Tell us about your growing up days. Where did you study? What was your dream career in your childhood days?
I was born and raised in Bahrain in a simple middle-class family as an only child to my parents. Dad was an investment banker and mom a math teacher for first few years during my childhood and she later decided to quit work and become a stay-at-home mom, to help me manage my education and extra-curricular activities like going for extra tuition, music classes etc better. I was quite the shy and reserved type during my school days, was overweight for my age, but innocently unaware of it too until this changed when I found it hard to make friends in middle school. I had to do something about it and so I did. By the time I had gotten to high school, I had managed to turn this around for myself by getting involved in sports and started working out at the age of 14 and went onto become the school prefect and sports captain. I still wonder what drove me back then to find the motivation to do this, having no siblings, no close cousins around per say, no social media or even a role-model to look up to or inspire me. I’m glad this change occurred. It only made me a more confident person and prepared me better for my new life in India. I had chosen to go to college in Bangalore since I wanted to learn a bit more of my own culture before I headed out to the west for higher education like all my other school friends did.
Moving to India was very hard at first. What I thought was confidence enough wasn’t enough. I couldn’t handle the street-smart attitude of the girls in Bangalore and felt that I was still too naive, humble and too kind to the point I felt anyone could take advantage of my innocence. Being an only child had more cons than its pros. I realised soon that I had to toughen up. The realisation since has only gotten stronger with all the different experiences that I had through all my years growing up.
I would’ve wanted to become a hundred different things when I was young- one of them being a pilot, another a Wall Street analyst etc to name a few… Not sure if I was fixated on one career. Life never goes as planned …
When and how did the journey towards being an actor happen? Was it a natural progression? Did it happen organically?
As I said nothing goes as per plan and neither did I know what life had in store for me. Acting was never a part of my plan. I don’t think I was even built for it. I wasn’t ever the kind who’d like to attract a crowd or do what it takes to market or promote myself. So, I allowed what came to me organically just occur and take its own shape and form in my life. Such was acting for me. It has taken a long time for me to fall in love with this career and now the connection to the ethos of an entire film’s making is so deep, powerful and inseparable off which, performing is what fuels me the most.
What are your other passions and hobbies? If not an actor what else would you have considered being?
I’m into race-track driving, traveling to explore culture, food, nature and adventurous activities. I am someone who would love to seek adventure everyday of my life. I’m an adrenaline junkie… that doesn’t mean I don’t get tired. I do and I’m mindful about my recovery. So, my travel most often has a mix of something crazy topped off with a layer of a meditative experience prior to return. I have done activities ranging from an 18000 ft high skydive in California off the coast of Santa Barbara, to scuba diving in the beautiful massive cenotes in Mexico, the longest zip line in the world in Ras al Khaimah, paragliding off the Swiss alps, snorkeling in the wide open Caribbean Sea feeding little fish eggs and shrimp to whale sharks, both skiing and snowboarding which I seem to naturally suck at … but I know I am relentless and will keep trying.
If not an actor, maybe I would be a banker or a doctor who is now trying to become an actor on the side possibly? I have always been in love with the arts I guess.
How challenging was it to carve out a niche for yourself?
I didn’t make a conscious effort to do this but I do know that I never wanted to be known as someone who only did one type of role, or one genre alone. I want to do it all and I wanna be it all too. I even want to become the characters that I myself have the greatest doubts in being able to pull off. That being said, it has rather taken years for cinema itself to undergo the changes that it has gone through in the last 5-7 years. The birth of digital cinema, social media and now streaming platforms have opened up horizons for female actors like it has never before. And this is where my focus on to never do only one thing had its advantage. I have been able to stay relevant while cinema made its stride to what it’s become today. And I’m thankful to be able to a significant part of it and at the same time make comebacks to play much more meatier and honestly written roles at this point in my career.
How did you do it and what were the challenges? How did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge for me has always been staying relevant in my career that too at a very young age, while fighting repetitive spells with lymphoma when I was trying to just build a career. But looking back, it has only made me more mightier, fully awake and absolutely passionate about every single moment in my life. The greatest challenges have in turn become the biggest gifts and the best lessons of my life. My greatest pillars of support have been my parents. After that it’s the general public’s love and then it’s my willpower to come back and become a victor.
