Malayali actress and Dubai-based radio presenter Nyla Usha had to step out of her comfort zone to play the titular role in revered director Joshi’s ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’, out in the UAE on August 23.
Her character makes one third of the trio in this 1980s period drama about three rebels who are disturbing and dazzling in equal measure.
“Mariam is bold, lives alone and is like a dreaded don in a local market in Thrissur. She’s also a moneylender … a hustler” said Nyla in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!
Any veneer of sophistication had to be scrubbed clean before she dove into this career-defining role.
For most part of the film, Nyla — who’s popularly known by her first name — wears the traditional white Chattayum Mundu, an unstitched attire worn by Christian women in the 1960s and is on call to be like a ‘jackfruit’ — hard on the outside and soft on the inside. There’s a scene in the trailer where she scares her detractors off with a wheel wrench. But there’s more to her, claims Nyla.
“She might look feisty on the outside, but she’s very emotional [and] tears up easily … I have cried in so many ways in this film and I haven’t cried so much in real life either. It was emotionally challenging,” said Nyla.
‘PMJ’ is a bittersweet story of friendship, revenge, love and betrayal seen through the prism of three friends who share a close bond.
Rounding off the ferocious triumvirate are two blazing talents from Malayalam cinema — Jojo George and Chemban, who grew up in Thrissur 25km from each other.
“Porinju Mariam Jose are three typical names that are familiar to every Thrissurite [Thrissur resident]. These three characters have grown up together and it’s their story that’s told in ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’. They are linked to each other in ways that you will never know. Even when they fight with each other, there’s this unspoken element of love between them … At its heart, ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’ is a love story. But you have to see the whole film to get to that.”
Acting in a film helmed by one of Kerala’s most revered directors is a big deal for these three actors. While Jojo and Chemban call Joshi the ‘king of Malayalam cinema’, Nyla spoke of his sensitive filmmaker side.
“When director Joshi approached me for this role, my biggest concern was whether I would be able to do justice to it. He is coming back after a gap for four years … ‘Leila o Leila’ with Mohanlal was his last film and so we were all aware of how big a deal this is,” said Nyla.
While she was fretting about making him and his career catalogue proud, Chemban and Jojo are two of Kerala’s startlingly talented actors.
They are no oil paintings in the looks department, but what they lack in conventional good looks, they make up for with their collective on-screen charisma and bluster. Jojo — whose breakthrough role in thriller ‘Joseph’ catapulted him into the big league — even remembers being an ‘extra’s extra’ in a Joshi film.
“I have even played the guy who just walks by in his film. I was one of those 300 guys who hang around a film set to be cast in some minuscule of minuscule roles,” said Jojo in a separate interview. But his turning point occurred when he went to director Joshi’s house looking for a role and the director claimed he was actually trying to track him down for his project.
“For every actor, being a part of a Joshi sir’s film is their biggest dream … ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’ reminded me of my childhood when I heard the story. I felt that these characters were men whom I grew up with. My mother’s brothers were such fierce characters. Nothing scared them and they have intense relationships in their life. They have a close knit group of friends and if anybody dares to touch them, he will destroy those guys,” said Jojo, who has survived in the Malayalam industry for the last two decades. To claim that he has worked his way up and done his time in cinema is an understatement.
For Chemban, who’s known for his zany evil roles, claims this is one of the rare instances where he pursued a role with all his might. He wanted to actively be a part of this film and he made sure that the makers were aware of his interest.
“I understood the script immediately because this is a familiar landscape to me … Those days of ‘palli perunnal’ [church festival] and the carnival atmosphere all around is something I grew up on. If we can’t do justice to our roles in this film, then we shouldn’t call ourselves actors,” said Chemban. Jojo couldn’t agree more.
While the terrain and texture of Thrissur is familiar to the men, it was Nyla who had to dive into unfamiliar waters with her role. She just had three days to prepare before she began filming in earnest.
“I didn’t have the luxury of spending weeks prepping for my role,” said Nyla.
But she managed to do her scenes with aplomb. Her first scene in this film is where she lends money to someone for their wedding and she tells him that she won’t charge interest as it reminded her of her own marriage and murky past. She had to be stern, but go soft in a heartbeat in that scene.
[My character] might look feisty on the outside, but she’s very emotional [and] tears up easily … I have cried in so many ways in this film.
“That was my first scene. Joshi sir is known to be one of the most short-tempered directors. But after that scene, he came up to me and said that I did it beautifully. Now, remember he’s someone who has said: ‘lights, camera, action’ to the biggest actors in Malayalam … The best part about him is that even if you do something wrong, he doesn’t yell from the director’s chair. He comes up to you and tells you how to do it differently,” said Nyla, who describes the iconic director as a force to reckon with. Joshi has directed actors such as Manju Warrier, Mohanlal, Mammootty and Dileep.
Asked if her role would empower women and create better representation, Nyla says playing a titular role in this village story was a step forward in the right direction.
“He has portrayed all our three characters like how he would portray a hero. If you are talking about not giving importance to women in cinema, then he wouldn’t create a character who is like a don, self-made and strong. Even while he was working with me, I was treated with respect. All of Joshi’s female characters like his movie ‘Pathram’, we remember the strong role played by Manju Warrier. I had to think hard to remember the hero in that film.”
Nyla, who has acted in films including the ‘Punyalan Aggarbatis’ series and ‘Lucifer’ since her debut in 2013, claims that her latest film would be a career-defining milestone.
“It’s a wonderful story that will transport you back into the 1980s Thrissur … But at the core, it’s also a love story.”
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‘Porinju Mariam Jose’ releases in the UAE on August 23.
NYLA USHA ON ...
Nyla Usha is an out-and-out Dubai girl. We asked her a few fun questions about life in the UAE ...
— Her favourite places to eat in Dubai: Paul Bakery & Restaurant for their hot chocolate, Shake Shack for their burgers, cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory and Gazebo for Indian food.
— Her favourite activity in Dubai: “I walk around the malls quite a bit. I recommend retail therapy. I love window shopping and I am not saying you should clutter your home with things you don’t need.”
— Her fashion pet-peeve: “I don’t repeat clothes. If it’s on Instagram, then definitely not.”
— Her workout regime: “I work out every day of the week for one and a half hours, except Fridays. I have one cheat meal a week. But I am big on egg white, avocados, apple cider etc.”