From being a newsreader to now making headlines herself, Priya Bhavani Shankar has had an inspiring journey in Tamil cinema. As a cub reporter, she had the opportunity to interview Dhanush, and a decade later, she is now starring opposite him in the upcoming film, Thiruchitrambalam. This change of fortune isn’t lost on her. “Some like me for what I do, but I also know people who believe I don’t deserve this success. This was not the career I planned on, but I am giving it my all, and things are getting better.”
She sees her recent release, director Hari’s Yaanai, as one such effort. After having worked with many debutants and young filmmakers, Priya is now getting a chance to work with veterans like Hari, Shankar (Indian 2), and Radha Mohan (Bommai). “It’s a bit scary. Other actors might get the leeway of appearing in ‘small’ characters in big films, but for some reason, audiences seem to take it personally when I play such roles. However, I have realised the importance of being part of big-ticket films.
Also, the roles in these projects have been impactful, and more importantly, respectful of me.” Looking back at her career, she has her fair share of regrets. “I have rejected films that didn’t offer me strong roles, but honestly, they might have given me more mileage to develop my career. I also remember that stalwarts thought of a ‘nobody’ like me for their films. All I want today is to make myself more deserving and worthy.”
Priya makes constant references to her self-worth throughout the conversation. In fact, at one point, she even calls herself not a ‘conventionally desirable’ actor. This comes not from a place of self-deprecation but out of an understanding of the machinations of Tamil cinema. “I don’t have a guide in the industry. No one advised me on what projects to take up. No one told me not to turn down a big film. I have made my own mistakes and learned from them. Also, I know I am not a very ‘desirable’ actor—and I am an outsider as well. All I can do is give my best to every project and make my collaborators believe in my talent,” says Priya, adding that even though she might come across as high-handed, it is quite far from her real persona. “A YouTube interview cannot be the yardstick with which to judge my personal character. I just do my work with sincerity. From Meyaadha Maan toYaanai, I have become more professional. Right from the way I approach a project to my behaviour on the sets, every single facet has changed.”
As she elaborates on the changes in her approach, she touches upon one of many realisations. “We all want our films to work. I thought it was all about having the right producer, the right script, and the right team... But then, I noticed that some of my films weren’t receiving the love they deserved. It all came down to the lack of promotions. I now understand the importance of release timing as well,” says Priya, who has an impressive line-up of films, many of which have been awaiting the right window for release. “A delayed-release is stressful for an actor like me, who is heavily reliant on my performance to do the talking. It is both annoying and hurtful.”
Such candid admissions about her choices and mistakes make Priya Bhavani Shankar a rather enterprising person to interview. She is aware that being opinionated in cinema comes with its share of pitfalls. “Of course, it has affected film offers. Some insult me for even having thoughts of my own. ‘Nee nadikkarava dhaane, edhukku karuththu pesara?’ (‘You are just an actor, why are you sermonising?’). They want heroines to be beautiful, sweet, and good-natured, but they don’t like it when we are well-read and knowledgeable.”
After a pause, she goes on: “Of course, the fame and love that a film star gets are huge. So, in the larger scheme of things, aspects like trolling and cyberbullying are par for the course, I guess. Winning the audience’s trust has been one of my biggest achievements. If my career has progressed from Meyaadha Maan, it is only due to their trust in me, and I can’t afford to take this lightly. I am my only investment, and hard work, honesty, and goodwill are all I have to succeed.”