Had no idea Chithram would be such a huge hit: Actor Ranjini to TNM

The actor, known to Malayalis for a number of memorable films she did in the late 80s and early 90s, including ‘Chithram’, ‘Swathi Thirunal’, ‘Kottayam Kunjachan’, and others, turned to television last year. She is also a social worker and wildlife enthusiast.
Had no idea Chithram would be such a huge hit: Actor Ranjini to TNM
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Strangely enough, it has never occurred to Ranjini to ask her father – who had pushed her to act in films at a very young age – which his favourite film of hers was. She has a faraway look as she thinks this, and then bursts into laughter as she often does. Yes, I should ask him, she says, sitting at a house in Thiruvananthapuram where the shooting of a Malayalam television series is going on. The actor, known to Malayalis for a number of memorable films she did in the late 80s and early 90s, including Chithram, Mukundetta Sumithra Vilikkunnu, Swathi Thirunal, Kottayam Kunjachan, and others, turned to television last year.

“I have been rejecting [offers from the] small screen for the past 13 years. Female portrayal [in television] is always a bit tough, they make you so evil,” she says, laughing. But when the producer of Seven Arts, the company that had introduced her to Malayalam cinema in the 80s, came with the offer, she could not say no. Since November last year, she has been playing Arundhathi Devi in the series Chandrikayilaliyunna Chandrakantham, and it is not an evil character like she feared. “She is a disciplinarian, a strong-headed character. I am liking it and I enjoy working with the team here. The director is excellent and all the technicians are wonderful,” Ranjini says. 

Showbiz is only one of the many things she is involved in and for this, she shuttles between Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, where she lives with her husband, in-laws, and a 10-year-old Lhasa Apso. Occasionally she also flies to Singapore, the country she grew up in as a fourth generation Tamil immigrant.

Becoming an actor unwillingly

Ranjini’s first few films were unsurprisingly Tamil and were directed by a master filmmaker like Bharathiraja. Then a highschooler, she was not at all keen to act. Neither was her mother interested in sending her to India to work on a film. But Ranjini made a pact with her father who really wanted her to do it. One film, she told him, and then she’d be back.

“And then somehow one became five and so many more,” Ranjini says, laughing again. That first film was Mudhal Mariyathai, in which she worked with the renowned star, the late Sivaji Ganesan. It was not easy for Ranjini, on the sets at an unknown village in Mysore, growing homesick, missing her brothers, and wanting to go back everyday.

Ranjini's family
Ranjini's familyFacebook / Ranjini

“They’d say it will all change. Sivaji uncle said that one day I would become a top artist and I used to think, ‘how can that happen when I am going to run back home’,” Ranjini says. That changed for her when she went to a movie theatre to watch her movie and saw the response of the audience.

“So much love for someone who was unknown to them,” she says as someone captivated by the magic that has always attached films and artists to their viewers. Then there were offers she could not run away from, she says. She was also at that young and impressionable age, enjoying mixing with people, wearing new clothes, getting her hair and makeup done.

Young Ranjini
Young RanjiniFacebook / Ranjini

Making it in Malayalam

By the time she did her first Malayalam movie, she had adapted to this new world of showbiz. At first, she had been reluctant to take on Malayalam movies as she didn’t know the language. She had refused an offer from renowned director IV Sasi, and when Lenin Rajendran, a critically acclaimed filmmaker, approached her, she said no again. But when he told her about the character, a dancer in the historical retelling of a king’s story, Ranjini was excited. She had learnt classical dance but had not performed in a movie yet. So she kept aside several other Tamil offers and took on Swathi Thirunal, a biography of the erstwhile musician and king of Travancore. Prominent Kannada actor Anant Nag played Swathi Thirunal and Ranjini, the dancer Suganthavalli.

Ranjini won accolades for the role and was immediately offered a bunch of Malayalam films. Director Priyadarshan, known for his comedies, cast her opposite Mohanlal in Chithram, one of the most popular movies to come out in Malayalam. “Priyan watched Swathi Thirunal and [my Tamil film] Kadalora Kavithakal before coming to see me and narrate the story of Chithram. I said okay and in the 10-day gap we had before Chithram was to begin, he asked if we could do another film quickly. That was Mukundetta Sumithra Vilikkunnu. We shot it in the sets that were made for Kamal Haasan’s Nayagan, asking them not to dismantle it so we could use it too! Those days Malayalam movies only took 10 to 15 days to shoot. They’d ask you for 15 days and finish the work in 10!” Ranjini speaks fondly of the old days.

No one thought it would turn out to be such a huge hit when they were shooting Chithram, she says. She also does not recall any particularly laugh-aloud moments on the sets, because “I was a reserved person and my Malayalam was not so good, so I’d leave once the shot was done.” Only when she watched it in the theatre later did she realise why it worked so well.

