The spotlit girls in the Oz of lights and action south of the Vindhyas are getting a makeover. In fact, they are the makeover of southern cinema. Take Shruti Haasan, for example. She likes to think of herself as a serious actress, but a serious actress with oomph. Shruti likes to tweet obsessively. When Tollywood twitterati went on an overdrive with the news that she is doing an item number in Ram Charan’s Nayaak, she wasn’t amused. The normally flamboyant actress — who has no problems talking about her nose job unlike her Bollywood peers, or flaunting her curves in a bikini in her debut film Luck – hastily took to the keypad of her BlackBerry Gold, tapping 26 of 140; “Sorry tweeps just a rumour I’m not doing an item song in Telugu busy shooting non stop and looking forward to start the shoot of Balupu”.
Being a silver screen siren is a fine balance of sex and substance. Both curves and character are needed. Gone are the days when an item number (it wasn’t called an item number then) with Silk Smitha burning the screen with her hypersexed, high-calorie dances was enough to show that southern sex sirens can never be too sexy for you. But, Kamal Haasan’s daughter knows that she cannot depend on a well modulated voice and expressions alone, but also has to show that all flesh is grass, even when romancing on the lawns of a Tollywood film set, item number or not.
It’s hottest to be hot. Today for every Nithya Menen, there are a dozen Nayantharas, Ileanas, Anushka Shettys, Hansikas and Tamannaahs who are making sexy beautiful. They are redefining the image of the Southern Siren; from the pulchritudinous, wide-hipped village belle with twin braids and bindis romancing heroes wearing wigs and pencil moustaches to the svelte Parvati Menons and Manjari Phadnises. Many of them, thanks to sizzling Internet videos and Twitter, even remain sex symbols long after their films have bombed. The busty Charmee had six flops in a row, but continues to be the mermaid on the net . Bhanushree Mehra’s debut Varudu starring opposite superstar Allu Arjun flopped, but with her long legs and oval face, she still expects to make it big.
The DNA of southern heroines today is pan-India sexy; Genelia d’S0uza, Hansika Motwani, Kamalini Mukherjee, Kamna Jetmalani, Kaveri Jha , Meenakshi Dixit, Meera Chopra et al — the majority of southern sex kittens are not from the south, or like Mamata Mohandas, grew up in places like Bahrain and Bombay. The northern superstar of the south is of course Kajal Aggarwal, the most sought-after heroine across four states. This genetic variety has brought a new style and global chutzpah to southern screens. Today’s cinepuff girls with their gym toned bodies — Anushka Shetty was a fitness instructor and computer wiz — impeccable coiffure and knife-sculpted faces are not ashamed of being seen as sex symbols. No Shabana Azmi for them, thank you, at most, it’s either a smouldering reincarnation of Smita Patil, or the ivory skinned sensuality of Katrina Kaif or the libidinal electricity of Anne Hathaway, which they know audiences want. The southern cinemagoer is part of a globalised culture of beauty that pervaded Bollywood first and spread downwards, taking over all the woods from Tolly to Molly.
