Once upon time there was a girl called Reeja Johnson. She was a tomboy who loved climbing trees and cycling. ‘Girly’ things such as music and dance didn’t interest her. But she wanted to act. And tiny roles wouldn’t do. It had to be a ‘good’ role. Serendipity led her to auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkuthu.
After Nizhalkuthu came an offer from Cheran for Autograph. And Reeja was rechristened Mallika. Cheran gave her a choice…to choose between Mallika and Kamala. Kamala was Cheran’s mother’s name and Mallika his teacher’s.
Reeja to Mallika
“At a children’s film festival I had seen the film Malli, which means jasmine. I was Mallika in my first film. My mother told me Mallika was better,” she says Mallika was barely 14 when she appeared as one of Cheran’s loves in Autograph. Desperate to get the role, she gained weight to look the part. It was a role where she was ‘mother’ to three children and also got her an award for the best supporting actress.
Autograph led her to Tamil and Telugu films such as Mahanadigan, Thirupaachi, Unnakam Ennakum, Thotta etc. She was playing sister in every film and she wanted more. “I refused several offers in Tamil because I was being typecast as a sister character and I was fed up,” she says. It was around this time that her father met with an accident and passed away. She had to take a break at that point and she is glad she took the break.
In her first year of college she had a deal with her mother. “I told her to give me a year to try films once more. If nothing happened I would quit and do whatever she wanted me to do,” she says happily. As far as deals go, that was one which paid off. It was in that year that she did Byari which earned her a special mention from the jury of the national awards in 2011 for her role as Nadira in the film.
“I knew there wasn’t too much money in it. But it was a new set of people making the film. And it was the first film in Byari, a language spoken by a community in Southern Karnataka. The moment was historical and I wanted to be part of history…think about it!,” she says, with unconcealed glee. One of the things that work for this young actor is her attitude to her work.
Subsequently she did a few Malayalam films before landing a role in Sathyan Anthikkad’s Snehaveedu. And Ranjith’s Indian Rupee, both in 2011. She also acted in No. 16 Madura Bus. A year when, she says, she got lucky. She was on a roll and how.
It has to be coincidence that she finds herself playing mother in her films. Madhupal’s Ozhimuri, released this year, saw her in yet another mother role. She was Meenakshi Pillai in the film, mother to Asif Ali’s Sharath. That she was playing mother to someone older than her had her wondering if she was destined to play mother.
On her experience in Ozhimuri, she says she just followed the director’s (Madhupal’s) instructions and did her job. Playing someone older than even her mother wasn’t too tough, she says. “I just observed the mannerisms of elderly women on the set. I would watch how they would walk, talk, stand and incorporated that into my role. Credit for whatever else I have been able to do goes to Madhupal sir.”
Call Me…, Chennaiyil Oru Naal (the Tamil remake of Traffic) and an unnamed project by Dam 999 director Sohan Roy are some of her other projects.
She was also seen in Sathyan Anthikkad’s latest release Puthiya Theerangal. The ‘also seen’ has got her flak from friends. “They told me that after getting a national award, I shouldn’t have done such a small role in the film. I disagree with that. Sathyan sir gave me a break when nobody else did. And I will never forget the way that brought me here ,” she signs off.