It takes a while to register that the voice on the other end is that of Manju Pillai. “I have a sore throat and a cold,” she says. But that is only for a few minutes. Once we propel the conversation around Home, Amazon PrimeVideo’s latest Malayalam movie release, the tiredness in her voice vanishes and she speaks ten to the dozen about this unexplainable euphoria that has caught up with her life ever since it started streaming two weeks ago.
In the Rojin Thomas directed Home, set in the backdrop of a snug nuclear family, consisting a father, mother, two grown-up sons, and a grandfather, Manju's Kuttiyamma is the efficient, no-nonsense presence, who calls a spade by its name. For the actor, this is a first in a career spanning over two decades—this unconditional love and attention for a movie character, except for Adoor’s Naalu Pennungal, which she maintains got sidelined for her more popular co-actors.
Manju has been a popular face on television since the mid-90s, appeared in brief, memorable roles in films, been a regular guest on reality shows and is headlining a popular sitcom called Thatteem Mutteem on Mazhavil Manorama for the last 10-11 years. She plays Mohanavally, a scatterbrained, quick-witted middle-aged woman who is struggling with an imprudent and lazy husband. In a narrative filled with quirky, original characters, Manju holds her own and is the life and soul of the party. More from the actor.
Has the euphoria sunk in finally?
This is the first time that I have had this kind of an experience. Naalu Pennungal did get some attention, but it had to be shared with nationally prominent actors. Rojin had been carrying this script with him for the last five years and altered it according to the artistes' availability and unavailability. The film was originally written for Sreenivasan and Urvashi but due to various personal reasons, it finally came to me.
What was the brief?
It was Vijay Babu, a family friend for years, who called and gave me a gist of the story in five minutes. Nothing about the character was mentioned. I think this was the first film which started filming during the pandemic. Rojin handed me the script and I thought Kuttiyamma had sufficient screen space. She sounded very normal, someone familiar. Because it’s about a mom and dad, we don’t find anything extraordinary. Even after the film I didn’t feel much. It’s only after I saw the rushes at the studio that I realised what we did. My mom keeps ribbing me, saying it took a film for me to understand their worth.
Why were the dentures there?
It was to make me look different, dull. Rojin was clear that Manju Pillai shouldn’t be seen in Kuttiyamma, so he wanted to add something extra. Actually it was Rojin’s mother's look. But then I also looked like my mom. I have been Mohanavally for the last 9-10 years, so it will be difficult to shrug off that image for the viewers. This helped. Interestingly, Ronak who did the makeup, modelled our looks based on his parents.
Kuttiyamma looked like a lot of things were added on the spot.
When a situation is explained I think of what my mom will say or do. It wasn’t a planned character. So yes, a lot of observations were incorporated.
Which is your favourite scene in Home?
I love all the scenes. Especially the one where I tell Sreenath Bhasi why I can’t sit with him for a while or that laugh when the son kisses the dad. Rojin is an actor's director, he gives space to the artistes. Just do it your way was the magic word.
But there were quite a few social media reviews that said the film was anti-women.
Yes, I read a few which said Kuttiyamma was tortured to work at home. I thought she was the one who tortured the people at home. It is Oliver who bathes and takes care of his dad. Kuttiyamma takes care of the kitchen. I thought it was just a reflection of the society we live in. I am not a feminist. When someone asks me, what feminism is, I tell them it is not about abusing men or pointing out their flaws and that we haven’t got our due. I think it is about handling any situation and living with our head high.
What is your process as an actor?
I think my character wins when my co-actors are good. I don’t think I can perform in isolation. In Thatteem Mutteem, there is a lot of give and take. Now we have reached a point where we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And we don’t do rehearsals, just improvise. The same goes for Home because of my co-actors. And the beauty of the script. That climactic flare-up scene, they managed to create a mood for me to perform.
You began with television and some of your best works are there. Was cinema an afterthought?
Cinema was never in my dreams. I lost my way into cinema. I was planning to do LLB when I got offers and then I got stuck here. Perhaps I have only asked Adoor sir for a role after doing Naalu Pennungal. It was Kuku Parameshwaran who recommended me to Adoor. And it seemed like Adoor hadn’t watched my TV appearances and so I got selected (laughs). Maybe also because my grandfather SP Pillai and KPAC Lalitha did his first documentary.
In cinema, I can perhaps think of two other memorable roles—James and Alice and Love 24/7. Why?
Cinema came only occasionally. James and Alice was by our family. And I was fascinated by the prospect of working with a female director and therefore did Love 24/7.
And was there a difference?
Nothing at all. It was just like any other set. Bala had already told me that it is not a very important performing role but felt I could do justice to it.
You have played Mohanavally for the longest time. How did you sustain the interest and make it look consistently good?
Thatteem Mutteem has a certain meter. Mohanavally has daily issues. There are everyday normal conflicts in her life. Same goes for the other characters. So that helps in sustaining the interest. And we share some amazing chemistry with our co-actors. It’s my second home.
Do you enjoy being part of these reality shows?
I thoroughly enjoy it. I am being myself. Nothing is scripted. In fact that was the first demand we made for the latest comedy show where I play people's judge.
How do you think comedy has evolved over the years?
Earlier in films, there were doctored comedy scenes done by comedy actors. Now that line has blurred. We have character actors who do everything and narratives where comedy is woven in organically. The concept of hero has really taken a U-turn. Look at Joju and Chemban or Binu Pappu.
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.
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