What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
As far as my personal life is concerned, every come back I have made is better and stronger than the previous one. And while all the ups and downs were going on, I have managed to contribute and also support my family morally, emotionally and financially and stay truly and fully connected to them. I see this as a big part of my personal success. Not a lot of people are so deeply involved with the daily activities of their families. I see A lot of young folks getting so caught up in dramas of their own losing sight of what’s actually important in living a successful life.
As far as my career is concerned, I am aware of my upbringing and I come from a humble home. And this about me will never change, and it is truly music to my ears when I hear staff members tell me that ‘madam you throw no tantrums and you are not like the other heroines we see, you are amazing to work for… we feel happy’. What more can I ask for? They say stay true in the dark and humble in the spotlight.
What does family mean to you? How was the lockdown period for you? How do you spend time when you’re not working or at a shoot? What is a typical day like for you?
Family is extremely important to me. Family for me is my parents. They precede everything and everyone else for me. I owe my life to them. Unlike a lot of people who felt anxious, Lockdown period for me was fun. It was well spent with both my parents in my new pad in Cochin into which we had just moved in pre-Covid. It was serene, quiet, peaceful and I loved having every single meal of everyday with them after so many years. Rest of the time was spent in watching streaming content and working out almost twice a day daily and getting plenty of sleep.
Were there any kind of apprehensions entering the field of cinema or was it a cakewalk?
Family was hesitant at first, but my dad then encouraged me to explore it and see if it was for me at all. But the condition was that my mother had to be the one managing me. She’s my Momager now.
What is your vision and dream in this field that you’re in now?
Become actor cum producer cum director. Better salaries for female actors. A big break in a Bollywood movie and Hollywood web series… wouldn’t that be amazing?
How different do you feel you are from the others around and what are the changes you want to bring about?
I think there are many women who are like me so I don’t think I am particularly unique or special or anything. I don’t like being taken for granted or anyone easily assuming something about a woman just because another woman or actor is a certain way. I feel that it will be nice if we can come to the day where we needn’t fight to prove a point or feel equal and we feel it’s safe to be fully expressed without being violent so that we can get our needs met gracefully and not be looked at as though we are wild cats just because we stand up for ourselves more than we ever have in the past.
Are you a home bird or a party goer?
I am a home body. Entirely! I’m quite private.
How do you like to keep a work life balance? There are days when you’re working nonstop for 10 plus hours. How do you maintain calm and keep going?
If your spirit in general is one of balance, then everything balances out. There’s time for work, time for play and time to recover. I have always tried to stay organised, maintain a routine for every single day, be it a working or non-working day. Work ethic is of prime importance to me. And for that I need to cut down on time and energy spent on irrelevant things. That even means engaging in socialising or spending too much time on my phone or social media.
What are your preferred holiday destinations? Do you like adventure travel or leisure travel? Some adventure activities you have done on your travels?
Since I have been living in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles for the last seven years which in itself is gorgeous. Just going back home to LA on days that I am not working in India, ends up feeling like a vacation. And that’s mostly done alone. And I love it that way too. It gives me a break from all the action and chaos that I face when I’m here. At times I take my mom along with me. But off late I have been too busy working in India and during most times my transit point, Dubai becomes my second vacation spot.
What is your dream man like?
My dream man stands tall with intelligence and confidence but with a hint of mystery. He’s someone who finds it easy to make a connection with regular people and doesn’t allow his ego to take over his persona just because he knows a lot or is well travelled. He is humble and helpful, curious and romantic. He is someone who can enjoy watching me lead from the front just as much I would do him too. And someone who is truly sensitive to my needs. And with whom I can establish a comfortable flow where Less said is More type of connection. I believe that if it’s the right guy, all of this dream come true feeling will happen organically. I think I have kind of grown to become a sapiosexual in some way now.
Are you a romantic at heart in real life? What is the most romantic thing anyone has done for you?
I am romantic and imaginative but it does take a real special person to make me feel vulnerable for him.
Someone had once given me hand written love letters and I have felt it’s really cute.
You have millions of fans around the world. Any crazy fan message or incident / anecdote you’d like to share?
The most funniest one that keeps happening with fans is when they come running up to you to talk to you all excited but then, there’s this long awkward silence until I mostly end up asking … uuuuh… do you want a photo? And they finally let go off their breath. I’m often left wondering; do I look that intimidating?
