Not many are aware that Malayalam cinema’s beloved star Manju Warrier was born in Nagercoil and knows Tamil just as well as Malayalam. The actor was 10 years old when she moved to Kerala along with her family.
“My father was working there when my elder brother and I were born. We moved to Kerala when I was about 10,” she says.
A mere seven years later, at the age of 17, Manju would go on to make her film debut in Sakshyam. More than two decades have passed since then and Manju is awaiting the release of Lucifer, in which she stars with Mohanlal and a host of other actors. The film marks Prithviraj’s debut directorial and will see a massive worldwide release.
“It’s very difficult to explain my role in the film. It’s hard to say this is the character because it has all shades, all layers of that of a real life person living in a society like ours. It’s not possible to pinpoint and give an introduction. You’ll have to wait and watch the film,” she laughs.
Manju goes on to add, “It’s how the story has been constructed, with several layers. And I have to say that this is not just about my character but all the characters in the film. But I can say that I’m playing a strong character. Her name is Priyadarshini Ramadas. She’s a self-made woman.”
Manju has been in the industry since the ‘90s and has worked with several veteran filmmakers. What’s it like working with new age directors?
“The most important things a director needs are conviction and clarity. Each person has their own style, and you cannot compare. It’s not fair to do so. They will have their own personal style and outlook, and we have to respect that,” she says.
Elaborating on working with Prithviraj in his first directorial, Manju says, “I haven’t worked with Prithviraj before and I don’t know him all that much. I haven’t interacted with him before this. So, it was totally new working with him as an actor and colleague.”
Manju explains that it’s usual for actors to take a few days on a new film set to become comfortable with the crew.
“I never felt at any point that he was a first time director,” she says. “He had the whole film already recorded in his head. So he was very clear about what he wanted and even more clear about what he did not want. By the second or third day, all the usual fear about how the film would turn out vanished, and I felt the comfort, courage and confidence that you get when you’re working with an experienced filmmaker.”
For someone who calls herself a “director’s actor”, Manju says it was easy to work with Prithviraj because he knew just what he wanted her to deliver.
Manju took a break from cinema when she was at the peak of her career and made a return in 2014. Since then, she has mostly acted with Mohanlal or done films as the solo lead. Does she feel enough roles are not being written for a woman actor of her age and calibre?
“I don’t think of it that way. I want to do good films and I think there’s time ahead for that. I try to do whatever comes my way in the best way I can. I have no complaints. Even in a big star like Lalettan’s (Mohanlal) films, I’ve been fortunate enough to play strong characters. In guest appearances, too, I’m called to do only strong roles. I’m happy to be in superstar films and still do films as the solo lead,” she says.
However, Manju admits that she would like very much to be part of films where she can explore different combinations with actors and directors.
“I really would love to do films that give me the opportunity to act in different combinations. For example, who wouldn’t want to be in a Priyadarshan-Mohanlal film? It has been such an iconic combination for years. I haven’t been able to act with Mammukka (Mammootty) and I’m really hoping and praying that I get an opportunity. We have so many brilliant actors – male and female – and I’d be excited to work with them all,” she says.
Manju’s childhood days in Nagercoil ensured that the actor knows Tamil as well as she knows Malayalam, a fact that worked to her advantage in bagging Asuran, Vetrimaaran’s next with Dhanush.
“I learnt to read and write in Tamil before I learnt Malayalam,” Manju says. “I’m as comfortable in Tamil as I am in Malayalam. I dubbed for the Tamil version of Lucifer myself. We’ve just finished two small schedules for Asuran. They didn’t make me feel like I’m in a different industry. They were very warm and caring. Dhanush and Vetrimaaran is another iconic combination. They have made nationally acclaimed films. There are many fans of that combination in our own industry. I have to say that my colleagues are more excited than I am! The way people in the Tamil industry respect Malayalam cinema and artistes is so heart-warming. There’s a lot more to be worked on in Asuran and it’s too early to talk about it.”
Would she like to get into direction in future? “No!” Manju exclaims straight away. “Not that I don’t want to do it, but I know I’m not capable. I’ve always depended on the director as an actor and I don’t think I can direct someone else.”
What about production then? Manju seems more positive about the idea. “That you never know. I don’t have such an idea right now, but yeah, you never know,” she laughs.
Manju recently played writer Kamala Das in the biopic Aami. Ask her if there’s any other personality from real life that she’d like to play and she says, “I don’t dream of playing any kind of character. I have no such aims. I just want to do what comes my way.”
Manju has had a successful career so far but there have been a couple of blips along the way. She was criticised for her portrayal of Kamala Das in Aami, while some of her films like Villain and Odiyan with Mohanlal opened to high expectations but were met with poor reviews. How does she handle failure?
“I’m always open to constructive criticism. I don’t take too much success to my head and it’s the same with failure. I learn from the experience and try not to repeat the same mistakes. It doesn’t affect me much. If you’re convinced that you’ve worked sincerely, you can use your common sense to figure out if there’s any truth to the mistakes that people are pinpointing. Some of it will be constructive, some of it will be deliberate to hurt you. If I feel the criticism is valid, I will surely give value to it and pay attention,” she signs off.