Nithya Menen is the only actor in Malayalam filmmaker VK Prakash’s Praana. Prakash, known for such films as Punaradhivasam (2000) and Nirnayakam (2015), has shot the single-character movie in four languages – Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi – and in 23 days.
When asked what it was like flying solo, Menen flashes her characteristic smile. “I quite loved the fact that I was by myself,” she told Scroll.in during an interview at her apartment in Bengaluru. “I’ve known VKP for a long time now and we have always wanted to work together. I heard the story and I thought it was brilliantly written. VKP is someone who absolutely believes in and appreciates my qualities and talent. He felt that if we are going to make a one-actor film and people have to watch someone for three hours, I’d be the right person.”
Menen reveals little about the plot of Praana. The movie has been shot by the legendary PC Sreeram and the sound has been designed by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. In an interview with The New Indian Express, Prakash said that Menen plays a writer.
With no co-stars around to trade energies with, what is an actor’s process like?
“One could trade energies with co-stars, but that’s only if there is some energy coming from the opposite side,” Menen said. “Unfortunately, that is kind of rare. With the way our films work, a lot of times, I don’t get much back. So many times, it is just a one-way street. Praana, therefore, was nice. I had my own pace, I had to handle myself and keep things right. There was nobody to slow me down. Also, we shot in four languages in surround sound in 23 days – that speed is not possible unless I’m by myself.”
The routine on the sets was intense, she added. “Since it was surround sound, I had to make sure the dialogue and pronunciation were right, which wasn’t easy,” Menen explained. “It is a small, intimate film and I was there with the crew right from the start. I was working on the dialogues even before we started. I knew all four languages – my Hindi isn’t too great though – so I knew when the translation was off, for instance. During the breaks, I’d call the writers, work on the lines. Then, I would do my make-up and get back to the spot.”
Menen resisted the idea of being an actor for many years and became one reluctantly. Her debut was as a child in Myles Conti’s The Monkey Who Knew Too Much, in which she played the younger sister to Tabu’s character. Her next film was as a teenager for Santosh Rai Pathaje’s Kannada film 7 O’ Clock (2005). This was followed by KP Kumaran’s Aakasha Gopuram (2008), in which she was 17 but was cast with Mohanlal.
Since 2008, Menen has consistently worked in films across the four main southern languages. Along the way, she has acquired a reputation for not being an enthusiast of the song-and-dance routine that is compulsory for heroines.
“I’ve danced throughout my life – I was always a good dancer, but the industry knows me as someone who doesn’t dance,” Menen revealed. “Dance should be done a certain way. It cannot be done without taste, or look vulgar. So I protected myself by saying I could not dance. Initially, I used to be completely against song and dance sequences. But now, I feel if they are done well and choreographed beautifully, then they do look nice.”
A few years ago, Menen gave herself an ultimatum to move on to something else.
“I’m someone who is too natural to like the world of films,” she said. “I didn’t like make-up. I’m not at all fond of the limelight. In fact, I’m someone who likes to be anonymous. I like to walk around freely, observe people and get involved with the world. I was always aware that this profession would be a complete mismatch for my personality and I wanted to avoid it. But that’s not how life works. Life pushes you towards the most difficult paths and forces you learn and grow.”
How did Menen keep herself going all these years, working in not one but four industries?
“I’d constantly tell myself, okay, this is the last film,” she said “But very recently, actually, I accepted the fact that no, this is my profession, this is what people know and like me for.”
One of the films that came to Menen when she was reeling from this realisation was Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), in which she plays Tara, an architect who falls in love with gaming designer Adi (Dulquer Salmaan). Their combined distaste for the institution of marriage brings them close. “I connected to Tara almost instantly,” Menen said. “I remember thinking that she is so similar to me and that I could easily pull it off.”
Was it a big deal that Ratnam was helming the project?
“I don’t look at anything as if it is a big deal,” Menen said “That’s how I approach life too I think. I can never get too overwhelmed by something. Yes, the fact that it was Mani Ratnam directing the film definitely put me at ease. He has made some beautiful films and I knew I could relax and let go. Whatever he makes will be of some standard.”
Good roles are hard to come by, and Menen feels that she has only scratched the surface as far as her potential is concerned. “People tend to see you in a particular kind of role if, say, a particular kind of film is successful,” she observed. “Take a film like Ala Modalaindi. It is a romantic film. I was just being myself, had a lot of energy – this was when I was younger too. But that’s all some filmmakers see. As actors and even as women, there is so much more that we can do, so many different characters that we can play. Unfortunately, I think this is just the way films work here. There are clear categories: a hero falls only between these brackets and the heroine falls under certain brackets. There is very little scope therefore, for an artist to explore themselves completely.”
However, it was Nandini Reddy’s Ala Modalaindi that catapulted Menen to stardom. “Before that film, I was getting offers opposite some of the biggest stars in Malayalam, and I was getting calls from good directors too,” Menen recalled. “But what Ala Modalaindi did was bring fame overnight.”
Menen rejects more scripts than she accepts them – out of a 100, she accepts maybe five. Her process is intuitive. “I always believe that when in doubt, one must say no,” she said. “Very rarely have I immediately liked a script when it was narrated to me.”
It happened, though, with Prasanth Varma’s thriller Awe!, in which Menen plays Krishna, a lesbian in love with Meera (Eesha Khanna). “Prashanth had narrated a different script to me a few years back which I had loved,” Menen recalled. “That film didn’t work out for various reasons. So I was eager to hear his new script. When he narrated it to me, I remember being a bit stunned. It was superb but different and unexpected.”
Preparing for Krishna’s character was challenging. “I’ve never done a role in which I’ve separated myself from the character I’m playing,” she said. “I’m a part of the character, generally – I internalise the role and then let out whatever comes out from within. Here, with this character, there was nothing to draw from. I had to first convince myself that I feel this way about this girl before I could convince the audience. But I knew that I could pull it off. I was surprised, though, that Prashanth saw that I could when he came to me.”
Menen’s next project is an arthouse Malayalam movie, for which she will begin shooting in April. “The festival film is really my space,” she said. “The content in these films and the way they are made are wonderful – there is no thought of commercialisation. So many of these films are made simply for the love of films. This is the first time I’m going to be doing this.”
Menen has starred in a fair amount of potboilers, the best example being Atlee’s Mersal, in which she plays Aishwarya, the wife of a village leader (Vijay). Menen’s character triggers the plot about corruption in hospitals.
“When Atlee came to me, I was getting to ready to go on a break,” Menen said. “I was in no frame of mind to shoot, but I liked the way he approached me. When I heard the narration, I did think that it was a role that I could do. I also wanted to encourage the fact that he had carved this space out for such a character in a commercial potboiler. I want to encourage such filmmakers too. They must understand that a female presence is vital to a film. Beauty centres around it.”