Any memorable incidents you’d like to share with us during the shoot of any of your recent films? Please also share your experience from the shoot of Lalbagh?
Thank you and I’m so happy you loved the movie and my role in it. It’s so encouraging because heroine-oriented films get much lesser attention than hero driven films do. Lalbagh had me playing a slightly complex character. Not one that can be easily understood unless you have personally come across someone with a narcissistic or bipolar or a combination personality type. I had done my research and also used some references that I have interacted with to understand how the manner and behaviour of one partner can affect and take over the mind of the other when they share such close proximities over a long period of time. One normally becomes the victim of their circumstances, but in Lalbagh she chooses to triumph over the situation even if it meant to become a little vile herself. And that’s reality. This is why I liked the plot of the story, when Prasanth Murali brought it to me. Moreover, I have worked with him before, so I was already supportive of his effort to make his second film for which he had to wait for long.
Besides exploring how Sarah needs to dive into the psyche of her husband Tom, what I enjoyed most about Lalbagh was that we were shooting in Bangalore during the month of December and it was pleasant, festive season was up in the air and looking back now, that was the last movie I did pre Covid. That in itself makes that movie shoot a memorable one now. And we were a great team – Prasanth Murali, Rahul Dev Shetty and Rahul. All of us have been getting rave reviews for Lalbagh.
Unlock is a film I did during Covid in Malayalam and it will be releasing on a streaming platform shortly. It is something I am looking forward to.
Saba Mariam a very dynamic character I have played in Jana Gana Mana (Malayalam) is one that will be remembered by all when the movie comes out.
The story and character that I have enjoyed the most in recent times is my role in the period film Rudrangi, which is going to be a big comeback for me in Telugu after a decade. But I will speak more on this later, when the time is right.
What is your fitness routine like? You had also battled health issues sometime back and came out of it stronger and fitter. Would you like to look back at that stage? How tough it was and how you overcame it?
It was extremely tough for me and my family. There were moments I felt alone, but now I have overcome all that and I’m tougher and more independent than anyone else I know. I did not give up and I don’t settle for complacency. Such is my commitment to anything that I am passionate about. When it comes to fitness I have a relentless commitment, not to have my body a certain way but to never get derailed from my routine. It consists of steady cardio or HIIT five times a week combined with 2-3 days of weight training and some yoga In between. I try my best to fully avoid alcohol and I don’t smoke. It’s hard to maintain a fully balanced food habit when you travel a lot between times zones and work, but I do try to be mindful of eating clean, organic and putting less stress on my digestive system.
What’s your style mantra? And your beauty regime?
My favourite style is comfortable and dressing smart. I’m a big fan of baseball hats and sneakers. Crop tops with pencil skirts, boyfriend or highwaist jeans have kinda taken over my LA wardrobe now. I love jackets and all winter gear. But wearing them in India is tough. I rock them out in LA.
I can’t say I’m great at regularly doing things to take care of my skin. And I love the sun so much that I often forget about how it could damage my skin. But keeping the sweat on and staying hydrated plays a key role in maintaining healthier and clear skin. I want to delay the process of early onset of aging or lines and the only way to do this is by watching what you consume, managing stresses better and keeping fit! I’m not a facial face-pack kinda person. Never been!
Who are your close friends from the industry?
My close friends are not in the industry. People whom I call real friends are those who ‘really made time and effort’ and stood by me through my worst times. And only one or two are noteworthy if at all. What I was told later on when I asked a few colleagues whom I thought were my friends was that most of them didn’t know how to react or say to me when they heard that I had cancer. And so, they didn’t call or text at all. And I don’t know how to react to that response either. Excuses or ignorance?! Can’t wrap my head around it.
Which have been your most memorable films? Do share some incidents from the shoots of those films?
My debut film Mayookham directed by Hariharan, Sathyan Anthikad’s Katha Thudarunnu, Shyam Prasad’s Arike, SS Rajamouli’s Yamadonga, My Boss by Jeethu Joseph, Two countries by Shafi, Bhramam by Ravi K Chandran, Lalbagh … to name a few. Each of these films had me playing fantastic and unique characters. I have been able to surprise myself in a few of these!
Do you think the industry tends to typecast stars into certain roles they’re good at? What would your dream role be?
