Measured, but pleasant. That’s how Manju Warrier has always been in her interviews. It was not different this time as well.
The actor has started 2023 with a bang. Her second Tamil film Thunivu, an action flick with Ajith Kumar, is running successfully in theatres. Her first Malayalam release of the year, Ayisha, “a global film”, is releasing on January 20. On January 21, she will be back in her classical dancer avatar, in a Kuchipudi dance drama at the grand finale of the 45th edition of the 111-day-long Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram.
In Thunivu, she plays Kanmani, an accomplice of Ajith’s character Dark Devil/Michael Jackson in executing a bank heist. It is her first onscreen action role and Manju is pleased about pulling it off.
While reviews unanimously talk about how an actor of her calibre did not have enough scenes, she observes, “I have heard that. Even our director [H Vinoth] and Ajith sir had said that I ought to have been given a role that had more screen time. Meanwhile, some viewers have pointed out that I have got a solid role in a mass hero movie and that I was on par with the star in certain scenes. What matters is not the screen time, but that my character is getting discussed,” she says.
Thunivu is very different from her Tamil debut, Vetrimaaran’s Asuran(2019) with Dhanush. Kanmani wields a gun and kicks off into action.
Manju is also thrilled that she could go on a bike ride with Ajith and a team of riders. “That was an unexpected invitation from his side to join the 16-member team. Even though I said yes, I wasn’t sure if he actually meant it. But a few days later when he got back to me with the itinerary, I was surprised! We covered Leh-Ladakh, Jammu Kashmir and Chandigarh. I have travelled through this route before. But covering the same stretch on a bike is a totally different experience.”
The biggest challenge was navigating the terrain. She did think of dropping out after an exhausting first day. “But, eventually, the others’ passion for riding rubbed off on me and it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I didn’t ride much since I did not have a license then.”
Ayisha will be a fresh experience for the audience, says the actor. Directed by debutant Aamir Pallikkal, she calls it a global film as 80 % of the actors are of other nationalities, such as Tunisia, Nigeria, Syria, the Philippines and the UAE. “Among several factors that attracted me to the project were the backdrop and sharing screen space with these actors. They are well-known artistes in their industry. Since we were all speaking our own language during the shoot, it was fun.”
Manju plays the titular character, a khaddama (housemaid in Arab countries). “The film looks at her relationship with her employer and other maids who are from different countries. It is inspired by a true story and we have taken some cinematic liberties with the subject. The identity of the real-life person will be revealed at the end of the movie,” she says.
Manju adds that most movies about khaddama have projected how the maids are ill-treated by their employers. But Ayisha is different in that the Arab employers are shown in a positive light. The film has been dubbed in Arabic as well, in addition to Tamil, Hindi and Telugu.
On the stage
Manju will play Krishna in the dance drama Radhe Shyam conceptualised and choreographed by her dance guru, Geetha Padmakumar. “I have been performing at the Soorya Festival on October 9 every year. But I couldn’t perform on that date because I was shooting for Thunivu. That’s when I got an opportunity to be part of Geetha teacher’s production.”
The talking point of Ayisha has been a song picturised on Manju (‘Kannilu kannilu’), choreographed by Prabhu Deva. “I wanted to work with him someday. So, when this song situation came up, I asked him and he immediately came on board. But once he was in, I had to ensure that we gave him the best song. So I got deeply involved in making the song with the composer [M Jayachandran].” Manju admits that she was nervous about the steps since she has not done that style before. “But sir asked me to have fun and it was fun,” says the actor, adding that she enjoyed the trolls for her look in the song.
Being the superstar
Ever since her comeback with How Old Are You? (2014) after a 14-year hiatus, Manju has been constantly pushing the envelope as an actor. The lady superstar of Malayalam cinema, as she is fondly addressed, admits that some choices worked out, and some didn’t. “I have always said that my criterion for selecting a subject is that it should excite me. Of course, I have gone wrong several times. Now the viewers are exposed to all kinds of content. We artistes are also watching fresh narratives and storytelling. So, like many other actors, I try to raise the bar as an actor with each film,” says Manju.
The 43-year-old admits that she is not always enthused by “female-oriented” subjects. “Such offers have come down because people now know that it is not the only factor that excites me. It has been proven that not all male-oriented films are good and that not all female-oriented films are failures. Content is what matters now.”
Her upcoming release is Vellari Pattanam, a political satire, with Soubin Shahir. Her Hindi project with R Madhavan is half way through the shoot.