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 woman 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 in 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, eight of the first ten films of her career were in Telugu.