has such a natural gift of talent, screen presence and intellect, it frustrates anyone studying the art of cinema, that she fails to truly capitalize on them. The sheer prolific talent that Nithya Menen is, has only been glimpsed by the Indian film fraternity. She has teased us along with her immense potential, perhaps a bit too long, that now no one would truly care about her judgement of roles and her career path. I suppose Rohit Sharma and Nithya Menen share one more complex quality. I’d rather term it as their character trait. They know they are brilliant. See now that’s the problem. Once you are aware of what you can do, if only you tried harder, you tend to take everything, specifically your talent, for granted. You start hoping for a privilege, because, well you can always deliver. And the sense of losing out of form never crosses your mind. In this sense, Nithya Menen is a prisoner of her gifts.

If I had to place Nithya Menen in the list of illustrious actress’ who were naturally gifted, I would not even bat my eyes in doing so. Given her talent to flesh out characters, which seem approachable and real, and to infuse her own speckles of confidence and brevity to them, is no easy task. Movie observers would only associate these key values with actresses such as Savitri, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Sridevi, Nandita Das, Vidya Balan and so on.

Every generation prides itself on having a gifted actress, who makes acting so ridiculously easy, that it baffles everyone in front of the camera, and behind it as well. They become the darlings of the movie-makers, who draft, design and decide characters for them, and for them only. They command the fate of the movie by their sheer presence, overshadowing the patriarchal influence. As an acute observer of Indian Cinema, to quote ‘Star Wars’, I see the ‘force within’ Nithya Menen. There’s a spark, most of my readers would agree with me here, just simmering below her skin. One which needs to blaze up as soon as possible.

As Woody Allen says in one of his interviews, ‘Give me an actress who I can imagine in any role I write, and that day I will write only for her’.  Think about it. A mark of a great actress is when, you, as a storyteller, can fit her in any role you imagine. She is not limited or restricted. She is applicable. Nithya Menen is one such actress. You can put her in any role, and you can be assured that she will deliver.

But therein lies the problem.

The Doomed Epiphany

I often wonder what defines the nature of a successful person? Is it the inherent talent that one possesses or the will to hone it to perfection? Or is it just good fortune, which makes one be at the right time, at the right place, and take the right decision? In most cases, it is a culmination of these three factors. However, when it comes to showbiz, the film industry that is, the rules of success are tweaked a bit more. With talent, hard work, and timing, one important thing you need is “the factor of accommodation”. As an actor, one needs to accommodate to varying IQ’s, of the makers, audience and colleagues, to survive and excel. In doing so, most actresses fall into a trap where they start accommodating idiocy. They start accepting roles which come their way, purely for commercial purposes and other reasons. ‘Be picky but not Aamir Khan picky’, goes the rule in Bollywood. Sadly, of course, even someone as talented as Nithya Menen is bound to pick up roles which fail to tap into her potential.

In this context, when the announcement became public that a biopic based on the life and career of Telugu’s Most Revered Actress Savitri was being taken up, and it was rumoured that Nithya Menen might be playing the titular role, it made all the sense in the world. As aforementioned, Nithya constitutes the gravitas and the performing capabilities of playing Savitri. I, for one, was finally assured that perhaps this project could turn the tide for Nithya Menen. Unfortunately, this joy was shortlived. The makers of the movie found their Savitri in a relatively new actor, Keerthy Suresh. While I do understand to some extent that the makers behind ‘Mahanati’ (the biopic of Savitri) might’ve seen Ms Suresh as someone who comes with minimal aftertaste of her previous roles, and allows her to delve deep into the role with no qualms, I stood to wonder whether Nithya Menen had missed out on this opportunity ironically because of her immense talent. Was she somehow overqualified for the job? Was Keerthy Suresh someone who could be moulded as per the vision and the demands of the makers? Only time will tell. It is here maybe that I feel the need to reiterate the statement – Nithya Menen is a prisoner of her own gifts. An entrapment sewed over excellence. Would I be straying afar when I assume, that Nithya Menen is not just perfect for a role, but sometimes achingly a bit more than that? The duality of talent, being enough and being more, is a wonderful study of character.

Nithya Menen A Career Decided But Never Defined

Continuing on my observations from earlier, when I look at the career graph of Nithya Menen, I am reminded of a handful of roles which truly established her as an actress. Mind you, just established. Take Ala Modalaindi for example. The role, (I don’t remember what her role was called, cause to me it doesn’t matter), a mild aftertaste of Genelia’s Bommarillu stance, introduced the eccentric, ambitious and always funny Nithya Menen to the Telugu audience. It was, what they say, an author-backed role to launch her. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that with her dense curls, her electric screen presence, and her voice (she actually crooned a couple of songs) she made the romantic caper of a film actually stand out. Let’s call ‘a spade a spade’, the movie had its sparkling moments, but all in all, it was what can generously be described as a mediocre affair. But it checked one very important box for Nithya Menen, the actor. The script gave enough room for her to truly explore her talents and flourish in all departments. It was as much a Nithya Menen movie, as it was of the debutant director B.V.Nandini Reddy. However, post-Ala Modalaindi, Nithya’s resume of films took an unexpected turn.

