Love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her.
  • Saturday, July 30, 2016 - 18:49

Neetha Benoy

Manju Warrier is one of the rarest phenomena in Malayalam cinema — an actress who held her own in a male dominated industry and was worshipped by audiences for her stellar talent.

That is, until she decided to leave the industry at the peak of her career. Reactions to her comeback, however, have been varied. But love her or hate her, you can’t ignore her. Here’s a look at what separates Manju from the rest of the crowd.

First innings

In the first half of her on-screen career, Manju featured in 20 films with prominent directors and superstars producing a number of performances that earned her equal billing with the male superstars in Malayalam. She played each of these roles with consummate ease, probably the only actress at the time who could carry a film on her shoulders.

And yet, despite everything, while each of these characters might display hints of a tailored bravado, each in the end was consigned to serve as a mere shadow of her male counterparts.

1999 Malayalam film Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu

Take journalist Devika Shekar in “Pathram”: She starts off as a fiery, plain-speaking morally upright journalist who doesn’t mind crossing swords with a police officer in the middle of the road, complete with a Suresh Gopi-patented “Pah pulley” and “Get lost, you…” But by the end of film, she’s reduced to nothing more than a whimpering, helpless lover.

Or Unnimaya, in “Aaram Thampuran”, the naïve but spirited and blunt-talking village orphan, who starts off cutting the alpha male Jagannathan down to size, but eventually is made to prostrate and fold hands with reverence in front of Jagannathan, in awe of everything he stood for.

Abhirami, from “Summer in Bethlehem”, the bohemian and free-spirited rogue in the cousin’s gang, who carries a torch for her lover facing a death sentence, is shockingly forced to marry another man at the insistence of her lover.

And Anjali, in “Ee Puzhayum Kadannu”, seems to embody the best traits of all of Manju’s other characters, and is the sole breadwinner in the family.

But eventually she realises that a woman can’t fight all her battles alone, and is much happier with a man at her side.

It’s telling of an industry where the alpha male reigns supreme that even a heroine with the kind of leverage that Manju Warrier enjoyed was reduced to such a hapless caricature in every movie. This is not to say that author-backed roles eluded her — she was the main lead in the MT-scripted “Daya”, with a wimpy prince for a love interest. But the movie fizzled out at the box office.

There were also stalemates like the starchy love-starved Aarathi in “Pranayavarnangal” and the sacrificial lamb in “Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu”.  Even her femme fatale outing in “Kannezhuthi Pottumthottu”, despite getting critical appreciation, wasn’t a big draw at the box office.

And there she bid adieu to the industry.

Comeback innings

Despite Warrier making it clear that a comeback seemed highly unlikely, there was a sizeable population – popular directors and ardent fans included, who waited eagerly for her return to the screen. It took her 14 years to finally do that. With that she also broke an unwritten rule in the industry – that women actors lose their market value post marriage. More remarkable was the fact that filmmakers sought her out for author-backed roles.

It was indeed an exciting proposition that a 36-year-old actress was getting roles written exclusively for her in an industry where the cut-off age for a leading heroine is 25 years.

And the characters she returned to were certainly more than could be hoped for based on the first innings: “How Old Are You?” is a strong, inspirational tale of a middle-aged married woman’s fight for identity, and carries a tagline that reads, “Why should there be an expiry date to a woman’s dreams?”

“Ennum Eppozhum” saw her matching wits with Mohanlal as a single mother and lawyer, who bravely elects to walk out of an abusive marriage.

Notwithstanding the uninspiring climax, “Rani Padmini” is still a valiant, no-holds barred tale of female bonding.

Her Padmini, although hailing from a nondescript town from Kerala, bravely decides to step out of the confines of her husband’s home in Delhi to pursue him through the landscape of Ladakh.

Even in the underwhelming “Jo and the Boy”, her character is interesting on paper — an animator.  Even her upcoming Karigunnam Sixes has her donning a basketball coach’s role — it’s yet another first for a mainstream actress in Malayalam cinema.

But there are critics who believe that the joie de vivre is missing from her performances. “I think we are still stuck on her bubby image. But yes, I feel she is holding back. She showed sparks in “How old are you?” and “Rani Padmini”, but otherwise the characters let her down,” says Anuradha, media analyst.

Social media hate

Particularly strange is all the unwarranted criticism she is getting for her off-screen life. This despite the actor hogging a major share of endorsements and getting her pick of roles.

The trolling she is subjected to on social media for the choices she made in real life is ghastly.

Ever present are the “well-wishers” who advise her to go back to her husband — “How can you be happy when your husband and child are living apart from you.” And, “You really need to focus on your family. Career can wait.” And even, “Your daughter chose her father. That shows the kind of mother you are.” And it goes on.

Anger, worry, concern, derision — their reactions vary but the free-flowing advice never stops. Recently, she was trolled for an ice-cream ad. Maybe the criticism wasn’t entirely unjustified – it had tacky choreography, but why brand it a Manju Warrier defeat? She is simply an actor following the director’s orders.

It’s as if there is a separate moral committee to make decisions for the female actor’s life in our society.

It’s the same committee that seems to sit and pass judgements on anchor Ranjini Haridas and several other single women’s lives. Why? Simply because they chose to live life on their own terms? Some of the comments on social media by those claiming to be well-meaning fans are outright abusive and vulgar.

Time for some censorship in social media, perhaps? Maybe not; these ‘fans’ require the sharp hand of the high school teacher and not Pahlaj Nihlani.

And to Miss Warrier we say — keep at it! Looking forward to your next biggie.

This article was first published in Fullpicture.in. Read the original article here. The News Minute has syndicated the content.