South India’s favourite sensation, Shriya Saran has seen it all. The highs and lows, the ups and downs but she has stayed even keeled with an amazing inner strength that guides her on her path. In an extended soulful conversation with Vanaja Banagiri, the diva deck up beautifully in a range of garments from UNLIMITED and holds forth on everything that matters to her.
For a girl who had oily hair and wore spectacles when she was growing up in a small town to being voted the `Ultimate Hottie of the South’ in an online poll, Shriya Saran has traversed an eventful path. She’s an avid reader of Haruki Murakami, practises Vipassana meditation, runs a spa that employs visually challenged people in real life; she can be the girl next door or a seductress, depending on the demands of the script on screen. It’s difficult to define Shriya, it’s even more difficult to categorise her. She can be this, that and all things at different times. Some know her as the hard-to-please diva while others will swear that she is the sweetest thing on two feet. So, will the real Shriya Saran please stand up? She responds with her trademark school girl giggle and says, “I guess I’m all of them. Don’t we all behave differently with different people in different circumstances?” Trust her to say it like it is. But people close to her know for a fact that she is quite a simpleton at heart, straight forward, at times self doubting, mostly super confident, loves dressing up, wonders if she’ll make a good mother, loves her mom, takes life’s challenges in her stride, is a die- hard romantic, optimistic to a fault, that’s who she is. And oh so pretty! One of the few actresses who look better off screen sans make up than on it! “I wasn’t the prettiest girl in school. I was known more for my dance than my looks when I was growing up,” she remarks.
How were the growing up years? “My dad Pushpinder Saran was a civil engineer who worked for BHEL, till he retired a few years back. I was born and brought up in BHEL Haridwar. My mom was a chemistry teacher. My introduction to films was through the open air theatre at BHEL called Jhankaar. I loved Kathak dance form and wanted to learn from Shovana Narayan. We came and met her in Delhi and she agreed to take me on as a student. So my mother and I moved to Delhi when I was 14. I got admission in Delhi Public School and we lived in a small teacher’s apartment there. My mother would drive me to my dance class at Pandara Road every day. Later my father took a transfer to Delhi to be with us. I used to perform with Shovana didi’s dance troupe all over India and would travel with her.”
From Delhi to South films, seems so far off! How did that happen? “Someone was making a music video in Varanasi for which they approached my guru, Shovana Narayan. She recommended me. I auditioned for it and got selected. One of the Telugu filmmakers saw that video and offered me my first Telugu film which was released in 2001.”
“I wasn’t the prettiest girl in school. I was known more for my dance than my looks when I was growing up.”
It’s been 14 years since her Telugu debut in Ishtam but, “It’s now that I am truly enjoying my work. I feel a strong connection to it,” she says reminiscing, “Initially, it was all fun and games. Work meant meeting new people, seeing new places, a whole lot of fun. Today, it is a lot more. It is about exploring more characters; it’s about evolving mentally and spiritually.” Everything she does, she does intensely whether it’s her meditation, running the spa or facing the camera. “For me, it’s all about love and heart. If I don’t feel deeply for something, I just switch off. Even where my films are concerned. Whenever I didn’t feel connected to a particular role or film, I didn’t even bother watching it. They gave me the CDs but no, sorry, I am so stubborn that I refused to watch.” So what goes wrong in such films? Why does she not feel good about those roles? “Between the writing table and the editing table, a lot happens. Sometimes, things don’t turn out the way you wish them to. But there’s no point in the blame game. Sometimes you go wrong, sometimes somebody else goes wrong. Honestly, you can sense on the 2nd or 3rd day of the shooting that something is not right. That’s when the disconnect happens. But you know it’s a part of our profession. You live and you learn,” she says philosophically.
What does acting mean to her? “It’s my life. Acting has been like going to school for me. Sometimes I have learnt a lot, at times I haven’t. Every film has taught me something though. I am so, so indebted to South films. They have given me my identity, my profession, success, name and fame.”
