For nearly 14 years Manju Warrier was away from the spotlight. She is making a comeback through dance

If Kerala were to have a sweetheart, it would easily be Manju Warrier. In a career spanning a very brief three years, with just about 20 or so films, the actor has won many, loyal hearts - in that hard-to-forget, first love kind of way. Anyone who has watched her films, then or afterwards, has a favourite Manju Warrier film with a favourite Manju Warrier moment. And then, in 1998, she got married and left. All those hearts pined as she settled down to matrimony and motherhood

She went semi-reclusive - a wedding here, a function accompanying her husband-actor Dileep or her daughter Meenakshi there, or in interviews with Dileep…that was all. And many an actress was castigated for ‘trying to copy Manju Warrier.’

And then suddenly two months back, last October, news that she would perform at Guruvayoor went viral. On Vijayadasami Day she made her Kuchipudi debut with her arangetam at Guruvayoor. It was an arangetam which was covered ‘live’, news channels constantly replayed grabs, went viral on YouTube and most of all, saw a massive turnout. This kind of attention after 14 years away from the arc lights came as a surprise, she acknowledges.

“I was expecting a few people, if at all; only those who would be at Guruvayoor that day.” The ‘few’ turned out to be a sea. “God made me very happy that day. I am grateful to him.”

Happy place

We are sitting in her waterfront house, by the Periyar, in Aluva. It is late afternoon, quiet, except for bhajans from the Siva temple which seem to swim across the river and waft into the room as a sort of subdued background score. The visitors’ room is sparse except for a couple of roomy sofas, a low baithak and some Rajasthani curios. As she talks her face is a glowing canvas of expressions. Her face is curiously perfect. The compliment embarrasses her. “Right now I am doing something that is making me very happy and it is showing. I was happy earlier too, but dance gives me a different kind of happiness.”

Despite the years that have passed, she looks fresher than she did all those years back. In fact, she could give the current crop of actresses a run for their jobs, not only in terms of looks but also in terms of attitude.

Dance is not new to her. She was a Kalathilakam, at the State Youth Festival, when she was in Class VII and in Class X. Bharatanatyam, was something her mother wanted her to do and she had been doing it since she was four. After marriage she gave up dancing too. “It was a much needed break because up until my marriage my life was hectic. A long break doing nothing and I enjoyed it.”

A random chat with her daughter about what she had accomplished when she was Meenakshi’s age led her to introspect. “That is when I realised that I had done nothing for my daughter when compared to what my parents had done for me. The effort my mother took to teach me dance and the sacrifices. And I didn’t. Kids today are different, one can’t force stuff on them…even then…” the sentence trails. Her daughter evinced an interest in dance and Manju grabbed the chance.

Watching her daughter and other kids in the family learn she joined them out of curiosity, ‘to see’ if she could. “Initially, I was a bit apprehensive. I didn’t know if I had it in me. But after watching me, my teacher reassured me, ‘don’t worry. It (dance) is still there in you’.”

Maybe, maybe not

That was in November 2011. “Meenakshi quit and here I am.” When she talks about her daughter she is the doting mother. “She has seen some of my films and she thinks I overact. Maybe I did?” she wonders, unsure about herself.

The late thespian Thilakan considered her a worthy co-star from the experience of having acted with her in Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, which incidentally was one of her last films before she took her ‘holiday’. “I consider it a huge compliment, the best one ever. It speaks about the greatness of Thilakan sir, that he said such kind words about me. It was an honour working with him,” Manju reminisces. She refuses any credit for her acting skills and attributes ‘whatever little’ she has done to her directors, co-stars and the ambience she worked in.

And what about the actor? Manju is evasive. “I don’t know what will happen in the future. Anything can happen. Things happen suddenly in my life, there are unpredictable, unplanned twists.” Tell her that with the kind of films that are being made, she could walk right back and she just alternates between shaking her head, smiling, laughing and saying nothing. “Nobody has come to me with anything,” she offers.

For one who practically shunned the media, why is she so accessible? “That’s because I feel like that now. Maybe I’ll withdraw again,” she says. She is bemused by the attention but refuses to get carried away by it. “People remember me fondly because I left when my graph (career) was high. And I want to keep it that way.”

As she prepares for the photo shoot, she looks stunning but unsure. As the shoot progresses she eases up and…maybe, just maybe, she might surprise us.