What strikes you first when you see Lavanya is her genuine and super-warm smile. There’s no faking it with this Dehraduni girl. As we begin our conversation, seated at Novotel Hyderabad Airport, I am left in absolute awe of this bubbly, vivacious and absolutely bindaas Telugu actor…

How did you get into Tollywood?
I never thought I’d get into Telugu films or any South Indian film industry for that matter. When I was much younger, and I was a model, I was offered an ad in a South Indian language (and honestly, I don’t even remember which language it was in) and I suffered saying those lines. I remember telling myself I will never be able to work in this industry. But fate had its own plans. I was offered a Telugu film many years later and at first the fear of the language did pop up, but then I asked myself: did you put any effort into learning the language the first time? I actually hadn’t. I received this offer really easily and so I told myself it was time to grow up, buckle up and take on this fear of the language I had — and I am so glad I did. I began to take Telugu classes and today for a girl from Dehradun, I think I speak pretty okay Telugu.

You absolutely do! But you seem to be one of the few North Indian actors in Tollywood who have taken this effort?
Not really! It might have been different a decade or two ago, but these days, we actors who are from elsewhere really want to pick up these languages. I took my classes seriously and now I can manage to speak relatively well. But I must say that it worked for me, but might not work for someone else. Not everyone has the same capability of picking up a language easily —some actors really suffer a lot in the process. That said, once you do pick up the language, everything becomes so much easier.

Each industry in the South is known for something very unique — Tollywood is known for masala, family dramas and being slightly OTT — what are your perspectives on the Telugu film industry?
For me what stands out right on top is how welcoming the industry is and the Telugu audience is. I was accepted as a next-door-local-girl from my first film itself. Even today everyone knows me as Andaala Rakshasi (beautiful demon). When people saw me anywhere, they would call out to me and this was across age groups — I was everyone’s pakkinti-ammayi! It made me feel like I was part of all of their families. The audience is so welcoming. But yes, on the other hand, the industry is famous for terrible tags. Women are objectified here on another level and often-more-than-not a hit or a flop is blamed on the female lead when in reality it really isn’t her fault as the films are mostly made around the heroes.

Building on that, you’ve now been stereotyped as the pakkinti-ammayi or the girl-next-door, are you comfortable with it?
I was initially, but then it did get on my nerves. It was okay when I was being introduced into the industry, but I outgrew that character pretty quickly. I remember there were days when I didn’t want to go to the sets of a film as nothing was exciting about my role. I also remember when I hated myself for not giving 100% to a shoot, because I was so uninspired. That’s why I decided to take a break. Of course, people talked. It didn’t affect me. People said, she probably isn’t getting offers. I was getting a lot of offers, but all for the same kind of roles. I decided to be choosy and let my work speak for itself. I waited till I came across this movie related to hockey and I am shamelessly saying it — I approached the makers as I really believed this film would inspire me as an actor. I am shooting it right now and I love every minute of it.

Do you think Tollywood is finally waking up to women-centric films?
I don’t think it’s waking up. There have always been women-centric films in Telugu. Look at Sridevi’s films in Telugu — she was the hero in almost all of them. Look at some of films Ramya Krishnan is doing, or Samantha or even Keerthy Suresh — there’s always been a trend of such films in Tollywood. I think fewer such films get made, because the audiences don’t really support them at the box office. And when they don’t make money, they don’t get made.

What are the films that have inspired you over the years?
I am a huge Sridevi fan and so some of my favourites have been hers. Be it Sadma or Lamhe or Mr. India, I love her films. But more recently, I’ve loved Sai Pallavi’s Fidaa, Samantha’s Baby and Keerthy’s Mahanati. All equally amazing films.

So, what if you didn’t get into films?
I was a model and films were something I always wanted to do. I had no Plan B. I just had to get into films. I think people shouldn’t have a Plan B, because they wouldn’t work hard enough to achieve Plan A. It was always a do-or-die situation for me. I remember people constantly telling me that I stood no chance. I remember a teacher telling me I had a ‘small town mentality’ and therefore was dreaming too big. I never responded to these jibes. I always knew that I will achieve what I wanted and my work will
speak for itself.

You’re a very vocal person, is that something that is perceived as a problem in Tollywood?
Not really. If speaking up for yourself is a problem, then one shouldn’t work in a place like that. I speak up about a lot of things. From equal pay for equal work. I am not talking about paying us a lot for a small role. If the hero is doing more work, he should be paid better. But if I am doing an equal number of days of shooting and have a chunky role — then I should be paid the same. I am an absolute feminist. I think chivalry is out-dated. And I think feminism fights for equality.

You’re a huge fan of drag artistes, how come?
I wasn’t aware of gender fluidity for a long time. But I came across a drag artiste performance and there has been no turning back. I think gender is absolutely unnecessary. Why should we have stereotyped gender roles? I am all for equality of everyone. Let people choose who they want to be. Coming to drag artistes — they’re so fascinating, so talented, so artistic! I am such a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s my favourite show to binge watch.

You’re also a trained dancer?
Yupp. I am a Kathak dancer. I come from a family of dancers and I used to learn Kathak professionally for quite some time. Then I decided to quit because I didn’t want my body language to become restricted to one classical form. I now train in Indian Classical and Western and enjoy gliding in-between these different styles.

Finally, what can we see you next in?
The hockey film I was telling you about and several more that I can’t talk about it. And definitely some Tamil and Malayalam movie, pretty soon.

Your word of advice to young girls who are hoping to follow a career choice like you did?
Be very confident. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. Know it yourself.

Recent Favourite Film: Super Deluxe
Recent Great Performance: Vijay Sethupathy In ‘Super Deluxe’
If You Were A Colour: White
If You Were A Spice: Chilli
Hottest Person On Earth Right Now: Me
If You Weren’t An Actor: Fashion Designer
If You Were A Thing: An Atm Machine
Can’t Get A Day Without: Water First Thing You Do When
You Wake Up: Open My Eyes Last Thing You Do Before
You Sleep: Drink Warm Water Shoes Or Clothes: Shoes
Mountains Or The Beach: Beach
Favourite Holiday Destination (International): Anywhere In Europe Favourite Holiday
Destination (India): Nainital
A Vegetable You Resemble: Okra
Dream Male Co-Star (International): Will Smith
Dream Male Co-Star (India): Aamir Khan
Your Three Best Films: ‘Andaala Rakshasi’, ‘Bhale Bhale Magaadivoy’ And ‘Srirastu Subhamastu’