How Nithya Menen Went From Being A Reluctant Actor To Finding Spirituality In Cinema

The star of films such as 'Ok Kanmani' and 'Mersal' opens up about her cultural fluidity, juggling several film industries and finding her truth.
Nithya Menen
Nithya Menen

Nithya Menen thinks it can be suffocating to get too comfortable in one space. It’s a belief that she has acted upon throughout her 14-year-long career that spans five film industries and now, a streaming platform.

For someone who never wanted to be an actor, and hated being one, 14 years is a fairly long time.

“A truly creative person wouldn’t be too happy settling down. There has to be a sense of adventure and not just an attempt to guard your image. An actor should be fluid and vulnerable and willing to fail and look like a fool. Safety nets are for businessmen,” she says during a Zoom interview days ahead of her digital debut with Amazon Prime’s Breathe Into The Shadows, where she co-stars with Abhishek Bachchan.

It’s an unsurprising opinion from an actor who has taken risks throughout her career. While Menen became the darling of younger viewers with her charming turns in rom-coms, especially opposite Dulquer Salmaan, her filmography is also filled with experiments such as Thalsamayam Oru Penkutty (a 2012 Malayalam film that followed the life of a reality show contestant) and Praana (a 2018 thriller made in four languages, where she was the sole actor).

Not all of these experiments were successful, but Menen ensures that she’s unforgettable even in cameos. That’s why, for someone who thinks of herself as a reluctant actor, she has managed to act in over 50 films by now.

After making her mark in four Southern film industries, she made a successful Bollywood debut last year with Mission Mangal. Though the film starred some of the top actors from Hindi films, Menen’s Varsha Pillai was confident but not without being vulnerable, something that made a mark with viewers and critics. And days from now, Menen will make her streaming debut with Amazon’s Breathe Into The Shadows.

“Who gets to do this? Every few years, I feel like a debutante. Isn’t that fantastic?” says Menen, beaming from the other end of a Zoom call, her face glowing as if she’s just woken up from a wholesome nap. “I get to become a newcomer all over again. As a creative person, I can’t ask for more. I feel brand new every time I am on a film set where the primary language is different from my past work.”

Nithya Menen in a still from Breathe Into The Shadows
Nithya Menen in a still from Breathe Into The Shadows

Though Menen’s first full-length role was in the forgettable Malayalam film Aakasha Gopuram (2008) starring Mohanlal, most Malayali viewers noticed her after a mischievous outing in Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey, a short film part of an anthology called Kerala Cafe (2009). Menen’s character, a young woman travelling by bus to Kozhikode, turns the tables on her overfamiliar seat mate, a middle-aged man who refuses to acknowledge that he’s making her uncomfortable.

Her arrival in Kerala’s film industry was at a time when there weren’t many roles for plucky young women who spoke out when they were unhappy with the status quo. She has faced several threats of being “banned” from the film industry for refusing to kowtow to male producers, but hasn’t backed down.
That, perhaps, may be one reason why she has worked across industries instead of staying in just one. Another is her upbringing, which gave her an affinity for languages (she dubs for herself in all her movies)

“I mean, I come from a Malayali family that mostly spoke Tamil while living in Bangalore, where I studied in Kannada in school. So I end up finding my home everywhere,” she says.

Surprisingly, for someone who is praised for inhabiting her characters even as she brings in a certain flavour of her own, Menen says she never prepares for her roles (“unless I’m doing a biopic”).

“Half the time, at least earlier, I didn’t even realise I was acting. I was so spontaneous. And I do think I want to keep it that way. Because I don’t like to overthink. I just capture the...” she pauses “..the character’s element. I don’t even need to be briefed because I am able to draw out an experience from my personal space and marry it into the narrative. But with Breathe, it was very different.”

Since the show is about a couple trying to rescue their kidnapped daughter, there wasn’t a personal reference point that Menen could use. She explains her process in a way that makes it appear easy when it’s anything but.

“It isn’t a small thing that has happened. It’s a life-changing thing. Her daughter is missing. So how do you bring that out? Well, a few minutes before we shoot the scene, I zone out. And I zone everybody else out. I drive myself to reach a point where I ask myself: what if this has happened to me? What is it going to make me feel? And the answer always is that it isn’t one emotion. Anger. Anger. Anger. It’s anger and rage, helplessness and denial, sadness and numbness. I’ve to evoke the entire spectrum of emotions without making the character one-dimensional.”

Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen in Ustad Hotel
Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen in Ustad Hotel

When she narrates her behind-the-scenes prep, it feels as if she’s losing herself into the moment to the point of recreating it. But this isn’t a movie set and Menen isn’t giving a take. How does she get out of that space which, more often than not, can get quite dark?

“Oh, after I’m done, I can’t wait to get the hell out of that place. I’ve a very happy life that I wait to get back to. I’ve trained myself to set clear boundaries between my real life and the movies. You’ve to train yourself to do it.”

Menen says that if an actor gets swayed by a character they’ve essayed, it’s an indication that subconsciously they’re going through similar emotions which haven’t been addressed. “Acting, by itself, is draining. Whether it’s Abha in Breathe Into The Shadows or Tara in Ok Kanmani, the toll it takes on you is the same. So when they say ‘cut’, I’m the most relieved person on set. My crew often says, ‘oh, look at her, so happy to go back home’.”

Actors, who spend an inordinate amount of time being different people, live unusual lives. Mental health issues are more common than one thinks as the nature of the work and its demands can be overwhelming. “I’ve to get back home and leave the job behind. I need to anchor myself by becoming myself, recharge and recuperate so I can come back the next day to become someone else again. Since I’m not a method actor, the characters don’t stay with me.”

While Menen’s performances—whether it’s Nithya in Ala Modalaindi or Shahana in Ustad Hotel—carry a sense of natural warmth, as if she’s miming experiences from her real life, she speaks about acting with a clinical detachment.
“That’s because I never wanted to be one. I had several different dreams, none of which materialised. I was angry. I never cared about being an actor. And when you don’t want something desperately, you aren’t afraid of losing it.”

Without alluding to specifics, Menen says that her disregard and casual nonchalance towards her career helped her in strange ways. “Since I didn’t give a damn about acting, I never tolerated any bad behaviour. If you don’t behave yourself, I will leave right now, was my position. I didn’t care enough to want to desperately do something to please somebody. I didn’t please anybody.”

Funnily, she talks about that phase as a ‘brilliant’ time when people from the film industry had to woo her to agree to do their films. “Either I’d take a second and say ‘yes’ to a film or would just not do it. There was no middle way. So I’ll perhaps never understand the mindset of a person who desperately hinges on to the idea of becoming an actor.”

However, there are aspects about fame and its consequences that do bother her, something she’s come to terms with and has a better handle on now than she did before.

In August 2019, the 100 Days of Love actor spoke about body-shaming and how it has affected her. She said, “I think people are ignorant because they assume automatically that if you have weight issues, it’s because you are lazy and eat a lot. That’s ignorance. I want to say that one faces weight issues very rarely because of being lazy and eating,” adding that hormonal issues could be the reason behind gaining weight, too.

“Actors are so vulnerable. You put your heart on your sleeve. You are generally a little more sensitive than others. A lot of things hit you very hard. And it has. But what do you do? It shapes you. You go through a process. You get upset, you feel low. But eventually you’ve to snap out. What is going wrong? Ask yourself that and fix it.”

While that certainly is easier said than done, and often there could be external factors beyond one’s control at play, Menen says that spirituality is something that has helped her immensely.

“Being spiritual means to find ways to be finally happy,” she says. “I’m always seeking that. I grow as a human being. And when you actually grow as a person, things stop bothering you. Now being spiritual doesn’t mean going to a temple or meditating, that’s a shallow way of understanding it. When I say I am spiritually inclined, I mean I’m inclined towards asking deeper questions and coming closer to myself.”

It’s about finding her truth, she muses. “I spiritually reached a place where I realised that this is my path. That acting in itself is therapeutic and I’ve been bestowed the beautiful gift of practising it. I went like, look at this. This gift that I got without having asked for it. So now, I’ve learnt to value it. I want to do something with it. I’m no longer a reluctant actor. I’ve a purpose and I’m driven.”

Was there a specific moment that triggered this late awakening, where the thing she hated in itself became a source of therapy? In her characteristic style, Menen is ambiguous in a way that leaves room for intrigue.

“There was. Something very specific. But not all things are meant to be shared. There are moments that are so personal, they should remain that way.”