Manju Warrier, who made her Tamil debut in the recently-released Asuran, 24 years after her first Malayalam film Sakshyam, discusses her Tamil connect, how the business has changed for female-oriented scripts and if she really was to play Shakti in Alaipayuthe. Excerpts.
I'm sure you've had to answer this question many times, and I know that you grew up in Nagercoil till you were 10, but how do you manage to speak Tamil so well?
I grew up in Nagercoil, but beyond that I think there was always this love for Tamil within me. At home, we still find ourselves slipping into Tamil, especially when were having fun and joking around. Of course, I do watch a lot of Tamil movies and listen to songs. On certain days, someone at home will start speaking in Tamil, and the rest of the day will see all of us speaking in Tamil. It is very much a part of my family. Back when my father was around, we visited Nagercoil at least once a year. We would go for two or three days, see the old rented house we used to live in, drive around, see our old school, meet my dance teacher … it's like a trip down memory lane.
Did you also learn how to read and write Tamil then?
Yes yes. In fact I read the script of Asuran in Tamil. Even the scene sheets that were given to me during the shoot were in Tamil. I have a special nostalgic connect with Tamil.
That's impressive. So your Tamil lessons from back then are good enough to read an entire script today?
I think it's like cycling or learning how to swim. The languages you learn early on in your life remain a part of you. I too have those days when Tamil doesn't flow like the other languages I know, but that can happen with any language, right? Watching movies and songs ensure we don't forget.
Knowing the language and being able to speak it is one thing. But what about using that in acting, that too when a film such as Asuran requires a strong Tirunelveli dialect?
The first week of Asuran's shoot was difficult. I guess I unnecessarily created this complex within me. I thought people would laugh if I were to make a mistake. But they were kind. Both Vetri sir and Dhanush made it comfortable for me. And, as days went by, I became as comfortable in this film as I would be in a Malayalam film.
Generally, how do you approach a scene? Do you try to learn and then deliver a particular dialogue or are you more flexible, improvising or changing it to make it more convincing?
Speaking specifically about Asuran, it wasn't so rigid that every word had to be precise. Because, we knew that we would fix the dialect during dubbing. So, a couple of words being interchanged wasn't such an issue. In Malayalam too, many directors are fine with us making changes as long as the meaning remains the same. There are also a few who want us to use those exact words. It is, of course, the director's call.
Which of these are you most comfortable with?
It's not about my comfort now, is it? (Laughs) Giving the director what he/she wants is my comfort. So if the director wants me to use those exact lines, I'm happy to learn them by rote and speak them as naturally as I can.
What about improvisations? Do you enjoy them?
See, even in Asuran, Vetri sir would bring the scene to us and ask us to give him a couple of options on how we would do it. He'll see what we're doing and take what he likes. He'll look out for details in what we try, and ask Velraj, the DOP, to capture that aspect of our performance. There were many occasions when we would first perform that scene and the camera setup would be planned around that.
If we were to speak about your acting, would it be fair to call you a very natural actor? Like it was an inborn talent more than something you had to develop over time?
I think I'm a very bad actor. It's not that I'm trying to sound very modest, but I've never felt satisfied with my performances. When I watch my films again, I can only spot the mistakes. And, I think that's the case with a lot of actors. But when it comes to my performances, I've generally received a better response when I've tried to do a scene spontaneously, rather than when it is rehearsed.
Since you've been acting for so long, does the process ever get easier, like how a skill is developed?
No no. Not at all. Because the effort in acting is to never do the same thing again, because you have to figure out a way to not repeat yourself.
How do you do that? Is it by looking at the monitor after every shot?
I think we get an idea if we're repeating ourselves. If we were to repeat the same mannerisms and the same style of acting in multiple films, we can sense the audience getting tired. The effort is to not reach that point.
For someone like me, who grew up in the 90s, your characters remain one of the striking images that come to mind when I think of cinema of that decade. Yet, you were active for just three-odd years. What were the factors that lead to the creation of such a strong impact?
I don't know. It's not like I planned anything. It was my instinct that asked me to quit acting. It was the same instinct that asked me to start acting again. I need to give all the credit for that to the directors and writers who made those films.
Those makers may have been around even before and after that period. But, when you started acting, roles for female characters started changing. They became stronger and directors could write heavier scenes because you were in it. For instance, that scene you got in a film like Pathram. It is, perhaps, the first time the entire audience whistled for a female character tearing apart a male character.
I could not gauge the depth or the importance of such scenes back then. I would enjoy the process of doing them, but I would never analyse their depth. It is only now that I'm able to really appreciate those aspects of a character or a scene. May be, also because of the experiences I've now accumulated in life.
Have you ever thought of how your career would have shaped up had you made your debut in the 2010s. Aren't the scripts and the characters more interesting now?
I have never thought about it like that. I believe everything has a time and it happens for a reason. But even when I worked on Asuran, I was as nervous as I was when I made my debut.
Have the reasons for selecting a script changed now compared to the 90s?
In the 90s, I would listen to a script along with my parents. If they liked it, it also meant that I liked it. But back then, I didn't really have to choose films. I worked with senior directors. So, after a film with Sathyan Anthikad, I'd be working with either Sibi Malayil, Shaji Kailas or Joshiy. Things are different now. I select my films. I still can't break down a script and analyse it so it is difficult to make a judgement. So, I try to keep it simple… 'Will I go watch that film in the theatre?' I ask myself. If yes, I go ahead. Take Lucifer, for instance, I would have watched that movie in the theatre even if I wasn't a part of it.
Is it more difficult to say yes to a film when you're playing the lead, when compared to films where there are other stars sharing the burden?
See, a film doesn't become appealing, just because it is female-oriented. People only come to the theatre if it's a good movie, and that includes a lot of other factors. The script is more important than if it is male- or female-oriented.
But, don't you think the business aspect of a female-oriented script is more promising now? Hasn't it become more viable and safer to invest in female lead actors?
But, at the end of the day, it's the quality of the film that matters. The concepts, of course, are very interesting now. Take Kolamavu Kokila, for instance. It is very inspiring that such films are being made.
Beyond that, films such as Kolamavu Kokila are also getting a big opening now.
That's because Nayanthara is starring in it.
Your films also get a big opening now, don't they?
Is it so? Good, if it does (laughs). It comes from the audience's trust that I won't do an ordinary film. So, it becomes my responsibility to keep living up to those expectations. One has to be very very critical of the films one chooses.
What do you think is the difference between male superstardom and female superstardom? For a male actor, the natural progression is usually to act in big budget action films with low-angle shots, punch dialogues and slow motion. But, for female superstars, one feels it is still only about doing great content.
It's again the subject. Slow motion shots make sense only if the film and that character warrants it. If it doesn't, it will look out of place even for male stars. The same way, if there is a need to use a low angle or slow motion to add heft to a particular kind of character, then I too will get slow motion (laughs).
Let me just get this clarified once and for all. Were you supposed to play the lead in Mani Ratnam's Alaipaayuthe?
So I have heard from many people. But, it's not like Mani Ratnam sir met and approached me directly for that role. I have never tried to reach out to him to clarify that. But, I'd like to believe that he did want me in it. Let's keep it that way (laughs).