Yes, industry tends to typecast women in certain roles sooner than they do men. I’m so taken by Anya Taylor’s role in Queens gambit. I often wonder if I have apophenia myself. Which according to the dictionary means having the ability to find a pattern in the randomness of life. That’s so complex, I love having to decipher those patterns. There’s so much subtext to explore in the material written for such characters. Doing roles that need me to research and prepare at length are the kind of roles that I dream of doing. They could be anything!
You also have an amazing voice. Please tell us more on where and at what age did you learn music? Any songs in the pipeline?
Dads family has naturally born singers and they sing amazingly well. I can’t even compare my voice to a few of my cousins’. However, I did go for music lessons both Carnatic And Hindustani for a few years between the ages of 12 and 16. I wish I made more time to really hone my skills. I actually don’t.
What are the projects you’re working on currently?
Rudrangi is the film that I’m working on right now. Making this my big come back in Telugu after ten years. Possibly going to be one of my best characters ever done! I haven’t signed a new film in Tamil yet. I’m waiting for the right one.
You’ve acted with stars like Mohan Lal and Mammootty and also Rajinikanth and Nagarjuna. Please recall something from those shoots. Also, something about these stars that you worked with and how was the experience?
Can’t say I really worked with Rajni sir to a point where it’s worth mentioning. My scenes were removed because of another female actor in the film and I was really upset. But what’s worth sharing is that Rajni sir personally called and thanked me for accepting the film and flying all the way from another country to accept the part in Kuselan. And thank him for being so humble and kind. Respect!
Mammukka (Mammootty) and I share a good rapport and always pick it up from where we last left off every time we meet. I really like him as a person, even though most people find him hot tempered. Lalettan (Mohan Lal) is super friendly all the time and as an actor there’s too much to learn from him when it comes to performing. He makes every role look effortless. This makes him so unique. But a big one, I owe to Nag (Nagarjuna) sir. If not for him, I don’t know how I would’ve kept my head high in my first battle against cancer. I received his call to talk about the film Kedi exactly on the day I got the news of my diagnosis. I will never forget his words when I told him that I’m unsure if I will be able to work anytime in the near future. He said let’s not decide now. His words were … ‘We are going to make sure we wait for you’. And that movie Kedi was filmed over six months during my entire duration of chemotherapy. I am grateful for his kindness, because it really helped me stay distracted and feel motivated to stay positive. Respect!
You have also launched your own production house. Please tell us more about that?
I launched the production banner in 2020 November and we will be announcing a film very soon.
You shuttle between the US and India and in India across various states for various shoots. Which place do you like to spend the most time in and why?
Who doesn’t like a permanent vacation. Being in LA can feel like one… as I’m not working while I’m in the States. I love the freedom and being ambiguous while I’m away from India. And I love finding my ambitious self when I’m in India. I need both… like I said I like to keep it balanced.
What are your future plans?
For now, reclaiming the years I lost in fight is my goal, cinema is my future. Because it’s now that I have started truly not just living… but living it up!
Your dream role?
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl & Rani in Queen.
Favourite actor and actress?
Aayushman Khurana, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
Your pet peeve?
Being interrupted while working out, or people who come to the gym to socialise or/not in fitness gear.
4. Some essentials that are always in your bag?
Phone, lipstick, wet wipes, wallet, a small perfume.
Yoga or gym?
Indian food or global cuisine?
Closest friends from the industry or outside?
Outside too many to mention and they like to stay private too.
Beaches or hills?
Veg or non veg?
Fame or money?
Indian wear or Western wear?
Straight hair or curls?
The last good film/web series you watched?
Squid Game and Sex Education.
A movie you’d recommend?
The Disaster Artist and Whiplash.
First thing you notice about a person?
One thing that makes you feel beautiful?
Politics, religion, business, sports or entertainment?
Tech, business and sports over the rest.
Go out with masks or rather stay home?
Stay home over going out with masks.
Keep it to yourself.
What does social media mean to you?
I wouldn’t be on it if I weren’t in the entertainment business.
What book are you reading these days?
Becoming by Michelle Obama.
Your go-to mantra?
Let go, Be happy.
Your favourite singer?
Lana Del Rey and Adele.
Your New Year’s Eve plans this year?
This time …mostly gonna be in my Chennai home with family.