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Nandini Rai: OTTs portray reality at its brutal best

The actress, who was in the news for her latest show In the Name of God on aha, has largely benefited from the OTT boom

Srivathsan Nadadhur
Jun 30, 2021
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Nandini Rai was a confident little girl in her early years, completely unaware of stage fright. She could talk on any topic under the sun if given a mic without any inhibitions. Little did she know that these attributes would eventually lay the foundation for her career in the modelling industry and ultimately, films. The Hyderabad-born actress speaks Telugu fluently and is constantly trying to break the myth that actresses from the Telugu states don't find work in the entertainment industry. 

From her first Telugu film, Maaya, to her latest OTT release In the Name of God for aha, Nandini's career has been a rollercoaster ride, nothing short of a solid thriller with many interesting twists and turns. Far from being overwhelmed by her lows, she has embraced her failures and emerged stronger from them with a newfound confidence. OTTplay in a free-wheeling conversation with the actress offers readers an insight into her personality and a decade-long career in front of the arc lights.

Excerpts from the conversation. 

Your latest show may be named after God but primarily revolves around your character Meena. Despite all the notorious activities she ends up being involved in, I empathised with her trauma and struggles. It's hard to give her a label...

Meena has a lot of shades and this is the kind of character I've been looking to play for a long time. She has a strong backstory and every action of hers in the show is very well justified. There's a lot to her beyond good looks and surprisingly, she isn't so conscious of it. She doesn't care how she looks or even bothers to do her hair. She is forthright enough to tell her husband that the extramarital affair was due to compatibility issues and unfulfilled desires. Meena doesn't hesitate to go to any length to reach her end goal, even if it means turning a seductress. She goes through agony to become an actress and there's a lot of inner strength in her that I relate with. When a co-star like Priyadarshi and a veteran filmmaker like Suresh Krissna (garu) are talking about my performance today, I can't help but feel overwhelmed.

It's surprising to notice that someone in their early 20s (writer-director Vidyasaagar) could conceive a plot as dark and intense as In the Name of God.

When I was first offered the project and knew that a 20s something guy named Vidyasaagar would be helming it, I was assured that aha would only back someone if their credentials were worthy. I heard Vidya's narration on the phone and purely went by my gut instinct. I first met him only in Rajahmundry. It's funny that I saw someone frenetically moving from pillar to post to get work done on the set and never could I guess that he was Vidyasaagar; such is his presence. 

He's a very demanding director. He even enacts and shows his actors what he wants and makes sure he gets it out of us. He doesn't mind us eating away 12 or 13 takes but he will say okay only if he is satisfied. He gives us the scenes at least a night before and expects us to come prepared to the set. I and my co-star Vikas had to really slap each other in a scene when he wasn't happy with our performance. My cheeks were swollen and the shoot had to stop till I looked 'normal' again. In the name of God, we were on a slapping spree.

OTT shows are being shot at a record pace with skeletal crew and have long work hours. The plots are mostly in the dark space and the pay, we hear, isn't as much as films. And is this also more physically and emotionally draining?

I want to clarify that OTTs are now on par with films and with In the Name of God, I and Priyadarshi were paid handsomely like we would've got for any other big-budget movie. From the caravans to the filmmaking, nothing changes but for the medium in which they release. We get paid better on OTTs on some occasions because of the physical and emotional toll the content takes on us. Not many actors are willing to use foul language and engage in bold content and the makers realise the value we bring to the table. 

OTT show shoots work on 15-hour call sheets (much like television from 6 am - 9 pm), unlike the 12 hours (6 am- 6 pm) shift with movies. That's why shows get completed quickly. The extra three hours give us time to complete another scene. Feature films take their own sweet time to shoot but with OTTs, the streaming platforms pressurise us to shoot within 20-25 days and deliver the content to them. The pressure comes from the OTT platforms. Shooting for web shows are challenging but it all boils down to passion. It keeps people on their toes.

Not only In the Name of God but every second show on digital platforms is loaded with expletives, extensive lovemaking sequences, an element of crime and gore, sometimes purely for shock effect. And many such shows end up finding public acceptance too. How do you explain this problematic trend?

