Readers Write In #38: A fan’s birthday tribute to two captivating, classy actresses

Posted on April 7, 2018


In 2006, two teenage actresses made their debut in South Indian cinema. They were not about glamour, but more about performance, making an impact, grabbing the audience’s attention with their acting. Today, 12 years after their debuts, they are still going strong, still able to captivate the audience and pushing themselves to excel even further in their careers. Since their birthdays fall after each other, I felt a tribute to both of them would be apt.

The older one’s career fell by accident. She is from a family of lawyers and acting wasn’t even her first priority. But her parents instilled the values of thinking for one’s self and emboldened her to take chances and explore the world. She decided to try her luck in the Malayalam film industry and debuted in 2 films both playing a student. The first was a minor role, but there was something about this thin teenager that made me pay attention more to her. She was brainy and lively as opposed to the hero and heroine who were lifeless. The second one was a more substantial role where the film felt like an anime dealing with school life, teenage pregnancy and betrayal. It helped she was the right age for the character.The next two Malayalam movies were forgettable, but it was the Kannada filmMilana that made her a star. Starring alongside the son of the man who was and will always remain the Kannada film industry, she held her own especially in the beginning where her character told him off and wanted a divorce(The Tamil remake Raja Rani by contrast was awful). Though there are some scenes which would make her today think twice of signing a film like this again, she was confident, intelligent and a delight and Kannada audiences lauded her. But it was the following year where an unrecognizable, childlike and sassy Parvathy Thiruvoth Kottuvata established herself as one of the greats in Poo.She didn’t play the role, she became Maari. You couldn’t take your eyes off her at all. She displayed so many emotions which felt natural and real. You could see the determination in her eyes when she wanted to get the man she always loved and the devastation when she couldn’t get him. From that point onwards, she became an actress of substance, winning critical acclaim and awards for her performance as Maari and deservedly so.

Earlier in 2006, the younger one debuted in Kannada (which is her mother tongue BTW not Malayalam) by playing a supporting role as the practical and bright younger sister of the heroine. Though she was not the main, there was something about her that made us call the Kannada audiences call her an angel. Was it her childlike eyes that conveyed everything? Was it her acting which seemed more polished and naturalistic than the others? Was it that she wasn’t like any ordinary heroine; that she could elevate herself more easily and naturally? Was it that she could portray the right emotions and the right amount of emotions? Whatever it was, we could see she wasn’t one trick pony; she was not only here to stay but could become one of the best to come. Yet, Nithya Menen wasn’t interested in acting; she wanted to be a journalist; she wanted to be someone who could make an impact and change the world the way she saw it. But Mohanlal saw her photo in a travel magazine, recruited her for Akasha Gopuram and films became the new normal. So powerful was her debut that you forgot other actors like Bharath Gopi, Sreenivasanand Geethu Mohandaswere there. Though she acted some movies that no one would care to watch, it was Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey short from the 2009 Anthology film Kerala Cafe where she stole the show from Jagathy Sreekumar and made a powerful impact as a mysterious young woman. She exuded poise, maturity and brilliance which were both internal and external. Though I wish she wasn’t dubbed (whenever I watch Happy Journey, I watch it on mute imagining her voice speaking the lines she is saying in the film), I consider this to be her defining performance in Malayalam which established her as a dynamic and dazzling performer.

Parvathy next came with Male Barali Manju Irali, where she not only dubbed in Kannada, but also rewrote the screenplay and her character much to the delight of the director Vijayalakshmi Singh. Though there may been some trepidation in her voice and some of her actions may have looked a bit awkward, she exuded the same confidence as she did in Milana and Poo. Her next film with Puneeth Rajkumar may not registered the same impact, but there were scenes where she out performed the superstar. She made a comeback in Malayalam in City of God, portraying the Tamil migrant laborer Marathakam. It was unlike Maari, as Marathakam carried a lot of baggage (she was married to an abusive rowdy and ran away from him to Kochi and has a son in Pazhaniwhom she has to support) yet remained hopeful that things would become better thanks to the support from Lakshmi Akka (Rohini) and the other Tamil migrant workers. She loves Suvarnavel (Indrajith) but both can’t express it until the climax where she slaps him and cries (and I’m paraphrasing) “I don’t have anyone with me except you. You’re the only one I love.” At times, she reminded me of Rekha in Imaan Dharam, except she felt more organic, realistic and pitiful.

