Rahul V Chittella’s family drama Gulmohar has an eminent ensemble cast that includes Sharmila Tagore as the Batra family matriarch Kusum and Manoj Bajpayee as her son Arun. An unusual casting choice, which pays rich dividends, is Simran as Arun’s beloved wife Indu.

Indu is a Tamilian married into a Punjabi family – a layering of character that speaks to Simran’s long and fruitful career in Tamil cinema. Simran, a Hindi speaker, has starred in a series of well-regarded Tamil films, one of which got her noticed by Chittella when he began work on Gulmohar three years ago: Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthammital (2002).

Simran agreed to be in Gulmohar because of its story, the “powerhouse cast” and the fact that Chittella had clarity and a vision for the production that remained unchanged in the years it took for the film to be made. The fact that Indu is a Tamilian – Chittella’s idea – was a bonus, Simran told Scroll during an interview.

“I related to the character, and it was very intelligent of Rahul to give me the liberty of being a South Indian bahu in a North Indian family,” Simran observed. “It worked to my advantage.”

Gulmohar, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, is about the tensions that arise in the Batra family in New Delhi as they prepare to vacate the house they have lived in for generations. One of the secrets that spills out is particularly damaging for Arun and Indu, leading to some of the film’s most affecting scenes.

Hori Mein, Gulmohar (2023).

For Simran, her most challenging moment was when the Batra patriarch’s will is being read out. Chittella had given his cast the latitude to approach their characters as they saw fit.

“We did a lot of rehearsals and readings, which really helps when you go on the sets,” she said. “In the scene where the will is being read, there were lots of silent emotions involved, especially when Manoj’s character gets anxious. We did one rehearsal and one take and everything went very well.”

Simran, born Rishibala Naval in 1976 in Mumbai, made her debut in Hindi films in 1995. She earned early fame with her second film Tere Mere Sapne the following year. The popular song from that film, Aankh Maare, earned her the attention of Tamil director Vasanth, who was directing Nerukku Ner for Mani Ratnam’s production company Madras Talkies.

Released in 1997, Nerukku Ner set Simran on the path to stardom in Tamil cinema. She also appeared in films from the South’s other language industries. She has produced and appeared in Tamil television shows.

Kannathil Muthammital (2002).

The move from Mumbai to Chennai was challenging on several counts. Simran credits the filmmakers who cast her with easing her into an alien language and culture.

“You have seen how powerful Southern films are and how grounded the cinema is, especially in Tamil and Malayalam,” she said. “I was never able to pick and choose my roles in Hindi.”

Being “laidback” and “not a very party person” also helped her adjust easily to Chennai. “It has deep-rooted family values, which I liked,” she added. “My directors were kind to me, they helped with learning Tamil. I got my recognition from the South. Today, my hard work in the South has paid off.”

Simran now lives in Gurgaon with her husband, Deepak Bagga, and her two sons. Like Indu in Gulmohar, she too laces her Hindi with Tamil words.

“Every other day, we have idli and dosa,” she said. “I say aiyyo [oh dear] and sari [okay] a lot. I use Tamil curse words that other people can’t understand.”

Mundhinam, Vaaranam Aayiram (2008).

Simran’s recent credits include the Tamil films Petta and Mahaan, the Prime Video web series Paava Kathaigal and the Hindi film Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. She has recently wrapped up Andhagan, the Tamil remake of Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, and Gautham Menon’s action thriller Dhruva Natchathiram. One of Simran’s best-loved roles was in Menon’s coming-of-age drama Vaaranam Aayiram (2008).

While work offers keep coming in, Simran tends to trust her initial reaction when making her decisions.

“If a role clicks when I hear the story for the first time, that keeps me going,” she said. “I get offers from here and there, but I make sure I don’t get carried away and stick to what I want to do. I don’t want to do anything that isn’t going to honour my talent. So you won’t see me throughout, but here and there, making an impact.”