That Southern Indian films and subsequently actors and cinema creators from the region are gaining popularity across the medium has been the headlining truth about the industry for a while now. According to a report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), revenues from the South Indian film industry have doubled to ₹7,800 crore in 2022, from what they were in the previous year, making their total a chunky 52 per cent of the annual revenue collected by the pan-Indian film industry.
At the heart of this high-octane fraternity, Samantha stands tall. Spanning across four languages—Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam also referred to as Kollywood, Tollywood, Sandalwood, and Mollywood—Samantha has successfully dabbled with the first two. In 2021, she made her debut in Hindi OTT with Family Man (Season 2) and is also starring in the anticipated Citadel, not to be confused with the American show, starring Priyanka Chopra, Richard Madden, and Stanley Tucci.
Samantha has been relevant across her roles, whether she is playing a sexy siren opposite Allu Arjun in ‘Oo Antava’ that had over a billion views or the girl next door in Aradhya with Vijay Deverakonda. In an exclusive conversation with Bazaar India, she tells us about dealing with challenges—personal and professional, adopting a holistic approach towards life, what’s next for her, and more.
Harper’s Bazaar: Much like Hindi cinema’s favourite muse Deepika Padukone, you also dabbled with modelling in the early stages of your career. Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor? What did you learn from your time as a model?
Samantha: I did dabble in modelling in the initial stages of my career, during college and for a little time after, but the focus was always on education. I think every Indian household teaches its kids that the route to success is through education, so I, too, felt like I needed to study, which wasn’t so hard because I loved studying. I was one of those students who enjoyed waking up at 4:00 a.m., ready to revise for the hundredth time on an exam day. On the contrary, my mother would tell me it’s okay to take it a little easy. So, I don’t think acting was ever an option. I think modelling gave me a purpose at that point in time. It was a hard time. Things weren’t easy at home and I couldn’t study further. I was clueless and at a low point in my life with no plan. Modelling gave me a plan and purpose, a goal. As far as being in front of the camera goes, fortunately, I don’t use anything from my modelling days now, otherwise, I would have been an absolute disaster. I was bad at it when I started out. I sometimes, actually almost always, cringe or run to change the channel when something of mine is playing on the TV because it’s so embarrassing that I was so bad at it.
HB: From Raji in Family Man 2 to Aara in Kushi this year—how do you prepare for such varying roles that test the mettle of an actor?
S: Sometimes you’re fortunate to work with visionaries, with people who are the best in the business, and sometimes the character they narrate aligns with your vision. When both these things happen, there is magic on screen. So, in situations like these, everything goes right and you’re proud of the work you do, and you just hope that there is enough talent in you. It really makes you want to be greedy for more.
That said, it always feels like I’m just starting out. Thirteen years later, I’m still doing a whole bunch of classes because I am eager to learn. I’m always looking to be better. I think that’s my motto in life—to always work harder to be better. So I don’t think that there’s any other process but working harder, and sometimes that translates on screen and sometimes it does not. Now I have to focus on delivering hits every single time and making sure there are more hits than misses. I think that this time that I’m taking away from films is giving me a lot of clarity on picking quality over quantity and making sure that I don’t have too many misses anymore.
HB: With the Hindi spin-off of the American show Citadel under your belt, and so much behind you, is there a particular genre of cinema that you’re drawn to? How do you choose your roles?
S: I love action and you will be seeing a lot of it with Citadel. It is an amazing genre, especially for a woman today; kicking a** is always very cool. But I want to do everything—I want to be offered everything. I want to be challenged and I want to do my best. Recently, I said I’m never doing love stories again, but I don’t think I should run away from exploring complex roles and emotions on screen. So I am not restricting myself to a specific genre right now.
HB: What difference do you see between the Hindi film industry versus the Tamil and Telugu industries?
S: I don’t think there’s a particularly different working style in these industries, but the way I pick roles differs slightly. Down south, I try to pick characters that have a more universal appeal, because for a film to succeed there, we have to be successful in all aspects, not just one. And sometimes you have to pick more mass-appealing characters. But with Bollywood, I would like to explore characters that are more layered, intricate, and nuanced.
