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Regina Cassandra: The dependable

Moving on from always playing the girl-next-door, the South cinema actor has found her mojo, and success, with more complex roles

Salil Panchal
Published: Oct 19, 2021 01:27:01 PM IST
Updated: Oct 19, 2021 02:56:14 PM IST

Regina Cassandra: The dependableTamil and Telugu actress Regina Cassandra
Image: Prashun Prashanth Sridhar

Styling: Navya & Divya; Makeup: Jenifer Antonio; Hair: Deepti Joshi; Dress: A Humming Way; Jewels: Joolry

The year was 1998, and a girl in Class 4 at Lady Andal Venkatasubba Rao School on Harrington Road in Chennai had planned her day. She would fake a stomach ache so that she could leave early and complete an advertising commercial for health drink Maltova. Things go exactly as planned, and her mother—who had her entire screen kit ready at home—picks her up early after a frantic call from school authorities.

The girl, who spent hours facing the mirror dolled up—and affectionately called “Cat” by her mother—rushes off to complete the commercial. This was Tamil and Telugu actress Regina Cassandra’s first stint in front of the camera. “There was no looking back after that,” says Cassandra, 30, over a Zoom call after a hectic day of shoots with actor Vijay Sethupathi in Mumbai.

Cassandra is completing work for a Hindi web series called Fakes, for Amazon Prime, by The Family Man-makers Raj-DK, and also stars Shahid Kapoor. She is expected to come back to Mumbai this winter to shoot for another Hindi venture called Rocket Boys.

Cassandra, once known for small but meaningful portrayals of the girl-next-door or glamourous roles, has emerged as one of the most dependable and versatile actresses of South Indian cinema over the past five or six years. Consider this mix of offbeat and gratifying characters on her resume: A rape victim-turned-murderer (Evaru); an orphan/ghost (Nenjam Marappathillai); a drug addict (Awe); a psychology student (7); an HR executive (Maanagaram); a homosexual (Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga); potraying actress Saroja Devi (Thalaivii) and late classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai (Rocket Boys).

Before joining the film industry, a confidence booster came Cassandra’s way, who was then a teenage model. In 2013, she had replaced well-known actor Tamannaah Bhatia as the brand ambassador of Chennai Shopping Mall. Prior to entering films, Bhatia was the brand ambassador for the mall, and Cassandra just a model in the commercial.

But like any outsider and newcomer to the South Indian cinema industry, the Chennai-born Cassandra learnt some hard lessons early on. Her first break in movies, at age 15, was a forgettable one: Tamil film Kanda Naal Mudhal in 2005. This was followed by her Kannada film debut in Suryakaanti (2010) by director KM Chaitanya of Aa Dinagalu fame. Despite good reviews, it scored modestly at the box-office.

Regina Cassandra: The dependableIn Evaru, Regina’s character evolves from a rape victim who kills the rapist to the mastermind of a plot
At that time, too, Cassandra didn’t have any plans to become a film actor, having just completed her BSc in criminal psychology. She knew she would have to explore this journey too—like her “off-beat” early childhood, as she calls it—on her own. Cassandra was born a Muslim, named Razina. Her parents divorced early and her Karnataka-born mother adopted Christianity, baptising her Regina, while ‘Cassandra’ was adopted from a Mills & Boon novel. Her stepfather passed away recently. Growing up meant not just experiencing a lot, but also not going to mom for everything.

Plan the journey, not destination

“By age six, I knew my limitations. Growing up, I knew what I wanted to do but realised that the journey needs to be planned out better, rather than the destination. I know I’ll get there if I plan my journey out properly,” she says.

This was exactly what the young, but appealing, Cassandra chose to do. She could not escape playing either the sweet, girl-next-door roles or glamourous ones, being the eye candy in hero-centric films such as Soukhyam (2015). But she was soon at a crossroads, not willing to keep playing the same roles. “There was a point when, in 2012-14, everybody looked at me and said I would be the next big thing in South Indian cinema. And then it did not happen,” she says.

The narrative quickly changed, questioning Cassandra on why she could not bag or chose not to work on big projects with producers. “It started to make me question myself. In 2016, Cassandra was shooting for Nenjam Marappathillai with Selvaraghavan which released only in March 2021. “At that time, I felt I was done; not wanting to question myself or act anymore or feel lesser,” Cassandra adds. These shoots were far away from the city, so she booked a private villa and isolated herself from the crew to find her own space, while working out and swimming. “Then Srinivas Avasarala approached me with Jyo Achyutananda. He was hellbent on narrating the film, and I was hellbent on not listening to it,” she says.

