Her innate flair for comedy and uncanny ability to switch over to serious roles have made Manju Pillai a much-loved actor.
When Manju Pillai set out to become an actor, her mother warned her, “don’t tarnish your grandfather’s reputation. Act only if you can, otherwise don’t.” The charming granddaughter of the late thespian S.P. Pillai laughs at the memory. “With his blessings, I have not done too badly.”
She is one of the few television actors who have stayed faithful to the medium, to the extent of giving films a miss. She has acted in films which have garnered critical acclaim such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Naalu Pennungal and Ramanam. Her commercial films include Golantharavartha, Njangal Santhushttaranu, Thathamme Poochapoocha, Mazhayethum Munpe, Irattakuttikalude Achan, Ravanaprabhu, Teja Bhai and Family.
Sitting in her stylishly minimalist apartment with bright turquoise doors which brighten up the otherwise grey day, dressed in an all black outfit, she recounts how she recently turned down an offer from a currently happening director. She did not take it up because it entailed upsetting her daughter’s schedule which she did not want to. Her family is her priority, she maintains.
It has just so happened that over a career spanning close to two decades, she has done more television than cinema. “Initially I never said no to films deliberately. And today I don’t want to do films just for the heck of it. I want to do roles of substance, irrespective of the length, where there is scope for performance. Both media are important to me but I will not forsake television.” It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to take a stance vis-à-vis films. But she takes the stance sans qualms. She clarifies that it is neither over-confidence nor arrogance, just confidence in her capabilities, “I have never asked anybody for a chance.” On a slightly philosophical note she adds, “At the end of the day one gets what one is destined to – be it the highs or the lows.”
That she has been associated with serious cinema, like Naalu Pennungal, is a source of pride for her. She is, as an artiste, able to straddle the two worlds – of the comic and the serious. ‘Thatteem Mutteem’ sees her match repartee for repartee with KPAC Lalitha. They essay the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo, Mayavatiamma and Mohanavalli. Comedy, for her, seems effortless. She says, “comedy is about give and take between two actors. Unlike making people cry, making people laugh is not easy. You can imagine or remember some thing that made you sad. Comedy has is no such points of reference except what your co-actor offers. And all credit for what I am able to do on the show goes to Lalitha chechi.”
There is no missing the affection she has for her senior co-star. That Manju is SP annan’s granddaughter makes her all the more special to Lalitha. “Lalitha chechi says she has acted with two generations of my family – my grandfather and I. Even Sukumari amma used to say that. Lalettan (Mohanlal) too.” She is the only one from her family carrying forward her maternal grandfather’s legacy and she says she is proud to be known as ‘SP Pillai’s granddaughter.’
Acting was never part of her scheme of things. If not an actor, she would either have been a lawyer or a journalist, she says. While doing her under-graduation she even picked up application forms for the Law Academy. The only inkling, if at all, about what she would eventually end up doing came when she was in Class 8 at an inter-school drama competition. “There I was going full pelt with my guffaw in the play when my headgear fell off. I coolly picked it up, put it on my head and continued with my performance, unflustered.” One can almost see the scene as the expressive Manju re-enacts it. That’s when her teacher, Sr. Eugenia, told her, “You are a future star.” When she was in Class 10, she acted in Soorya Krishnamoorthy’s ‘Sthree Parvam’.
Another role that television viewers have seen her is as judge on reality shows. For a particular show she got a lot of criticism. “I was there as a judge, but people were expecting comedy and not feedback. Some people resented my observations and said I was being very harsh. There was stuff on the Internet against me.”
Did the negativity affect her? No, she says. In these tech-savvy times when most celebrities are on some or all forms of social media, Manju says she neither has an email account nor a Facebook account. “It might be considered infra-dig to say so but no thanks I don’t want to put myself out there on these media. My daughter Daya knows more about the Net than I do.”
The actor recently relocated to Kochi from Thiruvananthapuram. Her husband, cinematographer Sujith Vasudev’s work needs him to be here and so do her professional commitments. “I miss Thiruvananthapuram terribly. My family, my near and dear ones, my friends everybody is there. There I am just Manju!”