HB: You have garnered a following of over 30 million on Instagram. What has your relationship with social media been like, and how do you deal with the challenges of leading a life in the public eye while still being your true self?
S: It isn’t really easy, but I think I’ve hit a sweet spot in my relationship with social media, because while I’m used to the trolling (there’s been so much of it throughout my career that I’m used to it by now), I feel very lucky to have a large part of my followers see me for who I truly am. It’s enormously fulfilling for me to be my true self, show weaknesses, strengths, and all of the in-between. Of course, ask me again in another week when something I have said or posted incorrectly explodes and I become the target for another trolling fest and maybe I’ll change my mind, but as of now it’s sort of a sweet spot.
HB: You’ve been open about most parts of your life—the good and the bad—never giving in to the romanticised idea of perfection. Is that something you consciously want your followers to take from you?
S: When I hit an all-time low of, well, a failed marriage, and my health and work were getting affected, it was like a triple whammy; boom, boom, boom. You know, people go down for far less than what I endured for the last two years or so. During that time, I read about actors who have gone through health issues and made a comeback, or suffered trolling or anxiety. And reading their stories helped me. It gave me strength to know that if they did it, I can, too. It’s important to recognise that being a loved star in this nation is an incredible gift; so be responsible for it, be honest and real, and tell your story. And it’s not always about how many super hits and blockbusters one has, how many awards have been won, the perfect body, or the most beautiful outfits. It’s the pain, the hardships, the lows. I don’t care that my lows have been so public, I’m actually quite empowered by them. I know I am going to fight with all I have, and I hope that people who are in a similar situation, also have the strength to just keep fighting.
HB: You’ve exposed your followers to a deep, spiritual side of you. What according to you is a holistic approach to life?
S: I was telling my friend, ‘when everything fails, that’s where it all begins’, and I think my journey with spirituality began when everything else failed. For someone who wasn’t particularly religious or couldn’t even sit still for a minute in meditation, I have really come a long way. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not like popping a pill and making your problems go away, but if you invest in this path, it can be hugely beneficial. If I did not have this path, I would have probably gone to a really dark place and I might not have been able to crawl out of it. I’m strong today and find reasons to laugh all the time. I have this acknowledgment that life is not just about me, which otherwise, especially as an actor, is hard, since you’re in this bubble, in a very selfish space. I think spirituality has helped me connect with something that is larger than me.
HB: From mind to body wellness, your workout videos have been a major source of motivation for many on your social network. How do you manage to push yourself and stay consistent on days when you are feeling demotivated?
S: I have the best trainer, Junaid, who does not take no for an answer and has been an enormous source of strength for me in the last one and a half years. During this whole process there was a lot of fatigue and I was lifting and moving 30-40 per cent less than what I was doing when I was healthy. I remember there were many days when I wouldn’t be able to push in the gym, and I would cry in front of him. He would pretend that he couldn’t see me crying. Then he would be like, ‘okay, next set, let’s go’. He doesn’t know how much that helped me. He’s been an incredible motivator through this process and I can’t even begin to explain how my journey with fitness and the rigid physical routine has helped. It’s not just about looking good. It’s about enormous willpower, mental strength, focus, and this incredible belief in yourself.
HB: Earlier this year, you said you planned on taking a break from acting. What are you prioritising at the moment and what is next for you?
S: When I went down last year, I didn’t get to move out of my house for a good amount of time. I promised myself that once I felt better I would take a break, I would travel, I would live a little. Because 13 years of not taking a break, running a race that no one knows who’s winning and then also, winning what exactly. Because once you get one blockbuster, you just want a bigger blockbuster and another best actor award. It’s never ending. So I think taking this break also proves a point to myself that I’m not looking for external validation. I’m really glad that I have made that switch and am prioritising experiencing life a little, living in the moment, and getting time to spend with people I love. And I know this is only going to make me a better actor. Experiences are the best teachers and they show in your performance.
Lead photo credit: Round shoulder tube dress from the F/W 2023 Collection, Louis Vuitton
Photographs by Sushant Chhabria, Styling by Divyak D'Souza, Assistant Stylist: Kriti Baid, Hair: Daksh Nidhi, Make-up: Avni Rambhia