Shruti Hassan is one of the biggest actors in India.
Daughter of Kamal Haasan, one of India’s greatest actors, stardom had always been the expectation. Shruti does things a little differently, though.
Growing up infatuated with the fringes of India’s art cultures, she switches easily between mainstream and independent films, as well as a music career that blends her training in both classical Indian music and studies in California.
She now records from London and works as an actor in three languages.
Speaking to Square Mile from an apartment in Budapest, Shruti discussed the differences between her many occupations, locations, and growing up within such a revered family.
So you're abroad filming today?
Yeah, I'm midway through filming and training for a TV show that I'm making a guest appearance in for a few episodes. It's called Treadstone, a US thriller-action series based on the Jason Bourne novels. I'm doing a fight scene in Budapest, which is where I’m training at the moment.
What type of training does the role involve?
I'm basically playing the character of an assassin. So the fight has a lot of close combat and MMA-style fighting. I've only done one or two fight scenes in my entire career, and neither were on this scale, so I have had to start from scratch. I've had to learn all the basics, how to not fall over, how to stand, everything.
Growing up as the daughter of two film legends is a lot to live up to. Can you tell us a bit about the positives and the complications of it?
I've only really taken the positives from it. The main one being that, even though they were movie stars, the home I grew up in was incredibly artistic in a broader sense. Their friends, the dinner conversations, and the atmosphere was generally so full of art. Even up to the sights and things we'd do and see while on vacation somewhere. Going to plays and the theatre, it was all very inspiring.
Learning languages is great for creativity. Like everyone else, I learn swear words first!
Did you always want an artistic life?
Honestly, no. When I was much younger I saw it as a cliched option, and decided I didn't want it. I wanted to be a lawyer: when you have such an artistic background being a lawyer is actually a fair act of rebellion!
But that was just a phase from the age of 10-12. Wanting an academic career faded pretty quickly. This world was always around me, and I think I'm very blessed. In the outside world, I'm always hearing that being an artist is a difficult job, but I've only ever seen gratification and happiness. So my whole approach to the arts in general is that it is worth being a part of, my approach to art has only ever been positive.
Who are your inspirations?
I went to a lovely montessori school in Chennai, India, they shaped us to be the best versions of ourselves we could be. We were a very small school, there were only 13 people in my class. They encouraged us a lot with our passions, especially music in my case: singing and writing. So, aside from my parents, who are an obvious influence, having a school environment with teachers and friends encouraging me to be artistic was huge.
I know you've acted in three languages, that must be a challenge?
One thing people don't understand about India is that while it is one country, it's almost more like a lot of small countries put together. Some of the languages are similar, but a lot of them are very different. It's practically like comparing French and Chinese – there's one part of the country that absolutely wouldn't understand the other parts of the country.
I grew up in a bilingual home because my parents both have different first languages, and then I learned another language when I expanded my acting career. That was really difficult, I was having to learn dialogue alongside what the words actually meant. I was fluent by the end of the film though. Learning languages is great for creativity and helping you to think laterally, so I'm glad to have them. Like everyone else, I learn swear words first!
Your music is now heavily focused in London, and you studied music in California. What are the differences between the industries in India and the West?
So there's Indian film music, which Bollywood is a big part of, and then there's an independent music scene which I'm very proud of. I have a foot in both worlds – I have trained in Indian classical music but I also grew up listening to Audioslave and Nirvana. I’m part of a weird subculture of people who had access to Western music. I find musicians the same almost everywhere in the world, we're just misfits, we all wear the same badge.
In acting there's some sort of universal emotions we can all see and feel too, but I feel Indians are a lot more dramatic when it comes to acting, with how we speak and move, we're more about putting emotions on display.
And is the critical reception different? I've noticed more of a focus on your looks in the reviews than I expected to...
Well, it isn't fair to pigeon hole it and it isn't just India, but the world is obsessed with vanity and the first thing people like to notice about women is their appearance. That's something all women are trying to change, and it is a part of any woman's career. Sure, in India that's how it starts, unless you take a very conscious decision to tell people you won't be judged by that.
I appreciate the younger women who are taking a stance though, I didn't understand how to do that ten years ago. I just ignored critics and media and worked hard.
How did you find living in the USA?
I was 19 when I got there, so I was starry-eyed and young, especially with it being LA. It wasn't that glamorous though, I worked hard. I was pretty much just going between my bed and the music school, I was geeky about music.
Was there a specific reason why you went to record in London?
I feel that the best music has always come out of England. London has a great artistic energy especially, not to sound too spiritual about it, but I've always liked the music and people that've come out of London so it seemed like a good fit for me.
There was a point where I was stuck in a rut with acting, but now I just try to be authentic
How have you found performing here?
I loved it, a lot of people don't know me or much about the type of music I make so I enjoy that they just listen to it and don't expect many of the things I do. It's more fun for me, I can just be an artist and not have my history affect anything. I've been singing in India since I was six.
What work are you doing at the moment?
Other than this TV show, I'm filming a few interesting projects in India, and most importantly I've just finished recording my EP. We'll be releasing music by the end of the year hopefully.
What are the future plans?
I don't try and navigate something I can't control, it makes me anxious. I even became an actress by mistake, I thought I'd be a director or something. I am very grateful, though I think there was a point where I was stuck in a rut with acting, but now I just try to be authentic and to do as many things as possible, so I'll keep doing that. I'm really enjoying the music at the moment.
What's the EP like?
Authentic, and pretty auto-biographical. My favourite singers are people like Alison Moyet and Tori Amos, they're an influence on how it sounds.