Hindi Film 101: For Sai Pallavi’s Birthday, a Case Study of a Southern Heroine

I find the differences in how heroines start between industries FASCINATING. I can’t possibly cover every possible variation, but I can use Sai Pallavi as a jumping off point to talk about how it can sometimes happen.

Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not an expert in non-Hindi Indian film, I don’t know every possible variation and contradiction in these stories, so I am going to try to stay focused on one example and some counter-examples to it.

The first thing to know about Sai Pallavi’s childhood, is that we don’t know much about it. That’s remarkable for an actor of her level of fame. In the Hindi industry, part of the process of entry is giving multiple in depth personal interviews that build up your star persona before your first film is even released. Anushka Sharma is an athletic army brat, Deepika Padukone is a dedicated former athlete, Alia Bhatt is sweet and innocent and loves her family, and so on and so forth. Sai Pallavi’s childhood is mostly unknown, even now that she is one of the most popular actresses in Tamil film.

Sai Pallavi shares an adorable throwback picture | Tamil Movie ...
Most of what we know is from the occasional photos she herself posts, without a lot of context.

I should say, this would be remarkable for the Hindi film industry, the Hollywood industry, the British, the French, and on and on. But it is not that remarkable for the southern language industries in India. And I do mean “the southern language industries” as a collective. That’s part of the magic of this process, the way an actress can move between industries.

Sai Pallavi is a Tamil speaker, that much is known. She grew up in a midsized city in Tamil Nadu, she went to a good school. At some point in her childhood (even her exact age is not clearly known) she had some child roles in Tamil films. In her teens, she participated in TV dance competitions. And then she went to Georgia (the country) for medical school.

While in medical school, the director Alphonse Putharan from the Malayalam industry offered her a role in his film Premam. She shot it over summer break, then went back to medical school. She got her second role, also in Malayalam film, a year later. She took a month break from medical school to shoot it, then went back and completed her studies and graduated. She returned to India in 2017 and took the lead role in Fidaa, a Telugu film, which had been put on hold until she was free to start filming. That same year she had a smaller heroine role in a hero lead action film Middle Class Abbayi, also Telugu. In 2018, she made her first two movies in Tamil (her native language), and two more Telugu films. 2019, she returned to Malayalam cinema for another lead role, and did a smaller part in a very big Telugu picture NGK. Now, in 2020, she is working on two Telugu films.

Sai Pallavi Premam: Alphonse said I look beautiful with pimples ...
In her first movie as an adult

So much interesting here! First, the structure of those three language industries, Malayalam and Tamil and Telugu. Heroines routinely move between those industries because of how they are structured. The physical structure is a big part of it. Madras/Chennai in Tamil Nadu holds the largest and most professional studios in all of India. Back in the 1950s, the ruling government of Tamil Nadu gave huge support to the Tamil language film industry. Money for a state film school, and assistance in breaking through the red tape involved with getting private funding, land for building, and so on and so forth. This was the kind of support no other industry in India enjoyed. By the late 50s, stars of the Hindi industry (the most profitable industry in India), were eager to film their movies in Madras rather than Bombay. In Madras the studios were air conditioned, dressing rooms had private bathrooms, everything was clean and new and easy. If even Hindi film actors were eager to shoot their Hindi films there, naturally the closer by industries of Malayalam and Telugu languages were also eager to shoot there.

In addition to the Madras studios, there are massive studio complexes in Hyderabad for Telugu language productions, and in Kochi for Malayalam languages. It would be possible for the film industries, especially the Telugu language industry, to work entirely within their own language region now. But there is a long term structure which drives them all together in Madras. The Telugu film stars, especially the ones from older film families, tend to be based in Madras and travel to their “home” regions for occasional filming. The Malayalam stars are more likely to stay within Kerala but keep close ties to Madras as well.

