The spine-chilling home invasion thriller ‘Locked,’ couldn’t come at a more strange yet appropriate time. At the height of the Corona-Virus pandemic, we’re all under house arrest practising isolation and social distancing. According to actress Samyukta Hornad, there’s plenty of escapist entertainment to expect because guess what - reality is far grimmer than anything we’d have envisioned in fiction.
Samyukta is an established name in Kannada and Tamil cinema, having won a Filmfare Award (Kannada) for her supporting role in the Prakash Raj directorial Oggarane. Known for her stunning screen presence, she says she would rather play ‘someone real’ than ‘someone good.’ In her second web series Locked, she’s real - someone who has dreams to make it big and has no qualms in admitting that as a motivation to upgrade in life.
In a conversation with LetsOTT, we meet Samyukta the actress but also Samyukta the person - someone who is learning to grow as an actor and as a human being in this interesting time, just as we are as well.
Q. Samyukta, can you tell us about how you started off in the industry? What motivated you to become an actor?
Ever since I can remember, I have been into theatre. It is my first love. It’s where I started off with acting and it’s what I did for the longest time. I’m originally from Bangalore and I moved to Mumbai which is where I did a lot of theatre. The truth is that theatre doesn’t pay too well - whatever I was earning wasn’t enough to sustain me. It was just in the middle of all this that I was spotted by filmmaker Pawan Kumar, who asked me to be part of his film Lifeu Ishtene. The character was someone who is mad, does wild things. I think I get such roles because of my hair… it’s wild, it has its own personality.
Q. And then you got recognised for your work a few years later…
Yes, for a film called Oggarane, directed by Prakash Raj. It was released in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and it got me my first ever Filmfare Award in 2015. But the funny part is that it was after I won that award when I decided I wanted to learn acting.
Q. Why after establishing yourself…?
I was just so melodramatic! I was doing theatre at NSD and a lot of other places, and then I’d come back to the film-set, and my co-stars would tell me - ‘you can’t lip-sync to a song like this!’ It’s just so different to perform on stage and in front of the camera. Of course, I gained so much confidence from theatre, but that self-control… containing your energy… that’s what the camera needs. That’s something I had to learn at acting school.
Q. Your new show ‘Locked’ is a home invasion thriller. We’ve seen Game Over last year and a few such thrillers here and there in the last decade, but it’s still not been explored too much. What drew you to the project?
I like to do projects in the style of what I know people are watching these days. Last year, I made my web series debut in a show called G.O.D which was released in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi, in which I played a journalist. It was a period piece set in the ‘40s. The fact that it was considered one of the best shows of last year amidst other excellent shows like Family Man and Made in Heaven just motivated me further. This was just the obvious next step.
After G.O.D, is when I got the call for Locked and honestly, I’d never done something this gory before. I’m such a peace-loving person, I rarely even watch such films. So I guess the intrigue of figuring out how something of this sort was even made, was a bonus.
Q. So… were you surprised during the filming process?
I thought it was all VFX, which it wasn’t! Honestly, when Pradeep Deva Kumar (the director) narrated the script to me, I was laughing. Because I was finding a lot of dark humour in the grimness and brutality of the story. I guess I’m the kind of person who finds the humour even in the worst scenarios. I was sold because the way he described it was exactly how it turned out to be.
Q. The irony of shooting a home invasion movie or show is that you’re couped up with the same team in such an enclosed space. It sounds like what the world is experiencing now.
I’ve lived with my brother my whole life and there are points during the day when I am ready to kill him! (laughs) Our situation at home isn’t too different. No, no. I’ve worked with Satya (Satyadev Kancharana) before and that helped because we’re already friends. But Pradeep! He’s an actor too so he knows exactly what he wants, but he’s also quite a prankster.
Q. How so?
Well… so there’s this day when he’s acting really aloof and not giving me any prompts on what I’m supposed to do in a particular scene. So I think I’ll go with the flow for the time being and speak to him later about it. Anyway, I’m in the scene and looking somewhere when an actual man pounces at me out of nowhere and grabs my neck! My assistant passed out and I was screaming. This was Pradeep’s way to get a natural reaction out of me. But I guess it’s also to keep things light-hearted. Otherwise, we’d go out of our minds feeling claustrophobic!
Q. Your character’s motivations in the show stand on dangerous ground. Is it something that you naturally gravitate towards?
Yes! Most of the characters I’ve done so far have been chosen on that basis. I don’t see much of reality in a person who is either good or bad. We all have shades of grey. The audience today is smart enough to see people like that on-screen and love them for what they are, as long as their ‘motivations’ are written well. But isn’t that the challenge? Give me a chance and I’ll give you a woman whom you can’t trust immediately, but I’ll still want to make her sympathetic. That’s my measure for success. In Locked, I’m selfish. I want to be rich. I want to live a comfortable life, provide for my sister, but essentially also sustain my own lifestyle. And that’s fine.
Q. Is there any actor in particular whom you look towards as inspiration when approaching these roles?
You know… it’s so funny that when I was a Cultural Studies student, I was absolutely obsessed with the work of Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, which was part of my curriculum. It was my dream to write a film about a woman that encapsulated that charm and gumption.
A few years ago, I got a call from a director and he said he was remaking Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (for which Shabana Azmi won a National Award in 1975). I didn’t even ask for details, I just said yes. After Maarikondavaru released, I cited Shabana ji as my inspiration and she read about it. Two years later, I met her and she still remembered. I want to become a person like that. But look at her character in Ankur, it’s not all positive. There are circumstances and her actions reflect her choice and her circumstances. But you still understand her perspective. That’s life. I think these are the kind of movies which inspire me and what I look for within myself when I’m working. Even her character in Arth, who chooses her own sense of self-worth and walks out of her marriage... I channelled that in one of my recent films. You never know what inspiration comes out from where.
