Telugu movie DJ Tillu launched young hero Siddu Jonnalagedda in his most iconic role yet, and is lending itself to a sequel. Alongside, the film also launched the character of Radhika! The black saree clad Neha Shetty as Radhika – an unforgettable role with its grey shades attained a cult status. Neha Shetty’s celluloid dreams have been realised and how!

Model, actor Neha Shetty’s life-long ambition of acting in films was realised when she was spotted for the Kannada film, ‘Mungaru Male 2’. Soon a spate of other films followed – Mehbooba, Gully Rowdy, Most Eligible Bachelor and more…

Each time, whatever the role, Neha displayed a vibe of her own and a screen presence that one would sit up and take notice, and with each of her films, she took one more step ahead to secure a prominent place in the film world.

As she gears up for her next film ‘Gangs of Godavari’ and perhaps a cameo in DJ Tillu Part 2 – Tillu Square (which she has not confirmed yet) – Neha Shetty gets up and close with Provoke Lifestyle as she shares her journey, thoughts and plans ahead.

First things first, how come you are mostly seen in sarees in your films of late, not to mention the popular black saree look in DJ Tillu. Is it a conscious decision or are you ending up with such roles?
Of course, it’s not a conscious decision. I would love to wear western clothes. It so happened that after DJ Tillu, I got such roles. For example, in Bedurulanka, the backdrop is a rural setting, and the story happens in a village, so I thought I should appear in a south Indian look for my promotions. In Rules Ranjan – its more Indo-western to suit the Tirupati Ammayi, the young girl of today’s times kind of look. Gangs of Godavari is a period film set in the 90s. In this film I tried to look the part. My reference for the role has been my favouite actors Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. I observed their career graph, the way they portrayed different roles. Sridevi garu was so subtle and composed. I am a big fan of Madhuri Dixitji – her acting and dance. And, there was Soundarya who was so good too.

What is your character like in this film?
In Gangs of Godavari, I play Bujji, this subtle and clam character. However, it is the calm before the storm. I am usually hyperactive and I find it difficult to play roles like these that are so different to who I am. But the audience can expect a lot from my character. It’s about being a woman. Can’t reveal much else at this stage though. The film is releasing on March 8.

Did you always want to be a part of the film industry and become an actor?
My mom is a dentist, and my dad is a businessman. There is no one from the industry. I have always been passionate about dance. I was deeply interested in taking part in drama in school, watch films, dressing up and performing for audience. I harboured all the interests as an actor. My mother would tell me how I would obsess over not repeating an outfit when we went out, as I never saw an actor repeat her outfit. Of course, I would get my share of tight slap, for acting that way as a child – but I was just obsessed I was about acting in films. However, I did not know how I would make it possible, until I moved to Bangalore from Mangalore.

So, how did you finally crack your acting career?
In Bangalore, I began to start to learn dance. I was learning from one of the top choreographers and he was also training me for modelling. As a kid I was enrolled into a ballet class where the ad-makers of Horlicks spotted me, and I became the national Horlicks girl. I felt so thrilled. I felt like I have arrived. People would spot me and call out. I was all over television. In college I continued to do modelling. I still didn’t know how to get into films, And, to act in films I started to study the careers of successful actors like Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty and Deepika – and they have all somewhere taken the modelling route to acting. While I was already shooting for advertisements like Kissan, Malabar Gold, etc. I thought I must also do modelling. And, I took part in Miss Mangalore and Miss South India contests when I was spotted for my first film, Mungaru Male 2. That’s how my journey in the industry started. After my first film, I wanted to try for Telugu films and here I am.

Yes and looks like there’s no looking back. Your roles have been diverse with scope for performance, unlike the usual glam roles that newcomers usually do in the initial years. Was it a conscious decision?
I have been very particular about every script that I chose to do. I am thankful for the filmmakers who gave me such scripts and believing in me that I can play them. Most female actors are given glam roles in the beginning as they believe they can only play such roles. For me, I have been lucky that I got the opportunity to do roles which may not be diverse, but to an extent have been different from each other. And, also, I have seen how Sridevi garu even at the age of 16 had acted as a 25-year-old, and then she went on to do such diverse roles. And, so I was like if she could do them – why must we confine ourselves to certain kind of roles for certain reasons. For me acting is more than a career. I am really passionate about what I do. I love being in front of the camera, I love watching the audience react to my character in the theatres. These things make me very happy. It gives me joy. I am yet to discover how the audience would love to see me. I want to explore more, and moving forward I want to be someone who does diverse roles and see how the audience will receive me.

You character in DJ Tillu – Radhika has become iconic. How do you feel about it?
I have goosebumps even as you say this. Because, I cannot tell you how much I have cried in joy for getting this tagline so quickly and early on in my career for what I have done. People wait for years to be known by the character they played. You are known for your acting, for your fame – you are known for all that – but then getting for people to know you by your role more than your name – Like Badshaah for Shah Rukh Khan or Bebo for Kareena, for me DJ Tillu’s Radhika I will take it to my grave.

What were your thoughts while signing up for the film?
I had people asking me it’s a negative role, why would you take it up. Especially because I’m still fairly new in the industry. No one knew if this was going to do well or not. But, some films you look at them as your overall project, and not just as your character. For me, my first love was Tillu. Even as one of the audiences, I knew I was in love with it even when I heard this script. I was sitting on the couch listening to the story and by the end of the narration, I was holding the cushion in my hand and I had tears rolling down as I was laughing – and I thought – what is this script that I just heard. It was not about Radhika there – it was about this mad man. I did not know Malkajjgiri. I did not know the Telangana slang. For me it was all so new. So, I sat there wondering what is this place. Do people really talk like this. And, will it be believable – I had all these questions.