Regina Cassandra: The dependableCassandra has played a wide range of characters:  an HR executive in Maanagaram

Eventually she agreed to work in the Telugu comedy-drama movie, which gained a mix of critical reviews and commercial success. “I enjoyed playing the character of Jyotsna… I started understanding myself better, and understood what to take from my mistakes,” she says.

The year 2019 brought more success for Cassandra in the form of Evaru, the Telugu adaptation of Spanish crime thriller The Invisible Guest, which was also remade in Hindi as Badla, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu. “When Evaru’s story was narrated to me, something about it just pulled me towards it. I felt I had to do it,” Cassandra adds. “I said yes, and am so happy I made the decision.”

But there were risks: This was the directorial debut of Venkat Ramji, who had previously worked as an assistant director. The story had several sub-plots and Sameera, the character which Cassandra played, was not just grey but a dark grey, altering from a rape victim who killed the rapist to one who was the mastermind of a plot. But Cassandra and Ramji were convinced.

“I had narrated the story to other actors prior to Cassandra. They were trying to catch what the story was and not being the character. Cassandra gave me the expressions when I was narrating it…. she was travelling with the script,” says Ramji. He remembers a pivotal scene in the movie, shot in the Kodaikanal forested hills. Sameera’s character is searching for the body of Vinay Varma (played by actor Murali Sharma), who was killed. “We shot this over two days, with night temperatures reaching 4-5°C. It was raining, the scene was of her being drenched and shivering while walking through the forest to search for Varma. I told Cassandra to take a break and go back into the van but she did not,” Ramji says. “Let me shiver otherwise it will feel like I’m just acting, she told me.”

Regina Cassandra: The dependable
Cassandra has played a wide range of characters: A drug addict in Awe

Tattoos and eccentricities  

The need to breathe the characters had started earlier. For Awe (2018), director Prasanth Varma, who had done a few short films earlier, had narrated the screenplay to Cassandra. This was Varma’s directorial debut. “When Prashanth narrated it, I had pictured the character of Mira in exactly the way she looked on screen: With tattoos, condro hairstyle, undercut and septum ring,” Cassandra says. She agreed to Awe, a psychological cross-genre movie, which focusses on sexual abuse, drug abuse, same-sex relationships, only if she got this role.
Popular Australian model Ruby Rose Langenheim was the inspiration for the look. Cassandra also drifted towards British heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s music to flow with the role. On reaching Hyderabad for the shoots, just the hairstyle and tattoos took about 11 hours to complete.

The experimentation was seen earlier too in 2017 in SR Prabhu’s Maanagaram (Metropolis)—a mix of short stories woven into one action thriller. “I enjoy bringing out realistic approaches to these grey shades. The heavier it gets, the more I enjoy it,” she says.

As with several other experiences, a Bollywood debut was not planned. Writer and director Shelly Chopra Dhar approached Cassandra and narrated the story of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, a story about a same-sex relationship in a small town in Punjab. Cassandra and Sonam Kapoor play the couple Kuhu and Sweety Chaudhary who decide to come out of the closet, and disrupt Chaudhary’s family-backed marriage to Sahil (Rajkummar Rao). The difference is the subtlety with which the story is told, in an attempt to sensitise society to same-sex relationships.

“This was really a story for the B [semi urban] and C [rural] cinematic audiences in Tamil Nadu,” Cassandra says. The movie got a thumbs-up from the LGBTQ+ community. A girl who had lost her father connected with Cassandra, to say she was now “hopeful” of being accepted in society. “I take that home; it was rewarding,” she says.

Cassandra has been comfortable with off-beat and eccentric roles. “It gives me immense pleasure to do something eccentric,” she says

From 2017, Cassandra has been able to stand her ground on the roles she would want to choose. This has reflected in enacting more off-beat and even eccentric roles, which her rivals might be hesitant to pick. “It gives me immense pleasure to do something eccentric,” she says. Even in Nenjam, there was a portion where she was a ghost, but did not comprehend it. “I was screaming, losing it, running out of cupboards… the letting loose, gave me pleasure.” It is no coincidence then that Cassandra names actors Gerald Butler and Jim Carrey as inspiration.

This confidence exudes in her personality too. Respectful of, but not intimidated by superstars, Cassandra talks about how Sethupathi and she brush up their Hindi for the current web series. “It has been a lot of fun; there is humour and banter in our Hindi-Tamil conversations.”

Cassandra is confident that South Indian cinema is gradually starting to explore women-centric storylines. The Tamil film industry has seen successful comebacks for actors like Jyothika and Simran. “The change is happening, but slowly.” Cassandra’s film journey is in a sweet spot, where she can dig deep while portraying people like Mrinalini Sarabhai. “She had so much influence, and a legacy. People will observe and comment on my performance.” And Cassandra is ready for that.

(This story appears in the 22 October, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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