Although she is only a few films old since the time she made her debut as a heroine, Manjima Mohan has bagged one of the most coveted projects in the south Indian film industries - that of Zam Zam, the Malayalam remake of the Hindi blockbuster Queen.
TNM caught up with the Accham Yenbadhu Madamayada actor for a chat about her upcoming film where she's playing the lead role that Kangana Ranaut played in the original, her career so far, and her thoughts on the film industry.
Was it a daunting task to take up a blockbuster with a strong lead in it ?
There is a lot of pressure on you as an actor because you are remaking a film which was already a blockbuster. We were afraid of comparisons but we are pretty confident now after the first schedule. In my case, I am from a Muslim background in the film, which makes it entirely different from the original. So we do have a lot of different scenes from the original one.
How did you feel playing such a role which is considered iconic when it comes to women's empowerment?
It was fun playing the role. At first, I was scared that I won't be able to pull off this role when I left to France. But as I was doing it, I really enjoyed it. It was challenging because you had to be as natural as possible. You can't fake innocence and my character had to portray that on screen. Several times, the director would tell me that he wants more innocence.There are scenes where I took 5-6 takes in the first week because I couldn't bring out the expressions he wanted. But after that you get used to it and you know how to go about the character
How did you prepare for the role?
I went through the script only two days before the shooting started. I didn't want to watch the movie before I started shooting because I would end up replicating what Kangana did. I wanted to treat it as a new script altogether and just go with the flow. After I came back from France, I sat and watched the movie again to compare how I had interpreted the scenes.
How was it shooting in France?
It was the first time I was going abroad for over a month at a stretch. I had never stayed away from family for that long. But the spot we were shooting in was so beautiful. It was more of a village, very calm and peaceful. All of us had a fun time shooting there and the production crew was amazing. They knew I was travelling alone and they took care of me very well. They made sure I did not miss home.
Kajal is starring in the remake in Tamil, Parul Yadav in Kannada and Tamannah in Telugu. Was there constant comparison with other actors on set?
The best part of this shoot was that nobody would compare the other actors and me. Tamannah and I were under the same director. But when I went to the sets, nobody would talk about how Tamannah did a particular scene or vice versa. Obviously, they know that it will affect our performance. The stories are different for all of us based on the culture of the state we come from and there was no room for comparison.
Will you focus on doing more women-centric roles now?
No, I don't want to do such roles alone. I want to do a mix of such roles and commercial films. I am too young to do only women-centric roles right now. I am the youngest among all of them and it is too risky to take such roles at an early stage. If I am offered something as good as Queen, I will take it up. But otherwise I want to try all kinds of cinema. I think an actor should be ready to take up any role offered to her.
But actors like Trisha and Nayantara have worked for years to bag such roles.
Their scene was different from what we have now. Ten years back, when they started off, such women-centric roles were very rare. At that point of time, the focus was on doing masala movies, dancing and so on. There wasn't much scope for acting. Only now, people have opened up to the idea of women-centric roles and go to the theatre to watch these films. They are on the right track as far as their careers are concerned.
There has been controversy surrounding your former co-star Simbu's lack of professionalism on sets. Did you witness it too?
It is a known fact that Simbu doesn't come on time to the sets. But once he does come, we finish whatever shoot was planned for three hours in one hour. That way, my days were not getting wasted. And at that point of time, I was not a busy actor, I was just starting my career. It didn't affect me as I had the Telugu version being shot simultaneously. I was always shooting for one of the roles.
You have spoken about being fat-shamed in the past, does that still affect you?
When I started off, I was a little affected by all these things but I realised that if you are in the glamour industry, you have to take care of your looks, your body and fitness. I think I was a little too young at that point and was offended easily. But right now, if a director tells me to lose weight, I would do it happily. I know that it is good to lose weight and it feels nice to be able to carry off all kinds of clothes. They pay us to look good on screen. People come to the theatre not to just watch our performance. Even if they do, they want someone beautiful and pretty to look at. It was my mistake. I took the comments in the wrong sense.
Once I lost weight, I realised I was more comfortable in my own skin. That is very important. You have to be fit because heroines also have to physically exert themselves in films now.
Aren't being fit and thin two different things?
When AYM released everyone said I look like the girl next door. Gautham sir portrayed me as very natural and very simple. Certain directors however want glamour on screen. The audience will accept you as far as you have talent and look good. It depends a lot on the character you are given in the film as well. You also work on your appearance for a film based on how the audience react.
How have they fashioned you for Zam Zam?
Their criteria for my selection in this role was that they wanted someone who could pass off as the girl next door and they didn't want me to fake it. My hair and eyebrows are messed up. In certain scenes, my hair is not in the least bit styled and I let it be that way. She is a normal girl and can't always focus on such things. In the movie, the character is not that bothered about how she looks. My makeup and hair would get done in half an hour during the shoot. Even if she gets more dressy as the film progresses, she doesn't change overnight.
Do you fear being stereotyped as the girl next door?
That is a fear that I definitely have. I am at an age where I can experiment with roles. I don't want to be typecast. I want to come out of the comfort zone but even now when people tell me about a project, they start with 'We are looking for someone who can play the girl next door'. I want to do something different and challenging.
Being the daughter of cinematographer Vipin Mohan, did you have a smooth entry into films?
My parents were initially not for the idea of me acting. I started acting when I was four and I took a break in between because they wanted me to focus on my studies. Their only condition was that I had to finish my education before I stepped into the industry. I did a Bachelor's degree in Math. But it was just for the sake of it. Acting was always at the back of my mind.
As a child artist there is not much scrutiny into your work. But as an adult, your dialogue delivery, expressions and several other factors become very important. As a child you can just refuse to act sometimes but if I do that now, they will probably replace me.
Do you see the increased exposure of actors to social media as an advantage?
It definitely is an advantage. Whenever I feel low, the first thing I do is go check out my Twitter or Instagram messages. It is a lot of encouragement. Certain comments can be negative but you learn to ignore them. When you engage with your fans, you get to know what they like about you and what they dislike, so you can work on it.
Your thoughts on the Women in Cinema Collective?
I am not too sure about the WCC and know only what my father tell me. But on the ground there has been a lot of change. Take Parvathy or Manju Warrier for instance, they are doing women-centric projects and people are accepting it. Earlier they demanded a Mohanlal, a Mamooty or Dileep. But these days, people just want good stories irrespective of who is performing.
How do you deal with failure?
I feel bad on the day of the release but then I let go after that. I don't keep talking about it. If the movie is not doing well, I don't talk about it. I work harder on the next film. But so far, I have always got positive feedback on my films. As long as my work is good and the movie is decent I am happy. It is a waste of energy and time to worry about it is what I realised. When Shatriyan did not do well, I cried the entire day but after that I put it behind.
Which was your favourtie scene from Zam Zam?
It was definitely the one where she gets drunk. I also enjoyed shooting the sequences where she starts living with the boys in a dormitory. It all came out very well.