And the heroines, the heroines are something different. The male film stars are seen as representing their respective industries, closely tied to an ethnic identity of Telugu speakers or Tamil or Malayalam. But the heroines are so much less important that they are allowed to travel between without offending their home community. And the flipside, they are also so much less important that language skills don’t necessarily matter. Even the biggest heroines don’t necessarily do their own “dubbing” for every film. For example, Shobhana was the lead character of the recent Malayalam film Varane Aavashyamundu. Her dialogue was dubbed by Bhagyalakshmi, a dubbing artist who had been doing her voice for Malayalam films for decades. By the way, Varane was produced by second generation major Malayalam star Dulquer, who went to school in Chennai as his father by then was working regularly in the Madras studios. Although Dulquer is still tightly identified with the Malayalam industry, he is fluent in Tamil. Shobhana, on the other hand, is identified with the Malayalam and Tamil industries but only does her own dubbing for Tamil.

25 years of 'Manichitrathazhu': Why the Malayalam classic remains ...
Shobhana won a National Award for Manichitrathazhu, without saying a single word of dialogue for herself, all dubbed.

So we have three industries where heroines in particular move seamlessly between all three. Language is no barrier as they are often dubbed, and geography is no barrier as a large number of films from all three industries are filmed in the same city. And the audience feelings are no barrier either, while a male star might be immediately permanently identified as from one industry or the other right from the start, the audience has no real problem welcoming actresses who regularly migrate between industries.

Let’s go back to Sai Pallavi now! As a young Tamil little girl with a knack for remembering words and a photogenic face, she was grabbed up to play a role in a few Tamil films. Not a big deal, children have a hard time working in languages they don’t know, so child roles are given to people who actually know the language. Most likely a producer or director or someone knew Sai Pallavi’s family somehow and offered her the part as a fun thing to do. It wouldn’t necessarily lead anywhere.

Sai Pallavi Wiki, Age, Boyfriend, Family, Caste, Biography & More ...

It didn’t lead to anything in the Tamil industry, but it did in the Malayalam industry. Malayalam has less money and less resources, but more realism. The director Alphonse Putharan wanted to make a movie with a massive cast and a tiny budget. He needed 3 heroines, plus loads of friends-of-the-hero roles. So he did what a lot of Malayalam directors do, he discovered new talent, put them onscreen without a big launch or publicity campaign or beauty make over, let his direction and the script be the only gloss put on them. Putharan needed one of his heroines to be Tamilian, so he looked around for a young Tamil speaking woman with some kind of minimal acting experience. He watched a hit Tamil movie from a few years back and noticed the child actress. Or he saw a Tamil language dance competition show and noticed the young woman doing break dancing with an unusual look. She wasn’t exactly “famous”, but she was there if you were combing through Tamil materials to find someone to be in your no budget Malayalam movie playing a Tamil heroine. Sai Pallavi got her “launch” in film without needing to do a million interviews, cut her hair, change her make-up, or even drop out of med school. She showed up and did the shoot looking exactly as she was, and then she disappeared and let the film release without her.

Premam, that movie, ended up being a surprise massive cross over hit. It was dubbed into Tamil and Telugu, even released in the Hindi theater circuit. And Sai Pallavi was immediately the break out star. Of the three heroines, she had slightly more screen time, but it wasn’t just that. She was just GOOD. Natural on camera, immediately charismatic, the “It Girl” for all of south India, arriving with a bang.

This is less unusual than you would think. Young woman plucked from nowhere, naturally beautiful, put into a film and suddenly famous. The extremely male star centered industries of the south end up letting the heroines break through more easily, since all they need is a pretty face. No one really cares about their acting training, family background, or public persona. They just show up and smile at the hero. Unless they hit it big and suddenly then everyone cares about them.

That’s what happened with Sai Pallavi. Everyone loved her and meanwhile she was back in Europe going to med school. She did a second movie, also Malayalam, and also casual. Just one month of filming, minimal publicity around her, no change to her look or anything. For a lot of actresses in the Malayalam industry in particular, this is all they might do. One break out role, one follow up, and then you go back to being a doctor or a dance teacher or whatever else. It’s a fun thing to do but it doesn’t pay much and it doesn’t give you that much fame, and you may never be lucky enough to have the kind of role that gives you artistic fulfillment and challenges as heroines still have less to do than heroes.

