Power, Poise and Prestige: Lakshmi Manchu

South Indian film industry’s one and only Lakshmi Manchu is not just a fabulous actress, producer and television presenter, but also a doting mother, wife, sister and daughter. Known for her works in Telugu cinema and American television, Lakshmi who started acting at the age of 4, is a powerhouse of talent and energy. Loved all around, her persona oozes warmth and love.

In a candid interview the lovely lady opens up to us about her childhood, her daughter and other relationships.

Text: Anahita Ahuja

Wardrobe: Raw Mango

Jewellery: Balaji Jewellers

Makeup and hair: Sandy

Styling: Anahita

Photography: Akshay Rao

What were you like in your school days?
I always knew I was different as I didn’t fit in the class at all. I would be more attracted to extracurricular activities than towards the books. With time, as I kept getting older, I knew I wanted to be an actor – I wasn’t sure of where, how and when that would happen, but I knew that was my calling. At that point in the South, no actor’s daughter was allowed to be an actress, it is only now that we have others like Shruti Haasan, but back then actors only passed on the mantle to their sons and not daughters. As I got a chance to go to America, I ran.

What about the family – how did they react when they found out?
My family didn’t know at all. My father thought I was doing documentary films over there. Even when other people saw my work and told my father, he thought they were all referring to the documentaries. When he started realising that it wasn’t that, he couldn’t even show to them that he didn’t know – so he would act like he knew. Then it started coming from more sources, so my brothers broke it to him. They did not have a choice by then! (smiles). I was the only South Indian girl to have made it till there – they were very proud of me, of course, as they knew how difficult it was to make a mark in America.

How did things work out for you in the US?
I was clueless! I didn’t even know what a head shot looked like, or for that matter what the difference was between an agent and a manger. My teachers in college were very confident that I had whatever it took to make it, as long as I kept at it. I started off as a junior artiste – an extra in Boston Legal and as luck could have it, within no time, I was cast as an actor in it.

Was it smooth sailing for you?
Oh, definitely not! It was all about audition after audition for the first year and a half. And when you go for these auditions, it is not like you’re selling jewellery that you can bring something to match the taste of your client – it was you who you’re trying to sell there – and when you’re rejected one after the other, with zero support – it definitely isn’t easy.

So, what brought you back?
Nothing in particular. Life, I guess. It was my brother’s wedding that I came back for, and then one thing led to the other. I was offered a show to host and it’s been six years now.

“Honestly, given a chance, I would work in America and live here!”

Are you happy here?
Well, I have my ups and downs. I am not creatively satisfied on the work front here, when compared to what it would have been like if I were there. Roles here are so typecast in a box that you end up doing the same thing over and over again.

And are you looking at moving back?
Honestly, given a chance, I would work there and live here! Now, with my daughter being the most crucial part of my life, I feel it is very important to raise her around my family and impart our values. I notice that with the changing times, it is becoming all about yourself – giving rise to more nuclear families around. Life is not supposed to be lived like that – it is not meant to be all about yourself. It is about taking care of the beautiful people and relationships around. I want her to grow up with her grandparents, cousins and family and learn how to take care of these relationships.

Let’s talk a little more about Nirvana…
Life with her is as if I am three! Thanks to her, I am living life all over again. I feel I am her age with a slightly better vocabulary. She knows what she wants, she puts me in my place – has her likes and dislikes – and above all is extremely loving and caring. With her, I am reliving life all over again.

How has she changed you as a person?
I feel, I have become more fun. She keeps me in splits. She is a spirited girl! I want to take credit for the incredible human she is, but that is just her.

What kind of a mother are you?
A very liberal mother, who is very disciplined at the same time. I do not take tantrums. Her behaviour at home and outside needs to be checked on, and I do just that. I discipline her whenever and wherever needed,

Let’s now talk about you being a producer.
Even in America, I used to produce short films. I was always good at putting things together. And here, when the opportunity came up to do it – I jumped at it. It is a liberating experience to make movies you like – especially if you enjoy putting things together. I try and work with new talent, because there is a whole lot of enthusiasm. And it is nicer to work with people like that. I live, breathe, and eat cinema – so I didn’t want to wait till I got older to become a producer. I wanted to get to it now and it all fell into place with the right opportunity.

