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Debut and recognition, 2003–2005
When D'Souza was offered a role in Tujhe Meri Kasam, initially she turned it down, as she was not keen to pursue a career in acting. But the crew insisted and kept contacting her for two months, and she agreed when she saw the Telugu version of the movie. Tamil director, S. Shankar, was impressed with her performance in the Parker Pen commercial and decided to cast her in a leading role in his 2003 Tamil film Boys. D'Souza was selected among 300 girls, who had auditioned for the movie. She signed three movies simultaneously in three different languages, Tujhe Meri Kasam (Hindi), Boys (Tamil), and Satyam (Telugu).
D'Souza's professional movie career began, with her Bollywood debut Tujhe Meri Kasam in 2003. Indian film critic Taran Adarsh noted, "Genelia is a wonderful performer. She catches you unaware with a performance that's natural to the core." The movie garnered poor box office returns, and it failed to propel her career in Bollywood. Following her poor debut in Bollywood, she decided to act in South Indian films. Later the same year, she made her Tamil debut as the teenage girl Harini in Boys, a story about five teenagers having stereotypical teen-boy fantasies. The movie, though noted for its vulgar sexual content, was a box-office success, and subsequently she started receiving Telugu film offers. She left Tamil cinema for a while to concentrate on the Telugu film industry. She made her Telugu debut in 2003 as a medical student in Satyam. Sify noted in their review that, "Genelia is excellent as her body language is her major asset." The movie was well received, and it raised her profile in the Telugu film industry.
In 2004, D'Souza appeared in her second Bollywood movie, Masti. The comedy focuses on three close friends who reunite after three years, but are now married and are being harassed by their wives. D'Souza portrayed the character of one of the wives. Taran Adarsh was complimentary of D'Souza's role, saying, "Amongst the wives, Genelia is the best, [...] Genelia looks the stern and demanding wife and is sure to be noticed." The film fared well at the UK box office. The same year, she appeared in two Telugu movies Samba, and Sye, both succeeding at the box-office.
After appearing in her first Telugu movie in 2005, Naa Alludu, she starred in the Tamil romantic entertainer Sachein. A review in The Hindu noted, "Genelia, who hardly made an impression in Boys, makes much impact in Sachein." The movie evoked mixed response from audiences, but was well received with the younger generation. She later appeared in the Telugu patriotic movie Subhash Chandra Bose.
Turning point in South Indian films, 2006–April 2008
The year 2006 marked a significant turning point in D'Souza's career. She completed two Telugu movies in early 2006, one was the romantic comedy Happy, and the other was Raam. She then portrayed the role of Haasini, a vibrant, effervescent and a happy-go-lucky young girl, in the 2006 Telugu romantic film Bommarillu. The movie, a blockbuster at the box-office, grossed 250 million (US$5.58 million) in India, and also won the 2006 Golden Nandi award. Her character was well-received, and garnered her the Telugu Filmfare Award for Best Actress, besides Nandi Special Jury Award and Santosham Award for Best Actress. Sify concluded about her acting in their review that, "The scene stealer is Genelia with her innocent looks and cute mannerisms. She does not overact and we just fall in love with her character. Genelia looks like a dream in chic skirts and is the life of the party and raises the bar of the film."
Following the success of Bommarillu, D'Souza played the role of the daughter of a local don, in the Tamil gangster film Chennai Kadhal. Rediff criticized her commenting, "Genelia stands up yet again to prove the point that if you are pretty and well dressed, you can get away with anything, without acting." Shortly afterwards in 2007, D'Souza played the role of sister of a notorious gangster in the blockbuster Telugu movie Dhee, set against a gang war backdrop.
The following year, D'Souza appeared in the 2008 Telugu romantic thriller Mr. Medhavi, in which she portrayed the role of a student from Canada. The movie was successful, with Rediff complimenting her performance saying, "Genelia is her effervescent self – full of joie-de-vivre and lights up the screen." She made her Kannada debut in Satya In Love the same year. Later, she was cast in a leading role in Santhosh Subramaniam, a Tamil remake of Bommarillu. The film also turned out to be rather successful as its predecessor. Sify described D'Souza's portrayal as "the soul of the film" and the film's "biggest strength", however Rediff described her character as "appears a little too good to be true."
Return to Bollywood and recent work, June 2008–present
In June 2008, following a nearly five year hiatus in Bollywood, she appeared in Mere Baap Pehle Aap, which failed to make profit at the box-office. A Rediff review noted, "besides her apparent cuteness, brings in tons of freshness and traits to the youthful characters she chooses to play", while a Sify review criticized her stating, "Genelia is sprightly but has a standard two-three expressions bank in this film." She later appeared in the Telugu love story Ready alongside Ram, which was well received. Her breakthrough performance in 2008 was through the portrayal of the role of Aditi Mahant in the blockbuster Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, which was an economic success across India and overseas, grossing 564.1 million (US$12.58 million).
Her role was widely admired for her sweetness and freshness, and new style of acting, with Rediff describing her acting as a "spark that has been missing in Hindi cinema for well over a decade now". In that same year, D'Souza acted in the Telugu romantic comedy Sasirekha Parinayam. The movie received favorable reviews, and Sify noted in their review that, "The life of the film is definitely Genelia and she has shown the varied emotions from innocence, sadness, romance and anger in equal proportions without a hitch."
In 2009, D'Souza was cast in the Hindi film Life Partner, in which she was criticized for her performance. Indian fim critic Rajeev Masand commented, "The adorable little imp from Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na has turned into a nagging harridan in this film, and how you wish she'd immediately enroll for acting lessons." Her next appearance in 2009 was in the Telugu thriller Katha, which was well received, and for which she won the 2009 Nandi Special Jury Award. In 2010, D'Souza appeared in Chance Pe Dance, Uthamaputhiran, and Orange, all three receiving poor reviews from critics.
D'Souza had a major role in 2011, starring as the Muslim warrior princess Ayesha of Arackal, in the Malayalam film Urumi. The film is about a fictional story happening in Kerala during the 15th century, about a boy who plots to assassinate the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama. She learned horse riding, and spent two weeks of training to use the sword, the short stick, and movements of the Dravidian martial art Kalarippayattu.
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