From Diana To Nayanthara: The Making Of A ‘Lady Superstar’

Nayanthara, one of the biggest stars of Tamil cinema, is an outlier in the South Indian film world.

If it hadn’t been for the poster of a “cheap” (read, adult) film called Diana, Nayanthara as we know her today may never have existed.

It was 2003, and Malayalam filmmaker Sathyan Anthikad had just cast 19-year-old Diana Mariam Kurian in his film Manassinakkare, which was being shot in Pattambi village in Palakkad, Kerala. He’d recently spotted the college student in a jewellery advertisement in Vanitha, a Malayalam weekly, and had known she would be perfect for his latest project.

“Her graceful face caught my attention,” said Anthikad. “She did not know acting back then, but was quick to learn. During the first few days, she’d arrive, place a chair next to me and watch the shoot. It was only after she gained confidence that we began shooting her scenes.”

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But when Anthikad happened to see the lurid Diana poster on his way to work, he felt that the debutante’s name should not be associated with it. Three new names were shortlisted and the clapboard boy at the shoot picked his favourite: Nayanthara.

She has come a long way since then. The fresh-faced, long-haired Diana who started out as the quintessential girl-next-door in Malayalam movies would go on to become the “Lady Superstar” of Kollywood (the Tamil film industry)—the gendered moniker a testament to how the realm of superstardom is generally reserved for men in the region.

Over her reign in the next two decades—which is unprecedented staying power in an industry where most leading ladies become “character actors” in the flash of an eye—Nayanthara has taken on an unusual variety of roles, from a gun-wielding gangster in Billa (2007) to Sita in the Telugu movie Sri Rama Rajyam (2011) to a hearing-impaired woman seeking revenge in the comedy-drama Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015).

A screenshot from the teaser of 'Naanum Rowdy Dhaan'.
A screenshot from the teaser of 'Naanum Rowdy Dhaan'.

“Nayanthara has been able to keep upgrading her image constantly, which has been a key to her super stardom” says Rajesh Rajamani, a Chennai-based film essayist. “She initially played the role of a shy, coy small-town girl, and then repositioned herself as an action heroine with an oomph factor. She subsequently changed focus to strong, realistic characters.”

Part of this “image upgradation” has included dramatic changes in Nayanthara’s physical appearance, leading to endless media speculation about plastic surgery, particularly liposuction. Her “chubby” belly was fetishised and criticised in equal measure in her Tamil debut Ayya (2005) and then Ghajini (with its infamous item song X-Machi, which had moralistic Malayalis grabbing their inhalers), but in Billa a couple of years later, she was lean and mean in a bikini, in keeping with the kind of aesthetic that is idealised currently.

Today, she is believed to be the highest paid woman actor ever in Kollywood, reportedly charging up to Rs 5 crore per film. In 2018, she made it to the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list, the only South Indian female actor to make the cut.

Yet, Nayanthara has remained somewhat elusive. She rarely interacts with the press, has no confirmed personal presence on social media, and generally shies away from film publicity events. While she and her partner Vignesh Shivan did not respond to interview requests, we traced her journey, with its many ups and downs over the years, by speaking to other insiders.

Setting the stage

Diana Kurian was pursuing her second year in English literature from Mar Thoma College in Thiruvalla district, Kerala, when she was discovered by Anthikad. “Nayanthara was interested, but she was initially reluctant to work in cinema since her uncle raised objections,” he says. “I was able to talk to her and convince her parents—they were supportive.”

This was not entirely surprising. Diana’s Syrian Jacobite Christian family were not particularly orthodox in their mindset.

To add some context, Syrian Christians, irrespective of their denomination, are considered part of the dominant caste community. They generally enjoy a privileged position in Kerala society, with plenty of social mobility as well as access to modern education and landed property. Thiruvalla’s traditional land-owning Kodiyattu family, to which Nayanthara belongs, was no exception.

Nayanthara’s father Kurian Kodiyattu was an officer in the Indian Air Force and gave his children a peripatetic upbringing, thanks to frequent job transfers. Born in Bengaluru, Nayanthara did her schooling in Chennai, Jamnagar, Delhi and Gujarat, but once her father retired, the family returned to their roots in Thiruvalla.

“The upwardly mobile section in this community did not mind their women taking to acting,” says P. Sanal Mohan, associate professor in the School of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. “Their orthodoxy is not in terms of denial of modern values, but is confined to their religious practices.”

Meanwhile, Malayalam cinema had been through vast changes in recent decades, with the 80s being a turning point for women, who were now taking up more screen space and essaying a greater variety of roles. “During the early phase of Malayalam cinema, acting was not seen as appropriate for women from a so-called respectable background,” says Mohan. “When the film world became better paying and a space where celebrities were manufactured, naturally people were happy to be part of it.”