But there’s something else that can happen with these actresses. If their first few casual movies end up being popular, and if they decide they want to pursue this career, they have the possibility of leapfrogging from the humble Malayalam roots into the two larger industries of the south. The same can go the other way (similar to the start of Sai Pallavi’s adult career), an actress with a smaller rile in one of the larger industries can be picked up for a larger part in the Malayalam industry. For Sai Pallavi, she made the two movies without fully giving up her medical career. And then a director came calling again, a Telugu director with an offer very different from her first two movies.

Sai Pallavi in Premam and Kali was very very good. In Kali, she was one of the two main characters in a very focused plot, onscreen almost the entire run time. But she wasn’t the protagonist, she didn’t go on a journey in the film, she didn’t drag the audience along with her. That was not the case with Fidaa. Fidaa was written and directed by Sekhar Kammula, a respected Telugu director known for making female focused films. He had taken a year to write and plan a new movie and for his complex female lead, he wanted Sai Pallavi. He wanted her so much that he was willing to wait while she finished school and then took the time she needed to prepare for the role, her first role in Telugu cinema for which she was determined to do her own dubbing. Fidaa is when Sai Pallavi became a professional actress, not just another pretty face who cycles through the southern industries on her way to her real life.

Fidaa Posters and Stills

And yet, I still know almost nothing about her! Maybe it’s because of the 3 languages? It feels like you know her in 3 dimensions if you just know her in 3 languages. Watching her Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam films, knowing about her career in the three industries (child actress in Tamil, med student on break in Malayalam, handpicked by famous director for Telugu) feels like you are learning more about her. Only, you aren’t. You are just learning more about her as an actress. If you start in any one of the three languages, you can dig deeper and deeper and find the other two languages, and nothing more below that.

Becoming a heroine in the southern language industries is easy, dozens of young women are given their first roles every year. But they aren’t really “launched”, not like the term is used in the Hindi industry. They are just in a movie is all. If that movie is a hit, they might be offered a second movie. You can keep making movies for a few years and then disappear back into “normal” life. I guess what it is, is that you don’t become a “movie star”. Your whole person is not forever and ever transformed, you just stay the person you already are, but sometimes are in movies.

Okay, that’s what I’ve got! Now tell me how wrong I am.

28 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: For Sai Pallavi’s Birthday, a Case Study of a Southern Heroine

  1. Couple of thoughts:
    1. Crossover to other language industries includes Kannada film industry. More often than not from Kannada to other languages. More recent examples include Shradha Srinath, Nidhi Shetty, Nabha Natesh.
    2. I think it is the local (southern Indian) female actors who fade into normal life more commonly than those from else where even when looking at actors who almost exclusively acted in southern film industries. To an extent this is applies both erstwhile and present female leads.
    3. Is wanting to know more about a female actors linked to them fitting with the Bollywood image of female leads? The only actors whom I know a lot about are fit this definition. So is this my bias or the bias of larger population playing into what we know?
    4. You should do a post on Nayanathara. She is the only present female lead with a moniker – Lady Superstar – that male actors usually have before their names.
    5. Sai Pallavi’s popularity, I feel is, is from her being confident in who she is.

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    • 1. Thanks! I think I have still only seen one Kannada movie, but I know they are a growing power

      2. That kind of makes sense, right? Both because they would be less ambitious (they didn’t move across country in pursuit of a career) and because they could keep up their “normal” life more easily around filming since they are still in their home town. Retiring and going back to being not a movie star would be easy.

      3. Maybe once an actress fits into the image of a female lead, people expect her to fit into persona of a lead as well? Someone who makes their private life public, gets snapped by papparazzi, goes to parties, gives interviews and so on?

      4. I should! I wonder when Nayanthara’s birthday is?

      5. I agree, I think if Sai Pallavi ever tried to change herself, even so much as getting her hair styled, she would lose a lot of her following.

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  2. And here I thought I was the only one who knew almost nothing about Sai’s background. A doctor? Now I’m even more impressed.