Though Apoorvaragam made small splashes, it was Ala Modalaindi directed by her friend, Nandini Reddy which fully established Nithya as a star actress. She not only dominated the movie and shared crackling chemistry with Nani but dubbed for herself and sang too! I consider it to be the best debut by a non-Telugu actress where she projected independence, intelligence and youthful zeal naturally. Urumi followed where her eyes seduced not only Prabhu Deva but the audience as well. Whenever she was on screen, you forgot who the other actresses were. She continued her charm with AidondlaAidu, another Anthology film in Kannada remade into Malayalam as Poppins where her “Payasa” song made every diabetic lunge for the payasam immediately and Makaramanju where her child like curiosity kept the male protagonist and the audience glued to her. 180 and Veppam may have gotten her noticed in Tamil, but it was Ishq and Ustad Hotel which cemented her position in the South. Despite rumors of her being difficult to work with and her acerbic takeson actresses in the film industry, she was here to stay.

After a year break, Parvathy returned to films with Andar Bahar opposite Shivarajkumar and Maryan opposite Dhanush. In both films, she outshined both heroes and the audience couldn’t stop talking about her commanding presence. In the sad version of Yenga PonaRaasa which she sang herself, she as Panimalarexpressed rawness, sorrow and anxiety that I had to rewind every time to watch it again and again. And she was magnificent at the end where her love comes back. It seems the break reenergized her and brought a dynamic, more focused and determined actress who cared more about quality than quantity. And her only release in 2014 proved it further. She was not only the best performer in Bangalore Days as the paraplegic RJ Sarah, but brilliantly lifted her head high and never let her disability limit her love for life.

Yet, before Parvathy’s brilliant portrayal as a disabled person in Bangalore Days, Nithya gave a career defining performance as a polio-stricken girl named Mynaa who had lost her legs and was still trying to live a dignified and positive life by spreading happiness to everyone she knew including the hero who fell in love with her at first sight in the eponymous Kannada film. She elevated the entire movie by her powerful transformation and made you forget about the flaws.When she joyfully screamed, “Colorful!”, I wanted to scream alongside her. When she crawled, my eyes became misty. When she blew in her husband’s ear, it didn’t feel like a prank; it was genuine. When she pleaded with the ACP (Sarathkumar) to release her husband, you couldn’t help but root for her.In the same year, she owned her co-star Nithinin the blockbuster GundeJaariGallathayinde as Shravani. She brilliantly displayed 2 facets of the heroine: 1) the hero’s phone “ammayi” whom he calls “Bangaram” and 2) the jilted young woman seeking revenge against the hero who wronged her and puts him through trials and tribulations until he discovers her true identity as the same “Bangaram” on the phone. I was simply captivated by her acting prowess. No actress could ever give such an outstanding performance in acommercial film like how she did.(On a personal note after watching GJG in 2014 and being blown away, I thought to myself, “How could I miss such a brilliant performer? Mea culpa” and from that point on, I never missed any of her films). Though she stumbled a bit with Malini 22 (remake of 22 Female Kottayyam), she was the only one who could essay Malini especially during the jail scene when she’s told the truth about her boyfriend and his boss. She gives a subtle sick to her stomach reaction. And she topped off 2014 with a impactive happy go lucky cameo in Bangalore Days.