Many women had broken barriers, fought prejudices and redefined the manner in which female actors were perceived. By 2003, the stage was already set for youngsters such as Nayanthara to pursue their dreams in tinsel town. Of course, her ‘fair’ skin gave her an advantage, as did her cultural identity, economic mobility and education.

“Diana was one of the best students in the class. She used to sit only in the first or second bench in the class,” recalls Elizabeth J. Thomas, the retired head of the English department, Mar Thoma College. “She was very diligent and responsible. If we wanted to organise something, teachers always depended on her. In the first year of graduation, she was hosting a television show and got into modelling. She managed her studies well despite her other activities.”

Around the same time that Anthikad was captivated by Diana’s face in Vanitha, another Malayalam filmmaker had also set his sights on the young woman. Director Fazil says he received a picture of Diana from one of her family members and was won over by her “typical Malayali woman look”. He felt she would be ideal for the role of the woman protagonist in his psychological thriller Vismayathumbathu. He waited for her to complete her first film to cast her opposite Malayalam superstar Mohanlal. “During the first few days, I found it difficult to work with her because of the difference in our styles of working,” says Fazil. “By the third day, she quickly picked up my style and seamlessly fit into the character.”

Nayanthara’s first two movies were box-office hits, and she earned accolades for her effortless and relatively deglamourised performances as the simple, talkative, and loving Gauri in Manassinakkare and Vismayathumbathu’s aspiring medical student Reetha who slips into a coma and then has a spiritual connection with clairvoyant Sreekumar (Mohanlal).

Nayanthara’s winning streak continued with her third Malayalam box-office hit, Naatturajavu (2004), where she played the sister of Mohanlal’s macho Pulikkattil Charlie. It was enough for her to get her noticed by the Tamil film industry.

Nayanthara in 'Sri Rama Rajyam'.
Nayanthara in 'Sri Rama Rajyam'.

The Queen of Kollywood

Kollywood—a much bigger market than Mollywood—has for long made space for women actors from Kerala. Through the 80s and 90s, many performers from the neighbouring state carved a space for themselves in Tamil cinema, including the graceful Shobana, Revathi known for her strong roles, and the comically gifted Urvashi.

In 2004, just when Asin Thottumkal from Kerala was gaining fame in Tamil cinema, Nayanthara stepped in too. However, while Asin left for Bollywood by 2008 and eventually quit acting, Nayanthara kept her spot at the top for nearly two decades.

Some industry observers believe that Nayanthara’s staying power has been a function of strategy as much as talent. According to Sowmya Rajendran, film critic with The News Minute, Nayanthara is a game-changer because “she does not want to do just women-centric films, but mainstream films where the gender of the lead protagonist doesn’t really matter.” Rajendran believes that Nayanthara is not a particularly “versatile” performer but owes her success to “the big movies that have gotten her noticed. She is very much interested in being part of big mainstream films and being seen with big heroes. She is also trying to create a genre for herself”.

A screenshot from 'Simha'
A screenshot from 'Simha'

Indeed, the first few years of Nayanthara’s career saw plenty of blockbusters but not particularly stellar acting. She made her Kollywood debut with Ayya (2005), where she played the college-going love interest of leading Tamil actor Sharath Kumar. The same year, she was cast opposite superstar Rajinikanth in Chandramukhi. Both films were box-office hits and established Nayanthara as a bona fide star, but no great demands were placed on her acting skills. In the blockbuster Ghajini (2005)—which she has called “the biggest mistake in my career”—she seemed out of sorts during certain sequences, such as the X-Machi song where she looked uncomfortable while performing an ‘item’ dance.

In several subsequent films, including commercial successes such as Kalvanin Kadhali (2006), Vallavan (2006) and E (2006), she played conventional love interest roles that did not require much beyond a coy smile or occasional tears. Yet, she was seen as a ‘lucky charm’ and continued to be cast opposite leading heroes in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam movies, including in the box office hits Dubai Seenu (2007), Tulasi (2007), Billa (2007), Yaaradi Nee Mohini (2008), Aadhavan (2009), Adhurs (2010) and Simha (2010).

She also received some critical acclaim. In her 2010 role in the romantic comedy Boss Engira Baskaran, where she played the role of a college lecturer being wooed by a ne’er do well, fetched her a nomination for the Filmfare Best Actress Award. In 2011, she won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress in Telugu for her performance as Sita in Sri Rama Rajyam.

But there were significant lows among the highs.

‘It shatters your life…’

Several movies that Nayanthara acted in after 2007 didn’t fare well at the box office, but her personal life kept her in the news. In 2006, when Nayanthara fell in love with actor Silambarasan while shooting for Vallavan, the relationship became a media fixation. The interest only intensified after their break-up when intimate pictures of the couple were “leaked”.

