In 2010, in her first film, Ye Maaye Chesave, she is the girl next-door, who falls in love with an unsuitable boy. She is Christian and he is Hindu, mirroring her real-life relationship with Naga Chaitanya. Eleven years later, she was Raji, a fiery Tamil revolutionary in The Family Man Season Two. Her dead eyes telling the stories of the torture and agony she watched in hours of footage as she meticulously prepared for her challenging role.
It has left her on the cusp of a new career, and as she reads new scripts to her, she is brushing up her Hindi. "We, south Indians, learn Hindi in school but then that's it. I've got to get rid of my accent," says Samantha Ruth Prabhu (formerly Akkineni). She will need to do that quickly as the world wakes up to what an exciting actor she is.
Having announced her divorce from Naga Chaitanya — one of Telugu cinema’s biggest stars — last week, she is all set for a new career. But she's not moving out of Hyderabad, which houses Tollywood — the money-spinning Telugu film industry.
"This city has given me everything," says the 34-year-old. She is equally grateful to her career. "A lot has changed, a lot planned, a lot unplanned," she laughs. "But my job has always loved me back. Every leap of faith has rewarded me in return, and with The Family Man Season 2, the canvas has only become much larger. The kind of people expressing an interest in working with me has expanded," she says.
The graduate from Chennai’s Stella Maris College is humble enough to acknowledge the contributions of her predecessors.
She speaks of Sridevi, Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit, who were the face of Hindi films through the 1990s.
Also, lavishes praise on Nayanthara and Anushka Shetty who did the difficult groundwork of demanding better written roles and equal pay. "They’re the ones who made the hard choices, who said they wanted better roles, they protested against discrimination in pay. Their vocal call made it easier for us to follow through,” she says. She attributes her own changed perception about her abilities to Oh Baby!, the light-hearted Telugu comedy she did in 2019, where she played a 70-year-old woman who suddenly becomes a beautiful 24-year-old.
Soon, she is to be seen in the mythological drama Shakuntalam, and in the Tamil romance, Kaathu Vaakula Rendu Kaadhal with VIjay Sethupathi and Nayanthara, directed by the latter’s partner Vignesh Shivan.
There are not enough heroine-oriented roles in the south, she says. Typically, either there is the social message movie or the thriller. But there is never a heroine playing a saviour or a hero, like you have for men, which translates into ticket sales at the box office. "It has to be an underdog," she adds. However, in Hindi films and streaming services women can essay varied characters. They are also creating greater opportunities for themselves and for others.
Samantha mentions Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranaut, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt in particular as having the foresight to do so. Besides, they are beautiful and talented.
"Women don't have an expiry date anymore," she says, even as she tries to create an ecosystem where she can create work for other women. The other day, she says, Taapsee sent her a script for her to act. "I messaged her and said, 'dude why are you not doing it?' She was graceful enough to say that I would suit the role better," she says. Samantha is consistently lending her voice and talent to good cinema, even if it means reducing her fee to fit the budget as she did with Mahanati, starring the beauteous Keerthy Suresh, who often features on her Instagram posts.
Unlike the media created fantasies of actresses scratching each other's eyes out, it's the exact opposite, she points out. There is a lot of bonding among the actresses, and each is looking out for the other, she adds. There is a lot of talent around and many don't just get an opportunity. "I didn’t know I was capable of doing Raji. I was finding myself with every scene, whether it was the action or pulling off the intensity," she says.
"I saw things in my research that shook me really badly, and my performance came from a place where I really wanted to do justice to the horrors of what I saw and what some girls go through every day, and then behave as if nothing has ever happened. I wondered what it could do to their psyche and their personality," she says, referring to the scene where she broke down after performing it — it was the sexual assault by her supervisor.
"I was playing it from as honest a place as I could. That scene was shot in a really tiny room, with only the other actor and the cinematographer. I think I channelled too much of what I saw in my research. It felt all too real," she adds.
Now, Samantha is more at peace with herself. Not just psychologically and spiritually but also with the idea of her own beauty. "When I came into the industry, I was uncomfortable. There were these fair, north Indian heroines. And I am wheatish, a proper south Indian Tamil from Chennai. I wore a foundation that was two shades fairer because I wanted to fit in so badly," she recounts.
She doesn’t wear any make-up in public these days.
"This is my journey and of others who think they're not good enough, that people should love me for myself not for the colour of my skin but the person I'm and for my morals and values," she adds.
She hopes it’s the journey of other women as well.
The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India
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