“There was a point in 2021, which was one of the busiest years in my career, when I took stock of the films I was doing and thought to myself ‘my life doesn’t make sense at all’,” chuckles actor-singer Shruti Haasan. She had been filming back-to-back for the Telugu entertainers Waltair Veerayya co-starring Chiranjeevi and Veera Simha Reddy co-starring Balakrishna, then heading to Greece for The Eye, a female-centric independent English film. “Two months later, I was dancing on the snow (for Waltair Veerayya’s ‘Nuvvu Sridevi nenu Chiranjeevi’ song). The films are a world apart,” Shruti says over the phone, her voice still sounding off and suppressing a cough after a bout of viral infection.
Talking about Veera Simha Reddy and Waltair Veerayya, which opened to packed houses during Sankranti as expected, Shruti is forthright to admit that she signed these films because they were “big ticket projects and mounted on a big scale.” “Honestly, I have been getting different responses for both films. People expected to see more of me in Veera Simha Reddy. I’ve known Gopi (director Gopichand Malineni) for years and I am aware that this film is centered around Balayya garu; his fans are super happy. Likewise, Chiranjeevi sir’s fans are happy with Waltair Veerayya. Both these films were designed to be a celebration of their respective stardom, talent and careers. I hadn’t been a part of big projects for some time. I filmed Krack mostly in 2019, though it was released in 2021. Returning to Telugu cinema after a while, I wanted to be a part of big films and I am grateful for the opportunities.”
Stepping into Sridevi’s shoes
In the limited scope that she had, Shruti says she enjoyed her part in Waltair… The sequence that “freaked her out” was having to reprise Sridevi’s dance moves from ‘Abbani teeyani debba’ song from Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari. “I am usually game for a challenge, but this was scary even though it was for a few seconds. Sridevi ma’am has been a big part of my familial history. My dad (Kamal Haasan) has worked with her in so many films; I’ve heard so much about her from him and my mom (Sarika).”
Incidentally, Shruti’s hair stylist for Waltair… had worked with Sridevi earlier. “She told me that I couldn’t possibly style my hair like Sridevi since she used rollers and the texture of her hair was different. She also told me how Sridevi’s makeup was done. While performing this segment, I felt a deep sadness that she is no more and I became more aware of the impact she has left on Indian cinema.”
A sequence in Waltair… features Shruti in action mode. What if she was offered a full-fledged action entertainer? “I would love to do it,” she replies. “I am a hyper and physical person and love to dance or perform stunts. In a world where violence against women is highly prevalent, the story of an action film with a female character needs to be relevant and written well.”
The on-screen age difference between Shruti and Balakrishna and Chiranjeevi has been one of the talking points of the Sankranti films. “When the producers and the directors are convinced about the casting, I think it is their job to convince the audience that the on-screen pairing works, not mine. I signed the films since I know the value of big films. Salaar (directed by Prashanth Neel and starring Prabhas) was still in the making. So I said yes to these projects and incidentally, both were released for Sankranti.”
This is Shruti’s 14th year in cinema. As she shifts between mainstream Indian entertainers, an independent English film and independent music, she says switching into different zones of work is easier because she is “an Aquarian.” “I cannot think of any other reason. Aquarians are tough to put in a box. I constantly look for different things to do. I am bad at planning my career. I am amazed when I see next-gen actors who are aware of what kind of films to do at what stage of their careers. My choices have been impulsive. Had I been a chef, you would never be able to predict what food I would bring to the table.”
Sisterhood at work
Moving on to discuss The Eye, a psychological thriller produced by Melanie Dicks and directed by Daphne Schmon with screenplay by Emily Carlton, Shruti says she had been wanting to work with a female director, years after she had worked with Aishwarya Rajinikanth for the Tamil film 3. “The writer and the director knew each other since they were kids. There was a pre-existing sisterhood into which I stepped in. I believe in sisterhood. When women share stories from a space of empathy, it is wonderful,” says Shruti, pausing and adding, “I don’t mean to sound like a Pagan witch but we are products of the ancestry of women before us. There is a lot more depth and weight when women narrate stories. When a team of women decides to work together, there is no rivalry, no chinks in the armour.”
While working with male writers and directors, she observes that she has to often interpret a female character by herself. For The Eye, she had extensive discussions with the women in the core team on why a female character behaves a certain way. Incidentally, Shruti’s 2022 independent music video titled ‘She is a Hero’ raised a toast to women.
She concedes that music is a big part of how she expresses herself, unlike cinema where an actor steps into a pre-written role. Her songs can be semi-autobiographical but she leaves some “emotional room” for the listener to step in and connect with them. “I am grateful and blessed that I was born into a film family. But somewhere I had this feeling that I did not meet expectations. Music allows me that space to be myself. I love the light because I have learnt to appreciate my shadows. I like to show my grey areas as well in my music.”
Recalibrate and reinvent
Shruti had taken a two-year break after 2017 and when she returned, she worked in anthologies (Putham Pudhu Kaalai in Tamil and Pitta Kathalu in Telugu), explored independent music more than before, and featured in mainstream films). She seems to be enjoying this phase of her career and it becomes imperative to ask if the break helped her recalibrate her approach to life and work. “Recalibrate is indeed the word,” Shruti agrees and cites the example of Madonna, whom she listened to while growing up. “Maybe someone younger will look at Beyonce as an example. I am citing musicians as an example since their approach to music and album changes with time. When they work on a new album, they don’t merely wear new clothes and hire new songwriters. The change is a result of the conversations they have with themselves on what they want to do at a certain phase of life, for the next five or 10 years.”
Shruti does not have a five-year or a 10-year plan but felt the need to recalibrate and grow. “I wanted to approach my life with a new lens.” She now wants to work on content-driven cinema, collaborate with new talent and keep reinventing herself. “It is initially daunting to reinvent ourselves since we are used to doing something. But we need to do it.”