A young woman wants to study after marriage, but the groom isn’t so keen on this display of individuality on her part. In real life, this casual smashing of a bride’s dreams would hardly raise an eyebrow. However, the upcoming Malayalam release Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey focuses on this specific point and asks a question: What if she says yes when he says no?
Actor Darshana Rajendran, who plays the role of Jaya, started her career as a supporting actor in Malayalam and Tamil films in 2014. She used to be known as the ‘Bawra Mann’ girl after she sang the famous Hindi song in a scene in Aashiq Abu’s romantic thriller Mayaanadhi (2017). But five years down the line, she had a song in her own name – the viral ‘Darshana’ song from Hridayam in which she plays one of the female leads.
Directed by Vipin Das, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey is scheduled for release on October 28, and Darshana Rajendran has lots to say about the film and her journey in the Malayalam film industry.
I get the feeling that 'tis the season for Darshana at last! From playing supporting roles to having a song in your name in Hridayam and now playing the titular character in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, do you feel you’ve finally found your place in the industry?
It is indeed a big deal for me to be on posters and playing the titular character. But I should say that I’ve looked at all the characters I’ve played in the same way. Even now, if someone offers me one of those smaller characters I’ve done, I would still think of doing them. People used to tell me not to do the small roles because I may get stuck in them. I got that a lot, especially from people who knew that I could do more. But today, I think I’m being considered for all kinds of roles – and I see that as the best place to be in.
You've done quite a few intense roles in the past while this seems to be a comedy. Did you enjoy the shift? Does humour come naturally to you?
I’ve done a lot of humour on stage. I really enjoyed that phase. In theatre, we function as an ensemble and this idea that you will play only a certain kind of role isn’t there. In films, if you prove to be a good crier once, you end up being considered for a lot of ‘crying’ roles. At the end of the day, I should say that this is how I got many of those intense roles. But I’m happy to have done those films.
In Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, neither my co-star Basil Joseph nor I are doing comedy, but the situation is funny. It’s a sarcastic take on what’s happening. Basil is very instinctual with his timing, and when you share screen space with someone like that, you tend to get into that mode as well. It was a very new experience for me.
I remember watching films like Kaliveedu (1996) in the Nineties and thinking it was so unfair to Manju Warrier's character. We seem to have come a long way from there, seeing marriage from the perspective of someone like Jaya or the nameless woman in The Great Indian Kitchen (2021). Is this Malayalam cinema being woke or do you think such a societal shift has happened?
Absolutely, I do feel we have travelled a lot in terms of perspective. I know many men were offended by The Great Indian Kitchen, and that’s exactly why the film was so successful! It woke people up. These are films that really change the way we think about things we’ve seen all along. We’ve seen it happening with our mothers and grandmothers. It’s a very familiar setting.
In my film, too, we’re looking at the marriage purely through Jaya’s eyes. I’m really glad that these stories are coming out. We’re not done yet – there’s more to say! These films may be in the same bracket, but their approach is different.
What can you tell us about Jaya, the character you’re playing?
The things about Jaya that really excited me are things I cannot talk about before the release. There is some exaggeration, you can even say it’s extreme – but I feel it’s necessary to do that when telling such stories.
Jaya’s world is very different from my setting, my upbringing, the agency I’ve had in my life. It really required me to step into another world. There’s a lot more to Jaya than what you’ve seen in the promos. We have some surprises in store for you.
Is that also why there are four Jayas in the title?
(Laughs) It’s meant to be a celebration of Jaya, that’s all. But I’m glad my character’s name appears four times in the title!
Actor Kani Kusruti in a recent interview said that young actors these days seldom transform into the character once they've tasted success. They play all characters like their real selves. As an actor, how do you get past this temptation to do whatever you're familiar with and try for something new each time?
What she said is very true. You rarely see people turn into a character. I can say this is true of me too. I don’t get to do the kind of shifts I used to do in theatre in cinema. This happens for multiple reasons. It’s not only my job to turn into that character. Let’s say you rehearse for 100 days and you’re playing this role for 60 days. Somewhere down the line, you’re able to find something new in all the workshopping that happens.
