September 2014: She rocks red lipstick, a white ganji and leather neckpieces, but she can also let her hair fall in soft curls and take pouty selfies with shaggy-haired dogs. It’s the reason actor, singer-songwriter Shruti Haasan is the 'Kolaveri' Diva.
She started out as a star child and went on to being a child star, so it’s surprising that Shruti Haasan says she has never felt the pressure, the burden of expectations, let alone wilt under them. “I’ve always been encouraged to find my own voice, be my own person. That’s been so important that I really haven’t bothered about what anyone else is doing, including my parents.” She’s got her name tattooed on her back in Tamil—she’s got to be serious.
On this muggy pre-monsoon Mumbai day, the shoot’s running a bit late (as shoots are wont to do), and I am ushered in to chat with Shruti Haasan as her make-up is being done, big curlers are being set in her hair, her food is being ordered and the style team is discussing what she is going to wear.
As people buzz around her, I can’t help but think that this attention must have always seemed natural to the daughter of superstars Kamal Haasan and Sarika. Not true, she says. “Both my parents are very simple people. Except when it was the night of a movie premier or someone was receiving an award, I didn’t really feel like I was extra-special… it was an ordinary upper-middle-class kind-of upbringing.” Of her childhood, her father says, “Apart from helping Shruti grow the way she wanted, we did very little.”
What she does conjure up is a childhood in Chennai, bursting with the arts and creativity: “My parents aren’t religious, and the arts have been the only standard god in our lives.” She believes art is all encompassing, an idea she embodies as an actor and singer-songwriter, dancer and model; as does her multitalented younger sister Akshara (who is an actor, screenwriter and assistant director). Growing up, she says, the movie set always felt like an extended home. So is she home then, at home, living the life of an actor; at 28, doing seven big movies this year. “To be honest,” she says, “music is my soul-calling and acting is something I just stumbled into, though it doesn’t seem like this would be likely.”
Music is what classically trained Shruti has always wanted to do, and it was her primary pursuit for many years. She sang her first song, in her father’s Thevar Magan, at six, and continued to sing, write lyrics and compose music for Tamil and Hindi films. She studied at the Musicians Institute in California, and was the vocalist of the alt rock band The Extramentals that played blues and rock with slight pop and Hindustani influences. “Music was my mainstay. It isn’t now, but it was. I don’t get to do as much because my schedule doesn’t allow it and there’s really no time to practise with a band.” She counts Lamb of God, Incubus, Tori Amos and Aqualung among her inspirations, and loves danceable ghati Tamil songs—though not the chart-topping ‘Why This Kolaveri Di?’: “When you’re the Kolaveri girl, it’s not so exciting!”
The Here & Now
Now, Shruti says, she’s equally (but in a very different way) passionate about being an actor. Considering she chose to prioritise her acting career rather late in the day, it has certainly picked up, and the seven films she has in her kitty all have big stars spanning the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu film industries. In Hindi, there’s Welcome Back and Rocky Handsome with John Abraham, Gabbar with Akshay Kumar, and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Yaara with Irrfan Khan and Vidyut Jamwal; Hari’s Poojai with Vishal, and an untitled film with Vijay and Sridevi in Tamil; and an untitled Telugu film with Mahesh Babu. This is really the kind of life she has always wanted—being busy, travelling and not having a moment to think. “There’s something really fun about travelling with a movie… Having said that, if my entire film career was in this room, I’d be happy doing that as well.”
The only thing she doesn’t like about her job right now is how much she has to pack and unpack. On days that she’s home in Mumbai and not working (which is rarely, she laments), she likes spending time with her friends, watching TV and cooking. Given the recent rumours linking her to cricketer Suresh Raina, I ask her if she’s single, if she has a “good friend” hidden in her closet, and she laughs: “No, I’m really single. My good friends are my good friends, other friends are other friends… though none of those exists at the moment!”
Shruti’s favourite cuisine is Tamilian—it’s what she enjoys cooking and what she indulges in when she’s not watching her diet: chicken biryani, ghee-laden sambar and potato curries. She has to make a conscious choice to eat right and workout whenever she can because, of late, she says, she’s developed a tendency to put on weight. While a nutritionist has guided her in the past, she has now figured out what works for her body and carefully balances her proteins and carbohydrates. As far as exercise goes, she says she has never worked with a trainer. “I’ve always had a leaning towards athletics and I understand my body. I do some basic cardio, dance and work with my body weight, at a gym, at home or in a hotel.”
Like most of us, Shruti’s tried crash dieting and has also been through phases of manic working out, where she has been “addicted”. “But then, you’re just not a very nice person, plus it’s really not good for you. It starts showing in your personality, on your face, because your body needs fuel to be happy, and my fuel is food.” Though today she’s not working out as much as she used to—it fluctuates according to the type of role she’s playing—for the most part she sticks to a diet and exercise plan she’s devised and is comfortable with.
As the stylists bustle around, our conversation veers towards her fashion sense, and she says she is not very fashion conscious and what she wears depends on her mood—catch her at a party or at an awards function, and you’ll see what she means, her style can go from boho to glam. “I would say that my dressing sense is very eclectic. It’s not about what’s in fashion or what’s trendy or who the best designer is—it’s never been about those things. It’s just about the mood and state of mind that I'm in.” She doesn’t have a favourite designer either. “I may like a piece from this designer or that, but not the rest of the collection. I like to mix and match.” Her team jokes that she may not have more than one outfit from any particular designer in her wardrobe! One thing’s for sure though: black is her all-time favourite. “I am always wearing black. I believe that once you’ve discovered black, you are just sorted for life!”
By showing her mettle in the acting arena, and by taking very public stands against stalkers and those who recently leaked pictures of her from the film Yevadu (she’s filed FIRs in all cases), Shruti is certainly making her voice heard. She comes across as a balance between right-brain artistic and left-brain sensible, with a fierce independent streak. Making feminists proud, she asserts: “I’ve got things to do and bills to pay. Financially, mentally and physically, I am responsible for myself.” Asserts Kamal Haasan: “Whatever she is, is her making now—her music, words, wisdom, all.”
No daddy’s little girl, this.
KAMAL HAASAN ON SHRUTI
“From the time Shruti would fit the length of my elbow to my palm where her head rested and she straddled my biceps, I discovered she was a rocker; her younger sister was a walker. Shruti would sleep only when she was rocked to sleep and Akshara had to be walked around. Shruti did not do extraordinary things except a few astounding ones like reading any material you gave in her hand when she was seven months old. Newspapers, tablet strips, chocolate wrappers, anything she would read alone, in a language only she understood, a language of her own.
I think apart from helping Shruti grow the way she wanted, we did very little. Whatever she is, is her making now—her music, words, wisdom, all. From the crook of my arm to standing four inches taller than me in her heels that give her a giddy height, I still can recognise the Shruti I have known. She has just begun.
Moving aside from my bias as a father, just watching her as a curious and maybe an envious peer, I see her travelling great distances and attaining greater heights even without her heels. Shruti is a special child as a human and an artiste. I never believed in blessing so I applaud even before her true performance has begun.”
An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Women's Health in September 2014.