What do you miss the most about childhood?
I was born in Chennai and lived there till I was in Class 10, after which I moved to Hyderabad. My brothers fought me tooth and nail and acted like they were older than me even though they were younger. There was sibling rivalry all the time. We fought so much that I still have scars to prove it (laughs). I did my Bachelors in Theatre in America. I wanted to get away — it was a conscious move — but I did miss all the raucous fun we had at home.
When did you first become aware of your father (Mohan Babu’s) stardom?
I always knew that he was popular and had a lot of friends. You can tell these things as a kid. But I didn’t have a direct sense of it until I moved to Hyderabad. That kind of attention was insane, and it was hard to get used to. Everywhere we went, people would be staring. I think social networking has made stars more approachable now. If people have seen me on TV, it’s more likely that they will just come up and talk to me. But back then it was just this silent, awestruck, blatant staring! They would talk, but only among themselves, so I felt like some kind of alien.
Did it make you want to be famous someday too?
Not at all. My father is a strict and perceptive man. So he would actually keep us away from all the hysteria as much as he could. He’d go off and shoot at the weirdest places at the weirdest of times. He’d never really let his fame show to us. And this was a time when there wasn’t all the mad promotion that goes on now, where stars tour the whole country talking about their films. You just did you work and came home. So it didn’t dawn on me that this was what stardom was like. I just knew all along that I was immensely talented at extra-curricular stuff and it was the best way to stay away from classes. I knew I was good because they always picked me to be in the plays, sing, etc. I wanted to do something with the talent that I had perceived in my life.
You have witnessed drastically different landscapes in the course of your career — Telugu films, American television and now a Bollywood movie. How do the levels of professionalism compare?
It’s completely, insanely different. The TV shows they make in America like Lost, CSI, Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives are essentially the scale of big-budget Hindi films. So there is no comparison. If you are willing to pay your artistes that much, you obviously expect a certain level of professionalism. Anyone who enters the industry must have an education in theatre or production or film studies. That’s a major difference. Ninety-five percent of the people there have actually been to film school and understand the process, which is completely not the case here.
In terms of adulation, they do stalk you there too. The lenses the paparazzi use literally see everything, so you need to be protected constantly from the media glare. Here you have a friend or two who will go all out to protect your privacy, but there even your best friends could sell your jeans if they knew they could make some money off it on eBay because you’re famous! Even a Shah Rukh or Aamir can’t just go to America and chill there anymore.
They worship people there too, like Michael Jackson or Elvis, who are still the biggest stars and earn so much money that it’s almost incidental that they don’t physically exist anymore. If you’re talented, you will have a following whether you are mainstream or not, like even a Jack Johnson could become big. That’s not the case in India, they love you if you’re hot and you’re mainstream, and they don’t know you otherwise.
But that being said, I grew up with the Gitanjalis and the Rojas and I love Telugu cinema, including the song-and-dance routines. My passion started by watching these films. I might have gone off to Hollywood, but this was where I received my first education in cinema, watching old Indian films with my mom. So this is who I am.
Was the moral scrutiny of the Indian media something that you were glad to escape?
Absolutely! God are you kidding me. I really found myself after I went to America. Here I was this perfect little girl who did what had to be done. There is a way the system works here and you can’t escape it. For example, you grow up in your father’s house, then go to your husband’s house, there is no in between for yourself. I was blessed and lucky that I managed to get that time for myself to really see who I was. And then I was like, damn! I have a lot to offer to this world! It made me think big for myself.
I’m being offered five or six movies a day because my last Telugu film was such a big hit, and I’m not ready for it yet. I keep wondering, where were these guys when I needed them a couple of weeks ago? When my dad had hits, people would flock outside the house with flowers and anything we wanted. If his film didn’t do well, we’d have an empty house. Having seen that, I knew you have to figure out early in life who your real friends are.
Is there also a stark difference in the way women are perceived and treated in these two industries?
I’m aware of what Bollywood heroines look like, and if I don’t fit that prototype, I don’t care. If that’s what they’re looking for, those are not the kind of movies I want anyway. I want to play a real woman. I’m tall and skinny, but if it’s not the kind of ‘model’ body that you want in your film, then I’m sorry. God gave me a beautiful body and I love it! I’m going to work on my talent, and sure I’m going to be healthy, but I’m not interested in looking like a stick. How many people can even relate to that? I want women to look at me and say ‘Wow, I could wear that outfit too! This woman has great style.’ Not feel bad about themselves because they are seeing something that’s not real. I love the Vidya Balans and Konkona Sens and now Sonakshi Sinha. Kudos to them for having the courage to be themselves. The skinny ones come and go and can all be replaced by each other. The talented ones will stay forever.
American television has its clichés too. Being the dusky Indian, I’m always the ‘mystery girl’. If one more person calls me mysterious, I think I’ll slap them (laughs).
Are men intimidated by your self-assuredness?
Weak men are (laughs). Anyone who is threatened by my intelligence or confidence is clearly someone I will gain nothing from. There was a phase when I was younger when I’d dumb myself down, not get into any kind of intelligent conversation because then the guy would have nothing to say, or have enough openness to listen to a different point of view. But then I was like, dude, you are such a waste of time. Only strong men can handle me. Weak ones should just get out of my way.
How important is wealth for happiness?
Very! I love my bags and shoes and I’m not here to do charity just for the sake of it. I want to do charity with the money that I work had to earn. I love and enjoy my work as also the money that it gets me. I celebrate wealth. For instance, as I started earning money in America, I would always put it back into my work — get better headshots, go for more acting classes, do my hair differently, refine my art in some way. And it worked!
What are the three lessons in emotional intelligence you would pass on to your daughter if she wanted to become an actress?
Wow. That’s hard. I think one, to be grounded. Fame makes you feel taller, which is great, but then when you don’t do well, you become like, ‘Honey, who shrunk the kids?’ People will look at you as small or big depending on the way you look at yourself. Second, I’d tell her to love what she does, whatever that may be at all, because that is the only way you commit to greatness. And finally, I’d want her to celebrate her life, herself and her love.