The 1990s was when the road to stardom was being made of curves. Rambha’s well-endowed figure earned her the popular tag ‘thunder thighs’. K Raghavendra Rao’s famous find Ramya Krishna’s skintight outfits left little to the imagination, but that was the idea. The veteran director, who is famous for celebrating the oomph factor of heroines in the most erotic depictions says, “Traditionally south Indians love their cinema as much as their food. Heroes are who they want to be and heroines are their fantasy figures. Obviously, the ones that succeed are the ones with an X factor.” So when Ramya Krishna danced under waterfalls, showers or in rain, the audience got wet, wet, wet. A lesser-known fact, maybe, is that both Ramya Krishna and Rambha played sisters in the Chiranjeevi-starrer, Alluda Majaka — sexy in swimsuits, and even less while swimming in the river. Nayanthara and Namitha dared to step it up in hot bikinis in 'Billa' while sashaying and gyrating by the poolside. Nayanthara has no taboos when it comes to showing her sensual side. Her liplock with Simbhu in the Tamil film Vallavar has only enhanced her desirability as well as giving her a delightful notoriety. “As far as I’m concerned I think I am a fairly good actress with sex appeal. I wouldn’t like to separate the two. I think that modern audiences are far more open to seeing heroines do things differently on screen. That’s because off screen too, attitudes have changed. Most guys, nowadays, are okay with the girl taking the lead in a relationship. They like it if their girlfriends or wives dress sexily,” says the comeback diva. Proving that a two-year break, early retirement plans, or her break up with Prabhu Deva could not damage her stock, Nayan is now charging a Rs1.5-crore fee for each film. What is more, her dates are full across states, signed on to act opposite superstars in Tamil (Arya and Ajith) and Telugu (Nagarjuna and Rana). For the 27-year-old Malayalee actress, who has made a mark in Telugu cinema, controversy has kept her in the limelight, both on and off the screen: her conversion to Hinduism from Christianity (she was originally Diana Mariam Kurian) and rumours of rebound affairs slough off her slender arms. Sources say Nayan has been chosen to play Vidya Balan’s role in the remake of the hit Hindi movie 'The Dirty Picture' — a bilingual in Telugu and Tamil. Her zaftig appeal and steamy scenes are bound to make the film a hit; according to Tollywood scuttlebutt, she even went on a diet to look sexy—only, it was a diet to put on 12 kg, just like Vidya Balan. The buzz is that Nayanthara demanded Rs 2.5 crore as her fee, and Ekta Kapoor, the producer, agreed.
Serious money and serious sensuality make the siren. Actress-turned-Telengana politician Vijayashanthi is one of the few stars who commanded Rs 1 crore a couple of decades ago. Anushka Shetty followed suit in the Telugu version of 'Billa', where she sizzled in a black two-piece swimsuit. It was speculated that Anushka would give Nayanthara curvaceous competition in 'Billa 2', but the role went to newcomer Huma Qureshi. Anushka is one of the few actresses in the South known for her powerhouse performances, like in 'Arundhati' — where she played a zamindar’s daughter in a 1920s scenario — and Nagavalli as much as for seductive moves and sensuous curves. She, too, is a member of the One Crore Club. Trisha Krishnan, the only other true blue Southie is in the same league.
Reinvention is the secret of the actresses staying on top, and Trisha has adopted a punishing fitness routine that includes power yoga to burn all her tummy fat. Still, she is fighting a war of tattoos with her younger doppelganger, Reshma who debuted in the hit movie 'Ee Rojullo'. Reshma is called Junior Trisha, and they share a common trait. Trisha has a permanent tattoo of Nemo the fish on her bust. Reshma will be seen sporting one on her washboard stomach in the upcoming 'Jai Sri Ram'. Trisha’s Bollywood career did not take off; her maiden performance in 'Khatta Meetha' was panned as being stilted and stiff. Sources say, yet, she may reappear with Sanjay Dutt in the remake of 'Saamy', the Tamil hit in which she played the female lead. The Telugu remake of the Malayalam film 'Bodyguard' may not have done as well as director Gopichand Malineni expected, but the petite Trisha turned the temperature up with bold scenes. The irony of modern Indian cinema is that the role of the siren and the Savitri have melded: it is as important for a powerhouse actress like Samantha and Nayanthara to keep their profiles intact as serious actors while staying icons of erotic chic.
Sex symbols, plunging necklines, bare navels and rising hemlines have become a staple in all productions. When Charmi rolled in the mud, wriggled atop her hero with a python holding them in a bind, or licked an ice cream bar in slow motion, it was novelty in Eden. Check out her latest 'Sakkubhai' images, and you see that even the chubby-cheeked Charmi has jumped on the bandwagon of shrinking sizes. The shelf life of an actress in the big bad world of cinema is shorter than Mumaith Khan’s bikini, and south Indian cinema churns up sexy beauties by the dozen. Charmi Kaur was only 13 years old by her own admission when she acted in her first film, ‘Nee Thodu Kaavali' (Telugu, 2002). “I have exposed a lot, which I’m regretting now. It all happened because I was innocent,’ she regrets. Innocence has little draw in the film industry. The busty actress has no current offers, and the Hindi movie 'Zilla Ghaziabad’ in which she has a bit role is delayed for lack of funds. Meanwhile, it is her sex bomb status that sustains her. Celluloid karma determines the fate of careers as newcomers are identified with former superstars until they make it big themselves — Kamna was called Junior Sridevi, Sneha Ullal is known as Junior Aishwarya and Poorna is Junior Asin. It goes to show that there is an impatient new generation, waiting in the wings and a few flops can end a senior sex siren’s dream run.
