Poornima Bhagyaraj, or 'Prabha' to lakhs of Malayalees, sounds cheerful and excited over the phone on the 40th anniversary of Manjil Virinja Pookal, which released on Christmas Day back in 1980. She has just gotten off the phone with the film's director Fazil and says any conversation about her first film as heroine takes her back to the time when she was just a college student in Bombay, who assumed that a Malayalam film being shot in Kodaikanal would be a nice long holiday from classes. On Christmas Day, between a barrage of phone calls, she makes time to remember the film that didn't just change her life, but Malayalam cinema as well. Excerpts:
Let me start with an easy one. When did you last watch Manjil Virinja Pookal?
Hmmm…a couple of years ago, I think. That too in bits and pieces. A friend told me that it was playing on TV and I remember trying to find that channel. But before that, I must have watched it last during its release period in 1980 or 1981. But I love to watch that film.
When you watch a film that was made so many years ago, can you focus on the film itself or does it take you back to a series of memories?
I don't think I can focus on the story anymore. It's all about the memories and every scene of that film takes me back to that time. Some scenes remind me of how nervous I was back then. Malayalam was a new language for me, and it was nerve-wracking to mug up all those lines the night before shoot. I would ask for my dialogues and then write them down in Hindi to practice. Thankfully, Fazil planned the shoot in such a way that the first few days were mostly without dialogues for me. He gradually increased the pace of shoot and by that time, I had properly understood my character. There was no prompting on the sets, so I had to get my lines right, even if the pronunciation was wrong. It was hard work, but worth it.
What about the actual shoot? Was it a lot of fun or was it mostly work?
It was fun. Shankar, Mohanlal and I were around the same age and we had a lot of fun during the shoot. But we were focussed too. I remember the film's producer Navodaya Appachan waking us up at 5 30 am everyday. Because it was Kodaikanal, I would get some great sleep, but Appachan would be knocking on our doors before sunrise. Within minutes, everyone, including hair, makeup and costumes would be in my room and we would invariably start shoot by 7 30 am. This would go on until late at night on most days. We finished the shoot in 20 to 25 days and it felt like it got over in a flash. I was in my final year of college, so when the shoot got over, I thought my holidays were over too. I'm still very attached to the people I worked with on Manjil.
You had already acted in a few Hindi films then, but in smaller roles. Was the set of a Malayalam film very different?
It was. When the offer came to me, I was already acting in a few Hindi films that were taking years to get completed. But when they said this would only take around 25 days to finish, I was curious to see how. In terms of adjusting to performance, it was all Fazil's help. He's a great actor and he would emote the scene exactly the way he wanted it, so I had just to copy what he was doing. If my acting was at least 50 to 70 per cent as good as Fazil's, I would be happy.
What was the selection process like then? Did you have to audition?
Yes yes. I was trying to get a foothold in the Hindi film industry then. Around that time, I auditioned for a Tamil film to be directed by Balachander sir. I was selected for that, but the film was taking time to get started. My photos were already with the major production houses of that time. Appachan saw my photo with Prasad Productions in Bombay and he asked the film's team to consider me for the role. But I didn't need a screen test. I was asked to narrate a few dialogues for them when they came to Bombay, to see if I could emote. I was also a dancer, so that wasn't really difficult. Plus, I had also acted in a few films. After a week, they called and said that I had been selected.
Did you immediately say yes or did you take time to consider this offer?
I had my doubts, to be honest. Back then, Malayalam cinema had a terrible reputation, especially in the North. I thought I would never do a Malayalam film. So when they selected me for the role, I started listing a set of conditions, mostly things I won't do. Ramesh Prasad of Prasad Productions told me that I had nothing to worry about. He held Navodaya and Appachan in very high regard and told me that they make very respectable films with artistic value. He said I would not get a better company to start with. I was just 20, so I thought this would mean 25 days off from college, that too in Kodaikanal. And, I would be paid for it too!
What did you think about your character?
I knew that it was a serious role and there were many scenes where I got no dialogues, only emotions. Except for the dialogues, I wasn't really worried about the expressions. And when I finally watched the film during some patchwork before release, I was really satisfied with the output. A couple of months later after Christmas, someone from the team called me and told me the film wasn't doing too well. I was really upset. I had put in a lot of work, but what more could I have done? I thought I should forget about it and focus on getting into the Hindi film industry again.
Of course, all that changed…
Yes yes. When I'd given up, everything started to change. The film started picking up and I heard that it became a superhit. I won the State Award too that year, and I was flying. There was no looking back.
Did that change your mind about the industry?
That changed right from the time I landed in Madras. The production took such good care of me. Back then, I was doing character roles in really big Hindi films, but we would notice how differently they treated lead actors and smaller actors like me. I was always playing second fiddle, so when I saw the heroines then, I would wonder if I would ever get to wear their amazing costumes or if I would get to wear makeup like them.
What happened in Madras?
After I landed, they took me straight to a hotel there because the train to Kodai was only next morning. But when I entered my room, it was covered completely with dozens and dozens of costumes. After a while, the costumer and the makeup artist walked in to see me and it was like my life had changed. Finally, something good was happening. I thought, "Oh, this is what heroines must feel like." (laughs)
Appachan became like a father figure. He would eat only after all of us ate and would make sure all of us were very well taken care of. On my flight back to Bombay, he had arranged for two big tins of nendranga and tapioca chips for me to take back, because he had noticed I liked them. I remember thinking I did not want to take any money for this film.
