Diana Mariam Kuriyan could have been a striking-looking chartered accountant from Kerala; instead she has now become an inspiration for IAS aspirants, especially women. This, after the 33-year-old’s latest Tamil movie role as a strict and straightforward district collector. Strong-willed Madhivadhani in Aramm has not only helped Nayanthara scale new heights as an actress; it is also inspiring several girls to choose civil services as a career option.
Before its production that began in the mid-2016, the movie least showed the potential for becoming a hit as it has eventually turned out to be. In fact, only Nayanthara came forward to produce and play the lead role—on reading its script. Its story, woven around a little girl trapped in a deep tubewell, met with immediate dismissal from producers, who found the story devoid of commercial value. “But Nayanthara could correctly gauge the social and emotional reach the film. Her performance provided it with the commercial reach as well,” says Gopi Nainar, director of Aramm. “She has proven that a Tamil movie can be a hit without a hero.”
In a male-dominated industry where the heroes call the shots from delivering punch dialogues to choosing the actress opposite them, Nayanthara, who once pursued CA course, has carved a niche for herself. And that, with not just strong screen presence but a variety of roles—despite two emotional breakdowns in her personal life that almost crippled her 13-year-old career. “Her ability to shoulder any kind of role with élan does not come easily to other heroines,” says trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. “She could make a style statement as the heroine in Billa, which included a breathtaking bikini scene and also play the hearing-impaired avenging angel in Naanum Rowdythaan (I Am Also A Thug). Talent-wise, she is Tamil cinema’s equivalent of Kangana Ranaut or Vidya Balan.”
Nayanthara overcame two bouts of personal breakdown to find a niche that has made her “the south’s Vidya Balan or Kangana Ranaut”.
After the release of Aramm (Ethics) last month, enquiries for IAS coaching courses from women candidates have shot up, according to Chennai-based Shankar IAS Academy. Reviewers note Nayanthara’s investing gravitas in her character that has made not just Madhivadhani but Aramm too a first for Tamil cinema. Hair combed back and clad in a tight dull-coloured cotton sarees (she wears only two sarees in the entire film), she sports a stern look and walks stiffly, suggesting her potential to take on inefficient subordinates and corrupt political bosses during the rescue mission of a rustic kid stuck in a deep borehole.
At the same time, Nayanthara displays a restrained sensitivity while reaching out to the girl’s hapless parents or the ordinary villagers protesting against water shortage. And when she finally manages to get the girl rescued using an unconventional method, the unbending collector breaks into an uncontrollable sob rather than take part in the wild congratulatory cheers around. The film’s emotional connect and the lead actor’s strong performance saw it rocking at the box office, grabbing 300-plus screens.
Nayanthara is known for taking professional risks. In her very second Tamil movie Chandramukhi (2005), she was paired with Rajnikanth—and impressed viewers by playing the role alongside star Jyothika. Even as she starred in successive hits Nayanthara was never carried away by her star status. At the invitation of Rajnikanth and Vijay, she would happily appear in a single song for their movies.
Nayanthara plunged into her off-beat role in Chandramukhi with complete preparation, recalls filmmaker Vignesh Sivan. “Once she saw the script and sensed what was required of her, Nayanthara did a complete homework on how she had to be seen lip-reading the opposite person to understand them. Not once did I have to prompt her to do that,” he recalls. “The dedication and professionalism she brings to the film set are amazing. No wonder, she is the first choice as a heroine if it’s a difficult role.”
Telugu director Bapu insisted on casting her as Sita in Sri Rama Rajyam in spite of loud doubts about a ‘glam doll’ as a religious figure. Some had even protested that her Syrian Christian roots militated against playing a Hindu goddess. But again, Nayanthara proved her critics wrong as she chose to underplay Sita as the wife who battles her banishment and the mother who brings up her sons Lava and Kusha. Her performance won the state’s Nandi Award for the best heroine. She is the only heroine who has won the Filmfare Awards in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.
In 2011, she had announced her retirement from films hoping to marry and settle down with actor-director Prabhu Deva, who was already married and had two sons. After Sri Rama Rajyam, she took veteran Bapu’s blessings since it was to be her last movie. Prabhu Deva, however, chose his kids over Nayanthara, making her an emotional wreck.
After nearly two years as a recluse, she returned to movies. Her first comeback project was Raja Rani—it was about heartbreak. In that film, she played the boisterous beer-drinking woman suffering from epilepsy. Actor Sathyaraj played her parent—and soon they formed one of the most loved father-daughter pairs in Tamil cinema. Arya, who played her husband in that film, recalls that Nayanthara carried no scars of the past—and played the role with aplomb, winning the Tamil Nadu government’s best actress award for 2013.
She also did not hesitate to pair with Simbu, with whom she had broken up in 2006 after an intense affair. “On the way, she picked up the ability to stay emotionally detached from her co-artistes. Today, she prefers to concentrate only on the role,” points out an assistant director. The last couple of years has seen her carry two horror films entirely on her shoulders while playing a pivotal heroine opposite Ajith, Vikram and Jeyam Ravi. These have established herself on the top of the heap amongst Tamil heroines, most of whom are imports from upcountry.
“The discipline she brings on is stunning,” says actor Jeeva Ravi. “While directors would have to wait for other heroines, Nayanthara would be ready with make-up half an hour before the shoot commences.” He also notes how the actress, during Aramm, gave space to so many minor characters to lend authenticity to the movie. “The lead character’s different shades might be her own, but she never crossed the director’s line if he wanted a particular dimension.”
As she races towards her 75th film, Nayanthara has also proved that heroines too have a long shelf life. She has the looks and talent. She has repeatedly resisted invites from Bollywood, preferring to be a star of the south. And the Deccan is in no hurry to let her fade away.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai