1. Tell us about your growing up days. Tell us also about your time spent later at college studying music. What was your dream career in your childhood days?
I basically grew up and predominantly studied in Chennai. I studied in a Montessori School in Chennai called Abacus Montessori. I credit the school for all the learning early in life. Our talent was recognised very young, be it Mathematics, sport or any other subject, so I really feel blessed that I went to a school like that. They encouraged music and in ICSE, we had the option of choosing Music instead of Maths. So, for my 10th standard I gave my Hindustani Classical music exam instead of Maths. They believed in my talent and encouraged students to hone their talents. Even students with disabilities were encouraged. After that then I went to Mumbai to study in St Andrew’s College and I realised that I wasn’t going to pursue academics. I wanted to study psychology but I realised if I wasn’t going to pursue it further what was the point. So, I went to study audio engineering which was originally from Australia, but they had a branch in Chennai. After that I realised that I wasn’t technically interested in the software and hardware of music, so I applied to the Musician’s Institute in California and basically completed my music education there. I’m grateful for the education and the kind of people and teachers that I had.
When I was young, 13 or 14, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be a writer or director, as I grew up in that environment. Honestly, I never thought I would be attractive enough to be an actor. I felt I was a gawky weird teenager. For me it was all about build your talent, build a sense of humour to get through life, as you don’t have the looks. I never got a card on Valentine’s Day, so I never thought I was beautiful. I realised I wasn’t the pretty sweet girl, so I decided to hone in on being smart and being funny and talented. I’m glad I felt that way then, and in a way, I feel the same today, as this is what you can truly fall back on. And not just the looks.
2. When and how did the journey towards being an actor happen? Was it a natural progression since your dad was already a superstar and it happened organically or was there another reason you made this conscious choice?
I never thought I would be an actress. Even the way it happened, was completely by default. I was in music school and acting class was a part of our curriculum. It was my dad who felt that he had spotted something in me that calls for a performance. At that point I felt, he was just being nice when he said that. Then when my first film called Luck was offered to me, it was my Rakhi brother Imran who was the hero of the film and said they were looking for someone different and came to me. I was happy because I wanted to buy equipment for my band and needed the money. It was never a plan, but when I got on the sets, I liked the environment and the feeling of seeing how many people come together to create this magic. When I saw myself on screen, I realised I had not put in that kind of dedication and time that needs for one to be there. I realised if I want to do it, I have to do it really well and I decided to stick on and work on it.
After Luck, a lot of people wrote me off, and it wasn’t easy to convince people to let me in. But I think a lot of it changed when people noticed me in 7aum Arivu, which was A.R. Murugadoss’s film and then Gabbar Singh in Telugu changed it. But people were constantly writing me off and I was asking myself why are you doing this. There was something about it that I really enjoyed and made me feel that I could be there for a while. It was a long process for me to understand what it is that I loved about it.
3. Did you train yourself in acting after that since you had not had a proper training in acting before this?
I started training with an acting coach who is good with body movement, later on in my life, when I was in my eighth year of working in the industry. I had moved to the UK then and started training in acting much later in life. She was a dancer and had worked a lot in theatre. England is phenomenal for theatre, like all of us know. It was interesting to take what I have from stage and convert it and explore the same in acting. Before this I didn’t have a chance to explore myself as an actor and this really worked well for me.
4. What are your other passions and hobbies? You’re also passionate about your career in music. If not an actor what else would you have considered being?
My other job is that of being a musician, but it’s also a passion. Earlier music was higher in the passion scale. But today these are two different avenues. I love cooking and also experimenting with food, and also creating arts and crafts. I love making soaps. I also create some artworks. If not an actor or a musician, I would be doing film making or something to do with creative arts – not clothes, but maybe designer of spaces or landscapes.
5. You belong to a family where films must have been part of your lives? How challenging was it to carve out a niche for yourself?
In the beginning I chose to ignore and I’m glad I did. I acted like it never existed and I did a smart thing. It was a big expectation and I wanted to tell them listen I’m here and I’m trying to create my space independently. I realised earlier on that it was my own journey and if people compared, it wouldn’t help explaining to them. So, I let it be and worked on creating myself. I asked my dad only when I needed any advice and he always gave me sound advice. Most of my decisions were always taken by myself. My successes and failures were my own. Usually after signing up a film, I would tell my dad that I was planning to do this film and never took their advice earlier on what to choose. I knew it’s my life and I have to do what I had to do. I decided to take my decisions myself and learn though the journey.
6. What were the challenges? How did you overcome them?
There were many challenges. It’s taken me a long time to realise that I am different. All of us are different. Some of us are willing to celebrate our differences, while some of us may defy to fall under a bracket. Maybe it’s the musician in me and I grew up listening to rock and roll and metal. Maybe a disciplined defiance was part of being a musician, but the film industry wants to box you and make you fit into a bracket so that they can cast you easily, just like any other Indian girl. I never looked or fit in those parts. When people asked me, what was the most challenging role you played, it was always the traditional person’s role that I played which was challenging, as that was the opposite of who I am. I enjoyed the dichotomy and the multi personality that I live as an artist.
The older I’ve become, the more I’ve stopped caring how they want me to sing or act. People sometimes ask me why I don’t sing in Tamil or Hindi. I’m happy to do that, but I grew up in an English medium school, with English films and books and I write and speak in English, so it feels only natural to me to sing in that language. I like to stay true to myself and have lost my path earlier but not anymore. People used to tell me not to wear black on the red carpet, as it doesn’t look good and I was like ok, give me something pink. But that’s not me. I didn’t enjoy that journey. And now people tell me we don’t understand you, I tell them, sure, you’ll soon understand me and my work. I think I’ve realised what I want now and people will see it too. The balance has been really liberating to me.
7. What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
My highpoint was very silent. Because of coming from the kind of home I came from and seeing success and fame and artistry through a very different lens because of my father. I questioned myself on the things I was saying as an artist. I was doing things that were correct and probably what was expected of me or just going by the book, but I didn’t have the voice of my own as an artist. I didn’t have the opportunities to show my personality as an artist. So, when I wanted to bring about a change, I decided to take a step away from films for a bit and refocus on my music. I wanted to take time to reanalyse my space and life and being more authentic. This was important for my artistry to continue. If I wanted to keep that artist in me alive, more than anything I had to do this. I think the high point for me was when I had that courage to step away. And with the risk of that work, fame or success not being there for me when I come back. But I needed to do this for myself and my artistry, without the pressures of what success means to the world outside of me. That change was the highest point of my career and it has helped me being a better artist and a better human being. It was very introspective.
I moved away from my regular routine and was predominantly living in London. I always tell people that you have to move away from your surroundings, as you can’t continue doing what you’re doing around your parents and expect some change to happen. Mangers will keep calling and you will continue to see other celebs or actors doing things around you and you may feel you could have done this too. I needed a clear slate. So, I moved to London and I got a home there and started leading a very basic artist’s life. I starting writing, recording music and working with producers and started to fend for myself. I wanted to get back into the music scene and soon I started performing Live in UK.
I had found my calling I knew, but also financial motivation is a great decision to get you disciplined. And that was also one of the reasons for me to come back. I had to figure out what next. I’m glad I came back to a good movie. I signed up Laabam, but that I’ve been shooting for almost three years now. I also did a Hindi film, which I was keen when it started and not so happy when it ended. That helped me realise and now I’m clear about what I want to do and what not to do. The web series space is great and it’s wonderful for artists to expand the kind of roles they want to do. Also, it helps in finding that right kind of balance between art and commercial films. It’s always fun. And now it’s even more fun for me, as I don’t have to do this for anyone else but for me. Everything now resonates better when you have that kind of clarity.
8. What do you and your family do and how do you all spend time these days when you’re isolated at home and not at shoot?
My family is a bit fractured, as you know, so its never all four of us in the same place. Now that both of us sisters have grown up, we are all leading our separate lives. My father is busy and mum is busy too. I’m close to my dad and I make it a point to visit him whenever I get time. I enjoy spending time with him and it’s always so wonderful when we meet. He lives alone in Chennai, so I try to visit him often. My sister and my mum are close and stay together. So, in a weird way we are all very functional. We don’t have a traditional Christmas or Diwali dinner where we all come together. My dad and my mum are separated and it’s been many years, so we don’t experience the traditional family get togethers. I’ll probably get that sense of it, only when I start my own family. We all are very busy and we respect that about each other. We want the best for each other. In our family, we believe that an empty mind is a devil’s workshop. So, we like to keep busy, keep creating and also taking time for ourselves in the process.
9. What kind of bond did you share with your dad in your growing up years and how did the bond grow over the years? Please share some special moments on your father – daughter relationship? What does Father’s Day mean to you?
My dad and I talk a lot. I learn a lot from him. We watch a lot of movies together. We sit and chat for hours. I wouldn’t call him a friend as I respect him as a father. But I do feel the ease of talking to a friend, whenever I talk to him. It’s always about art, there’s a lot of fun and we love cracking jokes. We don’t even realise, but we are actually a two-piece comedy act. We like making people around us laugh and have a great time. We also love good food. We love to talk, eat well and share a good laugh.
From my childhood, he has never treated me like a kid, but always listened to me and encouraged me. Whenever I would write a story, he would tell me to sit down and read my story to him. He would also ask me questions on the story. I think that was a training for me then, to be an artist and for that I’m very thankful to him. The same goes for my music and him trusting in me and sending me to a music school, so I could explore my music. Also, supporting me through any advice I needed any time. It’s so important for parents to know not to become too preachy and to give them the space to find out who they really are and what their true passions are. It may sound like the reverse of caring, but it’s actually the most caring thing you can do, for your daughters specially, in a male dominated society.
10. Were there any kind of apprehensions entering the field of cinema at a young age?
I should have but I was a young little rock star who did not care about anything. At that time of my life, I didn’t think of anything. I had zero apprehensions to be completely honest. I thought everything will be fine.
11. What is your vision and dream in this field that you’re in now?
My dream is to keep telling stories and to keep working. I love the power of being busy. I like to explore all the avenues as I started late in life. I would like to explore my voice as a musician. And to be a person that can create an energetic shift of any kind, whether it’s telling someone you’re not the only one who went through this, I did too, or whether its through art or what I say. That’s how I want to be missed when I’m gone. My dreams are very basic.
12. How different do you feel you are from the others around and what are the changes you want to bring about? You also went through a phase of depression. How was that phase and getting out of it?
When it comes to actors they’re all very good with people skills, making the right choices and their PR or getting into camps to impress people. I still feel like I’m the quirky outsider or the back bencher in college, as I’m not as shrewd or not as smart, as it is required to be out there. But I have a good life and I’m thankful for that.
I can speak with honesty now. I didn’t always do that earlier. It’s not that I was being dishonest, but I wasn’t speaking out my truth in an articulate way. So, now when I talk about things that I’ve been through, my depression and anxiety phase, people respond with such positivity and light and say thank you for speaking about it; whether it is PCOD or my anxiety or choosing to live a sober life. Even as an artist, people need to know that our stories come from a very human place. I have a human side of me and every artist has one. If I’m not willing to share that with people, how am I being true to myself. So, when people think of me, I want them to think of me as being honest to the journey of their lives, whether it’s through arts or through the things I say.
13. You also have a great career in music running besides some of the movie projects you’re working on. Now we’re in a lockdown situation, but otherwise, how do you manage to get a work life balance?
Now we’re in a lockdown situation, but otherwise sometimes It can get a bit taxing as there are only so many hours in a day and one can get only so much work done. But I really like working hard. I like hustling, creating, building and being on the move. I’m very blessed that people around me understand that about me. Yes, it can get a bit tiring, especially when your life is so compartmentalised and you have to fit in and plan your work around every single day. And when someone comes along who is being unprofessional, that’s the only thing that throws a spanner at my work. Otherwise if I have to work 20 out of 24 hours I’m ok with that.
