When tributes and personal notes poured in after Sridevi's death, somewhere one felt the enigma called Sridevi remained intact. No one, not even some of her long-time associates were able to crack the persona behind the star. Or rather there was a huge impenetrable wall she had consciously built around her. True, she was painfully shy during her interactions with the media (journalists used to call her an interviewer's nightmare), but it also had a lot to do with how little she was ready to put herself out in the world. Her magic was strictly restricted to the screen to the point of being called boring off-screen.
Nayanthara, the lady superstar down South has a similar narrative. She almost quit the industry but rose like a phoenix after a bitter break up and came back to bag some of the best roles of her career. She shares a lot in common with the lady superstar of Malayalam cinema, Manju Warrier. Both are extremely guarded about their private life (despite the media persistently digging up stories), both emerged victorious out of personal crises and handled social media and public like seasoned politicians—measured, tightlipped and pleasant. They are also the highest paid actors in their respective industries. Warrier, like Nayanthara, is finicky about her interviews and picks the questions with care. In an industry where men call the shots, what these two actors have achieved makes them superwomen. To cut a long story short, I managed to bag an interview with Manju Warrier.
But the feeling is mixed. From her various interviews, I am aware of the roadblocks in front of me. She is almost a female version of Mohanlal—the same aloof, guarded answers. When told to send a questionnaire, I come up with 30 questions, that will help her (and me) trace her journey as an actor. "It's more of a personal interview they want. Am not very interested in that at the moment. Can we focus on Lucifer?" is her reply. (gulp!)
It's easy to figure out whether a review is constructive or destructive. According to that, I try to imbibe it in my next film. It might get into our psyche without us knowing it
But then I am smug enough to believe that after the initial "routine Lucifer" queries, she will warm up to me. We agree on a 9:30 pm slot on Sunday.
"You said you can't answer a few of the questions. I thought we will start with Lucifer and then see how it goes," I gingerly begin.
"I would rather we focus only on Lucifer," was her gentle, I-dare-you-to-ask-otherwise reply. That instantly diffuses all my smugness. It's also the moment I realise that my mind has gone completely blank. And the 30 questions are flashing hopefully at me from the PC. Damn. "All right," I concede reluctantly. "Thank you very much," she responds.
Right, so yes Lucifer! I'm trying to think—what about Lucifer? One of the most awaited films of this year, directed by Prithviraj, written by Murali Gopy, headlined by Mohanlal. A film where most of the shows have already been pre-booked (March 28). A film that began its marketing campaign with a trailer release in Dubai and its cast and crew spotted at every legit online platform and print media promoting it with passive aggression. What about it? Or what more dope can the famously cagey lady superstar provide me?
So how did you come to Lucifer? That's the safest. "When it was announced, it was the kind of film everyone was looking forward to and wanted to be part of. Then one day Raju comes and narrates it to me. I wasn't friends with him but knew about his passion for filmmaking. His narration was thrilling. And my character will leave a mark. It has so many layers to it."
It's very simple. It's the kind of films I want to watch in theatres. There is no great analysis or breakdown in here. It's about what excites me personally. It can be right or wrong
Prithviraj recently shared a joke on the sets about how his vocabulary put Manju in a quandary. When the actor told her to look "incredulous" for a scene, Manju nodded but still couldn't get it right after several takes. That was when she asked him for the meaning of the term, resulting in bursts of laughter on the sets.
Prithviraj, admits Warrier, never gave her the impression of being a first-time director. Made on a humongous budget, with a superb ensemble of actors and technicians, the film is said to have long sequences and over 1000 junior artists in most frames. "He was calm, poised and patient. On day two, I was as comfortable and confident as working with an experienced director. He knew what and not to add. At the same time, he was quite chilled out on the sets."
As for Mohanlal, with whom she is doing her sixth film (discounting the next-in-waiting Kunjali Marakkar) there is "nervousness and respect." And every experience is as "magical" as the first time.
I am stuck at this point. That is as much I can push Lucifer into this conversation. I try her selection process next. She has always maintained that nothing in her life has been a carefully laid out plan. "It just happened" has been her constant refrain. During her first phase, it is said that films chose her and there wasn't a moment to think what next. In the second innings, it does seem like she has become more discerning—be it Udaharanam Sujatha, C/o Saira Banu or Aami, the selection has been flawless. They are unique, layered and complex characters probably only an actor of her gravitas can pull off. "It's very simple. It's the kind of films I want to watch in theatres. There is no great analysis or breakdown in here. It's about what excites me personally. It can be right or wrong. For now, that's how I work."
When she stepped back into the marquee after 14 years, both cinema and the person had evolved, for the better. But even today watching her on screen is hardly an enjoyable experience for her. "I never had that wow moment when I see myself on screen. I can only find faults."
Mammootty once spoke about doing Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil all over again, given a choice. Are there any characters she would want to do again? "Not really! It's done and I don't think I would want to do it all over again. I would rather look out for new characters."
She debuted at the age of 16 and has never looked back till she voluntarily chose to quit after marriage. And it's impressive that in both phases of her career, she has seldom gone wrong with her selection process. "We live and learn with each character, each frame, each film. One can't keep looking out for advice. You learn a lot by working with experienced and new actors and technicians."
Probably acting has become easier? I wonder aloud. "I don't know. The nervousness is still there but it depends on the character. I love the unpredictability of it. The excitement of exploring a new character and an eagerness to learn the craft are essentials for an actor. I can't give a definition or formula for it."
Her last film, Odiyan, despite having Warrier in fine nick had come under siege for the way it was marketed by its director. Does she enjoy this new responsibility that comes with her profession that wasn't there earlier? "I look at it exactly that way, as a responsibility. Nowadays our actors' job doesn't end with acting, it's as important to sell the film as well. I like this whole concept of teamwork."
If not for social media, one would have never unraveled the deeply profound writer in Warrier. Be it on social issues or just a note about a film or a dear colleague, there is lucidity in her prose, honesty in her thought process. She admits to following a lot of film readings on social media—"It's easy to figure out whether a review is constructive or destructive. According to that, I try to imbibe it in my next film. It might get into our psyche without us knowing it."
I don't remember hearing much about her process as an actor. Directors and writers talk about her "incredible grasping power" and ability to simply slip into any characters with ease. The writer of her upcoming Santosh Sivan film, Jack N Jill, wrote a Facebook post, marvelling at her ability to memorise scripts. "That's because it was written in a way I could quickly memorise it. It's not my greatness," is the typical reply. But it's true that she requires no prompting? "I usually try to avoid it."
During the making of Kanmadam where she played a village blacksmith, AK Lohithadas was astonished at how she changed her demeanor to suit someone from that region and that profession. "I don't have a process as an actor. It depends on each film."
Just as I was wondering whether to call it quits or bring on the next 15 odd questions, she tells me, "I am sorry to disappoint you with my answers."
Do I take that as a green signal? "It's ok. Can I ask one more question?"
"NO" Is the loud and clear reply. I liked that swag.