Manju Warrier recently appeared in Chathur Mukham, a techno-horror film. Her recent Tamil film Asuran won the National Award for Best Feature In Tamil with Dhanush winning the Best Actor award. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan she speaks about how she got into films and her Tamil debut in Asuran, and wonders whether the distinction between hero- and heroine-oriented films matters anymore. Edited Excerpts…
You got your first film offer at the age of sixteen. Did you know what acting was by then? Was your brother in movies by that point?
No, my brother wasn't. We were a little family who enjoyed watching movies every weekend. Literally every film that came out, we watched it during the weekend. Our father used to take us to the theatre. The movie offer came to me after the state-level school youth festival. I was the individual champion for a year and my photographs were on magazine covers. The film's makers saw them and came to me. I never imagined that I would become an actress, never thought beyond going to theatres. My parents and relatives were happy and supportive.
When you look back, what did acting mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
In the first innings I worked for three years and was only delivering what the director said. Now I am a part of it. I enjoy the process much more nowadays. I feel more involved.
How do you know a project will work? Does instinct play a part?
I would imagine myself sitting in the theatre and watching the film with the audience. If I feel engaged, I would go ahead with it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Do you enjoy watching yourself in Kaliyattam or Summer in Bethlehem? Do you love watching yourself on a monitor?
No, I make a weird reaction when I watch, not only my initial films but even Chathur Mukham, I react the same way. I only find faults when I watch myself on screen. I am never satisfied with my own performance. I enjoy others' performances.
You said nowadays you are involved in every stage of production. Do you internalize the character before shoots?
I have no idea, I wish I could explain, but I don't know how to explain the process of my acting.
How was your experience in Asuran, would you call yourself a director's actress?
Asuran was one good experience. I was feeling nervous and told Vetrimaaran to correct me without hesitation if I did something wrong. He told me that he wasn't clear about the character and we would find out along the path. But he said that only for my sake, he knew very well what he was doing. I was worried that I should not fall short of the excellence of Dhanush and Vetrimaaran. They both might seem like they're unclear and nervous but they are excellent at their work. I feel very comfortable being a director's actor. I completely trust a director's judgement.
What made you take such a long time to debut in Tamil?
There are multiple factors. Some scripts were good but we couldn't work the dates out. Even Dhanush sir called me for a couple of projects before but I couldn't manage the dates. I did not find some scripts attractive either. In Asuran, everything shaped out well together. I am happy that Asuran is my first Tamil film. I couldn't think of a better debut with a brilliant team. The film was actually well recognized at the National Awards—best Tamil film and Dhanush won best Actor. It all proved that my choice was right.
Rumours were heard that you're considering your first Hindi project. Is that true?
Yes, it's true. I am doing a film called Amriki Pandit with Madhavan. The shoot was going on in Bhopal when Madhavan was tested positive for Covid. So, we rescheduled. Now, as there's a lockdown in Bhopal, we are waiting for things to settle down. I am very excited about the project. I am speaking Hindi and we are also shooting with live sound.
What was more difficult? Speaking Nellai Tamil slang in Asuran or speaking Hindi?
In Asuran, I had an option. If I messed up my lines during the shoot, I could manage it in dubbing. But in Hindi, we are shooting it in live sound and that's more challenging. I have learnt Hindi in school and I am trying to speak it convincingly. So far, we are happy with it.
Do you call this a golden age for heroine-oriented films?
I think we are in a space where even words like heroine-oriented and hero-oriented are irrelevant. Nowadays it's all about the film's quality. The audience accepts it irrespective of the protagonist's gender if the film is good. It's very positive to see this kind of open-mindedness in the audience. People are aware of terms like the subject, director, the edit, script. People are exposed to such international quality content.