14. How often do you take holidays? Is it with family or friends? Do you like adventure travel or leisure travel?
Now holidays are a dream with Covid around. Earlier when I was working, there was a time when I had not taken a holiday for five years. When we are shooting we would get 2 days off on the weekend, and after 2 weeks we would get 5 days off, but never longer. If I had to take 15-20 days off, then I had to schedule it into my work and that always felt very daunting. Once, one of my friends insisted I take a longer break. She suggested she would help find a place for me to stay for a month and it was during Christmas. I took that break and went to London and after that I felt like a new person. I realised how important it was to take that break. Now, I take a conscious effort to step away, recharge and then go back to work. Usually, I take a break with my friends. We are not a vacationing family, but I go and spend time with my dad and my sister.
Because of movies, we have already had so much of adventure, jumping off high places, dancing in the snow and what not. I love London. So when I travel, what I love is cities where I can walk, eat interesting new cuisines and learn the history of a new place, a new culture. Not just in a superficial way, but what are people really like, their accents, their catch phrases, how they dress and know about their life. I like to immerse myself in their culture, explore their artfare, attend gigs, visit well known yet small eateries and even obscure places. I love going on foot through a city.
15. What is your dream man like? Are you a romantic at heart in real life? What is the most romantic thing anyone has done for you? Are you dating artist Santanu Hazarika? What is the kind of relationship you both share?
I don’t believe in the concept of a dream or an ideal man. The beauty of life is to find miracles in life through people and opportunities. If you have fixed ideas on what you want in life, be it a job or a holiday, then you stop opportunities that the universe has for you. I don’t hide things, but I don’t openly discuss it either. I don’t think people in India are mature yet to understand that a woman can have a partner and yet be mature and focussed on her work. It’s as simple as that. So, I’m not hiding, but I’m not advertising it either, because people won’t understand. An actor can be married and show up with his wife and people won’t question whether he’s going to show up at a shoot or do well the next day. It’s very sad how people think, that’s why I don’t talk about it.
Santanu is the best friend I’ve ever had and is someone who I should ideally look for in a partner. He’s artistic and creative and a very understanding human being. That’s something that’s lacking in a lot of people today – the basic kindness and understanding. So, I’m very glad that he’s a part of my life. He’s not romantic. Infact, he’s the opposite of that. But if you ask me about what romantic things he has done for me, I would say, when we first started talking, he knew that I write poetry. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I had not posted about it much. I had shared one of my works of poetry with him and he shared an artwork inspired by that poetry, which I felt was very amazing and kind of romantic.
16. You have millions of fans around the world. Any crazy fan message or incident you’d like to share?
I don’t have crazy fans. I communicate with them through social media, which is why I love social media. Honestly, they are the most wonderful, kind hearted, caring people and they are not crazy fans. They see me for who I am and they accept me for who I am. That is priceless. Specially at the time when I took a break, they didn’t judge me or ask me why aren’t you doing movies. They said you do you and we will still be here for you. They feel like an extended family. I’m very thankful to them, because we work for our audience. Some of them are extra special, as they share what moves them about you. They share that they love you for you and that is so powerful. I handle my own socials and talk directly with some of the fan pages.
17. How has it been during Covid times? What kind of help have you offered to the people or fans around you?
My followers have been an unbelievable resource during these tough times. They have brought forth so many verified leads. They ask me if I can share certain verified and important information and I’ve done that which has helped so many people. They have called and verified so much important info during these times. They have been beyond amazing.
I have done some contributions and donations which I don’t really like talking about. But it’s more important to also share verified information as that is what was missing. We live in an age of information and this definitely helps everyone. It’s amazing what everyone around is already doing to bring about awareness. Bringing awareness is very important. I’ve always been a big advocate of speaking about mental health. Compared to the last year’s lockdown, now people are really feeling the value of mental health and speaking out. I want to tell people that counselling is available even during the lockdown and it’s not something that you should be afraid or ashamed to explore in order to feel better.