On one hand, she signed auteur movies, which promised to dig into her talents and make her a force to reckon with, like 180 (Telugu), Veppam (Sega in Telugu), Karmayogi (Malayalam) and on the other hand she signed movies which promised her commercial success, like Ishq (Telugu), Urumi (Malayalam), and Thalsamayam Oru Penkutty (Malayalam). Logically it does make sense, to put your eggs in different baskets, but Nithya Menen perhaps overdid it. In trying to juggle not just multiple languages, but also different ethnicities, and performance arches, Nithya Menen might’ve just missed a trick. In no manner am I saying that she shouldn’t have diversified with her natural inclination towards a multitude of cultures. But merely trying to understand, that perhaps this diversification denied her the regional connectivity that superstars crave for. Perhaps here is where Nithya Menen was left behind, despite having an incredible launchpad in Telugu. And actress’ who started their career, at about the same time as her, the likes of Samantha Akkineni, Kajal Aggarwal, or for that matter even a relatively newer Rakul Preet Singh, surged ahead. Although she did have an occasional hit here and there (counting Bangalore Days, 100 Days Of Love, 24 and Malli Malli Idi Rani Roju here), she had already lost the connection with the regional core fan base.

But Why? Well, from what one can understand with her plethora of talents, one can safely assume that she dealt with a major identity crisis across the southern states. She was gifted with the ability to speak, understand and essentially emote in multiple languages, but she never stuck to one region. In the history of Indian cinema, only one actress has been able to establish her dominance over multiple regions, languages and belongings. Sridevi had achieved the mercurial task, but those were different times. Those were the times when an actress wasn’t exposed to the national media if she was under the umbrella of regional cinema. Alas, Nithya Menen wasn’t going to enjoy the same luxury, not in this age of cross digital platforms. She was known. She was seen. In multiple languages. Her options were known. Her talent was therefore ignored. To talk of the Telugu Industry alone, she was required to stay here, be here and work here, preferably exclusively. That is how it seemingly worked. Regional connect was important for every story, both creatively and commercially.

And thus, it brings us to the main point of Nithya Menen’s overqualified nature working against her. She could afford multiple languages, and thus no one felt the need to sell their loyalty.

The Mani Ratnam Factor – Redefinition Achieved?

As it were, Nithya Menen was to be cast in the new age romance by the legendary film director Mani Ratnam. The movie, O Kadhal Kanmani (OK Bangaram in Telugu) brought in the praised pair of Nithya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan together. The movie went onto become one of the biggest commercial hits that Nithya Menen had until that point. Mani Ratnam, it would seem, had finally shown what Nithya Menen was capable of being and doing. She was much beyond the artsy caricature or forgettable puppet, that she was defined as, all along her career. After almost 5 years of her debut in Telugu, one could see her seeping into the role of Tara ( I do remember this role’s name for some reason), with all her grace and revelry. Her joy of playing Tara was palpable across the screen.

It was a rare moment of her cinematic journey, where she was perhaps allowed to flourish with no bounds. She wasn’t being talked down to by some pseudo-intellectual lead actor or being treated as a mushy teddy bear. Tara was a role which tapped into her intellectual being and asked her to dance through the frails and brilliance of the character. Most of my friends would disagree when I say OK Bangaram was three quarters Nithya Menen’s movie and one quarter Mani Ratnam’s. The debate may rage on, but the major takeaway of OK Bangaram was this. Nithya Menen needed smart and intellectual storytellers to truly bring her talent forward. I must add here that OK Bangaram wasn’t the usual Mani Ratnam cinematic success, in fact, it was far from it, but in the context of this discussion, it proved that Nithya Menen is one of the most treasured artists of our time.

It also reiterates a fact that, sometimes when an artist steps beyond the intellectual realm defined by the hitherto mediocrity, it becomes difficult to truly enjoy the art form. To put it plainly, sometimes the art, in its contemporary state, is not ready to accept someone who is more than itself. Every age of cinema has its own defined set of rules. Today, we live in a time, when the thought process of ‘hero worship’ is deeply embedded in our mindsets, and thereby the colloquial “woman-oriented” movies become more of a joke than a social statement.

We cannot afford to have our heroines have brains enough to challenge the hero in his pursuit. A strong female character is either unnecessarily rude, brute or invariably suffering. It will take us, perhaps a generation more, to bring in stories which include characters for our leading actress’, as a reflective of their intellect and a deep sense of social relevance. Till that time, actress’ like Nithya Menen will always be discounted for options, and not spoilt for them. They will always remain alien in their own roles, which will neither celebrate their intellect nor bear evidence to their strong female existence. Nithya Menen, will thus, for at least the next few years, have to hope that she comes across scripts which appeal to her artistic sense. Because until that time, she will continue to frustrate the best of us, the movie analysts, with her bottlenecked talent in mediocre roles. Because till then, she will be such a varied actor that she will find only meagre realization. Because till then, she will be great but not good enough to be a superstar….