Any people instrumental in making things happen for her? “Yes. Yes. Vikram and Raj, my first directors, Rajinikanth & Shankar for Shivaji, Nishikant Kamat and Ajay Devgn for Drishyam, in fact all my co stars, producers, long list. But most importantly Nagarjuna. He picked me up from nowhere for his film. His house is an open house for me. I know both his sons well. Amala is also my friend. She is the one who introduced me to Vipassana.”
Does she remember her early years? Her first scene, first dialogue. “I do remember my first scene. But you know, recently for an awards function they requested me to perform to my early songs. That’s when I revisited the films I had done with Chiranjeevi and Pawan Kalyan. Guess what?! I didn’t remember those songs. I didn’t remember the dialogues. I guess as an actor you tend to forget them to get out of the character you’re essaying and move on to the next. But I remember characters. I remember the people I worked with. I remember relationships. A few months back I met Jayam Ravi in Dubai after 8-9 years. It felt the same. It’s a beautiful warmth, love and bonding. I value and cherish relationships. They mean the most to me.”
Considering she has starred with the best of the lot in the south, why didn’t she make a mark in Bollywood? “I’ve no idea, honestly. In the world of cinema, you can never put a finger on what works, what doesn’t. No one knows why a film doesn’t do well. There are forces bigger than us and beyond us. Sometimes there is no explanation. I would be God if I knew that. But I am glad `Drishyam’ has done phenomenally well. It feels good. At the end of the day, we all want to reach a bigger audience. That’s what every actor wants. Why does anybody tell a story? Because they want it to be heard by more and more people.”
Are there enough scripts for 30+ actresses? “I think so. Things are changing. Mindsets are changing. A lot of new age films have succeeded. Quite a few 30+ actresses like Kajol, Kareena, Jyothika are doing very well. So things are looking good.”
Will we see her sharing space with the gen next heroes on screen? “I don’t know what I will do next. I would love to work with them though,” she says candidly.
Shriya is also known for her social conscience. She has supported many charities and has been closely involved with a few like CAP Foundation and Naandi. A few years ago she took it a step further and set up a spa all on her own called Shree Spa that employs visually challenged therapists. How did it all start? “When I was in school, I happened to miss my bus one day. I must have been around 14-15 then. There was a Blind School on the opposite road. My mom had told me several times that I should visit it. It was really hot that day and I decided to cross the road and go to the blind school out of curiosity. I sat under a tree watching these kids playing cricket. One of the kids came and sat next to me and and started touching my face. That’s how a visually-impaired person comes to know whether it is a new person or old. He asked me what made me come there. I told him, ‘I wanted a glass of water as I had missed my bus.’ He started laughing. I asked him why he was laughing and he said, ‘I am blind, still I never miss my catch. How did you miss your bus?’ His innocence got me intrigued and I started going there for their Diwali melas.
“For me, it’s all about love and heart. If I don’t feel deeply for something, I just switch off.
When I moved to Mumbai, I wanted to start something for visually-impaired people with whatever little money I had. I thought of starting computer classes and candle-making classes but found that enough people were doing that. Once my mother and I were on an outdoor shoot in Bangkok for a month, where my mother learnt the basic course for becoming a spa therapist. We came to know that there was a course in Mumbai where they taught visually-impaired people to become spa therapists. We decided to open up a spa with the two room place we had. We have five therapists who do all kinds of massages. Each one of them is very intelligent. The visually-challenged are blessed with a keen sense of touch and healing. The sad part is that we, in India, and in many cases internationally, don’t view disability normally. We aren’t encouraged to study with children with special abilities in school; we can’t accept them like other members of the workforce. It is a question of trust, you know. Our clients say that it is on par with any other spa. You should visit sometime. Seeing is believing.”
Who does she rely on most professionally and personally? “My mom for sure. I fight with her but I love her the most. She gave up everything for me. She supported me in every aspect of my life; she has stood by me regardless of the situation. I share everything with her. She knows me like nobody else does. I am what I am because of her.”
Is there a special someone in her life? When does she plan to get hitched? “I would love to get married eventually. But it will happen when it will happen. I would like him to be someone who is a friend, someone who I can grow with mentally, spiritually and emotionally.” Are the eligible bachelors listening?