In hindsight, can you think of another actor who could have played Babymol in last year's Kumbalangi Nights? How about another Helen in Helen? Anna Ben owns her parts for sure, but more than anything else, she has that rare ability to take you along with her wherever her characters go, even if it's into a hell-like deep freezer or a sidey lodge you want to stay TF away from. Excerpts from a spoiler-filled conversation a fortnight after the OTT release of Kappela on Netflix.
Let's begin with the lockdown. What would you have been doing in the first week of July if not for COVID 19?
Working on one of my projects, which we had to stop midway because of Corona. It's a thriller and I have a lot of action sequences. My character is feisty and has a temper. I was also supposed to start another film by July, directed by Antony who made C/O Saira Bhanu. Of course, no one is sure anymore.
How has the lockdown been for you?
It can be very difficult for me to just sit and do nothing. It can really affect one's mental health. I've just been catching up on a few series. I also like cooking, so I've learnt a thing or two from my mom. And then some painting, art and craft … I enjoy spending time with my sister. It's so much about trying to keep yourself engaged, isn't it?
That way, it looks like the Netflix release of Kappela has been keeping you busy. Is that not strange for a film which released months ago, especially for how it's being spoken about outside of Kerala?
Yeah the film is very much alive and people are talking about it a lot now. We've also been getting some great reviews. I knew it was a good movie after I watched it. It was our director's first movie and he made it with a lot of heart. We expected good reviews too, but I didn't foresee the kind of response it's getting now, especially from outside Kerala. Kumbalangi had found a good response from outside Kerala. Helen too is getting remade in Tamil now.
What's the deal here? You've chosen to be a part of three very interesting films. Is it just a matter of your taste in scripts doing wonders for you?
I'm sure luck is a factor too, because it's always a gamble to put something out. Of course, we do everything we can to make it the best film, but that's all one can really do. I think it's luck backed by hard work. Kappela came to me right before I started shooting for Helen. I did get a couple of other films too at that point, but I was not convinced. I felt someone else could do it better than me. Actually, I really don't know. I just happened to pick these three.
Now that we know how the film plays out, I'm interested in knowing how it was narrated…
Director Musthafa didn't bring a script, but he narrated the story from his POV. He's a really good storyteller and he's from Calicut, so he's got this ability to take you along as he's narrating it, even if it is all those small jokes. I immediately fell in love with my character. She was so innocent. I then asked him a few questions to understand her better. And when I read the script from my POV, I had doubts, which we sat together and worked on.
When you were listening to the story for the first time, what was going through your mind when you're at that part when Jessie starts talking to Vishnu on the phone?
I usually take a day or two before I decide, so there was no pressure as to what I was going to tell him once the narration is over. The narration was really fast, so I didn't have the time to think about it, apart from being totally immersed. But if you're referring to the film's major twist, then I really, really didn't see it coming.
Was it important that you chose a character that was different, at least in terms of demographics, from Baby and Helen?
I'm generally open to the idea of a good script, no matter what. But I have to prioritise the fact that I need to do different characters because I'm at the start of my career. I see these three characters as very different people. Jessie is naïve and she's from a really small village. Each character has been a journey of its own.
What's it like to build these characters? Can you give me an example to explain the process?
For Helen, because it's a survival thriller, I did my own research and I learnt that the character needs a lot of layers because it's just her in most scenes. You need to be very sure because you're literally exploring all aspects of that character. Beyond the script, I did a character study of Helen to understand what she was like as a kid, tracing the incidents that may have affected her life. I wrote them down and talked to my director. These things help me convince myself that I'm Helen.
What about Jessie?
That was a totally different geography for me. I've always lived close to the city, so it was harder for me to get her. So, I went to the shooting spot a week before and stayed there. I used to go for walks around the place and talk to the people there to pick up their mannerisms to help me with the character. It's different with each character, actually.
So you have to start from scratch each time, like a new semester in college?
Oh my god, there's just so much of learning. I thought I'd learnt some techniques after Kumbalangi, but it's all been so different and new after that. The people you're working with are different and I'm just trying to adapt to their styles. I don't want to be stubborn about my methods.
Given the assimilation that's happened with these three characters, let me ask you a hypothetical question. There's already a lot of controversy surrounding the views Kappela puts forth and its conclusion. I want to know how differently Baby and Helen would have reacted to a guy like Vishnu (Roshan Mathew)?
