Aishwarya Lekshmi is the toast of the town following the success of Mayaanadhi. A rare urban romance between a criminal on the run and an aspiring actor, Mayaanadhi opened to rave reviews and excellent word of mouth.
For Aishwarya, a qualified doctor who never dreamt of entering the film industry, the Mayaanadhi phenomenon has come as a surprise.
"I knew that I was working on a very good project," she says. "The storyline was amazing, and the team was very efficient and talented. It's a team that Malayalis know so well. There's National Award-winner Syam Pushkaran and I've been addicted to Aashiq sir's movies. So I knew I was on a good project, but the outcome was up to the audience and god. The extent of the success was a surprise and I'm really happy. It's been almost 30 days since the film released and people are still talking about it."
This, Aishwarya says, is something she has always wanted.
"I want to be remembered by the characters I do," she says.
On doing 'bold' characters
Aishwarya, an only child, grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. Both her parents were government officials and she went to a convent school, Holy Angels, in the city.
"I come from a very conservative background," says Aishwarya. "Both my parents wanted me to excel academically, like every other parent. They wanted me to pursue my higher studies. When I told them that I wanted to get into the medical profession, they were very happy. They are the kind of parents who want a safe, secure future and a respectable job for their child."
Aishwarya's jump into the cinema industry, therefore, was not something they could digest easily.
"They had issues with me modelling itself," the young actor says. "But they didn't stop me from doing it. They had their worries. But they knew I would be able to take care of myself. And that if there are things which I cannot take care of, they will be there for me. They don't tell me this all the time but I know that they will be there for me. Because that trust is there, they will never stop me from doing anything."
Aparna, Aishwarya's character in Mayaanadhi, is a vulnerable, insecure woman, but she's also the sort who says lines like "Sex is not a promise". Further, the film includes some beautifully choreographed love-making scenes that we don't often see in Malayalam cinema.
"They watched the film and in spite of having bold scenes in the movie or me playing a bold character in the movie, they are okay with it," says Aishwarya. "They are able to see the bigger picture. It's a very nice movie and all these things were essential. To be honest, I was really scared about how my parents would take it. I didn't care about anything else."
Aishwarya says the fact that there has been discussion on Aparna's character and her views shows that the audience has progressed. As her co-star Tovino Thomas, with whom she shares a good friendship, had pointed out to her, Aparna's character was given more importance than his own (Mathan) in the film.
"They are open to discussion. If they were not, this (Aparna's views) would have just been shunned. We do have women like that around us, I'm a bit like Aparna – if I want something, I will go ahead and get it. There are women who are bold enough to take decisions about their career choice, their family, and we're bringing such women on screen more now," she says.
On feminism and parity in the industry
Although Mayaanadhi received rave reviews, the film faced a hate campaign online. This was because director Aashiq Abu is married to actor Rima Kallingal who is part of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). The WCC, at the time, was facing the wrath of disgruntled Mammootty fans who were upset with actor Parvathy's comments about the misogyny in the star's film Kasaba.
For Aishwarya, who'd been excited about the film's release, the campaign was heartbreaking.
"I was very sad. It wasn't the movie's fault that people were saying bad things about it. As an actor who'd done the movie, I was really affected by it. My Instagram account is a personal one and I don't have anything political there. I posted a picture with Aashiq Sir on the day of the release and below that, there were comments saying 'flop director', 'flop film', 'hate this film' etc. Some 72 comments like this came successively and I wasn't even able to delete them," says Aishwarya, who confesses that she's not very social media savvy.
She points out that the comments on Aashiq Abu's page were worse and that she felt helpless.
"And this was for a good movie. If it had been a stupid movie, it would have been okay. Thank god, the movie did pick up after a few days. People saw through whatever was happening," she says.