With films, the process tends to be internal and text-based. People do a lot of work with makeup and costumes but the rest, I don’t know. I can think of 10 people I’ve seen onstage who look and feel completely different according to the role, but when it comes to films, we don’t get that sort of time. We’re not working enough towards that. It’s not that I’m a lazy actor, it’s just difficult to find that kind of unique physicality without workshopping. Often, the first day you’re playing a character is the first day you’ve been this person.
I asked this because you were this paavam penkutty (innocent girl) in C U Soon (2020) and quite badass in Aanum Pennum (2021). Then came Hridayam (2022) in which you were the beautiful almost-villain. I was pretty sure you were going to burn the bride's dress! How much do you allow yourself to be taken in by a character when you are shooting for a film?
I always separate myself from the role that I’m playing. I know it isn’t me. But I take it all very seriously and the character stays with me for a while. I take back something from all these roles. I loved playing the pennu in Aanum Pennum. Like you said, she’s a complete badass.
Even with Jaya, I used to wonder why she’s doing this, why isn’t she saying something, why can’t she fight? But playing her has made me look at that world also with a lot more empathy. I don’t get messed up by the characters I play though – at least, not yet! But, I should say that there is always a void when a shoot comes to an end. You miss the people you shot with, the routine you’ve built and the world you created together. I struggle with finding my grounding each time I return from a shoot.
Dear Friend (2022) was a lovely film, and you had such a wonderful role as Jannath in it. But the film didn't work in theatres. How did you deal with the disappointment?
Dear Friend was very special for all of us who were involved in it. When we make something with so much love, and which worked so well for us, it is disappointing when it doesn’t do well. But, this was actually not supposed to be a theatrical release. When we were all on board, it was supposed to be a direct OTT release. But somewhere down the line, the rules of the OTT platforms started to change and they wanted a theatrical release before it came on OTT.
We knew that the first set of audience that was going to watch it for friendship and fun was going to be disappointed by it. But we weren’t prepared for it to not find any audience in theatres at all. We knew this was going to be a niche audience film and it looks like very, very few of the people we had in mind went to watch it. It took us a while to accept it because we’d all cherished this film so much.
When it came out on OTT, it finally found its audience. For me, it was very special working with a bunch of people who knew this wasn’t a safe choice. The makers could have thought of multiple endings that worked for everyone but they were sure about what they were doing and they stuck to it. I loved being a part of that. I’m happy to enter spaces that may or may not work.
I was looking at your educational background and I saw that you studied mathematics, financial economics and then later worked in the field of microeconomics. None of this screams 'actor' and yet, here we are. How did you decide to take this leap?
I had nothing to do with acting though I was involved in music and dance in school and college. It happened by chance. I went to Chennai for work after all this education – and I happened to meet the only person I knew in Chennai who was, coincidentally, into theatre. He asked me to go along with him for an audition since I could sing. I told him I didn’t want to act but he said this was a kind of pantomime and that singing and dancing were required. Since it was a new city and nobody knew me, I thought it would be okay to do it. I never imagined that it would take over my life.
I continued to work and do theatre for about four years because I was still exploring things. Then I realised this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to invest more in theatre and thought I could get back to my job if it didn’t work out. But everything I did after that was my way of not getting back to my job! I quit in 2014, and it was difficult to keep doing theatre while sustaining myself. I did a lot of things – storytelling, dubbing and voiceover work. Cinema, too, was a way to pay my bills so I wouldn’t have to go back to my job. But just as my journey with theatre became serious after a point, it happened with films too. Now I think if I’m not responsible for five other people, and it’s just me, I will continue to do this because it makes me happy.
When you're trying to carve out a space for yourself, there are always a couple of films that make the industry and the audience see you differently. Which of your films would you say achieved that?
C U Soon was my first outing where I got that sort of attention — a film that a lot of people watched and everyone discussed my performance. In Hridayam, I was seen in a completely different light. Suddenly, this commercial space that I wasn’t occupying previously opened up for me. Mayaanadhi also got me noticed though it was a small role. Virus (2019) was the first time I was cast opposite a lead, so that was new too. I’ve done this consciously because I want to keep pushing myself a little further with every film. I’m glad the audience is able to see me in these different roles.