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    • Yes! A nice middle-class girl who goes to medical school because it is the proper middle-class thing to do, gets a movie offer in the middle, but finishes school just in case because it is sensible. I guess if this movie thing doesn’t work out, she can always fall back on her medical degree still!

      On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 12:07 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I was just reading about Richa Gangopadhyay

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richa_Langella

    Miss Indian Michigan & Miss India USA in 2007

    Debuted in Telugu in Leader 2010 opposite Rana Daggubati
    Acted in Tamil remaked of Dabangg, Osthi in 2011
    Acted in a movie in her native language Bengali in 2012
    Acted in Miechi 2013

    Then went back to USA to pursue career in Business Management !!

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    • I didn’t know she was back home! I looked her up after watching Mirchi and was interested that she had this stable American background, did not know that she was back home now. Yeah, that fits, solid background, comes to India to do movies for fun, and then when she loses interest goes straight back home and picks up her “normal” life again.

      On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 1:41 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  4. Some additional points
    1. Generally the flow of actress is from Malayalam /kannada(?) To Tamil and telugu. Probably because of the relative size of the industries. Nayanatara/Asin/Mamata Moahandas/Amala Paul to Keerthy Suresh and Manjima Mohan out of the top of my head
    2. Not only sai pallavi, Madonna sebastian and Anupama parameswaran from Premam were cross over hits.
    3. As you said, generally actresses roles are interchangeable and leaves little mark. In Malayalam after long gap, just recently actresses are getting roles where they are noticed. I am not talking the conventional women centered movies, rather movies were heroine role gets attention. Like Aishwarya Lakshmi or Anna Ben or Rajisha Vijayan. But even that is only a few. This means little effort is made to sell the actress, especially if the debut is against a well known star

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if your point 1 and point 3 are connected? You can get one good role in Malayalam cinema that gets you noticed, but if you move into Tamil or Telugu, you can get better parts.

      What I am seeing is that the Malayalam films will look for new actresses for tricky unusual roles, so the film gets a fresh face. But once the face is no longer “fresh”, she gets shoved into small love interest parts in smaller movies. While with Tamil or Telugu, you may not be the lead of a film, but at least the love interest role tends to be a little bit bigger and come with a little more fame.

      On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 2:14 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I wondered, I found things like Dulquer and Mahesh growing up in Madras, but now they both live in Kochi. Indicating that Madras was the center when their fathers were acting, but now not so much.

      On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 2:25 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, they grew up in Chennai. So it was when their parents were younger. I think even Allu Arjun. Mahesh, Allu Arjun, Dulquer all speak Tamil. Now the Telugu actors purchase and own property in Hyderabad whereas 60s 70s actors in fact owned properties in Chennai.

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  5. One thing needs to be clarified about Sai Pallavi’s native language.

    Her first language is Badaga, not Tamil. Badaga is a small Dravidian language spoken by only 150k people in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu bordering Karnataka. I had a colleague who was a native Badaga speaker from the same district as Sai Pallavi. He told me that Badaga is closer to Kannada than Tamil. Once upon a time, it was even considered a dialect of Kannada.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You were slightly off on Madras (Chennai). Pre-independence Madras was a bilingual city (50% Tamil, 40% Telugu speakers). It was the capital of the Madras Presidency which included present-day Andhra and Tamil Nadu states as well as small areas of Kannada and Malayalam speakers. It was by far the largest city in all of South India. Hence it was entirely natural that the Telugu film industry started in Madras as that was the capital of their province.

    Post-independence Telugu speakers demanded a separate Telugu state with Madras as the capital to which the Tamil speakers objected. Madras eventually went to Tamil Nadu due to a slightly higher no. of Tamil speakers. But the Telugu film industry continued to be in Madras. In the 1980s and 90s, the Government of Andhra Pradesh incentivized Telugu film studios to move to Hyderabad through land grants and tax rebates. So eventually the entire Telugu filmdom shifted its base to Hyderabad by the late 90s. Since most of the major Telugu stars are second-generation or third-generation kids, they would’ve been born in Madras but are now based out of Hyderabad. It is now rare, though, for Telugu stars to shoot in Chennai. The only time you find them over there is when they go for the promotions of the Tamil versions of their films.