Asked if she's a feminist, a term that most celebrities run away from, Aishwarya says it's a word that has been abused a lot, "A feminist is a person who wants equal things for men and women, and I definitely believe in that. This doesn't mean I will degrade anyone. In our house, I want my mother and father to have equal importance and that's the only way to bring up a socially responsible child. That should be the way in every sphere of life."
Aishwarya acknowledges that there is pay disparity in the industry for men and women actors, and points out that this is because it is the male stars who bring a good section of the audience to the theatres still.
"I've just completed two movies, but I've been to auditions as well. I've been told that there is no budget for me, but I've been adamant about the salary I wanted. I quoted a number and they ended up saying they'll pay me a salary that was many lakhs lesser than what I'd asked for. I was not cast in the movie but the actor they finally cast in it would have been paid a lot more – so the thought that came into my head was, where did the budget come from now?" recounts Aishwarya.
At this point, however, she's focused on doing good work and believes the money will come when she gets recognised for her films.
On handling criticism
Aishwarya made her debut with Althaf Salim's Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela in 2017.
"In my second year of college, I started modelling. Even then, I was not serious about it. I was doing it for the fun of it and because it provided some pocket money, to be honest. I saw the casting call on 24 December 2015 in a cafe in Kochi which said they're looking for a heroine and a younger sister's role for a Nivin Pauly movie directed by Althaf Salim," she says.
At the time, Aishwarya had already heard through a friend that Althaf was working on a script about a mother who has been diagnosed with cancer. The director had been writing the script from his Premam days.
"I met with him on Christmas day. Because I had the physical appearance of the character he was looking for, he read the script to me – just a small bit – and asked me if I liked it. He told me that it wouldn't be a big part but if I'd like to be in the movie, they'd be happy to have me on board. Then they did a screen test one week later and after I passed in that, I was confirmed for the role," Aishwarya recounts.
However, even though the film went on to become a hit, Aishwarya, who makes it a point to read reviews and film criticism, was hurt by some who'd said she wasn't a good actor.
"I don't take criticism that well. I break down. That's my usual mechanism of reacting to anything! But, at the end of the day, I try to see if there's anything from the criticism that I can take to improve as an actor," begins Aishwarya.
"After Njandukalude, there were many reviews of people who knew me who said that I wasn't a good enough actor and that affected me a lot. I felt I didn't have enough space to perform. I felt like asking why they couldn't wait. All this was in my head. But there was something within me that said I need to improve somehow. That's my take home from all reviews – if I can take something from it which will improve me as an actor or person, I will take it," she says.
Love for 'Mayaanadhi'
Ask her about the theory from a viral blog post that Mayaanadhi is a horror film, Aishwarya laughs.
"Yes, I have read it," she says. "I called up Syam sir and asked – whaaat, is it like this?!"
The actor goes on to talk about the love the film has received: "I read so many lovely reviews that made my cry. Where people had connected their experiences with the film. That was an experience in itself."
Mayaanadhi is also special because of the friendship Aishwarya formed with Leona Lishoy and Darshana Rajendran.
"Everyone who saw us on the sets asked if we knew each other from before," says Aishwarya.
Speaking about the Bawra Mann scene when the three women bond together over wine and music, Aishwarya says, "We were so comfortable with each other. That scene was shot in a balcony. The main part of the scene is that I tell them about Mathan's past. It has to be done as naturally possible, as naturally as people drinking wine in a balcony, who have so much anxiety in their hearts about other things but are trying to have a good time can be."
She goes on to add: "The song happened because Leona was jumping all over the place asking if we'd heard Darshana's song and, by that time, I was listening to the song all the time on my headphones. So Syam sir said we can include the song in the next scene. We had to take four takes for it because in every take I would cry. I was genuinely so happy and I couldn't control my tears. I'm someone who has trouble crying on screen but that's just how happy I was."
Aishwarya is open to acting in other industries as well, but she's also determined to practise medicine, "I've completed my house surgency and I want to study more. If that doesn't work out, I will work as a junior doctor in a hospital."