Oomph with brains is the ultimate sex symbol for male audiences worldwide. Filmmaker -turned-actor, the curly haired, elfin Nithya Menen is the thinking man’s sex symbol of the South. The hit Malayalam film 'Vellathooval' is going for a Telugu remake, and '180' and 'Ishq' were a box office kayo. Everyone seems to want to cast this Bangalore girl: Kannada film 'Mynaa', directed by Nagashekar and the Tamil comedy 'JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai' and 'Poppins' release in October. She has positioned herself carefully as an actor who chooses her roles. Nithya has even refused to act opposite big stars like Venkatesh, NTR Junior and Dhanush because she didn’t like a script — and once turned down another because he “was too old” for her.
She likes being regarded as snooty and difficult — “I’m conservative about what I wear, I don’t like to expose,” she told an interviewer recently. Shriya Saran, has no such qualms of course. Shriya, who is hailed for her recent performance in the controversial English film, 'Midnight’s Children' says, “I think a big deal is being made out of bikinis and showing skin. As far as I can remember, Sharmila Tagore and Nutan were leagues ahead in the old days.” But wasn’t that Bollywood, where Priyanka Chopra admits she has no qualms about kissing a girl? “South Indian heroines weren’t seen in bikinis then, but the saris and the cholis they wore those days were red hot. I don’t understand what the whole brouhaha is all about! Films are meant to entertain the audiences and make money. Obviously, beautiful bodies go with the territory. It is mandatory for us to look good on screen if we want people to come and watch us. Dressing glamourously or ‘hot’ as you call it is part of the package. If you look at trendy girls in colleges today, almost every other girl wears short dresses, off-shoulder and halter necks. If there is a beach or a swimming scene, you can’t plunge in fully clothed, can you?”. They used to, in the old days, but now it’s a new sexy out there. Shriya raised the bar for glamour and remuneration in the south. She has featured in some of the biggest blockbusters in the south, and has acted in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and English. “A personal favourite is my role in Midnight’s Children in which I give birth to a baby. I also love my scenes in Nuvve Nuvve with Prakash Raj and Shivaji with Rajinikanth. My high comes from scaling newer peaks and reinventing myself,” says the only actor — apart from Amir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan — who has lectured at IIM-Ahmedabad and IIT-Madras on films as a means of cultural exchange.
Intellect and acting are not a common combination in glamourous actresses, seen as bimbos in male-dominated Indian cinema. Ileana’s sinuous hips have been the flavour of many seasons even after Pokiri released half a decade ago; and she is still ranked amongst the top actresses of South India. She is known more for fluttering her eyelashes with perfect precision and showing off her flawlessly shaped waistline, but her performance in Barfi has made the film industry sit up and take notice of her acting talent. “I lost oodles of weight for Shankar-sir’s film and Barfi,” says Ileana, who is probably the only actress to have debuted in a Hindi film that has been nominated for the Oscars.
For many southern sirens, Tolly to Mollywood seems to be a detour to Bollywood — though one actress who refused this ‘golden ticket’ was Anushka Shetty. She turned down what would have been her B-Town debut in 'Singham' with Ajay Devgn; Kajal Agarwal stepped into her shoes. When Kajal played Lakshmi in 'Lakshmi Kalyanam' and Mahalakshmi in 'Chandamama', no one imagined that this girl-next-door would be cast as Ram Charan Tej’s princess in Maghadheera, her success catapulting her into the multicrore club. S S Rajamouli, the director of 'Maghadheera', is all praise for Kajal, “I feel that 'Panchadara Bomma', of the best songs in my career became a hit because of her expressions. Kajal is definitely here to stay for a long, long time,” he predicts.
Another re-import to the North is likely to be Tamannaah Bhatia— the ‘milky beauty’ , as her fans have named her, owing to the complexion of her skin. Like Charmi, her first film ('Happy Days' in Telugu) was made when she was 13.
