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Nayanthara: A glittering career at a crossroads

Nayanthara: A glittering career at a crossroads

Nayanthara: A glittering career at a crossroads
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By Nandhu Sundaram  Mar 8, 2019 8:39:48 AM IST (Updated)

At 34, Nayan is now at a crossroads. How long will we see her as a lead? Will she continue to be in the prime of her career? Time will tell.

In her debut Tamil film, Ayya (2005), Nayanthara plays a schoolgirl who deliberately flunks her exams in order to promptly marry the man of her dreams (actor Sarath Kumar).

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There is a certain brazenness to her approach that is such a turn on. It’s an early Hari film and he never been very subtle about the way he gets his points across. But the compulsions of making a masala film have also never been lost on him. He introduces Nayanthara only after the 20th minute, giving precedence to comedian Vadivelu who was in his heydays back then.
It was not the perfect launch vehicle in Kollywood for the young actress, who had by then made her mark in Malayalam cinema. But Nayanthara puts her fresh-faced good looks to the best use. She is chirpy and dances with gay abandon. She is glamorous but never crosses the line, a trait which would, in the years to come, endear her to female audiences as well. She is naturally gifted, alert to the camera and seduces it with her sharp, sparkling eyes.
Nayanthara’s next was Chandramukhi opposite superstar Rajinikanth. The titular character in the movie is played by Jyothika, now the predecessor of the Lady Superstar, as Nayanthara has come to be called these days. It was Chandramukhi, a trend-setting horror-comedy adapted from the Malayalam super hit movie Manichithrathazhu, which made Nayanthara an overnight sensation and a household name in two states.
Now, Nayanthara is working with Vijay, who hasn’t had a flop in years. The yet to be titled movie is to be directed by Mersal director Atlee, also the flavour of the season. Today, Nayanthara is by a mile the highest paid actress in the South and a pop-culture icon. She has also been put on the pedestal as Queen of Kollywood.
A Long Career
If you do the math, you will find that Nayanthara has been around for an astonishing 14 years during which time she has never been less than the female lead. Persistence and staying power don’t come easily to a female actor. When she is holding her ground in a field where ageism is eerily common, you know she is doing something special. Maybe the fanatics who built her a temple did have a point.
In all these years, I have never seen Nayanthara draw attention to her craft. In fact, when other critics say she did well in a movie, I don’t know what they mean. I can only assume they noticed something I didn’t. But there is certain unruffled professionalism to how Nayanthara goes about essaying a role that any critic would be blind to miss.
Raft of Leading Roles
In this decade, Nayanthara has done something much more remarkable. She is landing roles in movies she is expected to carry. Such films include the horror cult film Maya (2015), horror-comedy Dora (2017), the critically-acclaimed Aramm (2017), the thriller Imaikka Nodigal (2018) and Kolamavu Kokila (2018), in which she plays a cocaine smuggler.
Many of the aforementioned projects were risky, not just because they didn’t have big male stars, but also many had weak and often incoherent scripts. These films made blips on the movie radar purely due to towering performances from Nayanthara.
It has been in this phase that Nayanthara has proved beyond doubt that she is more than just a pretty face. She could be Chandrika in Boss Engira Bhaskaran, Sita in Sri Rama Rajyam and Regina in Raja Rani. Equally, she could also be Maya Mathews or Kokila. Nayanthara can play the coy, shy girl-next-door to the cold-blooded assassin Sasha in Billa (2007).
But one of my favourite performances came as her hilarious turn as the deaf Kadambari in the hit film Naanum Rowdy Dhaan. The movie was one among a long list which mocked gangster films from a previous time. But it was Nayanthara’s interpretation of Kadambari that elevated the movie from its ordinariness.
In songs, Nayanthara doesn’t overdo the smouldering woman part. In Sivakasi (2005) starring Vijay and Asin, Nayan makes a cameo appearance as herself during the opening song. When she calls herself “superstar jodi (Rajinikanth’s heroine)”, the crowd just goes wild. She also is prominent in the song ‘Balelakka’ from Sivaji (2007), starring Rajinikanth and Shriya Saran.
Spanning Generations
The actress has also been crucially successful in acting with at least two generations of actors. She has been paired with Rajinikanth, Vikram, Dhanush, Surya, STR, Vijay Sethupathi and Jayam Ravi to name a few. She even displays considerable onscreen chemistry with someone like Udhayanidhi Stalin, who is only a few films old.
Nayanthara was born Diana Mariam Kuriyan in Bengaluru on November 18, 1984. Though she was born a Syrian Christian, she converted to Hinduism at the Arya Samaj Temple in Chennai in 2011. She has a bachelor's degree in English literature. She made her debut in Malayala cinema Manassinakkare (2003) after director Sathyan Anthikad noticed her work as a model.
But Nayanthara’s range of emotions can be limited. She has also done her fair share of films in which she is objectified as a sex symbol. Nayanthara was almost written off in 2012 but managed to make a comeback, after nearly 11 months away from the limelight, with the Telugu film Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum.
The actress has often been criticised of choosing glam roles over meatier ones. Her relationship with actor Prabhu Deva, who is married, did not go down well with her fans. In 2012, she confirmed that she had ended the affair, but not before Deva’s wife went to court.
Nayanthara has won the Filmfare and Nandi awards. She is also a recipient of the Kalaimamani. She has won the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Actress for her role in Raja Rani.
At 34, Nayan is now at a crossroads. How long will we see her as a lead? Will she continue to be in the prime of her career as was evident in her portrayal in Ajith Kumar-starrer Viswasam, which was released ahead of Pongal in January? Or will she soon be reduced to playing the sister or lesser supporting roles? Time will tell.
Nandhu Sundaram is a journalist based in Ooty.
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