In 2014, Malayalam actor Manju Warrier decided to resume work after a hiatus. She had settled into domesticity after her marriage with co-star Dileep in 1998. For the next 14 years, Kerala would long for the magic she created on screen while the cine circles quintessentially debated on ‘Will she, wont she?’
So finally when she did, there was excitement, naturally. But it also posed an unusual scenario. She was 30-plus, and did not comply much with the ‘prescribed aesthetics’ for female leads in cinema. She had walked out of a marriage that controlled and imposed conditions on her: But landed in a space where the same patriarchy called the shots. Marching ahead she was, but the path was precarious. The ‘Will She, Wont She?’ debate got much louder this time. The implication of the question now having changed to her longevity in cinema.
Nine films and four years down, she finally has a firm grip to settle it all. Her latest, Udaharanam Sujatha, besides doing well at the box office, is a solid affirmation on her acting prowess. The previous ones in the second outing had only flashes of it, depriving one of the Manju Warrier, she once was. There was disappointment, but never a dismissal. Drawing strength from that and more, she has found her groove again.
What has it taken Manju Warrier, once a flawless performer, to get there? A look at the factors that possibly delayed her blossoming as an actor in the second innings.
Brand overshadowing the actor?
Manju in her comeback was not only an actor, but also a brand that embodied a combination of facets – of a model, dancer, actor and a social being. And many a time, Manju the actor could not make the right choices that adhered both to the parameters of the brand and to cinema sensibilities the audience associated her with.
In looks, conduct and pursuits, the new Manju Warrier remained a construct devoid of anything natural. For a society that idolised her as ‘the girl next door’, it indeed was difficult, to accept the ‘new sculpted’ version.
The real-reel cocktail
Starting from the very first ad she appeared in to the narratives of her films, anything that had her, also had a steady of mix of her real life – of the drama involved and the politics that evolved. And it all struck chords, since it echoed the closely guarded chapter of the ordeals of her marital life.
In the first ad campaign on her return, we saw her sharing space with the big man of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan the father, cross with the daughter played by Manju, for marrying against his wishes, is shown as going back to the daughter while she is in labour. The ad concludes with Manju saying ‘I knew he would come back if I call out to him’. On air, the commercial seemed like it was all about her, and her (then) impending comeback to films.
And when she did comeback, it was indeed all about her on screen. The first film of her second outing centred on a middle-aged woman stuck in a loveless marriage trying to find her feet. Titled ‘How old are you’, the film carried a tagline ‘it is never too old to dream’, and had a saree clad middle-class Manju Warrier asking the world ‘Is it my fault that I am 36 years old? The film sealed all debate on the ‘age’ factor with its astounding success.
The ones that followed had different themes, but invariably centred on the breakthroughs of the single mother or woman. None of them (except the one with Mohanlal as male lead) could impact the box office. Either because they did not have the solid male presence the audience are used to, or because it was getting too ‘Manjuish’.
Preparations that went astray?
The capital of Manju Warrier character is her acting skill. Even in her youthful days when she ruled hearts of cinefans, she was never synonymous with the glitter and glamour of stardom. The superlatives used were always in connection with her performances. No one bothered about what she wore or how she looked.
That wasn’t the case in the second innings. Grooming took centre stage, allowing little or low priority to the preparedness she needed as an actor. Or so it appeared on screen. It successfully brought back the chatter, but never the actor.
Perhaps the toughest of the ordeals would have been this. To pull out the actor amidst the emotional turmoil the individual was going through. In the happy days of her marriage, she was content at being where she was and never once had explicitly stated her wish to resume acting. She was clearly out of practice and public space. Till she took a U-turn one day, treading all the way back to where she had left. A journey perhaps she never thought she would undertake, for which she never prepared for.
It was an insecure and vulnerable space life had brought her to, where every step had to carefully made. Every film she worked on, every word she spoke and every nuance of it carried dollops of caution as it would determine her ‘survival’. Exercising that would have been tiresome – to keep off the instincts and drive completely on ‘strategies’.
Nonetheless, she has managed to survive it all. Manju Warrier is now clearly in an unparalleled slot in Malayalam Cinema. She is called the ‘Lady Super Star’ and is also the first female actor to have fans associations in her name. She is also in the numbers game at the box office, and if reports are to be believed, her latest Udaharanam Sujatha is successfully measuring the outings of some of the big guys.
And Malayalees are now coming to terms with the ‘New Improved Manju Warrier Ultra’ that she is now, with all its shortcomings. And they are loving it too. For hers is a story of triumph Kerala never thought it will witness. For hers is a story of love Kerala never thought it was capable of.