Navya Nair
Navya Nair Image Credit: Supplied

After a gap of 10 years, award-winning Malayalam actress Navya Nair returns with her comeback film ‘Oruthee’, and her character lives up to the title which mean ‘a fire within’.

“Radhamani is not the kind of woman who takes things lying down. She knows how to push back when needed and has tremendous agency,” said Nair in Malayalam in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

Nair recounts a scene in her new film where her children are down with a minor food poisoning attack after eating ‘appams’ (South Indian pancake) made from a store-bought batter in Kerala and her husband — who works in a Gulf country — calls her to reprimand her about not being ‘careful enough’. She had checked the expiry date of the batter on the package, but her husband isn’t convinced and wants her to be more vigilant as a mother.

“The moment he made the remark shaming me as a mother, I retort that I cannot send every batter that we buy to a lab to test and that he should just put the phone down and do his work without worrying about how she does things here. She’s not some damsel in distress who frets over her husband’s censure or cries in a corner. This is how most women of today react to such petty fights,” said Nair with a laugh.

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Malayalam actress Navya Nair returns with her comeback film ‘Oruthee’, and her character lives up to the title which mean ‘a fire within’. Image Credit: Supplied

In this emblematic scene, her character Radhamani shows that she’s not some ‘poor, meek’ woman who can be bullied by her loved ones.

Directed by VK Prakash and written by S Suresh Babu, the movie sees Nair plays a gainfully employed ticket conductor on a boat. Her husband works in a Gulf country and she’s a single parent in Kerala who meets her husband during his annual leave. But her ordinary life is interrupted and thrown out of gear by a series of unexpected events. Things spiral out of control and she finds herself frantically looking for solutions.

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“Radhamani belongs to an ordinary, middle-class family. The film propels her to explore her strength and in those moments she realises the fire burning within herself, which means ‘oruthee’. Through this film, you get to see the helplessness and vulnerabilities that plague every woman, especially, the poor ones out there,” said Nair. Her comeback role gave her a lot of scope to emote and express.

Nair’s last release was in 2012 with director Shyju Anthikad’s ‘Onnu Nammude Veedu’, while she made her debut in 2001 with Dileep-starrer ‘Ishtam’. But it was ‘Nandanam’, a movie released in 2002, that put her on the map. In the hit romance, also starring Prithviraj, Nair played a charming house-help who falls in love with her beloved employer’s grandson. The movie, in which she play Balamani, was a touching portrait on class divides and how love or passion knows no economic divides. But she has come a long way since that film. In 2022, her character is a far cry from the hapless and tears-prone Balamani. In ‘Oruthee’, her character is feisty, fierce, and won’t tolerate being pushed to a corner.

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“In ‘Oruthee’, you also get to witness a lone woman’s struggle and helplessness. The issues that plague her also plagues every middle-class Indian woman … It shows the helplessness of a woman who’s economically disadvantaged is made to feel when she hits an unexpected crisis in her life.”

Although Nair doesn’t want to give the plot of the film away, she says that a scene from the trailer where she exclaims that she has no clue why and what’s happening around her sums up her character’s life and trying circumstances. The trailer indicates that Radhamani is in some sort of trouble and is racing against time to make sense of how her life is coming undone. A scene in which she goes to a police station seeking help is heavy with frustration and fear. Many men around her dismiss her callously.

“It’s a scene which happens to every other middle class woman out there. Existentialist questions on why she’s being unfairly targeted all boils done to the fact that she will always be at a disadvantage if poor. It’s all linked to her economics and that’s the bald truth,” said Nair.

This self-made actress, who took a sabbatical from films after she got married and moved to Mumbai in 2010, is aware that she is also at a disadvantage of sorts when it comes to her own career.

“‘Oruthee’ is a woman-centric film and it’s a film where the central character is played by a woman … And I have not been in the world of movies for several years. So it was not easy to bring a film like ‘Oruthee’ to the theatres,” she said.

Her producer friend and businessman ‘Nasarikka’ (brother Benzy Nasar) saw merit in her comeback film and decided to channel his money into the project. He had so much faith in the project and in her that he batted for the film to release first in the theatres, as opposed to a direct web streaming premiere option.

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“Nasarikka often backs offbeat, independent films and I felt incredibly lucky to have him on board. There was a lot of risk involved, but he was game to see us through till the finish line … The script was narrated to me by Suresh Babu in 2017 but it took us many years to get it off the ground and here we are now enjoying a theatrical release. I feel incredibly happy and it feels surreal,” said Nair.

She’s also confident that this film will have many takers. At a public preview with select media and ordinary cinema lovers, she got good feedback.

Malayalam films are known for their strong content made on modest budgets. Unlike their snazzier cousins in languages including Telugu, Hindi or Kannada, the films from Kerala are often realistic and have grim tales that aren’t glossy or just escapist stories about the wealthy and the sophisticated.

“Look at our recent Malayalam hits such as ‘Jan-E-Man’ or ‘Operation Java’, they worked because of its strong content and merit and not because it boasted famous stars and actors. The story had a strong connect and didn’t depend on names to see it through,” pointed out Nair.

During her hiatus from Malayalam films, she was seen briefly judging talent hunt reality shows.

She has a 11-year-old son and claims she wasn’t keen to act in movies before as it would mean she would have to remain away from her child for extended periods of time. So has she now learnt the art of multitasking. Does she fear missing out on her son growing up?

“I used to teach my son via Zoom during his exams. He’s under this sweet impression that if I teach him before his exams he will get good marks. Little does he realise that he gets good marks because he studied well. But I was an involved parent even while I was filming,” said Nair.

Endearingly earnest, Nair claims she got married because all her friends were getting married back in 2010 and her parents were eager to see her tie the knot. Despite having a flourishing career, she got married to go with the flow.

“At that time it was the process that was happening all around me. I immediately got pregnant after my marriage and naturally I couldn’t immediately start working,” she said. “So I had breaks in my movie career because I couldn’t afford to give bulk dates for films.”

But her true calling remains acting and dancing. For this landmark film, she gave it her all. Her character drives a two-wheeler, something that knows she’s terrible at driving.

“I am petrified and I even fell off it, bruising myself badly. We had to break for a few days as I couldn’t run with my bruises. But every bit was worth it because in ‘Oruthee’, I play someone who has so many complex layers,” said Nair.

Don’t miss it!

‘Oruthee’ is out in UAE cinemas now.