Q. You said you’re a peace-loving person? Do you like watching subgenres within horror films - slasher, torture, splatter, a home invasion?
I’m not into horror at all. But I don’t mind murder mysteries. When I did Arshidavarga, it’s the perspective that drew me to it. The story is written around the six sins, and the murder is explored through each of those perspectives. I like such stories where it’s not really about the crime or the violence in it, but more about the larger context that surrounds it. I don’t think I’d be able to handle anything with a lot of blood.
Q. How did you possibly get through the shooting then?
Honestly, ‘Locked’ is more action-oriented. There’s a lot of movement and it’s all very quick. And the way the story moves forward, the captives keep getting injured, their situation worsens. In order to keep the continuity of how my character bruises or hurts and what they feel, we shot it in that sequence. It’s easy to kind of just do it and then move on to the next thing, as opposed to keep coming at it again and again. It distracts you from concentrating on that emotion so much. Because it can get so exhausting otherwise.
Q. Traditionally, home invasion movies always showed the woman as a victim. It was only in the 90s that women were strong and competent characters like in Scream and then Panic Room. Last year, there was Game Over. Has there been a conscious effort to show you like that here?
Not really. I think it just shows me as human. I have dreams and I’m out to fulfil them and that’s fine. I’m not inspiring anyone. I’m just sorted. When my character has to save herself, that’s all she’s doing… saving herself. If it were me personally, I’d think about those around me. I’d want to save their life. But not her. She’s self-centred. I also don’t understand why there is such a one-dimensional way to look at a female character, either she’s the Ms Goody Two-Shoes or she’s a vamp. My character is just human.
Q. With ‘God’ and ‘Locked’ one after the other, and you have two films coming out this year… are you enjoying mixing up formats?
I don’t really see it the way of ‘mixing it up.’ The budget for web series’ these days… well, for some at least… is at par, if not more than an average movie’s budget. The kind of reach shows have (especially now with the lockdown) is anyway more than a movie. I’m seen by more people on a daily basis. My mum is watching every new show and movie in every Indian language across so many platforms. She’s already stopped going to the cinema.
In terms of what I bring to the table, I average a few hours on a film set depending on my role but the kind of shows I’ve chosen, they have given me ample opportunity to develop my character, give it a back story, put all of myself into it. I guess this format helps me come full circle. I do the same thing across formats, but a series definitely gives more opportunity to be invested.
Q. We’re living in our own dystopian world right now. Life, as we knew it, has ceased to make sense. Do you think it’s better to have a show like Locked come out at this time when everyone is literally under house arrest? Are you worried about the anxiety it could possibly trigger?
We do get asked a lot if we named the show ‘Locked’ after the national lockdown. That’s not true (laughs). On a serious note, the show is nothing like what we’re experiencing. I think our reality is far more grim and depressing. When people watch the show, it’ll still be escapist entertainment because what we’re living, in reality, could have worse repercussions. Our villain is tangible, human. What is this virus that we are fighting in reality? We don’t know all the details and how much worse this situation can be. Watch the show because it’s less scary than anything happening in the present.
Q. The isolation and social distancing… such an interesting time to learn more about yourself. What have you learnt?
I’ve always been fine on my own, and I think it’s interesting spending so much time with my family after such a long time (laughs). My brother and I are almost like a real-life version of ‘Tom & Jerry.’ Other than that, I spend time in my garden and with my cat. I think I’ve learned patience, or at least I feel I am on that path. I’m such a restless person even as a loner. Initially, I panicked. What will I do in my house for so long? I think after three weeks I’ll come out a slightly better human being, appreciating my work, my friends, that feeling of just being able to do the most prosaic things when I want to.
Q. Outside of your professional commitments, what are the things that you’re really passionate about?
I have so many passions, but firstly, I believe in giving back to the cultural community. I run an art space and I invite actors to take classes. I attend those classes too! There’s so much to learn in my craft still, and I can’t stop here. The competition for good content is so fierce. Platforms are increasing and you just need passionate and talented people to come together to make something worthy of your time. On Locked, we have a team which is a mix of people from Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad. We’re just a bunch of passionate people. So I guess there’s passion in my profession too!
But other than that, I paint, I spend time gardening. I’m so passionate about caring for animals. I have cats at home, I love to spend time with dogs. I’ve been feeding the strays through the last few weeks as well. I’ve adopted an elephant, a monkey and a tiger. Whatever I make, goes into my caring for animals and towards the cause.
Q. You know… we started this conversation on the note that you’ve actually made it big because of your big and wild hair, which reflects your personality. On a serious note, there are so many girls (and boys) who are struggling to embrace their special and unique traits…
I think my hair is as vibrant as I am! But it’s not my hair, or my look, or my body. For the longest time, I was that person who wasn’t okay with the way I looked. I felt the need to tame myself. And then I found a passion which accepted me with that look. But what I learned was that I needed to accept myself first. The moment you start loving yourself… taking care of yourself… everything will fall into place. It also builds so much strength of character. All my quirks, my personality, it’s what makes me, ME. And now that we have so much time at our disposal, we can all get into self-care and self-love. I told you that I find the positives even in the worst of situations. Maybe this is our silver lining.