But it was her relationship with dancer and actor Prabhu Deva that almost cost Nayanthara her career. When she became involved with him in 2009, he was married and had two children. Nayanthara made no attempt to disavow the relationship. She tattooed Prabhu Deva’s name on her wrist and reportedly converted to Hinduism to marry him. She even announced her decision to quit cinema in 2011.

But Prabhu Deva’s wife refused to grant him a divorce and he returned to the family-fold by 2012. Amidst this emotional turmoil, Nayanthara was labelled a “home-wrecker” and a group of women even burned an effigy of her. The ugly controversy was greeted by dignified silence from Nayanthara, and she took a step back from the public sphere. For nearly a year, it seemed as if she had relinquished her place in South Indian cinema.

In a rare and typically restrained interview in 2017, she said that having to “go away from someone you love… shatters your life”, but she declined to say much more than that. Yet, by 2013 she was picking up the pieces and creating an even bigger and better space for herself.

Just as she was beginning to fade from public memory, Nayanthara made a stunning comeback with the Atlee-directed film Raja Rani in 2013. As a woman in an arranged marriage who eventually falls in love with her husband, her performance reflected a new maturity and depth. The film was a huge blockbuster garnering approximately Rs 3.20 crore on the first day.

From then up till the present, Nayanthara has made a visible effort to break the mould. While she continues to feature primarily in mainstream films, she is experimenting with genres and taking calculated risks. She played a single mother in horror movie Maya (2015), a district collector taking on political leaders in Aramm (2017), and a drug smuggler in Kolamavu Kokila (2018). In addition to these box office smashes, she pulled off a haunted journalist in the horror film Airaa (2019) and a vengeful hearing-impaired girl in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015).

Bolstering Rajendran’s observation about Nayanthara, film critic Baradwaj Rangan wrote in his review of Aramm on Film Companion that unlike most Tamil movies, the actor’s character Madhivadhani is “defined only by her job. All we know about her is that she’s the Collector. Everything else — that she cares for people, that she has integrity, that she has a never-say-die attitude — is a function of her job”.

On the personal front, during the making of Naanum..., she also started a relationship with the film’s director, Vignesh Shivan.

Finding her voice

Despite being highly visible on the silver screen, Nayanthara has cultivated an aura of mystery. Stories about her abound, but it is difficult to separate the apocryphal from the factual, especially in the absence of Nayanthara’s input.

Some say that she does not always wield the power that comes with superstardom gracefully.

“She is rude and abusive on the sets,” says a technician on condition of anonymity. “An assistant director was sent away when he pointed out a mistake. She refused to come to the shooting spot till he was removed from the sets. She takes charge of directing in the manner she wants to.”

HuffPost India could not independently verify these allegations.

At the same time, Nayanthara is also known to be generous to her co-workers. Stunt artist N. Naseer recalls how Nayanthara extended a helping hand when he met with an accident while shooting for a Telugu movie in Visakhapatnam. “When she heard about the accident, she immediately arrived and gave me a blank cheque at the hospital,” says Naseer. “She was not even playing any part in that movie. I still have a Xerox copy of the cheque, which has helped me in meeting my medical expenses. She is fun to work with and even nicknamed me Nasrina.”

Shivan, who directed Nayanthara in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, has said in an interview with Silverscreen that “she makes it a point to work with young directors with fresh ideas” and provides “a great comfort zone” for under-confident newcomers.

While Shivan’s social media accounts are perhaps the closest one has to a window into Nayanthara’s life (such as her love of Netflix), in recent years, the actor’s own voice has become more audible.

At a recent (and uncharacteristic) appearance at an awards ceremony, she opened up about her appreciation for Vignesh. Also, much like her male counterparts, she has made known her opinions on political and social issues. In 2017, she participated in pro-Jallikattu protests at Chennai, and in 2019 issued a statement lauding the Telangana police for the ‘encounter’ killings of four rape suspects in Hyderabad.

More importantly, she has recently taken a stand for women in South Indian cinema, where misogyny is known to run deep. In 2016, she broke the Tamil film industry’s code of silence when director Suraj said, among other offensive things, that he did not “believe in a heroine clad in a sari”. Demanding an apology for “all women in the industry”, she said “audiences who look up to film stars are far more mature and respect women more than Suraj does”.

Then in 2019, when actor and politician Radha Ravi, known for his sexist comments, suggested that Nayanthara was not a suitable choice for the role of Sita, she issued a hard-hitting statement calling him a misogynist and asked the South Indian Artistes’ Association to conduct an “internal inquiry”. Nayanthara was lauded by #MeToo frontrunners such as Chinmayi Sripaada, as well as other actors and directors.

Whether or not the ‘lady superstar’ will don the role of ‘women’s champion’ more frequently remains to be seen, but if she does it is bound to make a substantial impact behind the scenes.