What about your co-stars then? Shankar, and of course, Mohanlal.
You see, Shankar was already a big star by that time. He had acted in Oru Thalai Raagam just before, and he would be mobbed wherever we went. Even in our hotel, we would see Shankar standing in the reception for hours because he kept getting calls from producers in Madras. He had so many fans waiting to see him. Mohanlal and I would see this as we waited for our car, and wonder, "if this will happen to us….would we ever get fans like him." (laughs)
What was your vibe like with them? Did they feel like trained actors then?
Like I said, it was all fun. Because I was from Bombay, these two would look at me like I was very fancy. They kept asking me if I'd seen this or if I'd seen that. I too would gloat and say things like, "You know that I've acted with Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna, right? I know Zeenat Aman." We quickly became friends after that, and the three of us became a hit combo and we had many films together after that. I also learnt so much from them.
Did you sense that Mohanlal was going to be this huge superstar then?
I didn't have any huge expectations from any of us. I was only focussing on the shoot. But, of course, Lal kept polishing himself to the point of becoming one of our best actors. I was away from cinema for a long time and then I worked with Lal again in Jilla, a few years ago. When I saw him then, he was just a different person. Of course, he was the same off camera, but the way he would transform after 'action' was astonishing. So perfect, so precise. He was like a new actor. I'm still in awe of him.
Were you ever worried about starting your career with a big tragedy?
Where do we get an opportunity to think about all that? I still don't think I have a great script sense. I just go with films that sound interesting to me. Even in Tamil, I've done superhits that were tragedies, such as Kilinjalgal. Some of them had happy endings too.
Did you watch Manjil… in theatres then or just the preview?
I watched it again when it released in Mumbai months later. I first went with my family to see if my performance had come out well and if I was looking good. After that, I took my friends. Most of them were North Indians, so I really had to make sure that they would not make fun of me.
But did they understand what was happening?
Even I did not understand what was happening. I knew the meaning of the scenes I was a part of, but not the rest. But we managed to make sense of the whole film. Honestly, it did not feel like I was watching a small Malayalam film. It was so beautiful, and it felt like a Hindi or an English film to me then. And, it was something new even for the Malayali audience.
Talking about the film's overall look, what did you think of its crew because most of them were first timers.
They were all so great. Ashok Kumar, the DoP, composed every shot so beautifully. He made us look so good. And they also had Appachan's son, director Jijo, who was really strong technically.
Did it feel like they were new to it?
I thought Fazil might not have been technically sound. But he had Ashok sir, Jijo and his assistants to help him with that part. But he was amazing when it comes to extracting performances, the dialogues and the whole writing department. He had a strong understanding of the emotions and he could make that connection with the viewer. He would bring out the best in us.
Even the songs by Jerry Amaldev, another newbie, was a chartbuster.
I didn't know that the songs would be discussed even forty years later, but I fell in love with them during the shoot. The melancholy in 'Mizhioram' was just heavenly. Around that time, when I visited the Middle East or something, they just had to play one line from it for people to understand that I was entering. People started calling me Prabha after that.
In fact I remember Dasettan (Yesudas), who had sung the male version, calling me after he watched the film to compliment me. He was one of the first people to do that. His wife is also Prabha and I remember this one incident when I went to shoot for a film in their house in Madras. Their three sons were apparently big fans of the film so they were very excited when I went to shoot there. One of them, Vijay's [Yesudas] older brother, would keep looking for me from behind the curtains. He was crazy about the songs and when the shoot got over, he would ask Prabhachechi, "Matte Prabha evide? (where is the other Prabha?), or "When will matte Prabha come?"
What does your family think about this film?
My husband (director, actor Bhagayaraj) had seen the film even before we met and he said he liked it a lot. My son Shanthnu cannot watch movies where I die in the end.
Is there any one scene that you would call your favourite?
It's tough to name any one. I love every frame of it. I could have done better in a couple of scenes but I admire the film as a whole. I have done only a few other films I feel so strongly about. Olangal, is, perhaps. another. But the climax, with a lengthy dialogue near the fireplace, was especially difficult for me. When Fazil okayed it, it made my day, because I had spent the whole night learning my lines.
Finally, what do you say about the film's legacy? It's one of those films that changed Malayalam cinema itself.
It turned so many people into stars. I was thanking Fazil even today for selecting me because I would not have seen this day if not for him. The songs were a superhit and even the dialogues would keep playing on the radio. At that time, you should know the impact Mohnalal's performance had. It sent chills down my spine while we were shooting but the impact was even bigger. Like how parents would scare children by saying "Gabbar ayega," people in Kerala would say the same about Narimamam/Narendran. Even the trend of getting Bombay heroines for South films, I feel began with this, including Nadia. I was wrong about Malayalam cinema and I realised that some of the strongest female characters were being written there. We got good roles in the 80s and we were not just dummies. I owe everything to the film and its crew.
Is there a dialogue from the film you remember today, after 40 years?
We've had a nice chat. Let us end on a pleasant note…