South Indian actress Mamta Mohandas, who recently won the Pride of Kerala award at the Asiavision Movie Awards in Sharjah, has a lot to be proud of.
The star of the acclaimed thriller Carbon, out in the UAE cinemas now, has a booming career in the Malayalam film industry and is valiantly kicking Hodgkin’s lymphoma behind her.
The 32-year-old lives out of a suitcase and ticks the ‘global citizen’ tag as she shuttles between Los Angeles, where she continues to be treated for the cancer attacking lymph nodes; South India for film projects; and Bahrain, the country where she grew up and is her haven for unwinding with family. So how does she look back on more than 10 years in movies?
“It has been an exciting journey for me. The one thing I am most thankful is that when someone takes a hiatus in their career to focus on their health for a year or two, they come back looking beaten and battered. But I am so thankful that my career is still rolling and I still get meaty offers,” Mohandas says.
The adjectives beaten and battered could never define Mohandas, who has spear-headed films such as Kadha Thudarunnu in which she played a feisty widow grappling with a financial mess, and the comedy Boss, in which she played a snarky, mean corporate chief.
On the day of our phone interview, Mohandas had just finished a rigorous work out at her gym in Bahrain and was like a proverbial ray of sunshine. She was witty, self-aware and self-deprecating, a rare combination among celebrities. Mohandas knows that she may be missing a lot in terms of projects with her existing health condition where relapse is a constant reality, but she continues to count her blessings.
“What I reflect upon in my 12 years of my career is how I define success. To me, it’s about being able to stand tall and still have a career that is going well for me. I know I set the ball rolling once and I know that things can get a lot better once I have my health back because I can have a more feisty attitude,” she says.
Her nine-year battle with cancer, in which she has relapsed three times, has recalibrated her and nudged her to reassess her perspectives.
“Being a cancer survivor gives you such a different perspective on life. The way I treat people and the way I treat myself have changed over the last seven years. With me it [cancer] wasn’t a one time thing. I have aggressive lymphoma and it keeps coming back, so it requires me to be vigilant. Every waking day, there is a deep-seated pang of fear inside me. So I have to wake up reminding myself that today is a blessing and every person that I know is a blessing for me,” said Mohandas.
She has transformed from being a disillusioned young woman who stumbled into films into a focussed version of her self. She has become non-confrontational and claims she will walk away quietly if there’s any negativity around her. Now her friends are real and she embraces the love from her fans with less cynicism.
The downside to her positive transformation? She has become overly compassionate and accommodating, traits that aren’t particularly nifty in an industry that thrives on manipulation and street-smartness. If a filmmaker were to plead her to be a part of his project or reduce her remuneration by Rs1 million (Dh57,209), she may just relent.
“My attitude is that we are not going to have any of this when we walk into the grave. Basically, live your life as if it’s your last,” Mohandas says.
Her latest film Carbon, also starring Fahadh Faasil, is one such carpe diem project.
“Fahadh and I talked about it every day. We have similar thought processes and our personalities connected. It was our first film together. We discussed how people were going to perceive Carbon. There needs to be an intellectual perception to understand the thought processes behind our characters. Carbon is all shades of grey,” said Mohandas.
True to her words, she plays Sameera, a free-spirited “jungle junkie” in this treasure-hunt thriller, which has opened to positive reviews.
“There’s so much mystery in that film… Carbon whose byproducts are ashes and diamonds make you think about two sides of life,” she says.
Mohandas, who gave up the opportunity to work with Prithviraj in his film Detroit Crossing as it clashed with the filming of Carbon, found the creative experiment exhilarating. But she wasn’t always with her game-face on. Rejecting Arundhati, the horror fantasy blockbuster, as her Telugu debut is one of her biggest career regrets.
“I don’t think for a long time I was passionate about cinema. For the first four years, I was a confused person. I was just working, but not landing the right film… Losing Arundhati was a big career blunder… It was a wake-up call to focus on my career. But within the next two months, a visit to Apollo Hospital made me realise that I had to run behind my life instead of my career. There’s a quite a movie there in my life,” says Mohandas with a laugh. She’s equally open about speaking about mental health.
“To me, depression was a real thing. It took met the longest time to understand that, we have an attitude like ‘sab kuch chalta hai’ [anything goes], laugh over it [mental health] or laugh it off and that it will all heal. It doesn’t happen that way. True healing when you are a victim of some trauma — be it an illness, rape — has no quick solution,” she adds.
A portrait of wholesome well-being now, Mohandas hopes for a world where there’s less stigma attached to mental health and medication to treat it. There was a time when she escaped into the world of movies to forget her disease, but soon realised that it isn’t a long-time solution. Living in Los Angeles alone helped her.
“I got a lot of space of my own and helped me get away from people who smothered me with attention… LA is a fast city and has no strings attached. Everyone is there to smile at you, they are they are there for the moment… It is such an inspiring environment. Everyone is so fitness conscious, so everyone is so beautiful and unique in their own way,” Mohandas says.
Her treatment in LA is a sharp contrast to the one she endured in Chennai, where health professionals were intent on treating the disease but not the patient as a whole. But that’s in the past now.
There’s another cancer eating away at the global entertainment industry now. The multiple scandals of sexual abuse and misconduct in Hollywood have been eroding the fabric of the movie-making world and is now rocking showbusiness world-wide. Has she ever experienced such lewd behaviour on the movie sets? Mohandas is an outsider, with no acting dynasty backing, and could be deemed as an easy target.
“I haven’t personally experienced anything of that sort. I know for a fact that I have never invited trouble. One of my blessing is my mother, who is my filter. It’s difficult to bypass my mum. She gets 10 calls for my work, and I may speak to one or two max,” she says.
Mohandas claims she has never courted trouble either. She cultivates an aura of clinical professionalism around her.
“A woman has the power to ward off anything. But you need to have that fire in your personality… Your stare should make them uncomfortable… To have a standing career spanning 12 years, you need to have done it all respectfully,” she adds.
“The Mamta Mohandas before 2009 [before cancer] was someone who was less understood as a person … but now I am here, alive and working.”