Also, there were a lot of unverified sources everywhere if someone wanted to adopt children. There have been a number of children up for being adoption, as lot of parents have died due to Covid. People don’t understand the right rules and procedures of adoption. This is a responsible handover to the right institutions or the right people and I was really happy to speak about that as well.
18. Any memorable incidents you’d like to share with us during the shoot of any of your recent films?
Last year I was shooting my Netflix short series called Pitta Kathalu as well as another one called Krack. I was also shooting for Vakeel Saab with Pawan Kalyan and Laabam, a political thriller with Vijay Sethupathi in Tamil. It was very scary to shoot in the midst of pandemic. Even then, when everyone thought it’s getting better, I somehow knew second wave would come. The more we take it for granted the more we would suffer. It’s a virus after all that won’t just go like that. Most of the shoot sets that were responsible and careful, but there was one particular set, where they were not being very careful about it and the person of power felt it was just a common cold. That was very frightening to me as an actor because we tread that thin line, where you don’t want to be called unprofessional, yet you want to be careful about not contracting the virus. Now I’m happy that except for that one incident, everyone and everywhere else it was all taken care. I’ve become that scary headmistress who’s screaming at everybody when their masks even slips a little bit. I have to do this till this virus is out of our ecology. I feel thankful that I have a job, as financially and economically, it’s been the worst time for a lot of people.
19. What is your fitness routine like?
I have to be honest, I’ve become a little lazier during this lockdown. But I do try and get my workout done atleast four times a week. It could be a workout of any kind. Even if it means, sometimes skipping a proper routine and getting my house cleaned. I would replace a cardio session with a jhadoo poncho or whatever. Some days I’ll just dance as I believe in being physically active, especially because I have Pcod and hormonal imbalance. So, fitness is a super important part of my life. It’s not so much vanity driven as it is for my mental and physical health.
20. What’s your style mantra? And your beauty regime?
Once I was always a black on black attire, inspired by punk, Metal and Goth and I had to put that away to appease people. It’s really funny when someone sees me in my Goth phase now and comments look at her she’s in her 30s and she’s going through her Goth phase now and I feel like replying I’ve always been in my Goth phase. It’s just that now I’ve become more honest about it.
I believe in cleansing as when we’re working we use a lot of makeup. Even when I’m not working, we do tend to use some makeup, so I feel cleaning your face at the end of the day is really important and hydration too. Also, when you sleep whatever you put on your face really works. So, I believe in night time skin rejuvenation and before I go to bed I always pamper myself.
21. Who are your close friends from the industry?
My close friends are from outside the industry. My closest friend is Niranjan Iyengar, a writer and lyricist from Mumbai. He’s like family to me. He even baby sat me even when I was eight years old. I’m close to very few people from the industry – there is Tamannaah and Rana.
22. What are the projects you’re working on currently?
I’m currently working on a film called Salaar which will be out in multiple languages, directed by Prashanth Neel, starring Prabhas and me in lead roles. I’m also working on an Amazon web series in Hindi.
1. Your dream role?
Every role is special. I’d love to play an independent musician.
2.Your favourite movie?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
3.Favourite actor and actress?
4. Your pet peeve?
People who wear socks with sandals and people who slurp when they drink.
5. Some essentials that are always in your bag?
Phone charger and now sanitiser and mask.
6. Yoga or gym?
7. Indian food or global cuisine?
Always Indian – specifically South Indian. I love Andhra food and Chettinad food. When I studied in America and didn’t know how to cook, I used to dream of sambhar dosa and then I learnt to cook.
8. Beaches or hills?
Beaches. But if there’s a place like Portugal that has both beaches and hills then that’s perfect.
9. Veg or non-veg?
Through the week vegetarian and once a week non-veg cheat day.