Streaming viewers, which Nithya Menen do you like? Kumari Srimathi’s sarcastic bar owner on Prime Video? Shobhana, Dhanush’s spunky childhood friend, in Thiruchitrambalam, also on Prime Video? Or Riya, a hot-tempered young wife in Disney+Hotstar’s Master Peace?
If you’re a fan, you’re not likely to be surprised by the range. If you are unfamiliar with her body of work, well it’s about time you discovered more.
Fifteen years since she began opposite Mohanlal in the offbeat Aakasha Gopuram (2008), Menen has emerged as the brightest young female star in the southern film industries, beloved for iconic roles across languages, with a steady career build-up in the Hindi entertainment industry as well. The roles she plays are written specifically for her, as she moves seamlessly from light-hearted romance in Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) to darkly mysterious in Awe (2017), from the hero’s best friend in Thiruchitrambalam (2022) to the hero’s obsession in Ala Modalaindi (2011).
She is like fire, she just pops on the screen, says her friend and director of Ala Modalaindi, Nandini Reddy. “She defies every characteristic of the southern film heroine, and yet she is so marvellously and crazily unique. People just love her and her performances, because her honesty resonates through every character she does. It feels very real.”
Indeed, whether it is her twinkling eyes, her untamed curls, her innate rhythm, or her sparkling smile, Menen’s energy is infectious. “She is like a glass of water,” says Reddy, “what you see is what you get.” Indeed, if she seems effortless on screen, it is because she doesn’t really prepare for any role. “I just show up,” says Menen. “It’s a spontaneous process for me. Sometimes I don’t know right before the shot how I should go about it. But something just flows. I usually hear a narration and I know what the character is at its core. That’s usually enough.”
It’s enough for her co-stars to lovingly call her a “monster actor”. Says frequent co-star Prakash Raj; “She is beautiful, vulnerable, pure. She stands up for what she believes in even if she has to pay the price.” It is particularly tough, points out Raj, because the film industry is not kind to its women. “But she is that rare gem who puts her foot down and shines beyond everything.”
Reddy agrees, narrating an incident from her film. “Nithya was just 21, straight out of college, and it was a particularly tough moment for me in what was my first film. The producer wanted to change the way a particular scene was shot and I was at the end of my tether, ready to give in. That’s when Nithya stepped in and said I should tell the producer that she was not willing to reshoot it. She was absolutely fearless. That gave me immense courage.”
She has the strongest head on her shoulders, adds Raj. It enables her to make decisions which may seem unconventional. In 2015, for instance, at the height of her success with movies such as O Kadhal Kanmani, 100 Days of Love and Malli Malli Idi Rani Roju, she took a break for about two years because she was not enjoying her work. She has since then changed the way she is managed, preferring to handle her own work and take her own calls, down to emailing her own photographs. “It’s less of a hassle,” she says.
What has not changed is the reason she chooses her work. “I choose scripts for a hundred different reasons. It’s not a very serious or intense process for me. I go with my instinct. And if it feels like I will enjoy doing this right now, I do it. It could be for a variety of different reasons—the people, locations, the character, the way I feel at that time. Sometimes I want to be challenged, sometimes I want to do something easy,” she says.
So she could be the polio-stricken girl in Myna (2013) or the payasa-making young wife in Aidondla Aidu (2011). Not for her the hothouse of fame, the gilded cage of celebrity-dom. “I learn intensively from life every day,” she says. “I learn from children. I learn from nature. I learn from watching others. Most of all I learn from my own mistakes. You don’t need only famous people to teach you things,” she says.
She does have friends in the industry though, people like Raj, who says she thinks nothing of packing up at 3.30 am and driving down to his home to have pizzas and a conversation. “She is like my mother, my daughter, my friend. She reminds me of a young Revathi or Jaya Bhaduri or Rekha. You see the same integrity and the same quality of being alive,” he adds.
What is remarkable is also her ability to work across Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi film industries. She says she likes the change of atmosphere. “There’s a cultural difference. But I don’t feel anything vastly different, because I’m from Bangalore where all languages were always spoken at my home comfortably. Language is certainly not something I think of too much when it comes to work.”
When she’s not working, which is rare, she is living, writing, singing, or visiting her parents in Bengaluru. Her grandfathers (maternal and paternal) came to the city when they were young, so her parents, both from Kerala, were born in Bengaluru and lived all their lives there. “So, we are more fluent in Tamil and Kannada,” she says, “which is what I was familiar with while growing up. I saw more of Kerala only after I started acting in Malayalam films. But somehow no one accepts that. They still ask if they should book my flight from Kerala.”
There is equal confusion about her last name, Menen. “It was the norm in Bangalore for all of us to have initials,” she says. “I had my parents’ initials before my name which became complicated for my passport. So, I found an alternative last name that would match with the numerology my parents had kept in mind while naming me. I didn’t want to change that, and Menen went perfectly with it. I naively thought it sounded neutral, I didn’t foresee that people would just assume it was Menon.”
“I choose scripts for a hundred different reasons. It’s not a very serious or intense process for me. I go with my instinct. And if it feels like I will enjoy doing this right now, I do it. It could be for a variety of different reasons—the people, locations, the character, the way I feel at that time. Sometimes I want to be challenged, sometimes I want to do something easy,” says Nithya Menen, actor
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Fiercely private about her life, how does she stay sane with the level of stardom and the scrutiny it brings, including relationship rumours and fake news—she was recently misquoted as saying a Tamil director had harassed her. “I don’t always stay sane,” she says. “I really do not like attention. I like to be left alone. It’s one of the downsides of my work, according to me, something I have to manage and deal with. You are not always in a position to be presentable and smiling. But no one usually understands that.”
In the past, she has criticised industry standards that question weight gain and don’t understand that it could be because of ill health. She has not let vanity affect her choices, playing a pregnant woman in Anjali Menon’s delightful Wonder Women (2022), or playing a headstrong but homely wife in Mersal (2017). As her friend and sometime co-star Kani Kusruti says: “She is one of my favourite actors currently. I like to watch her on screen because she never plays safe. She always performs and she has great energy to work with.”
Oddly she didn’t want to be an actor. After graduating from Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru, she had dreams of becoming a journalist. Even after her first few films, in Kannada and Malayalam, such as Josh (2009), Kerala Café (2009), Anwar (2010) and Apoorvaragam (2010), she was not sure she wanted to be an actor. “I was looking for a lead for Ala Modalaindi,” says Reddy. “And I remember her dad telling me he was not sure she wanted to act. I asked if I could talk to her once and have her listen to the story. I had a conversation with her and she was interested. She came to Hyderabad.” And that was that. The Telugu industry embraced her and Tamil movies followed soon.
So, is she happy with her achievements? “I don’t know. Life has definitely gone its way and taken me with it. I guess sometimes I regret not having followed my own passions or interests.”
But then the movies would have been denied what Santosh Sivan calls a “natural-born actor”. She is able to portray diverse roles with authenticity, he says, added to which is her easy-going nature. “She is also very bright and asks very interesting questions,” says Sivan, who directed her in the multi-starrer epic Urumi (2011).
She has always been her own creature, sure of how she wants to do things, whether it is her work or the way she lives her life. She is no nonsense, speaks her mind, and doesn’t believe in hierarchies. “You give respect, you get respect, there is no hidden agenda,” says Reddy. And she has remained the same for more than a decade, a remarkable quality in an industry that often hardens and coarsens even the best.