Within the span of a year, Shraddha Srinath has managed to headline acclaimed Kannada director Pavan Kumar’s U Turn, appear in a cameo in Mani Ratnam’s Tamil-language Kaatru Veliyidai and play an avenging angel in the Kannada production Urvi. The actress has wrapped up three Tamil films – the May 12 release Richie with Malayalam star Nivin Pauly, Ivan Thanthiran with Gautam Karthik, and Vikram Vedha with R Madhavan. Srinath has signed at least three more films, two of which are in Telugu. She is also awaiting the release of the Kannada kidnap drama Operation Alamelamma, which is likely to release in May.
Is this really happening? Srinath says she feels like pinching herself at times. “I call this my reward phase,” she told Scroll.in in an interview. “I wouldn’t say I’m a struggling artist, but I’ve had my share of confusions, apprehensions and sleepless nights before films happened. Everything has fallen right into place. Some of the best projects have come to me. Some fell right into my lap. Some I worked really hard for.”
There’s already a pattern to Srinath’s short filmography: a wide range of scripts and an overall absence of ditzy arm candy roles that newcomers are usually relegated to. She is in nearly every frame of U Turn, in which she plays an intern at a newspaper who investigates a mysterious death on a flyover. U Turn was a sleeper hit, and although the performance of her next movie Urvi didn’t match up, its subject matter – misogyny and violence against women – brought Srinath further respect.
Even Srinath’s two-scene cameo in Kaatru Veliyidai got attention, even though she disappeared from the movie soon enough. “Hey loved you in that bit role of (Girija in) mani Ratnam’ film,” Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap said in an Instagram message to Srinath.
Srinath plays Girija, one of lead character Varun’s girlfriends and the daughter of an Army officer. She has something in common with Girija – she shares the Army background, and she changed nine schools while growing up and lived in a number of cities across India before settling in Bengaluru.
Most actors would jump at the chance to work in a Mani Ratnam movie, but Srinath was initially hesitant. “I got a call from one of the assistant directors a week after U Turn released,” she said. “They asked me if I would like to audition for a cameo and I was like, sure, I’ll come by.”
She was trying to play it cool.
“They asked me to audition for both Girija’s role and of Leela’s friend [eventually played by Rukmini Vijaykumar],” Srinath said. “But I wasn’t keen on doing the heroine’s friend’s role. But I liked Girija’s character a lot.”
But doesn’t Girija disappear after two scenes with Varun? “They chopped the scenes,” Srinath said. “Girija comes to the hospital and abuses Varun. They walk out together and there is a little drama that happens as they exit the hospital too. Then in the second half, she comes knocking at Varun’s door and Leela opens the door. Both were really nice scenes. In fact, Girija is mentioned a couple of times as the love story develops. So there was more to the character than was evident in the final version of the film.”
Ratnam does have a reputation for remoulding his narrative on the edit. “I wasn’t angry, but I did think that it was already such a tiny role,” Srinath said. “But like I said, I had given it ample thought before saying yes to the cameo. I had decided that even if my career ended tomorrow, I should do this. It is Mani Ratnam.”
The offers she has been getting in Tamil cinema are not because of Kaatru Veliyidai, but U Turn. Srinath is at a point where her career is going to shoot off in different directions. “To be honest, I don’t know where my demand is more,” she said. “I was hoping I’d get more offers in Kannada. But despite a flood of offers, I’m not getting roles that I really like in Kannada.”
It bothers her when people say that she has abandoned Karnataka for Tamil Nadu. “It is rather ridiculous – I go where my work takes me,” she said. “I cannot sit here jobless just because I’m from here. And I will not take up any role just for the sake of it.”
Srinath worked at a law firm for two years before shifting gears. Although Kannada is her mother tongue, as a child, she gravitated towards Bollywood films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. “I still take the KKHH quizzes and I’m the boss of them,” she said. “I remember watching Kaho Na Pyaar Hai and falling in love with Hrithik Roshan.”
