Dressed in a pale yellow shirt and a pair of jeans, with hair pulled back and tied in a ponytail, Mani PR sat quietly at the panel discussion of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF) on August 4. When offered the microphone, he was initially reluctant to take it; after a little nudge, he finally took it. “My name is Mani. I'm from Wayanad. I'm the actor of Udalaazham. I'm happy because it is my second movie. I acted along with Mohanlal in my first movie,” he said with a smile.
Udalaazham, a 2018 Malayalam movie that is yet to be released in theatres, has been screened at a few film festivals, including the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). The story revolves around Gulikan, a tribal trans woman who is married at a young age and discovers her gender identity. How Gulikan struggles to conform to societal norms forms the rest of the story. The character is inspired by a real-life person named A Raju, a tribal youth who identifies as a trans woman.
Finding his Gulikan was not an easy task, says Unnikrishnan Avalan, the director of the movie. Dark-skinned, fragile and introverted - that is Gulikan. And nobody fit the bill better than Mani, the actor who won the Kerala State Film Award 2006 for his first movie, Photographer. Although Unnikrishnan finally found his Gulikan in Mani, his work had just begun. Mani was not ready to take up the offer, in fact, any movie. And he had his reasons for not accepting the movie.
Photographer was Mani’s first and last movie, that is, in 2006, until Udalaazham happened in 2018. His tryst with film industries has always been marked by rejections and personal tragedies.
Screen grab from the Malayalam movie, 'Photographer'
Why it was challenging to convince Mani
Mani was in class 6 when he won the State Award. Belonging to the Paniya (paniyan or paniyar) community, a Scheduled Tribe in Wayanad and the largest of the 35 major tribes in Kerala, Mani speaks Paniyan language. Studying in a Malayalam-medium school, language was a major barrier in class and while interacting with his friends. Besides, his heart never was in books, classrooms and schools, Mani tells TNM.
“I discontinued schooling after class 9 and started working in a ginger plantation in Shivamogga (Karnataka),” he says. It was there that Mani met Pavizham and married her.
Mani was approached by many filmmakers with offers. He was excited, but it was short-lived. Many of them never reverted. “I once got an offer to do a music album. Even days after the shoot was over, the production team did not pay me the promised amount. I did not have the money to return home and my father and I were stranded in the bus station the whole night. Next day, we somehow made it home,” recalls Mani.
That was just one of the instances that shook Mani’s confidence. Mani went back to farming. He soon started receiving film offers from the Tamil film industry as well. One of the movies was with Rajinikanth, Mani says, which he took up and was ready to shoot. Sadly, he could not continue as his father was involved in a police case.
Mani, once again, stowed away his dreams of acting and took up road tarring work in Kozhikode, where people soon started recognising him. As the media started highlighting his plights, movie offers, once again, came his way when another tragedy hit him: his sister took her own life. He was called back home. Depressed, he gave up on his cinema ambition and returned to agriculture.
“It could be because I am an Adivasi...I don’t know,” Mani says.
How Unnikrishnan convinced Mani
Unnikrishnan recalls the numerous instances when he tried to meet Mani. The latter would make excuses to not meet the director. Finally, Mani’s wife Pavizham intervened and helped the two meet. “He understood I had come to talk about the movie. However, initially, we did not discuss the movie. I kept paying casual visits to his house until one day Mani said he will try, as it had been years since he stood in front of the camera,” Unnikrishnan tells TNM.
Unnikrishnan Avalan and Mani
Unnikrishnan would take Mani along for short tours to neighbouring areas and they gradually started talking about the character. Mani even stayed at Unnikrishnan’s house in Nilambur for six months and was shown several movies. “The Associate Director eventually started explaining Gulikan and her mannerisms to Mani. He was also able to translate the script in Malayalam to the Paniyar language as required by the story,” says the young director.
The shoot of Udalaazham, which stars Remya Valsala, Anumol, Sajitha Madathil and Indrans, started in 2017. “Twenty days after the shoot commenced, in order to let Mani soak in the character of a trans woman, we took him to the Koovagam festival in Tamil Nadu, where a lot of trans women come every year,” he recounts.
Mani as Gulikan in the movie
Unnikrishnan and his team cannot help but laugh every time they recall the days of the film shooting. “One morning, on some days of the shoot, Mani would declare he was not in the ‘mood’ to act, and at other times, he would insist on seeing his wife and children,” he says.
With Udalaazham receiving critical acclamation, Mani says he has received two film offers, although he does not know the details yet.