If Uttama Villain made people feel Parvathy was wasted in an insignificant part, she rebounded spectacularly with EnnuNinteMoideen and Charlie. Portraying two extremely different rolesfrom each spectrum, Parvathy was simply magical. By 2015, she became known as a method actor; someone who studied and prepared extensively for her role until the character was fully on screen and she wouldn’t break character.Off screen, her feminist activism was becoming more apparent and she was displaying it on screen as well. And she knew how to dominate and steal scenes from the male hero with ease.

Nithya had already mastered the ability to dominate and steal scenes from the beginning itself and took it to another level in MalliMalli Idi Rani Roju, where she portrayed the female protagonist Nazeera in 2 stages of her life; one as a young student in love with the male protagonist Rajaram (a poor Hindu sprinting champion played by Sharwanand) and the second as a matured, successful businesswomanwith an adopted daughter named Mehek. No makeup was needed to age her up as the maturity and hardening was clearly defined on her face. There was even a bit of masculinity as she exhibited some of her late father’s (Nassar) characteristics (putting business and raising Mehek over love, her sternness over Mehek’s obnoxious behavior and always looking forward). But she was pining for Rajaram deep inside, at one point telling Mehek, “He’s not my boyfriend at all. He’s my life and I’m his autograph.” When she returns to India and sees him at an engagement party, rich and successful beyond his dreams but extremely unhappy, her heart breaks silently. The scene when she realizes that he has never forgotten her and always has her in his heart was excellently executed by Nithya.

Her next two films with Dulquer Salmaan, 100 Days of Love and O KadhalKanmani may have been divisive, but Nithya was magnificent as Sheela and Tara. She was brilliant, realized and mature in the first one and was feisty, bubbly, unconventional and undoubtedly the heart and soul of the latter. Her expressions said everything and her youthful energy was ravishing. While DQ shared great chemistry with her, he couldn’t match her passion and brilliance. She followed it with scene stealing cameos in Son of Sathyamurthy, Kanchana 2, 24 and Rudhramadevi. She made a clown out of Samantha in the first, was unrecognizable in the second, made a small, but impactive cameo in the third and was mischievous, delightful and provided comedy and emotion with equal ease as Muktamba. One scene that stood out to me was the scene before she unveiled Rudhramadevi’strue identity to all assembled. Each time she was walking with a serious face, she evoked different reactions; no reaction was the same.

First time: she doesn’t register anything.

            Second time, she’s thinking: “Well, here it goes.”

            Third time: “Is this really happening?”

            Fourth time: “Yes! This is the best day of my life!”

            Fifth time: “OMG, I can’t wait to f*** my wife aka Anushka!”

In a mass film called Kotigobba 2/Mudinja Ivana Pudi starring Sudeep, Nithya was not a meaningless prop, nor was she put in her place by the hero. She brought dignity and class and tried to put the hero in his place instead. Unfortunately, critics and audiences felt she was wasted in Janatha Garage and IruMugan. Why was she wasting her time in meaningless movies?She could have portrayed any of the female roles in Iraivi and become even more accomplished. Maybe Karthik Subbaraj could have generated room for Parvathy in Iraivi too. But their acting arsenal wasn’t depleted as we were to find out in 2017.

Parvathy cemented herself as the best actress of 2017 with a heartbreaking, outstanding performance (which I declare is my win for the National Award) as Sameera in Take Off. There was no trace of the actress; we saw a tormented, beleaguered, yet determined and fiery divorced nurse who commanded the entire movie. Her method acting was in full display here as we could see the personal and psychological ordeal engulf her in every direction, yet there was resiliency and hope. Like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, she wasn’t asking the audience to pity her condition but to view as it is. I couldn’t look away; I just had to see her and the other nurses triumph over the tribulations in Iraq. Such was her command over the screen which attained both critical and commercial acclaim. In the same year, she debuted in Hindi cinema as Jaya in QaribQaribSinglle opposite one of the best Indian actors and an artiste of her caliber, Irrfan Khan and expanded her presence in the Indian film industry.