Srinath had already dabbled in theatre in college and had toured with drama troupes to Mumbai, Chennai and Goa. “Theatre consumed all my time,” she said. “Films were never on my mind. I never thought I was film material. I still don’t think I’m heroine material,” she said. “But theatre doesn’t pay your bills. I had quit my steady job and was in the thick of joblessness. A Kannada indie film that I shot for got shelved and I was ready to take up any opportunity that came my way. Thankfully I had friends from the film industry who would keep me updated on who is casting.”
Her debut was forgettable – the Malayalam family heist movie Kohinoor (2015), but then the fortuitously named U Turn happened. “When I wrote to Pawan to ask if I could audition for the role, I was half expecting my email to be lost in the flood of emails he received from potential actors,” she said. “He was in his pyjamas in the office. I was sharply dressed. But the minute I saw his floppy hair, his clothes and his stubble, I knew here’s someone who will not be impressed by looks.”
Her audition was for the opening scene, the one in which Rachana is arguing with her mother about her prospective marriage in an auto. “Then we did the interrogation scene with the senior cop,” Srinath recalled. “At that stage, they were still writing that scene and it was really lengthy. So, we improvised. We did another audition where Roger Narayan was part of it. Pawan wanted to see our respective chemistry with other actors.”
A few days later, Srinath received a WhatsApp message from Kumar asking her about her acting fee. “I was in the car with my family when I received the message – I was dying of excitement,” she said. “But I felt I should not come across as too desperate. So I wanted to play it cool. I asked him if we could meet in his office and discuss the fee. But I stupidly also messaged and asked if this means I got the role. He just laughed.”
Before U Turn was released, Srinath was known as the woman from the web article on people who had swapped safe employment for their dreams. “There was this one article on officechai.com that listed 11 people who had quit their jobs to pursue their passion, and I was one among them,” Srinath said. “Thanks to my friends and family, that article was shared widely and rather unnecessarily. It happened to reach the director of Malayalam film Kohinoor. At the same time, I was shooting for an Ola cabs commercial and the cinematographer, a Malayalee, happened to know the director of Kohinoor. When they got talking about casting for the film, they both had a Shraddha in mind and it was a hilarious moment when they realised it was that same Shraddha.”
Srinath is now rubbing shoulders with heavyweights such as Nivin Pauly and Madhavan. She is standing outside the door that is marked “Big League” – and the moment has its highs and pitfalls.
As she ventures further into the mainstream, the indie-flavoured movies she started out with might get rarer – and she is already making her peace with the reality of showbiz. “When you hear compliments like, you shouldered the film and that you were the hero, it kind of makes you feel that you can do more of that,” she said. “Then you hear filmmakers tell you that they only need 10 days of your time. I’ve learnt to accept that not every film will be a U Turn. This I mean not just in terms of screen space but in terms of importance. The fact that I’m getting to do these big films is itself a huge reward.”
Srinath is soon going to have to overcome her inhibition of watching herself on screen. “But I recently watched Operation Alamelamma and I liked what I saw,” she said. “It is also a film that will show me in different light, in a commercial space. I want to do different roles, not just the serious ones. I’m not saying give me the jhatka matkas, but some nice rom-coms once in a while, maybe?”
Acting for Srinath is a constant process of becoming and unbecoming. She does not find it hard to slip out of a role at the end of the day, a task partly made easy because of her personality. “Even as a person, I can compartmentalise and move on easily,” she said. “So as an actor, once the job is done, I don’t find it difficult to exit the mind space that Rachana or Girija is in. I don’t take my characters my home. That said, role-playing can be spooky. I have experienced moments when I’m, for instance, playing Maddy’s wife and I, for a few moments, ardently believe that the fight we are having is real and that he is indeed my husband. It is akin to a trance surrounded by white noise. Of course, these are moments that come and go.”