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Exclusive! Nithya Menen: I had to take the plunge, back good content than cribbing that such films aren't getting made

Ahead of the OTT premiere of Skylab on SonyLIV, the actress discusses her unconventional choices, nailing her 70s look in the film and looks back at her decision to co-produce it

Srivathsan Nadadhur
Jan 13, 2022
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Nithya Menen

Several newcomers in showbiz go all guns blazing in their enthusiasm to do good work but end up exhausting themselves creatively, few years into their careers. There's very little that inspires them later and they forget the very reason why they were drawn to the profession in the first place. The breathless pace and the ever-changing nature of the industry don't grant them the luxury to pause, reflect and adapt. 

Amidst this chaos, it's quite challenging to be yourself but that's what sets Nithya Menen apart. It's too hard to slot her in one category. She's secure, confident and has managed to retain that innocence, simplicity in her despite the madness of the film world. Nithya may have taken many blows between Ala Modalaindi and her last release Skylab, but has stuck to her guns and instincts nevertheless. The actress gets talking to OTTplay.com on the eve of Skylab's digital premiere on SonyLIV.

Many actors, once they are successful, get into consolidation mode and sign high-profile films that'll take them one step ahead in the industry. However, you've only gotten braver with your experiments over the years, be it Praana, Awe, Ninnila Ninnila and now Skylab. Where do you gather the courage to take on such challenges, time and again?

Maybe it has something to do with the way I came into the industry quite accidentally. There was never this yearning to act or be famous or make money. This freestyle approach has liberated me in more ways than one. I always want to do something that excites me or I get nothing out of it. The artist in me has to get stimulated or otherwise, I have nothing to look forward to. 

In that sense, I have never allowed myself to stagnate personally or professionally. When something starts to stagnate, it bothers me and I get those alarm bells instantly. I think it's in my nature to not stagnate and keep moving. It makes me feel comfortable; I'm wired that way.

You have nothing to lose when you do these films but isn't it disheartening when people reduce their worth to the box office collections?

It's not only disheartening but it gives me an existential crisis (laughs). The numbers make me question my worth, wonder what's going wrong and what am I even doing with my career! It's a part of life that you aren't only in a field to act but also to learn other aspects too. These things make you feel deflated a lot of times. Although there's a trend where good films are gradually getting their due, there's also this aspect of making something desperately salacious or sexy just to get numbers. Somewhere you need to take a call if you want these numbers or do work that matters more.

It's actually surprising that the industry hasn't corrupted your line of thought, especially after a decade in films.

For that, you have to be someone with a clear thought process, know yourself and be aligned to who you are. Of course, there will be bumps and you'll get hit but at least you're not deviating from your core. No doubt, it's easy to get swayed and you keep doubting yourself whether some things could have been handled differently. Even after being around in the industry for so long, it's not an easy process for me.  

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You've been a journalism student as well. Could you relate with the desperation of Gauri (in Skylab), the budding journalist, to see her story published? What were your dreams in your student days?

I only studied journalism and went on to do Ala Modalaindi after that. I couldn't work as a journalist after I took to acting. As an actor, you always have the emotional intelligence to relate to various situations. I don't necessarily have to be in a particular profession to understand what someone's going through. As a journalism student, I wanted to be a war journalist, be adventurous, travel a lot, meet people and go places. I realised I was being very idealistic. You think everything's simple and reality hits you hard when you realise the world doesn't function that way.

The decision to co-produce Skylab..you needn't have done it and still, the film would've got made. Didn't the financial aspect leave you with bittersweet feelings?

The fact that I was only co-producing Skylab meant that I didn't have to handle everything on the field. I still came to the sets for work as an actor and didn't think of anything else. As always, I did my work and left. It's only when the film had finished getting made that I had to deal with the production aspect. Does it get overwhelming? Oh yes! It's not my natural acumen to do the number-crunching, figure out money-making. 

Not a day went by when I didn't think, 'Do you really want to put yourself through this?' It's definitely not fun but I thought, let me bear with it for now and see if this turns out well and motivates me to produce more films. It's not enough to just crib and say that such films are not getting made. I found myself cribbing a lot in the past and I thought this was a way to change that.

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One couldn't help but notice an extra dash of radiance in your smile while you wore those beautiful blouses, saris and flowers pinned to your bun in the film. You seemed to have had great fun...

