She’s wowed audiences with her portrayal of Priya in her second cinematic outing and has been at the receiving end of numerous accolades from film aficionados across the country. Meet actress Rukmini Vasanth, whose Kannada flick Sapta Saagaradaache Ello, directed by Hemanth Rao, is winning the hearts of cinema buffs.

An army kid who lived across various states, Rukmini was 13 when she realised she wanted to act. After a one year stint with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, she made her debut with Birbal Trilogy Case 1: Finding Vajramuni in 2019. She’s now bagged an enviable project with Tamil superstar Vijay Sethupathi, which she’s currently shooting for.

In a candid chat with Provoke, the articulate artiste gets talking about her tryst with films, the changing landscape of Kannada cinema and more…

Tell us about your early life – where were you born and brought up?
My Dad Col. Vasanth Venugopal (AC) was in the army and because of that, I’ve grown up all over India – from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu to Bengaluru. Whenever Appa was sent to a non-family posting, my mother, my sister and I would move back to Bangalore to my grandparents’ house. I studied in a host of Army and Air Force schools. When I was about 10, my dad was martyred in Kashmir in an operation and he was awarded the Ashoka Chakra making him the first person from Karnataka to receive this honour. That’s when we moved to Bangalore permanently. Once I finished my primary education, I joined drama school.

How did your army upbringing shape you as a person?
One of the side effects of being a fauji child is having a very strong ingrained sense of flexibility. You adapt very well to most circumstances in life, whether it’s something mundane or a big change such as constantly shifting schools, homes, cities and states. This has helped me in my work when we’re shooting logistically difficult scenes. My army upbringing gave me a sense of adventure. On a more personal note, I think the kind of discipline that I had seen my father have for his work was something that I took on in my work. It became very clear to me that you can bring that sense of discipline and respect to whatever you do. Additionally, watching my mother Subhashini work hard at her dancing also helped me bring that dedication into my own performances.

When did the desire to become a screen actor kick off in you?
My mum is a Bharatanatyam dancer and she has always been encouraging of my interest to perform. When I was 13, we did a play at school and that really changed my life. I auditioned for it and ended up playing the lead role. I really enjoyed the rehearsal process and the preparation. I loved it when people came up to me and appreciated my performance. This had a significant impact on me. At 15, I started taking theatre lessons. At 18, I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London which is one of the best drama schools in the world. I wasn’t sure if I would make it, but I decided to give it a try and I managed to get in. A year after returning from London, I decided to explore screen acting. I was then cast in a Kannada thriller called Birbal.

Your Instagram bio reads ‘Rukmini, you weren’t born for real life’. What’s the story behind it?
I am particularly fond of that phrase because it is something my sister said to me as an insult. (laughs) When we were cleaning our room, I would abandon the activity and start doing something else halfway through. So that’s when my sister said ‘Rukmini, you weren’t born for your life.’ It’s just a general philosophy to remind myself to finish things. It has nothing to do with the fact that I am an actor.

Your story of being cast for Sapta Saagaradaache Ello is rather intriguing. Can you tell us more about it?
I’d seen the announcement of the film in 2019 and I was intrigued by it. I have an affinity for the sea and it was also love story, so it checked all the boxes. I tried a lot of avenues to reach out to the team, but they didn’t work out. In 2020, I saw an announcement that they were holding auditions for the role of Priya. You know, in drama school we have been taught not to personally reach out to the director or the actors as it could seem unprofessional, but I decided to take a chance. I sent Hemanth an Instagram message with my qualifications and then ended up auditioning for the role. I had to act out a fairly long monologue and after a few days, I got a call saying I was chosen.

How was it working with Rakshit Shetty, the actor and Hemanth Rao, the director?
It has been life-changing for me. Hemanth was always a big source of support since day one. As soon as we started the workshops with Rakshit, it became evident that these two were solid pillars of support for me. My role is very intense and it involved delving into a lot of emotions. Rakshit was there in every shot. He would be giving me the exact same expressions that he would in his close up. That was extremely generous of him. I take the confidence that I got from SSE to every other set of mine.

