Manju Warrier is stepping out of the Malayalam film industry for the first time in her more than two-decade-long career. The actor is playing a prominent role in Tamil film Asuran, helmed by National Award-winning director Vetrimaaran.
In this exclusive interview, Manju reveals what it means for her to step out of the ‘comfort zone’ of Malayalam cinema and the takeaways from her first Tamil outing, Asuran.
Why did it take so long for you to act in a non-Malayalam project?
There is no particular reason. Maybe, it was destiny. I received Tamil offers in the early stages of my career. In my second innings, there have been even more opportunities outside Malayalam, but none of them materialized, mostly because of date issues. In the case of Asuran, everything fell in place.
What prompted you to say ‘yes’ to Asuran?
It was very simple. I have seen all of Dhanush’s movies with great enthusiasm. It is the same with Vetrimaaran’s movies. All of Vetrimaaran’s movies have strong cinematic narratives that have grabbed attention across the world. His choice of topics and the narrative styles employed make Vetrimaaran a unique filmmaker.
I have seen every movie of Vetrimaaran-Dhanush combo and all of my friends in the film industry were, in fact, more excited and happy (than me) when they came to know that I am part of Asuran. Who could say no to such a project? So it was a simple choice and an instant yes.
Tell us more about your character in Asuran.
This is a family drama. I play Pachayamma – a strong woman who is the pillar of a family. Every character in this movie has equal importance and the movie is loosely based on the novel Vekkai written by Tamil writer Poomani.
How was your experience working with Vetrimaaran and Dhanush?
They were very welcoming, sweet and warm, but I was nervous for one week or so, maybe because of the change of atmosphere or the language. I never had firsthand experience of working in a Tamil movie or any kind of exposure to the Tamil film fraternity before, so it took me time to settle in. The media hype around Asuran being my first Tamil movie, my own concern to perfect a very important role led to a ‘nervous excitement’. However, I was happy that I accepted the role. To put in simple words, I had the same mental state of a child who joins a new school.
Though technically Sakshyam was my first movie, it was in Sallapam that I had a major role. I had the same feeling which I experienced in Sallapam while I worked in Asuran. I was nervous like a newcomer again. Maybe I won’t get that same thrill for my next Tamil movie.
Another interesting thing is that both Vetrimaaran and Dhanush follow Malayalam cinema closely. They are updated about what is happening in the Malayalam film industry and are sincere about their views on Malayalam movies. I was never treated as a Malayalam actress, instead was considered as one among them. It was evident when they gave me the script of Asuran in Tamil with a small smile on their faces. At first, I was a bit taken aback but later I realized it was a statement. They could have given the script in English or Malayalam, but they didn’t do it. They were well aware that I can read Tamil and wanted me to be one among them. It was a very welcoming experience.
Both you and Dhanush sport different looks in Asuran.
It is different makeovers for different age periods. Dhanush’s character has more age makeovers than mine. My character appears in the movie after a certain point. It was interesting to see our makeovers at different ages. For me, transforming into a Tamil woman itself was a different experience.
The movie also made me nostalgic. I grew up in Nagercoil district in Tamil Nadu, and this movie was mostly shot in villages in Tamil Nadu. Native Tamil people, signboards in Tamil, reddish colour of the soil, the roads – all these gave me a ‘nostalgic trip’ throughout the shoot.
How do you as an actor identify with Vetrimaaran style of filmmaking?
I think the Vetrimaaran stamp lies in the point where it merges with real life. Most of the times while watching his movies, we tend to forget that it is a film. For example, I loved his earlier film Visaaranai, and however much I wanted to watch it for the second time, I couldn’t gather the strength to do so. I felt my heart couldn’t handle the heaviness of pain that the movie inflicts in its raw and realistic approach to life. We would even close our eyes in horror without having the heart to watch some scenes in that movie. Not many filmmakers can create such emotions in viewers. Not many can maintain the realistic narrative throughout a movie, but Vetrimaaran does it with perfection. I haven’t seen him doing anything special to achieve this during the shoot. The way Vetrimaaran handles his movies, the message he tries to convey, the subject he chooses – all this I feel lends to his filmmaking style and Asuran is no different. The movie portrays the suffering of the oppressed class, the exploitation they face and their helplessness in certain situations.
Tell us about your friendship with Dhanush.
I have known him for almost ten years now. I don’t remember exactly when and where I met him. He has approached me for many projects before but I couldn’t commit to them because of various reasons. Now when I think about it, I feel it is good that Asuran materialized. He was very supportive from the beginning. He made me comfortable from the time when the script was being discussed and during the entire course of the shooting.
Dhanush in an interview said that he was afraid to share screen space with you.
(Laughs) He is being humble and sweet and probably has said that because of our friendship. I was the one who was actually tensed. Though he is a reserved character who sits silently in a corner, when it comes to acting, he is a devil. He is brilliant in that regard. I was the one who got amazed by his transformations as an actor.
There was a really lengthy dialogue. I saw him reading the script once or twice and at the time of the take, he finished that lengthy dialogue in a single take without any prompting. I thought he must have learned the dialogues last night because he was behaving casually in between the shots. I asked him whether he learned the lines beforehand. His reply was, “No, I just read once or twice after I reached here.” I was awestruck.
Dhanush is an actor who blends in emotionally with a scene. He conceives the character’s whole life to make his acting perfect which is beautiful to watch.
Read the interview in Malayalam
What were your learnings from Asuran?
It was both learning and unlearning, I think. Their level of dedication to cinema is commendable. They are ready to sacrifice anything for cinema. I am not saying it’s not like that in Malayalam film industry. We have seen Lalettan (Mohanlal) and others doing that. However, when you step out and see somethings, it brings in another perspective.
Their effort and sincerity prompt us to better ourselves. Moreover, they were very inclusive. I always liked to be part of the conversations between Dhanush and Vetrimaaran during the shooting. They included me in their conversations which made me feel at home.
During those conversations, I understood more about what they are doing and the collective result it brings to the end product. Asuran felt different during its different stages. It became better and better after each stage. I realized they knew what they wanted as an end result even during shooting.
When it comes to acting, we think we can deliver a dialogue in a way which comes naturally to us. But when Vetrimaaran describes the essence of it, we feel the simplicity and beauty of the dialogue delivery. I have felt the same thing with some directors in Malayalam also. A good director’s vision about a scene is far above our imagination.
What was the biggest challenge posed by Asuran?
I can’t say that now. You have to watch the movie for that. There is a lot of emotional sequences in the movie and the way the story is structured is a bit different.