Unlike her Punjabi celluloid cousin, she is so popular that she has few dates for new films. Sources say she has signed on for 14 films across four languages — a massive number for even an actress as popular as she. She probably heads the A-list in endorsements, reportedly charging Rs 80 lakh for a soap ad, and may be seen in a new ad with cricketer Virat Kohli. After becoming a favorite of stars like Karthi and Allu Arjun, Tamannaah’s famous waist has made its appearance in almost every song. It may also be her Milky Way to Bollywood; she has been cast in Himmatwala — a remake of the original Jeetendra-Sridevi starrer — with Ajay Devgn. Tamannaah says, “I grew up dancing to Sridevi’s numbers in front of the mirror. Playing her role is a dream come true for me. I don’t know if I can be as graceful as her. And I’m not even going to try. She is inimitable. I will try to interpret my role in a fresh way.”
The fair femme fatales of southern cinema are adept at playing many roles. The common factor, however, is sex appeal. Samantha of Gowtham Menon’s Emaya Chesaave fame may not be Tamannaah, but she is racing ahead of her contemporaries, capitalizing on her girl next-door image her mentor director gave her. Twenty-year-olds Hansika Motwani and Mynaa girl Amala Paul are also riding high. Hansika’s romance with Silambarasan has become the hot topic of the season, but lets not let that keep us from forgetting that she was the child actress in Koi Mil Gaya. Hansika — who will be starting her own production house soon — is playing Shehnaz Hussain in the Tamil film Settai — a Delhi Belly remake — where the buzz about bedroom scene with her co-star Arya is already promising to turn the film into a bigger hit than the original. The male lead has always defined a new heroine’s success in the industry, but in the South it is even more so — holding Tamannaah’s shapely waist or kissing a sultry Nayanthara seems to endow them with extra machismo. Amala is reported to have bagged films with Ram Charan Tej, Allu Arjun and Pawan Kalyan. Having played Sundari, who has an illicit relationship with her father-in-law, in just her third film, she is used to the controversy that surrounds stardom. “The audience response was extreme. They tend to forget that we are just enacting a role conceived by the writer and director” she says. It’s a role that shows the southern sirens are on a roll.
Exposing the exposure myth
She walked out of a Telugu film when she was asked to lower her neckline to let the camera linger on her cleavage. All she would expose would be her bare arms in a sleeveless top and no further! But Nithya Menen has come far even though she was almost banned by the film industry because she had no time to meet a noted Malayalam producer when he wanted to sign her for a film.
In the days of generous display of twin assets, Nithya’s most prized possessions are her twin peepers through which she views the glamour world and her role in it, in her own perspective. The child actor who debuted in Hanuman (1998), as Tabu’s younger sister, is one of the biggest Southern actresses in demand across Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada filmdom.
It began with director Nandini Reddy seeing Nithya on her way to college. “She is “too talented to remain off camera”, says Nandini. She signed her on as the female lead in her first directorial venture Ala Modalaindi. Says Nandini, “She was perfect” for it. The film beat many big-budget films to become a youthful hit and cemented their reputations in Tollywood. Nithya won the Nandi award for ‘Best Actress’ and was nominated for ‘Best actress (Telugu) and ‘Best playback singer (Telugu) at the Filmfare awards. Nandini says Nithya is “one of the best actors we have, with natural acting ability, an arresting face, charisma, and eyes that are completely captivating. She has a personality that is distinct from other actresses; she knows what she wants to do and is a very instinctive actor”.
Ishq, which released a year later in Telugu was one of the biggest hits of 2012, earning Nithya many more rave reviews. In both films, Nithya wore outfits that would pass of on any Hyderabad street. Young college girls identify with her and boys wouldn’t mind dating her or even taking her to meet their mothers. Nithya’s message is that glamour is only one part of stardom. However, a noted director, who prefers anonymity says, “for one, she is overweight! Who would want to see her bare when we are surrounded by hot sexy girls who act as perfectly as they look! Secondly, let”s see how long she lasts banking on her histrionics alone!” So far, her weaknesses, too, remain unexposed.