Won't be good portrayal if you judge your character: Actor Zarin Shihab

Zarin, who has won appreciation for her work in ‘Aattam’, ‘B 32 Muthal 44 Vare’ and ‘The Family Man’ speaks about dealing with conflicts as an actor, about her love for theatre and literature and more.
Zarin Shihab
Zarin Shihab
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Towards the end of Aattam – The Play, a Malayalam film that had its theatrical release earlier this month, Zarin Shihab, the female lead, is in an auto rickshaw with a half-formed tear on her left cheek. Unplaceable emotions flicker on her face in the glow of streetlight. That, Zarin says, is her favourite scene, one she felt she did well in her first role as a main female lead. Another is the car ride with Vinay Forrt, the male lead of the film, that came out right real soon amid a real downpour of rain they had wanted in the scene. 

Aattam, which won a lot of love when screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) last month, is the debut film of director Anand Ekarshi. From the beginning, Anand had clarity about what exactly he wanted, Zarin says. The film had interested her from day one. She was surprised, she says, to see Vinay Forrt at the audition acting with all the five shortlisted women including her. “Not often that you see a person of his calibre showing up for an audition. I knew something was really interesting here,” Zarin says. But the scene they were given was not part of the film, it was a cooked up one about a tiff between a couple, and Zarin thought it would be a romantic movie. It is much later that she knew Aattam was an entirely different film. 

The film centres around a theatre group of which Zarin’s character Anjali is the only female. Amid the laughter and celebration of a successful staging, Anjali is sexually harassed. The reactions of the rest of the group, away from the suspected attacker, neatly captured in Anand’s script, expose the many biases and hypocrisies of human nature. 

Read: Aattam review: Debutant Anand Ekarshi's film is a gripping take on human hypocrisies

“I really appreciated Anand telling me that the central conflict in this film is the assault but that we are never showing it. Let us focus on the consequences, he said,” Zarin says. 

She has acted in two Malayalam films before Aattam Trishanku and B 32 Muthal 44 Vare – and a few Hindi films. Zarin’s debut on screen came with the popular web series The Family Man starring Manoj Bajpayee in which she played a Malayali nurse called Mary working in a hospital in Mumbai and spoke fluent Hindi. The role got more noticed than she thought, she says, but it also brought offers typecasting her as a South Indian who could speak Hindi.

Watch: Scene from The Family Man

Hindi is the first language she learnt to read and write. Zarin was born in Uttar Pradesh and shuttled between states like Assam and Karnataka because of her dad’s job in the air force. Acting was not her first choice of career. She wanted a hobby when she got restless in college, studying English Literature. That is how she got into theatre, spent seven years in Chennai acting, writing and even directing a play. She drifted to Bollywood with The Family Man and Jugaadistan, and was cast in films like Rashmi Rocket and India Lockdown. “Bombay has a lot of resources at their disposal and the luxury of time. But the variety of scripts I received from Kerala, even with all its other constraints, were of a different quality. Also, my mother tongue is Malayalam and my heart was set on coming to Kerala,” Zarin says.

She answered casting calls for Trishanku – in which she played the eloping sister of the male lead Arjun Ashokan – and for Aattam. But for B 32, director Shruthi Sharanyam had called her to be one of the six women protagonists in her film. In the movie, based on the bodily issues of women, Zarin played a character who is made to feel bad about her petite size and is in love with a trans person. “It was nice that a lot of women were involved in the making of this film, both in front of and behind the camera. Having women in technical roles gives the film a different flavour, and it comes out in little things,” she says. 

Read: B 32 Muthal 44 Vare: Shruthi Sharanyam’s debut feature film celebrates sisterhood

Her selection of movies, even though she says she picks most of what comes her way, seems just apt enough to give her memorable characters. For Aattam, coincidentally, she had a lot she could relate to with Anjali. She had done theatre alongside her coursework and other jobs like Anjali who was an architect moonlighting as a theatre artiste. “Anjali is a character stuck in the grey zones of life. Without context if you told me about her, I would have judged her. But [as an actor] if you set out to judge a character you are given to play, it won’t be a good portrayal,” Zarin says.

Anjali’s response in the film to the act of sexual harassment may not be the same as Zarin’s. She has reacted in multiple ways as women do in such situations, not only in her life but in her environment and in the lives of her friends and acquaintances. “It keeps happening and sometimes you don't have the energy, you sort of become numb to it and move on to other methods of coping - such as removing yourself from the situation. But about my conflict as an actor [to the situation of the character] I try to keep the person in me separate from the actor. My personal judgement should not affect how a character behaves,” she says. 

Zarin has explored openly expressive characters before, in plays she has done. In Aattam it is more a contained reaction, and yet she had to make the audience feel the discomfort. Zarin could contribute to one sequence in the film, by being “like a sounding board” to Anand’s ideas for the shot. She helped the process of scripting and enjoyed it too, she says. 

Not that she is new to scripting. She has both written and directed plays. The writing was for a monologue in a series called Dolls by Crea-Shakthi while she directed a Gujarati play called Tell me the name of a flower – a murder mystery within a theatre group. In her theatre days, she met another actor who floated to cinema from the stage, Roshan Mathew, at a workshop in Pondicherry. They both expected to do a play together but now they have ended up playing leads in a film. That is Zarin’s next – Ithiri Neram – a romantic comedy with elements of drama, directed by Prasanth Vijay, who made the critically acclaimed Daayam and The Summer of Miracles. Another upcoming work is a web series by Krishand, the director of the mystical Aavasavyuham and the dark comedy Purusha Pretham.

Read: Interview: Malayalam director Prasanth Vijay on his coming-of-age feature Daayam 

It will be an incomplete profile if Zarin’s long affair with literature is left unmentioned. Like many readers who can’t help jotting down fond recollections of books they loved, Zarin lets her words flow out after finishing one. The God of Small Things, Milk Teeth, Girl in White Cotton, and Girl, Woman, Other are a few she likes to go back to. “Whether you follow Islam or not, being a Muslim in this day and age is quite the taxing exercise,” she scribbled alongside a post about It’s not about the burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women, detailing her own experiences. Today, she says regretfully, she has little time for books, but clearly, all that she’s read has left deep imprints on Zarin.

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