Nithya had one release in 2017 only. (That’s right, just one release.) And that one release and performance destroyed every other south female star’s films. She made mincemeat of Samantha and Kajal in Mersal and was the main heroine and dominant performer. Her performance as Aishwarya proved that she could handle the mass roles with ease. She only not held her own against Vijay but prevailed over him at some points. And like always, she brought a sense of terrific class when she told off SJ Suryah, “We may be poor, but we are rich enough to serve the public.” I’m glad I watched her scenes only and no one else’s. When I was on social media, I saw that the love and admiration for her by her fans and the audience increased every day since the release of the film. One particular comment I liked was, “Nithya Menen says “Bitch Please” to both Samantha and Kajal in #Mersal.”

And how could I forget Awe? In probably one of the best Telugu films of the year and perhaps of this decade, Nithya yet again displayed her versatility, playing Krish the lesbian psychologist and lover of Eesha Rebba’s Radha. She may have been a little aggressive, but she was playing the male role of the relationship except with more self-respect, humor, consideration and compassion. She knew that Radha’s parents wouldn’t have accepted their relationship, but instead of espousing old school behavior or out right rebellion, she tried to appease them by saying, “even though you may not accept our relationship as it is, we love each other. This is the new reality. Don’t think of us as boorish and untraditional; we are the same people, we believe the same way except we are more progressive and open minded. This is who we are.” And playing a role with such responsibility to society and progressivism only proves that Nithya never ceases to amaze.

Which makes Parvathy and Nithya’s future filmography more intriguing and interesting. They are the classiest and most brilliant actors of their generations. They don’t conform to norms but surpass them in their acting. They are stars in their own right. They feel more real when they are on screen and I don’t remember anybody else in their film but them. I would rather watch their movies than other actresses’ movies. They do not remind me of the past greats but keep me in the present and are their own selves. If Parvathy is vocal off screen in his feminism and WCC activism, Nithya displays her beliefs on screen with her body language excellently. Such is their powerful presence which makes meexcited for My Story, Praana and hopefully the much talked about sci-fi film with Prithviraj where they may come together on screen at last.

If there’s another component of their acting expertise that makes me compare them, it is that they take after Anant Nag’s acting. We all know Anant Nagalways is a classy, brilliant and natural actor. He always takes from his life experiences and wisdom while becoming the character on screen. His method of disappearing into a role is constant analysis and study of the screenplay and character where he gradually starts behaving like the character when he is performing regular daily activities like reading, cooking, helping around in the house and doing prayers and by the time he is on set, he is the character. And within that character, he becomes both intelligent and spontaneous; it feels so fresh every time you watch him. And the characters, compartment and expressions he delivers are never the same in each movie; they are different, unique and mind blowing. And after watching them for so long, I firmly believe Parvathy and Nithya are the true heirs to Anant Nag. If Parvathy follows his method acting by extensive and extreme preparation to the point where she doesn’t break character at all, Nithya brings the same amount of class and brilliance he does by becoming the character instantly on set. The latter does provide Mohanlal levels of innate and spur-of-the-moment brilliance, but her style is clearly Anant Nag. Like him, both are not afraid of acting in art and independent films. And they both keep up with the times and are the harbingers of change they seek to be in society.

“What are they going to do from here?” is what some people might ask. But my question is “What are they going to surprise us with now?” It is to their credit that they are still here and relevant and prove that age is simply a number for them. They continue to surprise the audience with their versatility.They can shift easily between each industry (Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and English) and dazzle every time. They keep pushing the scope of their acting prowess each time. They are never after awards but for making an impact on society with their acting. I firmly believe in future we will be talking about them as the best actresses of their generation.

Thank you for being such terrific performers, Parvathy and Nithya! May you continue to provide brilliant performances! May you continue to surprise me every time! May you both continue to be the change you want to be in society! You are two unique actresses that can’t be compared to the past and are truly your own selves!

Happy Birthday!

Your fan,

Jayram Sataluri