    Now, Hyderabad is a larger film production base than Madras (Chennai). Just Ramoji Studios has more movie and TV production than any other place in all of India including Mumbai.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! super useful background. I wondered because I knew from Hindi film memoirs that Madras was The Place in the 50s-60s-70s, but then Bahubali was filmed in Hyderabad, so I was all confused.

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      • Yes, when Jitendra made those numerous South (mostly Telugu) remakes and Latha/Rafi flew to sing, it was Madras. But, Suryavamsham, Nayak, Kaminey, Yamla Pagla Deewana Mental, and a lot more Hindi movies are now made in RFC, Hyderabad

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  7. You know how much I love Sai Pallavi,so have to put in my two cents. There has been some interviews where she has talked about her growing up years & MBBS years- regional language interviews.
    1. She was noticed by Alphonse Puthran for her performances in the dance reality shows as a teenager,not the blink & miss scenes in two very random films. I think the appearances in the reality shows did contribute to her ease in front of camera. Her fluidity in movements & expressions are quite noticeable from then itself.
    2. By refusing to be part of some big star movies as the typical heroine,she has created the brand of an actress who is not easily interchangeable. So if Sai is there in a movie,it is assured that she will have a meaty,co-lead role.
    3. She dubs for herself in all three languages which is a difficult thing to do for most heroines including seasoned ones like Nayantara, Anushka Shetty & Trisha. Malayalam apparently is difficult for her which is why she doesn’t do many Malayalam films.
    4. She was featured in Burkha Dutt’s show & other women empowerment orgs for refusing to do a very lucrative fairness campaign.
    5.Rowdy Baby’s massive popularity. Rarely do we have heroines walking away with the limelight, especially next to someone like Dhanush.

    Nayantara story would be nice. She is not much of an actress but the way she has sailed through the three industries, handling so much ups & dows and is still relevant is a remarkable feat.

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    • First, welcome back! I’ve been thinking about you because we have a new-ish commenter with a two year old, so we will need song/movie recommendations from you 🙂

      Thank you for the details! I wonder if Alphonse put in the whole dance competition section of Premam just for her? Since that was her strong suit?

      Sad that Malayalam is hard for her, because her Premam/Kali roles and performances were so good. Even if the language is hard, maybe the filming style and type of characters offered are good? I love her in Fidaa, but MCA was kind of a disappointment, the way she was sidelined.

      On Mon, May 11, 2020 at 10:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I restarted working and with the lockdown everything is upside down. Thank you for remembering me. Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke is something my 5 year old enjoyed recently. My now three year old’s face breaks into a smile when he hears Rowdy Baby or Ramulo Ramula. He identifies Sai Pallavi & Allu Arjun from their dance songs.

        In Tamil & Telugu ,it is especially difficult to get good roles for actresses.For the southern heroines just being cast against big stars of Telugu & Tamil is considered as a boost for their brands. Their remuneration, brand endorsements etc take a hike & they are expected to be content with the limited screen time. Sai mentioned in some interview that, after MCA she realised that she doesn’t want to be there for just songs and romance scenes which is why she never featured with any of the big Telugu,Tamil heroes despite her popularity. NGK is another big downer on her filmography which she apparently did cos she is a big fan of Suriya & the initial promise was that of a good role. I guess the security of a professional degree gives her the freedom to pursue acting on her own terms.
        I think another HUGE factor that makes Tamil/Telugu heroines successful are if they fit within a certain look. Aishwarya Rajesh is a hugely talented actress in Tamil but seldom picked up for mainstream roles cos her looks are not considered glamorous enough while Keerthi Suresh,Kalyani Priyadarshan etc are classic south Indian ‘love- interest'(useless)heroines.

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        • Ugh, Keerthi Suresh bothers me. After Mahanati I will actively avoid her onscreen, I just got so sick of her mannerisms. On the other hand, I think I have seen Aishwarya Rajesh in two or three movies now and I never even recognize her until I look at the cast list, she is that different in each part.

          On Tue, May 12, 2020 at 2:15 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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