I'm sure Baby wouldn't have even bothered with a guy like Vishnu. She has better things to do. She is a no bullshit kind of girl. "If you want to meet me, meet me in person and ask me what you want to" – that would have been her stand. And, obviously, she wouldn't have been forced into a marriage she's not interested in. I think Baby would have just asked Vishnu to piss off.
What about Helen?
I think Helen has too many things going on in her life. I don't think Helen will entertain a wrong number. Her priorities are very different. She has a family to take care of and she's very career-oriented, so I don't think a guy like this would try anything with her.
What about the bus station scenes? Do you see them reacting very differently?
I don't see Baby or Helen panicking at a bus station when they don't find a person.
Can we go a little deeper into your process of analysing a script? More than what a film might do for your career, do you get into the nitty-gritty of the script?
I do, and I think that's because dad (scriptwriter Benny P Nayarambalam) has contributed so much to my understanding. I've grown up listening to how he approaches movies. Things like what's a dialogue that works, and what's one that doesn't. I think these are things that've been in my head. So, when I listen to scripts, it subconsciously helps me.
What's a discussion with your dad about a potential script like?
Sometimes, my dad sits with me when I'm listening to a narration. I might miss out on certain things, so I want a second person to be with me. If he hasn't listened to it, then I take the script to him and ask him to read it. He also tries to talk from the viewer's point of view, rather than the technicalities. Simple things like, "Is this dialogue communicating what it wants to?"
Give me an example of a suggestion you've made after reading a script? Is it something like, "I don't think Jessie would say that" or do you mostly see the script in its entirety?
It can be both. Initially, it's about the script and how engaged I am to the film's second half. The first half may have slower scenes but the second half must pick up pace…something like that. That's one way I look at the structure of the script. When you get out of the theatre, you still remember a movie if the second half worked for you, especially the ending.
But how did you pick up this theory?
Dad, of course! He keeps insisting on how a film's second half has to be gripping no matter what. Your only developing points until then.
So, in a strange way, the rules of scriptwriting are helping the actor in you choose these films…
(Laughs) His writing or his acting in theatre, I've always looked up to it, so that's bound to influence my thought process.
Was that the main reason you thought of acting as a career choice?
I went to St. Teresa's College and many actresses are our alumni. Auditions keep happening, and it's common to bunk class and attend them. But I didn't have the guts to really go for one because I felt my dad would somehow find out, and I wasn't sure if he would be ok with it. I learnt fashion designing so I was always busy. But when Charlie came out, it became one of my favourite films. And I knew that they had come to college for auditions and I felt like I missed out on something. It's just one of those films you wish you could be a part of. And then I moved to Bangalore and met a group of people who had worked on Anandhan. They are major movie buffs and they watch everything. I guess I was always surrounded by cinema, but that one year in Bangalore is when I immersed myself into that world. I also started attending auditions after that, but I never got a call back.
Was there a lot of disappointment?
No, not really. I just wanted to know how auditions worked. I wanted to know if I'd be able to face a crowd. It was mostly for the fun of it.
So there was no pressure…
I generally try not to exert any pressure on myself. Of course, I'm happy if I get it, but if I don't, I am never the kind to feel bad. Even when I had gotten to the final stage of auditions for Kumbalangi, I was prepared to think that they could replace me with someone on the final day. My dad keeps saying how things in cinema are final only when you see them in the theatre.
But I'm curious to understand why you didn't tell anyone in Kumbalangi that you are Benny P Nayarambalam's daughter. Was it something you did to prove your worth or yourself?
I didn't want to get a movie just because of my dad and do something stupid that would embarrass him. I had no idea if I could even act. Even my dad didn't know, so how can he speak for me? And why would he pressurise someone into casting me because it might work? So, I wanted to figure it out by myself. Even otherwise, I don't think it matters who you are if the auditions are fair.
And because you were chosen for a film like Kumbalangi on your own, does it give you a level of confidence of having earned your place?
People get into movies through many different ways. It could be because they are connected or through auditions. But a struggle is invariable. My dad's name really helped me once I got in because I know almost everyone, and they always make me feel comfortable. In a way, the respect he gets rubs off on me too, and I'm grateful for that. All I can do is work extra hard and not ruin that. Eventually, you want people to accept you for your work more than anything else.
Which is something you've already achieved right? I'm sure a lot of people who like your work haven't even made the connection.
I'm proud either way. I'm just as proud to be known as his daughter.