In my opinion, it's the best look in my entire career. I was just so happy and comfortable in my costumes, feeling exactly like Gauri. That's what I miss about films and filmmaking sometimes. When you give that sort of detailing to a character, it makes the process so enjoyable. That kind of heart in one's work is what I don't come across in most cases. 

The stylist Poojitha Thatikonda put much thought into everything and made the final result spectacular. I felt like I was an actress of the 60s or 70s on sets. Vishnu, the guy who plays Seenu (the caretaker in the house), still calls me Amma today. It's that coherent a film, be it Gauri, the setting, there's such clarity and vision in everything. These little things bring that magic to the screen.

The 70s is a time that a lot of our parents and ancestors would've lived through. With Skylab and playing Gauri, what is it like to be a woman in the 70s in a small sleepy village like Bandalingampally?

There was something surreal about the entire Skylab experience and even Gauri as a character that I didn't have to imagine them being grounded in reality. Gauri has such a clear head and could've become anything she wanted to be. I certainly thought out how she would behave, dress or walk. With period films, one can't be too modern about the way one sits, stands or moves around.  

Taking a cue from Gauri again, like in the film's climax, I'll put the question back to you. What are the desires you wish to fulfil if you know you're living the last day of your life?

I was thinking about this a few days back... It was another existential crisis sort of a situation (laughs), where I realised I wasn't happy with anything in life. I wondered what would I do if I had only some time to live, maybe, a year or even a day? I am so busy that I don't even have the time to think about what I want to do. Work has taken up so much of my life that so little space is left in my head. If I had only one day, I think I would like to go somewhere, experience world one last time, nature in its purest form - air, water, soil, animals or something on those lines. 

You're similar to Gauri. She sits by the lake in solitude, experiencing fresh air when the village is terrified about a space station that could crash into their land...

Haha, you bet!

While Skylab shows that a crisis can make people forget barriers and look at the larger picture, don't you think a situation like the current pandemic has also proved our opportunism?

I don't know if a crisis can bring them together, but one thing's for sure, it shakes people. It shakes their stagnation and comfort that they get into. Most people get very comfortable to be in a state of numbness. The fact that a virus out of nowhere could end their lives shook the daylights out of them. Maybe, it has happened for the better. People have made so many changes in their lives. This has happened to me as well.  

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Like the caretaker and the mother who constantly praise Gauri and never allow her to realise her limitations, do you think parents guard children a little too much in their younger years? When the kids set out to explore the world, it hits them brutally...

A lot of problems in the world come from what you're given at home - whether it's protection or something else. It seems harsh to me the way the world works. Children are never allowed to be themselves even today. It's too young for a child to go to school at 2 or 3. They are just too young for it. Regardless of what we think, things work that way in the world. I feel very passionately about children and the need to give them the right childhood. It's a very crucial link to the way they look at life.  

Many first time filmmakers incidentally make their debuts with you - Nandini Reddy, Prasanth Varma, Ani, Vishvak Khanderao (with Skylab). What do you think is the common thread that connects them? Do you relate to their hunger?

Yes, I do! I think I relate to their hunger, creativity and originality. Many directors set up their films in done and dusted ways that are quite mechanical, plot-driven and it sucks the joy out of the process. It becomes too boring for me. When someone new comes in, they are not affected by these things and are unaware of the so-called norms of filmmaking. They don't plan to write something in a certain way to be successful. They are fearless, always come at their best and are true to their vision. Unfortunately, everyone bites the dust at some point but the experience is extra special when they make their first film.

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Nithya

It's quite clear that a section of audiences has stopped going to theatres and savour films directly on OTTs. However, films are a business that thrives on theatres, big-screen experiences. Has it been hard for the filmmaking fraternity to come to terms with it?

It's high time we came to terms with that, immaterial of whether I or the fraternity likes it or not. That's the norm of the day. I see a lot of positive things coming out of it as well. There's still one section that is keen on watching a film in theatres and experiencing the magic on the big screen. There's an upside and downside to everything and if the pros outnumber the cons, why not? I don't see it as an issue, really! These things are part of the evolution, you can't help but just embrace it, sensing the opportunities it can present.

(Skylab premieres on SonyLIV on January 14)

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