Shriya Saran was born in the Dehradun / Haridwar region of Uttarakhand in Northern India to Pushpendra Saran and Neeraja Saran. Her father worked for Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited and her mother was a chemistry teacher in Delhi Public School, Ranipur in Haridwar. Saran completed her schooling there and at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road. Her family lived in the small town of BHEL colony in Haridwar when she was growing up. She later studied at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature. Saran is an accomplished dancer. She was first trained as a child by her mother in Kathak and Rajasthani folk dance, and later trained in Kathak style by Shovana Narayan. She was involved with many dance teams in college and with her teacher. They would incorporate social issues into their dance routines. She has a brother named Abhiroop who lives in Mumbai.
While in her sophomore year at the LSR College in Delhi, Saran got her first opportunity to appear in front of the camera for a video shoot. Following her dance teacher’s recommendation, she was invited to appear in the music video of Renoo Nathan’s “Thirakti Kyun Hawa”. Shot in Banaras, the video was seen by Ramoji Films who offered her the lead role of Neha in their film Ishtam. Saran accepted the part, and even before it was released she was signed to four more films, including Nuvve Nuvve, in which she played a millionaire’s daughter who falls for a middle class man. In 2002, she starred in Santosham, co-starring Nagarjuna, Prabhu Deva and Gracy Singh, which was her first commercial success. The film took the Nandi Award for Best Feature Film and Filmfare Best Film Award (Telugu). Saran played a girl who lets someone she loves go with another, but wins him back later in life. For her performance, she earned a nomination for the CineMAA Award for Best Actor- Female, giving her a good foothold in the Telugu industry in the early part of her career.
In 2003, Saran acted a supporting role in her first Hindi film, Tujhe Meri Kasam, starring debutants Ritesh Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza in leading roles. She also performed the lead female role in several Telugu films including Tagore, which was screened at the International Indian Film Academy Awards, and was a commercial success. She followed it with her Tamil film debut in Enakku 20 Unakku 18, alongside Tarun and Trisha Krishnan, which was simultaneously shot in Telugu as Nee Manasu Naaku Telusu, in which she played a football coach. Though she acted in films in three languages that year, overall eight of the first ten films of her career were in Telugu.
In 2004, Saran acted in two Hindi and two Telugu films, including Nenunnanu, where she played a student in classical singing. She had ten 2005 releases, nine of which were Telugu films, the most notable for her being Chatrapathi. There she appeared opposite Prabhas, and earned her first nomination for the Filmfare Best Telugu Actress Award. A reviewer for Moviebuzz said that as an action film, Saran’s character of the lead’s love interest was not well developed; that she was there primarily for the songs. Meanwhile, she tried to make her comeback in Tamil with Mazhai, a remake of the Telugu film Varsham. Neither the movie nor her performance were received well. Also in 2005, she appeared as one of only three characters in the film Mogudu Pellam O Dongodu, which was about a married couple’s first night together, and made a guest appearance in a children’s film called Bommalata, which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu. Saran’s only lead role in 2006, excluding three special appearances, was in the Tamil film Thiruvilayadal Arambam.
In 2007, she was chosen to play the lead female role opposite Rajinikanth in S. Shankar’s Sivaji: The Boss, which was the most expensive Indian film at that time. R. G. Vijayasarathy wrote in his review for Rediff that aside from her beauty, Saran “proves that she can act too”. Her performance earned her a South Scope Style Award for Best Tamil Actress, her first award win, and a nomination at the Vijay Awards. The role also made her a star in the south Indian film industry. During this phase of her career, she made several special appearances in item numbers, including in the films Devadasu, Munna, and Tulasi.
Also in 2007, Saran made her comeback in Hindi cinema with Awaarapan, which was a joint production between India and Pakistan, and in which she played a Muslim girl and had to learn Urdu. This was her fourth Hindi film, but the others had failed to make any impact. Sanjay Ram, writing for Business of Cinema, gave the film 2.5 of 5 stars, and said that Saran provided a brief but compelling performance. Saran later said that the film strengthened her conviction that all religions are equal. Later that year she appeared in one more Tamil film, Azhagiya Tamil Magan opposite Vijay. Though critics exalted her looks, her performance received mixed reviews, with one reviewer, Nandhu Sundharam of Rediff, going so far as to say that her “acting is as bad as her looks are good”. That same year Saran made her Kannada cinema debut with a small part in the film Arasu. In all she appeared in six films in 2007, in four different languages.
In 2008, Saran acted in the Hindi film Mission Istanbul with Zayed Khan, Vivek Oberoi and Shabbir Ahluwalia. She played the character of Anjali Sagar which was inspired by the character of Romila Dutta played by Preity Zinta in the film Lakshya; a journalist who desires to have a child with her husband, which leads to their separation, since he is reluctant. Bollywood Hungama critics said that her character was wasted, as again she gets very little screen time. However, she did pick up the Stardust Exciting New Face Award.
Saran then made her Hollywood debut in Ashok Amritraj’s The Other End of the Line. She played the role of Priya Sethi who works as a telephone operator in an Indian call centre, while acting alongside Jesse Metcalfe, Anupham Kher and Tara Sharma. Shriya’s performance was praised by critics, particularly her on-screen chemistry with Jesse Metcalfe. John Anderson, writing for Variety magazine, said it was “a winning Stateside debut for beautiful Indian actress Shriya Saran.”
Her most important 2009 release was the commercially successful Tamil film Kanthaswamy, alongside Vikram. She earned a nomination at the Vijay Awards. Vikram himself said in a interview that her role was on par with his, and she easily stole the show on most occasions. Of her character in the film, Saran said that it was the best she has done so far. Also that year she appeared as the female lead in Thoranai. A reviewer said that her glamour and the songs were the only high points of the film. For Thoranai and Kanthaswamy together, she received her third award win, the Amrita Mathrubhumi Award for Best Actress. She then appeared in another English film, Cooking with Stella, which is a comedy, but also takes a look at the serious nature of relationships between servants and employers. It was selected to the Toronto International Film Festival, which Saran attended.
In 2010, Saran made her Malayalam debut with Pokkiri Raja, in which she appeared opposite Mammootty and Prithviraj. The film was declared a super hit in the first week, breaking the record in Malayalam cinema for opening week gross income, though it was not received well critically, and it was said of Saran that all she had to do was look pretty. She then enacted her first lead role in a Telugu film after five years, in the commercially successful action-comedy film Don Seenu opposite Ravi Teja, where she plays the sister of a mobster. In the opinion of some critics, she stole the show with her dances and romantic scenes. The year 2010 was her second busiest after 2005, having appeared in eight films in all, this time in four languages.
In 2011, Saran appeared in Rowthiram, where she worked with Tamil actor Jeeva for the first time. The film received fairly low reviews, and Saran was not given much opportunity to show her acting skills, though she does add a romantic touch to this mostly violent film. Aside from that, her only other film in 2011 was a special appearance in a song for Tamil film Rajapattai.