But, from Day one, I had 100 percent confidence that this film is going to be a blockbuster. In fact, Siddu and Vimal would stop me and say please don’t come across as over confident. And, I would be like – but I am – I was screaming from the top of the roof that this is a hit. That was how much confident I was.

For me Radhika, was secondary in all honesty. I knew the film was going to be fantastic. And, then I was like now I must now think about my character – and think about how I was going to be positioned in people’s mind and the industry.

Until then I had not got much break in terms of doing a big film. And with this film I did not want love for Tillu turn into hatred for me.

And, then people watched the film, and I received calls from journalists and critics who said that they did not feel any negativity and that they wanted to sympathise with my character. For this I have to thank Siddu and Vimal who helped me carry the emotion through the film and they helped me maintain the calm and composed behaviour though-out the film. Audience empathised with Radhika and she enjoys a huge fan following.

Do you get FOMO, now that DJ Tillu Part 2 (Tillu Square) is being made or can we expect to see you in the film?
Not at all. I am excited about the film set to release in February 2024. I will be the biggest cheer leader for the film. I am there in spirit for the film. About the guest appearance – well, I don’t want to speak about it now.

There was a rumour that you had differences with Siddu. What is the truth behind them.

There was nothing like that. Rumours are just that – rumours. I too heard them. We were friends and we continue to be good friends. I know what’s happening with the film. I am in touch with the team as well. And, I am more than thrilled for the film.

You went to study acting in New York after coming into the industry. Do you think it helped?
I always believed that acting has to come from within, and that somethings cannot be taught. I still think acting cannot be forced upon you. You have to be passionate about it to even learn. However, I felt a difference in my acting after attending the course. Many said that my acting has improved.

Just holding your presence and being grounded, calm and composed is important for a few films. In DJ Tillu – Tillu is quite expressive and has his highs and lows, while Radhika has the voice and expression through the film. It was difficult but came through well by the end of it.

Did you have any experience where people were mean to you?
Luckily for me, it has been a good journey. Neither the audience nor the fellow people from the industry have been mean to me. It is also about how I take any opinion people express. They can choose to have an opinion and I would look at it as advise, and I will choose to either follow or ignore it.

Do you feel there is something than can change for women to make a career in films?
I wish that we should not get typecasted. Heroes are allowed to do things – heroines must also be allowed to do certain kind of roles that could be way more younger or way more older just like the heroes of today.

And when a heroine does a role – we must look at the character and not blame the heroine because she chose to do it, and her career should not depend on the character. She must be appreciated for what she has done. After all, we all play different roles of the world in order to entertain. We must not be typecasted.

Were there any scripts after DJ Tillu that you had to refuse as they were similar? What are your next projects?
There were a couple of film makers, who did come to me with certain roles like Radhika. One such offer was very good. But I felt I didn’t want to repeat a character. I would rather try do a new character, and do different films. I already had two good releases, and there’s Gangs of Godavari coming soon…I want to take time before announcing my next movie and not rush into doing anything that comes my way. There may be something big coming up in Kannada as well.

What kind of an actor are you?
When I am working, I am all there. I have on and off switch. While working I have no distractions, no holidays or partying. Then when I switch off, I am totally in relaxed mood. I am on my phone reaching out to people who need things from me. I cannot have both together. Let’s say I am dedicated to whatever I do, be it fun or work.

What are the different forms of dance you have learnt?
I have learnt ballet, hiphop and freestyle. I even learnt kuchipudi for a good six months. My mother tried sending me to Bharatanatyam classes. And, I regret it now that I quit saying its too difficult. I struggled during the shoot of Rules Ranjan when I had to do Bharatanatyam.

What is Neha at home like?
I watch a lot of movies. I eat a lot – I eat like every one hour – I have atleast 6 – 7 meals in a day in smaller portions – I am dedicated to eating when I am at work or home or even in my car- I am like – let me have something to munch on.

At home, I also try to have my me time, when I keep the phone aside.

How do you manage to stay fit despite eating with such dedication?
Lot of people ask me this. It is perhaps because, I don’t bulk up and eat everything in one meal. I divide my food into portions and eat. I also dance a lot. It is my favourite past time. When I have an off or even when I am doing something, or listening to music and even in my caravan – I dance.

What are your favourite eat out places?
In Mangalore, it’s Gajli. It is known for its sea food. It’s my all-time favourite. You even have it in Mumbai. But, since I grew up in Mangalore it continues to be my favourite.

My go to food is Pan Asian, and in Hyderabad my current favourite is Shoyu. I get food from there atleast once every week.

Do you cook?
I prefer leaving the cooking part to experts.

What do you miss most about Bangalore and Mangalore?
I miss home food the most. My home is where I get to eat two different cuisines considering my dad is from Bangalore and mother from Coorg. Earlier I used to visit Bangalore atleast once a month. Now with work, I am unable to travel so often.

Any friends in industry you go to share your highs and lows?
I have my friends in the industry. But, to share my highs and lows it is always my childhood friends that I go it.

What’s your kind of fashion?
I am not trend conscious; I would say I am more comfort conscious. At times its just a kurti, denims, jhumkis and mojris for me, and at other times it could be crop top and shorts. It’s all about my mood and where I am going.

What are the must haves in your bag?
Lip balm. I can live without lipstick but I must have a lip balm.

Do you like travelling. What are your favourite destinations?
I love traveling. My favourite destination is New York. Even though I love nature – being from Bangalore I am more of a city girl. In India I love Mumbai, and my go to destination to relax is Goa.

What kind of a traveller are you?
I travel heavy. My sister always says we must go light and come back with heavy luggage. But I want to fit in half my wardrobe into my luggage (she laughs).