Chithram came out in 1988. Decades later she is still known for Kalyani, the young woman she played in it who is ditched by her boyfriend on the day of their court wedding, and who, with the help of an uncle, ropes in a random man (Mohanlal) to play the ‘husband’ before her dad comes from America for his last short visit to India. Ranjini and Mohanlal played a constantly bickering couple, pretending to be in love in front of the dad, in an array of fun sequences that movie buffs still quote from. The film ended up being the highest grossing movie of the time, and ran for hundreds of days, crossing a record 400 days at Little Shenoys theatre in Kochi.

However, Ranjini’s favourite among her Malayalam movies is Swathi Thirunal, she says. “It was more classical. We had to emote without any dialogue. I think I did a good job, though the credit goes to [the late] Lenin sir.”

She became part of several successful movies of the time, starring opposite Mammootty in Kottayam Kunjachan, Mohanlal again in Mukunthetta and Mukam, Jayaram in Paavakooth and Thoovalsparsham, Mukesh in Kouthuka Varthakal, and Suresh Gopi in a number of films including The News, Varnam, and Orukkam.

Law, social work, and wildlife activism

Ranjini left acting behind in the mid 90s, went to London to study corporate law, got married, and was engaged in her other interests such as social work and wildlife activism. “When I was studying law, I volunteered at shelter homes for Indians and worked with domestic violence victims. I came to know of so many atrocities, including ‘honour killings’ (murders perpetrated by families of couples marrying out of caste). Parents of second generation British Indians would trick them to going to India, get them married and bring them back to London. These British Indians would not want to live with the spouse chosen by their parents and leave with a partner of their choice, and then get attacked for it,” Ranjini recalls.

She continued her work with women victims in Kerala too when she became part of the Nirbhaya project, which was started in the aftermath of the 2012 horrific Delhi rape case, to stop atrocities against women. Ranjini worked in Kochi with the then District Collector MG Rajamanickam and IPS officer Nishanthini. “It was volunteer work, focussing on women from all walks of life. As a pilot, we invited applications from 150 female volunteers and were overwhelmed by 300 responses. We shortlisted it to 200 and trained them on counselling and self-defence. A volunteer would be in charge of a ward and would be equipped with a phone, so that if there was anything unusual in the area, they could alert the nearest police station. Alternatively, they could go to the spot and try to resolve the issue. This was not only to deal with issues of harassment, but also drug use. Nirbhaya was a woman and child protection project,” Ranjini says.

Ranjini with activist Irom Sharmila
Ranjini with activist Irom SharmilaFacebook / Ranjini

The project unfortunately faded out when there was a change of government and even though new schemes began, they too are not so active anymore. 

Another hat that Ranjini wears is that of a wildlife enthusiast. She and her husband Pierre Kombara take 10-day expeditions into a forest every year, she says. She faults the authorities for the recent spree of wildlife attacks in different parts of Kerala, when elephants and tigers had roamed into human habitats and caused damage, including loss of lives. “We have not done enough study on wildlife. Kerala is a small strip of land blessed with forest and wildlife. Buffer zones are very important here. Many years ago we had a stretch of 10 km reserved for the buffer zone, but the present government reduced it to one km a few years ago. That is why we have man-animal conflicts now, because by reducing the buffer zone, humans are encroaching into forests and invading their homes.”

She also suggests crop cultivation as an important measure to keep the animals away from human habitation, but that it is important to know which crops will work for a certain terrain. “People also do not know how to behave around animals. They take selfies with them. It is not a joke. You are supposed to be still around them, not make noise. Animals get frightened if you do. Respect the animal and it will respect you. Maintain a certain distance,” she speaks like a true animal lover.

Ranjini and Pierre during one of their wildlife trips
Ranjini and Pierre during one of their wildlife trips

Acting comeback

In 2014, she made a comeback to Malayalam cinema with Ringmaster. “I never thought of making a comeback, there was no reason to. When people called me and it suited my schedule, I said ok. But I was not dying to be back.”

She has not worked much with ‘new generation directors’, but observed that there are nice senior character roles for women in these movies. She quotes the example of the Judge’s character played by Manju Pillai in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey.

“Malayalam movies have always been known for having the best storylines. These days, they are bolder, sometimes controversial. We have gone pan-India. Technology has improved and there is such a lot of talent. It is interesting that women too are becoming technicians,” she says.

She, however, notes that there were more female-oriented subjects in the old days and that even though the new wave of films have bolder themes, they are still mostly male-dominated. “There should be more now that we have OTT platforms, which are not so much market-driven,” she notes.

Ranjini also notes that there are talented younger women doing a great job, like Nimisha Sajayan in Poacher and Darshana Rajendran in Jaya Hey.

“I think they are more prepared now, they groom themselves to be an actor. In my time, we were more like accidental actors, entering the field without knowing anything.”

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