A segment that stood out in the Telugu film Saakini Daakini, which released in theatres last Friday, was a stunt sequence in a restaurant in Hyderabad’s Old City which had Regina Cassandra and Nivetha Thomas take on a bunch of bad guys. Watching herself pull off the action sequence choreographed to show the agility and technique of the female leads, Nivetha is proud. When we catch up for a post-release interview in Hyderabad, she says what is shown in the film is the result of disciplined training that she and Regina had taken up.
Saakini Daakini is an adaptation of the Korean action-comedy thriller Midnight Runners. “I have not watched any Korean dramas, series or films until the Midnight Runners adaptation was pitched to me. I watched the film for what it is, aware that I was being offered the part played by Park Seo-joon, the physically stronger one of the two. Director Sudheer Varma and the producers were clear that the blows will not be softened in the action sequences just because the adaptation will have two female leads.”
Shalini, played by Nivetha, hails from Telangana, is a kabaddi player, a foodie and a fun-loving character. Comedy, action and the Telangana accent were all new to Nivetha but she was game for the journey, when the film was offered to her about three years ago. “We wanted to bring in some logic to Shalini’s action moves. Since she knows kabaddi, she is smart enough to throw someone down using technique rather than muscle power. Midnight Runners blended in the comedy very well. The leads are fun characters, not just trying to be funny. We took all this into account.”
For the Telangana accent, she took the help of a language coach and says the preparation went beyond merely learning the dialogues: “I wanted to know what someone who speaks in the Telangana accent would say when he/she is bored, irritated or angry. I wanted the words to come naturally. I also got help from Jhansi (who appears in a cameo as Nivetha’s mother) ma’am as well.”
Nivetha learnt jujutsu and kickboxing with the help of Prabhu and Prashant of the Four Pillar Fight Academy, Chennai. A strict diet and workout regimen followed, with changes incorporated each week. “I learnt the body movements that would suit the character of a strong, agile kabaddi player who is now training to be a police officer. In real life, I might stand, sit, walk or run a certain way. I had to correct my posture to be Shalini.”
During the training, she recorded a bunch of action moves that she had learnt and sent them to the director and stunt choreographer Venkat: “It worked like a library from which moves could be picked for the action sequences.”
Nivetha’s regular fitness regimen involves a mix of strength training, yoga, pilates and badminton. Her biggest inspiration is her mother who is a gym regular and enjoys playing badminton. “Everything comes next to fitness for my mom,” Nivetha says with a laugh.
Since the beginning of her career in Telugu cinema in 2016 with Gentleman, Nivetha has played by her own rules and not conformed to look a certain way to play the leading lady. Occasionally, she is questioned by the media about weight issues and fitness. Nivetha explains, “I can deadlift more than 100 kilograms, though I still think I need to work on my fitness levels. I don’t believe one needs to be of a certain size just by virtue of being a female actor. I am open to anyone questioning my work, but I don’t take runaway judgmental questions lightly.”
In its initial weekend, Saakini Daakini received a tepid response at the box office. Nivetha admits that it has been disheartening. “Unless a film is a breakthrough in terms of content, people do not come to watch it in theatres. It is heartening that some of the recent Telugu films such as Oke Oka Jeevitham, Sita Ramam and Karthikeya 2 have done well. Tremendous amounts of money go into making, marketing and releasing a film. We are in a tricky situation where we do not know what will work; people have become habituated to watching films at home.”
Remakes in the era of OTT
One of the reasons for the lukewarm response, she says, could be because Saakini Daakini is a remake. “People are used to watching films, irrespective of language, on digital platforms. Though our film is as good as new, given the Indian-Telugu adaptation and two women playing the lead characters, some people dismissed it as just another remake.”
Talking of remakes, Nivetha had earlier featured in Vakeel Saab, the Telugu remake of Pink. She was clear that she wanted to do Vakeel Saab for the ‘no means no’ messaging that could reach a wide audience in the Telugu states thanks to Pawan Kalyan’s presence. “Around the same time, I was offered several other remakes and I turned them down. Frankly, I do not intend to take up any remake in the near future.”
While Saakini Daakini took three years to make, pausing intermittently during the second wave of COVID-19, Nivetha mentions how her recent Malayalam film, Enthada Saji, was wrapped in three months. “This marks my first Malayalam film after eight years.”
Ask her about her choice of films, which have varied from the NTR-starrer Jai Lava Kusa to the dark comedy thriller Brochevarevarura and the crime thriller 118, interspersed with Vakeel Saab and Rajinikanth’s Darbar, and Nivetha says, “There is no pattern to how I select films, though I do have a broad plan. I do not turn away a good script that I truly believe in. 118 came to me when I had just finished my thesis (in architecture). I was offered a character with 18-minute screen time and I took it up as a challenge to see if I could move people within that time. Moving forward, I am open to collaborating with writers to develop story ideas into scripts.”