You are known to be a strong woman…
More than that, I am blessed with a deep, husky voice – to start off with. Thanks to this, whatever I say comes across in a stern way and work ends up happening. Which is great because if I had a squeaky voice, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Career wise, what has been that one turning point for you?
That was when I was offered my TV show Memu Saitam– through which I was able to help so many people in need and there is no feeling quite like that. That was when I learnt my lessons, not only as an actor, producer but also a human being. It was beautiful to see how deeply we could impact people through cinema.

On a different note – what is your relationship with your father like?
It is very cool! Every daughter should be able to be as open, free and friendly with her father as I am. He has been the strongest person in our life and there is so much to learn from him. He never gives up and is so protective of us – the values he’s instilled in us are unparalleled.

How does he react to your work?
He has never been able to say a single bad thing about my work. He says he’s my fan. He doesn’t like me producing because he feels I shouldn’t put my money in it. But I understand where he’s coming from – he’s a father, after all.

Which is the most special relationship?
My life is made up of many friends and a lot of special relationships. My friendships are very special to me – each and every one of them. I care for and nurture my relationships the most because I feel, I am who I am because of my friends – because of their unconditional belief in my dreams. They have guided me through it all.

Do you watch your work? How do you react to it?
I am very critical about the stuff I do. I look at myself and look at the tiniest problems. But I am not one of those who checks between shots – if I start doing that, then there is no way I’d be able to okay it. I am critical about when I see myself, at the end product.

“I knew I really wanted to be an actor but also knew that it wasn’t going to happen here.”

How selective are you about your work?
Very! If I were in America, my choices would have been different. I am picky because I want to able to do justice to everything I do. I am not happy running around trees, I enjoy watching that stuff, but cannot do it. What I do has to be meaty and should excite me.

What inspires you?
Life – everything about life does. I think we are so lucky, just to be able to breathe, taste food, hear music, touch and feel, and above that love. It is all so incredible. I want to live life, experience it all.

Now, let’s do a quick, fun rapidfire ….

What is the last gift you gave someone?
I have just come back from Abu Dhabi with bags filled with gifts. I have quite a few perfumes to give my friends.

Did you brothers ever try to set you up on a date?
(Laughs)
Set me up? They were ready to kill every boy I even spoke to!

What are your thoughts like when you’re driving the car?
One thing that often crosses my mind when I look out is how every one of us, is going through something or the other. Otherwise, life ends up becoming so much about yourself, that you don’t realise there are others around too.
How much of your life is dependent on technology?
Oh god! Embarrassingly dependent! I go to sleep checking Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It’s almost like they will run out of business if I don’t look at them. I am not a laptop or iPad person, it’s just my phone and yes, that habit can get a tad bit annoying.

What if I were to uninstall all your social media apps on your phone…
I would actually be very happy because someone else doing what I myself can’t!

If you were to wake up tomorrow as someone else – who would you rather be?
Wonder Woman!

“My father has never been able to say a single bad thing about my work. He says he’s my fan!”

What is the best way to start a conversation with you?
I like people who don’t try to put on anything and are who they are.

The weirdest thing a fan has done for you?
There is this lady in Nellore who got a tattoo of my face on her hand!

Your celebrity crush?
Ranveer Singh! He has such a wild vibe – his energy is contagious.

What/who do you want to be remembered as?
As a girl who lived life fully and did what she wanted to. I truly believe in the quote ‘Well-behaved women, rarely made history’ – by Marilyn Monroe.

What cheers you up?
My daughter and her stories.

Favourite word?
F***!

What are you afraid of?
Mediocrity of people – when people limit themselves and stop doing things.

How would someone get your attention?
It has to be their personality, their sense of humour and the fact that they are themselves around everyone.

If you had to change your name – it would be?
Nirvana.