If the absence of censorship is one reason behind it, we must also accept that OTTs are trying to portray reality at its brutal best. No two friends will try to be politically correct when they talk to each other, they call each other names and express themselves freely and that's what OTT is trying to reflect. Even with on-screen intimacy and the raw treatment in web shows, they depict how two partners behave and communicate their feelings with an openness you can't afford to show in films. Many of these shows are successful in Telugu and other languages for the same reason. There are no filters here. Be it Mirzapur, The Family Man or Paatal Look, it's this creative freedom that people appreciate them for. Feature films, sadly, need to be sanitised even if the director feels otherwise. I don't see it as a cliche; it's just the honest reflection of reality.

You've had a great start to your modelling career and associated with nearly 80 brands to date. And you've won four pageants (Miss Hyderabad 2008, Miss Andhra Pradesh 2010, Miss Pantaloons Fresh Face of AP 2009 and Miss Beautiful Eyes of AP 2010) in three years. What explains this victorious streak?

Since childhood, I was always encouraged to wear my confidence on my sleeve regardless of what I did. I had no apprehensions about expressing my opinions vocally and I'm never so conscious about my presence. Even during all the pageants I ended up winning, there were moments where I wondered why I didn't look as pretty as some of the other contestants but I overcame such stray thoughts by carrying myself confidently. I am a very happy person generally and my happiness within may have reflected on my face; I guess that's my USP and made me stand out. My eyes did the talking and I didn't have to look back.

In a tale of extremes, your film career hardly took off and none of your early projects across multiple languages worked. Was this contrast too much to handle?

Exactly! Maaya, with Harshavardhan Rane, was such an interesting story in Telugu. PVP Cinemas was launching me in Tamil; I had signed Mosagallaku Mosagadu with Sudheer Babu. I was roped in to star alongside Kannada star Ganesh for the remake of Gunde Jaari Gallanthayyinde. I was signing one project after the other. On paper, everything looked perfect and I thought I was off to a dream start. When it came to releases, none of these movies performed well. They were average/below average grossers or flops. 

I was consumed by self-doubt, so many questions were eating me up and I began wondering if I chose the right career in the first place. The age was such, I was stuck at home, stressed and my personal life wasn't going great guns either. I was eating a lot of food in depression. Anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness and what not! I was mentally ill and it took me two years to come out of it. One day, I knew this had to end and I started talking to my doctors. My friends helped me heal through this phase and then came Bigg Boss.


Before Bigg Boss and the low phase, you raised many eyebrows when you left a career in films to take up an MBA course in London. Did you aspire to become an entrepreneur at some point?

The only intention behind doing my MBA, bang in the middle of my film career, was to stand on my own feet in case if things within the industry don't go on expected lines. It was something I could fall back on. My dad always saw me as an independent girl who would find her way no matter what but felt that the degree could give me a cushion and an identity of sorts. After I completed the course and returned to India, my personal life went for a toss, I sunk into depression and was on an all-time low. It took a stint in Bigg Boss to bring me back in the limelight.

Didn't you feel you were again inviting unnecessary trouble into your life by entering the Bigg Boss house? The prospect of disconnecting yourself from the world and staying locked in a house for 100 days is no joke.

I clearly informed the show-makers that I was going through a low phase and that I may experience panic attacks, stay reserved and can't be at my best always. I was a pale shadow of myself when I entered Bigg Boss and lost all my confidence. I was worrying if people would judge me, but I managed to stay there for a little more than 80 days. The experience taught me a lot, no matter how the show creators portrayed me (as a dumb woman). I was almost shown as a piece of furniture. After I returned, my mom asked what was wrong with me in Bigg Boss and I had to convince her that I was running along, singing, dancing happily. 

The minds behind Bigg Boss come with a clear agenda and they choose how to portray people in the house. Editing is indeed everything. When I looked at myself in the episodes, I wondered why did I even take it up? I need to still admit that it gave me recognition. People liked me for what I was, OTT offers started pouring in soon and everything fell on track again. For many like me, who did not have had a great run with the movies, OTTs revived our careers. I was trying to look good, lose weight and be in shape. A couple of photoshoots later, came High Priestess, Metro Kathalu and then Sushmita Konidela's Shootout at Alair. I had offers from directors Teja and Maruthi soon. 

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