Filming at a haunted palace might creep most people out, but not South Indian actress Manju Warrier, who valiantly shot a large part of her latest Malayalam film ‘Aisha’ in an eerie mansion in Ras Al Khaimah.
“We had such a great time. We spent almost one-and-half months inside a haunted house and lived peacefully – there was no paranormal experience to report whatsoever,” said Warrier in a video interview with Gulf News.
Far from making the cast and crew of the slice-of-film ‘Ayisha’ uncomfortable, this zany and quirky set of women thought it was a welcome change from the usual, mundane filming spots.
“We are jolly, jolly people. The location that we chose was a haunted house and that was actually very, very interesting. It was a well-known, large palatial bungalow in Ras Al Khaimah where tickets are always sold to experience its spooky elements … We even had overnight shoots and it wasn’t scary,” said Warrier with a twinkle in her eye. The scenes filmed in RAK is a stand-in for scenes set in a household in Saudi Arabia. 98 per cent of this film was filmed in Ras Al Khaimah, dressed up as Saudi Arabia.
In ‘Ayisha’, Warrier – who is widely adored among movie buffs in Kerala – plays the titular role of a house help for a family in Saudi Arabia. But this movie is not tear-jerker or a social commentary on class divides, she warns us.
“Movies about a protagonist who plays a maid generally ends up being a story of tears and hardships. But we have adopted a different approach here and perhaps that’s one of the things that excited me about the script. This is not a sob story of a housemaid,” said Warrier.
The award-winning actress, who made her comeback with the stirring family drama ‘How Old Are You’, has a point. Most movies on domestic helps are often searing portrait of employee abuse, rich vs poor and cruelty. But ‘Aisha’ will not jump to those familiar beats.
Based on the true-life of woman from Kerala who went to work in Saudi Arabia as a domestic help is an inspiring and sunny tale, says Warrier.
“At its core, ‘Ayisha’ is a very interesting story of friendship. You will watch what happens when a lady goes to work in a household and her relationship with those in that home. Their bonds and dynamics is shown in a very interesting light,” said Warrier. She underlines the fact that there are not evil employers or horrible bosses lurking in the shadow.
Directed by Aamir Pallikal and produced by Zakariya Mohammed – who directed the cult comedy ‘Sudani From Nigeria’ – Warrier believes that ‘Ayisha’ is backed by a crew who are of wavelengths similar to her.
“There’s a lot of soul in this movie and we have made it with so much dream and expectations — It’s a good, simple, small, light-hearted film. You will find our perspective intersting,” said Warrier.
Making ordinary lives seem extraordinarily riveting and compelling on screen is what Malayalam films are renowned for. Recent films such as ‘Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey’ – which was a hilarious satire on domestic violence – dealt with a serious subject in a darkly humourous manner.
“‘Ayisha’ is not all sunshine and happiness because it has its own emotional moments, but I love the way the director has approached those emotionally charged sequences. It’s a very real story and has real emotions that any human being will have in his or her life. It’s all there,” said Warrier.
While she plays the sprightly Ayisha, it’s her relationship with her boss that forms the spine of this slice-of-life film. Plus, the casting is authentic, she adds.
“The boss is played by a wonderful actress from Syria. She lives in the UAE and is perfectly cast. Every actor in room, 80 per cent of them, were non-Indians. It was very interesting to interact with actors form the Middle East and beyond. Their approach was different and we used to have very friendly discussions … There were so many new things to learn,” said Warrier.
This actress, who enjoys tremendous goodwill among her industry peers and fans, can be best described as a student of life. Warrier, 44, is a trained classical dancer from a non-acting family from Thrissur in central Kerala. She was a dominant force in the Malayalam movie fraternity in the mid-1990s. She made her film debut in 1995 with Sakshayam, but it was her role as a naive maid Radha in Sallapam (1996) that made her an overnight sensation in Kerala. Her former husband and Dileep played her hapless lover: a poor carpenter who spurns her love due to abject poverty. She took a sabbatical from acting for 15 years after she married Dileep, but bounced back into acting following her acrimonious divorce.
Now she’s in a phase in life and career where new experiences at work encourages her tremendously. ‘Ayisha’, which boasts an authentic and eclectic cast who speak Arabic on-screen, presented her with a golden opportunity to learn.
“I waited for the last word of their dialogue and that was a cue to start speaking my own dialogue. They come from a different school of acting and even the experience of shooting in Ras Al Khaimah was not something that happens while we shoot a Malayalam film in Kerala. It was good different,” said Warrier.
Long before South Indian films became a rage, there were actors like Manju Warrier who paved the way for strong roles being played by women. In a movie like ‘Kanmadham’, back in 1998, Warrier took on a role of feisty, foul-mouthed villager and nearly outshone matinee idol Mohanlal. But suddenly, post COVID-19 South Indian films are enjoying a glorious moment in the sun (here’s looking at you ‘RRR’). So what do we owe this resurgence of interest to?
“The credit for all the exposure should be given to the pandemic. The OTT boom which happened during that period gave immense exposure to Malayalam cinema. Many around the world began sitting up and taking notice of South Indian films, especially Malayalam movies. Now we should be really conscious as an industry to give content to all those who are watching … I hope we have done that with ‘Ayisha’,” said Warrier, who was last seen in the Tamil blockbuster ‘Thunivu’ alongside Ajith Kumar.
She claims she’s love all the attention that her cinema is getting from around the world.
“As an actor, all that attention has made me filter my acting choices and even improve and refine myself as an actor. The attention has made me want to improve a lot. It has inspired me to work on myself.”
Her work philosophy on remaining true to her craft is painfully simple. This actress, who doesn’t believe in jotting down new year resolutions or to-do lists, is almost fatalistic in her approach towards her life and work.
“Just go with the flow … I try to learn from my every experience that I have had in the past year or even the years before that … My learning from 2022? All of life’s a learning.”
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'Ayisha' is out in UAE cinemas now