Your character involves delving into intense emotions. How did you prepare for the role?
The interesting thing is that we did not rehearse the dialogues. Hemanth, as a director, believes that if you rehearse the dialogues to death, you lose the spontaneity of it. Rakshit too doesn’t rehearse before the scene too much. Our workshops involved delving into the stories of Priya and Manu. We did questionnaires as Rakshit and Rukmini as well. Hemanth believes in drawing a boundary between the character and yourself. While doing method acting, actors tend to take these emotions home which is not very healthy for a performer. When I started working with Rakshit, I was in awe of him and the icebreaker sessions conducted by Hemanth really helped. We didn’t have the luxury of showing how Priya and Manu get together – they are together from the beginning of the movie. So it was important to establish that comfort and dynamic between them beforehand.

What can the audiences expect from SSE Side B which is due for release on November 17th?
You can expect an extension of the story of Manu and Priya. New characters come into play and there are some excellent performances. I think a lot of people would have already seen the promotional material that we’ve released. Tonally, there’s a huge shift in how this film is being presented – if Side A were a ghazal, then Side B is grunge or rock!

Your other Kannada film Baanadaariyali released in September. How was the experience of working on that project?
The response to Baanadariyali has been lovely. I was excited to play the role of Leela. Leela is very sporty – she’s a surfer, skateboarder and a swimmer. As for acquiring these skills, I knew swimming but I learnt skateboarding from my cousin. Surfing, on the other hand, was a big commitment that I had to take up. The ability to dabble in so many different lives is one of the greatest gifts this career gives you. You never know what it is that you might pick up and that might stay with you for the rest of your life. Now, when I consider a role, I also see what skills I can imbibe from it.

You’ve signed a Tamil film with Vijay Sethupathi. Tell us a little about it.
The film is being shot in Malaysia and Chennai. It’s been amazing working with Vijay sir. It’s been a complete revelation because you get to see the work behind the magic. As audience members, we’ve seen his work, but we’re only privy to the final product that’s been chiseled and fine-tuned into perfection. He makes it look effortless, but as a co-actor, I get to see the sheer amount of work that he puts into crafting that and that has been really exciting for me. This is something I hadn’t imagined would happen even in my wildest dreams!

What are your other upcoming projects?
I have Bagheera in the pipeline – it’s a Hombale film with Sriimurali Sir. It’s been written by Prashant Neel and is being directed by Dr. Suri. It’s a thriller, so it is a very different genre for me. I’m also in Bhairathi Ranagal with Shiva Rajkumar Sir which is being directed by Narthan.

Kannada cinema has been flourishing like never before. How does it feel to be part of cinema that’s changing the landscape of your homeland’s film industry?
Rakshit mentioned in a recent interview that what we’re seeing now is the fruit of what has been happening for at least the last decade. So the roots of this movement go very deep. I feel lucky to have been able to enter the industry at a time when we are sharing the fruit of all this hard work. I must acknowledge that people like Rakshit, Hemanth, Rishabh Shetty sir and Pawan Kumar sir have worked really hard to create a space in the industry for films like this to be made. I want to be able to work hard and help this movement grow even further.

What kind of roles would you like to see for women in Kannada cinema?
I would love to see lots more roles like Priya, I’d love for Priya to not be the exception. It doesn’t mean that it must be in the genre of drama or romance. I think we’ve seen a lot of lovely roles written in the genre of romance, which is why romance has been one of my own favourite things to consume as an audience member and an actor. Women get a lot of scope to perform in the romantic genre, but I’d like to see an action film. Malashree ma’m has been doing action films for a long time, but I’d love to see more action films – ones that require stunts from women. I’d like to see roles with more depth for women and ones that require specific skills to be displayed or learned. I’d also love to see a road trip film or a buddy-comedy with women in the lead.

How does it feel to be called ‘Karnataka’s crush’?
(Laughs) I’m very grateful for it, because it means that my performance and my portrayal of Priya has moved people to such a degree that they feel something for this character. I feel very privileged to be the face of Priya.