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Tamil filmdom’s top stars ' Kerala women
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: (From top) Asin, Nayantara and Meera

Diana Kurien graduated from Marthoma College at Tiruvalla in Kerala, where her father had settled down after seeking voluntary retirement from the army. Soon the 20-something Malayalee beauty started endorsing local textiles and jewellery brands and modelling for women’s magazines. She caught the eye of Malayalam director Sathyan Anthikkad who re-christened her Nayantara and cast her in his film Manasinakkare.

For Nayantara, alias Diana, a Syrian Christian, there has been no looking back since. She has metamorphosed into a glamour doll and rules the Tamil and Telegu film industries today. Though Sarath Kumar’s Ayya proved to be her lucky break in Tamil cinema, her biggest hit was Chandramukhi (2005) where she worked opposite a much older Rajnikanth. Needless to say, her fee per film has gone up from Rs 1 lakh (for her first film) to Rs 40 - 50 lakh.

To be sure, Nayantara is just one among the many aggressive, young Malayalee women who have become stars in south Indian cinema and are earning big bucks. Among the others who rule Tamil and Telegu cinema screens are Meera Jasmine (also from Tiruvalla), Asin (from Kochi) and Gopika (from Trichur). All of them are Syrian Christians. And they have virtually displaced Bollywood stars from the southern silver firmament.

There are several reasons why Syrian Christian women from Kerala are suddenly ruling the roost in the Tamil film industry. For starters, Syrian Christian families are said to be progressive and educated and not averse now to the idea of cinema as a career option for young girls. Secondly, most south Indian film directors and producers feel Malayalee women are better actresses. Says P. Vasu, director of Chandramukhi, “I’ve worked with many Mumbai girls in the past, but shooting with Nayantara was so easy. There were no retakes. Malayalee girls are fast learners. They pick up our language and culture quickly. That makes it easy for film makers.”

Thirdly, they are not as expensive as heroines from Bollywood, point out others. When a Bollywood actress is offered a role in a Tamil film, she insists on a business class air ticket for at least four people (including mother, sister and hairdresser) and demands rooms at a five-star hotel in Chennai. A Kerala woman, on the other hand, does not mind taking an overnight train to Chennai, travelling in an AC two-tier coach with her mother or father. These young women are usually put up at 3-star hotels in and around Kodambakkam where the studios are situated.

Several southern film makers are also weary of the “attitude” of heroines from Mumbai. Says a film industry observer: “They can neither speak nor understand Tamil and are derisive of other film unit members.” Director A.R. Murugadoss, who made Ghajini, found Asin to be a total professional. “Initially someone else dubbed the film. But after seeing the rushes, she insisted that she would dub in her own voice and took time off her busy schedule to do so. This helped the film a lot,” he says.

To be sure, the Tamil film industry has always been dependent on women from other states for its films. Earlier, films were taboo for local women and for several decades from 1940 heroines were imported from states like Andhra Pradesh. Film stars like Savithri, Saroja Devi, Sowkar Janaki, and, later, Sridevi, Jaya Prada and Jayasudha came from Andhra. The advent of Khushboo in late 1980s, however, marked the beginning of the south’s long association with women from Bollywood. The dark Dravidian heroes loved to dance with fair women from the north such as Naghma, Jyothika, Amisha Patel, Shilpa Shetty and Aishwarya Rai (she started her career in Tamil films). Even actresses like Sushmita Sen, Rani Mukherjee and Kajol have worked in Tamil films. Today, Trisha Krishnan, a Palakkad Iyer woman, is probably the only Tamil woman who is among the top stars in the southern industry.

What attracts young women from Kerala to the Tamil film industry is the glitz and glamour as well as the money. Today, a fresher from Kerala makes Rs 5 lakh-Rs 10 lakh a film. After delivering a couple of hits, she commands up to Rs 25 lakh a film. Actresses in the top league earn between Rs 40 and Rs 50 lakh a film these days. Nayantara charges between Rs 45 lakh and Rs 50 lakh and is not “averse to doing glamour roles if the script demands it,” she says. After films like Kalvanin Kathali, Sivakasi and Ghajini, she has grabbed three Tamil and four Telugu movies with top stars.

Asin Joseph, meanwhile, makes about Rs 30 lakh and Rs 40 lakh a film. Her Telugu film Amma Nana Tamil Ammayi was a super hit and so was the debut Tamil film, M. Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi. After super hits such as Ghajini and Maja, she’s turned to commercials. Today, she’s the southern brand ambassador for Fairever cream, a Calvin Klein brand, Colgate, Mirinda and Marico’s Parachute hair oil and is said to have made Rs 2.5 crore from brand endorsements alone this year. Says Asin: “I am looking for film roles that suit my age.”

Meanwhile, there’s a handful of young ladies ' Navya Nair, Bhavana, Samvrutha, Renuka Menon, Sreedevika and Mamta Mohandas ' all from Kerala who are also waiting for a hit to turn their fortunes around. Clearly, women from God’s Own country find their pot of gold in Tamil Nadu.

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