Kalyani Priyadarshan
Kalyani Priyadarshan Image Credit: Tarun Koliyot

Her surname carries considerable heft in the South Indian film industry, but actress Kalyani Priyadarshan — daughter of prolific director Priyadarshan and actress Lissi — refuses to be labelled as a privileged star kid who had it easy.

“I have seen my father being broken many times … I have seen somebody I love so much get really hurt,” said Kalyani in an interview with Gulf News ahead of the release of her new Malayalam-language romance ‘Hridayam’.

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Kalyani Priyadarshan Image Credit: Kiransa Photography

Her earliest childhood memories around bonding with her director-dad were mostly about learning about life and its intricacies through the cinema that he watched along with her. She grew up on a staple of film-favourites from a man who wore many hats including being a producer, writer and director of more than 100 films. Some were spectacular blockbusters and some glorious misadventures at the box office.

“The thing that people don’t even understand is that if you are born to somebody in this industry, you will see all the downs along with the ups … Every conversation we had at home was always about cinema and it’s always been the way I bonded with my father. He used to teach me certain things about life as watched movies together ... A new person who comes in may only have to see the glam life,” she said.

Her happy memories from her childhood are invariably linked to all those movies that were introduced to her in her formative and impressionable years by her father, who slept, drank and dreamt cinema. So, just like her best mates — sons of Mohanal and Mammootty — Pranav Mohanlal and Dulquer Salmaan, movies were her natural choice for a full-time career. She made her debut in 2017 with the Telugu romance ‘Hello’ and then branched out to Malayalam and Tamil films.

Kalyani Priyadarshan
Kalyani Priyadarshan Image Credit: Instagram/KalyaniPriyadarshan

“Anything else in life would make no sense. Many moments that build up a person and shapes their lives is tied to the films I watched with him … I would rather not be anywhere else,” said Kalyani.

True to her word, the ‘Varane Avashyamund’ star is on a roll.

Kalyani’s new Malayalam film about a 20-something guy figuring out life and battling a quarter-life crisis seems to be a solid addition her 10-plus film catalogue.

Directed by multi-talented singer, actor and director Vineeth Sreenivasan (the son of seasoned actor Sreenivasan), and starring veteran Mohanlal’s son Pranav, ‘Hridayam’ seems all heart. Barring actress Darshana — who has no famous relatives or parents backing her — the crucial roles all fall on industry insiders. Point that out to Vineeth and Kalyani, and they both call us out for our selective outrage.

Darshana in 'Hridayam' Image Credit: Supplied

“I feel as if everyone’s just chooses who and what they want to see in this film just from the trailer … There’s an entire song about Darshana, but nobody seems to have noticed that,” said Kalyani with a laugh. But those words are said with no malice. She wants to look at the bigger picture where she’s a part of a film that isn’t entirely plot-driven. ‘Hridayam’ is being pegged as a coming-of-age saga.

“The different chapters of that person [Pranav’s character] is shown in this film … Lots of people come and go and the moments that build his life and shapes him as a person is what this film is all about … It’s a film that’s about its moments ... And how all those moments shape him as a person,” said Kalyani.

Pranav Mohanlal with Kalyani Priyadarshan in 'Hridayam' Image Credit: Supplied

Director Vineeth felt that Kalyani, who plays the lead actor Arun Neelakantan’s (Pranav) partner, had a charming girl-next-door vibe around her and that made her perfect for this feel-good film.

“To me it’s a big compliment. Everyone that I have admired in my life has always been in that girl-next-door category. It’s not a setback … In this world of social media, everybody has access to the beautiful/glamourous personalities … But in cinema, it’s all about that connection. You don’t come to see just beautiful people. You have to feel connected and that’s how I have survived,” said Kalyani.

For the last two years, the entire team of ‘Hridayam’ has been waiting for the theatrical release of their labour of love. Setbacks due to the COVID-19 outbreak and closure of cinemas in India played spoilsport. But they didn’t let those harsh realities break their spirit. For Vineeth, gaining distance from the film is a lost war.

“‘Hridayam’ is a very personal film. With every other film, I could detach myself but this is one film that’s incredibly close to me … There’s something that everybody can take away from this film. Everyone can emotionally relate to at least one scene from this. The movie charts the different stages in a young person’s life — right from his college days to the uncertainty phase in his life,” said Vineeth.

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Pranav Mohanlal in 'Hridayam'

He chose Mohanlal’s famously private and shy son Pranav to play the anchor role because he found ‘Appu’s’ physicality and his off-screen personality highly appealing. Apparently, Mohanlal’s son — who’s called Appu by his mates — share the same mischievous glint in his eyes as his famous father.

“I wanted to bring that personality that I find so appealing in him into this film … For instance Abhishek Bachchan has Jaya Bachchan’s eyes and I find that interesting … The way Pranav reacts to things, the he walks … It was not just about casting Mohanlal’s son in my film … I saw flashes of Lal uncle of the ‘80s and early ‘90s in him though,” said Vineeth. He was alluding to an era when director Priyadarshan and actor Mohanlal released a string of hilarious comedies that saw the star play a regular bloke endearingly. And they are now ready to bring a new legacy into the Malayalam movie lexicon.

But the best bit? Their camaraderie that stems from just knowing each other since childhood helped to get the movie off on a solid note.

Kalyani and Pranav grew up in Chennai with their families enjoying close ties with one another.

“He is one of the first friends I have ever made in my life … I would often tell him that we have been friends since we were born … That comfort that we have around each other definitely shows on the big screen as well,” said Kalyani.

Kalyani Priyadarshan with Pranav Mohanlal Image Credit: Supplied

But it wasn’t just the idea of working with Pranav that appealed to her. Through this film, she got to re-live the typical college days of a student in Kerala with its undercurrent of student politics and forbidden love affairs. She studied in New York City at the Parsons School of Design.

“I had major FOMO [fear of missing out] after hearing my first narration … I felt I missed out on that experience of going to a college in Kerala, honestly,” said Kalyani.

This is Kalyani’s second Malayalam feature after her debut ‘Varane Avashyamund’ in 2020. She is also awaiting the release of ‘Bro Daddy’ with Prithviraj and Mohanlal. But her number of films in Telugu and Tamil outweigh her experience in Malayalam cinema.

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Dulquer Salmaan in 'Varane Avashyamund' Image Credit: Supplied

“I was genuinely nervous because I had that extra pressure and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone … I remember when I read the review of my first Malayalam film I had tears in my head. And I remember calling Dulquer [Salmaan] and telling him about why I didn’t know why I was tearing up so much. I always feared I will never get that acceptance. It was just fear.”

She claims she may have Malayali blood in her but she didn’t grow up in Kerala and therefore didn’t fully have a pulse on its culture or popular tastes. But she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Malayalis have also embraced her into their fold. And, she wants to grow with each film she takes on and Malayalam cinema is a fertile ground for interesting narratives.

Malayalam cinema is known for its realistic, edgy, progressive and experimental content. The films are usually plot-driven and not escapist or fantasy-led. And the critics aren’t easy to please and are quick to call out sub-standard acting and fare.

“With each film, you grow throw a thicker skin. But I am yet to get there,” said Kalyani wistfully. Her director Vineeth is acutely aware of the road ahead of him.

“For the past six or seven years, Malayalam cinema has been doing very well … So many filmmakers have made cinema based on what they believed in without thinking about the commercial part of it. They only focused on the quality and the aesthetics and that’s liberating. Actors in Malayalam cinema are also open to experimenting and that’s why this change is happening,” said Vineeth.

Don’t miss it!

‘Hridayam’ releases in UAE cinemas on January 21.