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Manju Warrier on playing the iconic Kamala Surayya

The superstar actress from Kerala says playing the complicated poet is an ‘actor’s dream’, despite mixed reviews from viewers

  • Actress Manju Warrier during an interview for the Malayalam film Aami at the Roxy Cinema in City Walk, Dubai. Image Credit:
  • Actress Manju Warrier during an interview for the Malayalam film Aami at the Roxy Cinema in City Walk, Dubai. Image Credit:
  • Image Credit:
  • Actor Murali Gopy during an interview for the Malayalam film Aami at the Roxy Cinema in City Walk, Dubai. PhotImage Credit:

Call it poetic justice or fait accompli that Manju Warrier, one of Kerala’s widely adored superstars, chose to attend the premiere of her controversial biopic Aami in Dubai on Wednesday, the eve of International Women’s Day.

Everything about Aami, the biopic based on the life of the late literary icon Kamala Surayya (initially known as Kamala Das/Madhavikutty before she converted to Islam) screamed women empowerment, non-conformism and breaking stereotypes. Here’s a film that celebrated women, her body, her physicality and her choices to the maximum.

And, it’s also led by top actress Warrier, who chronicles the life of one of India’s most colourful, checkered and cherished iconoclasts with a combination of studied restraint and wild abandon in Aami, out in the UAE cinemas now.

“She was a very strong person in her own way which I am sure every woman is in their own way. The film has nothing to do with the #MeToo Campaign [in Hollywood], but it is strong and loud in its own way,” said Warrier in an interview Gulf News tabloid! at the Roxy Cinemas in CityWalk ahead of the screening.

The 38-year-old award-winning actress is one of Kerala’s top box office draws and is known for her strong women-oriented films. In a career that sprang into fast gear with the Malayalam blockbuster Sallapam in 1996, in which she played the domestic help Radha, to her stellar on-screen comeback in 2014 with the widely-adored drama How Old Are You, which explored the trials of a homemaker, Warrier is known to strike out on her own. She has rarely played a glorified eye-candy in any of her films, and that’s an accomplishment in itself in an industry which is predominantly male-dominated.

Warrier claims that her role in her latest film is any “actor’s dream” and that she’s thrilled by the responses it has evoked in Kerala. The reviews have been mixed with several critics calling it a sanitised or watered down version of the controversial author and poet’s life. But Warrier is pragmatic about the dissenting voices.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion and they have every right to carry their own perception of a person who has lived until very recently [Surayya died in 2009]. Her image and everything about her may be strong in everyone’s minds and so we can’t expect everyone to easily accept another face to a figure that was loved and respected so much. As far as I am concerned, I am happy with the reactions I have received.” Being lauded by avant-garde director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who claimed that she was spectacular in this role, remains one of her most cherished compliments.

“The amount of feedback and the messages from within the industry has never happened to me. The magnitude of it all caught me by pleasant surprise,” said Warrier.

The role was earlier offered to Vidya Balan who reportedly backed out of the film at the last minute, but Warrier doesn’t roll with the catty “her loss is my gain” belief. She claims that the National Award-winning Bollywood actress, Balan, was “sweetly supportive”.

“It’s not fair to have such comparisons. She’s such a brilliant and talent actor. If she had done it, then it would have added another dimension to it which might have been better. I am just happy about the luck that came my way. Vidya and me are in touch. Vidya’s dad was the person to wish me when the movie released,” said Warrier, adding that Balan was one of the happiest persons she knew.

Warrier could be described in those words, too. Dressed in a nondescript khakhi tunic and a low ponytail with minimal make-up, Warrier wasn’t cut from the salon-perfect cloth that celebrities usually drape themselves in. She prefers to let her roles do the talking. Just like the late legendary actress Sridevi, her non-intimidating persona in real life does a volte-face as she transforms into a firebrand when the cameras are switched on.

She was in between three films when this role of Aami came her way. So that meant that all her legwork and research was contained to the bound-script that director Kamal had given her.

“This film came to me unexpectedly and I didn’t have time to do enough research... So I made myself blank and placed all the responsibility and the load that came with this role on my director’s shoulders. I have always been a director’s actor,” said Warrier.

The strategy seemed to have worked. Warrier, who takes on patriarchy and misogyny in her latest role, has come out with flying colours. While Warrier did complete justice to her role as the mercurial poet, the men in her life have been given a relatively raw deal. Barring her on-screen husband Murali Gopy and Das’ last known Muslim partner played by Anoop Menon, the men in her life have been shown as wimps. The film also keeps a tight reign on going totally rogue on Das and her amorous affairs that she publicly acknowledged.

So was the sanitisation called for?

Powerhouse Murali Gopy, who plays Warrier’s on-screen husban, the aristocratic Madhava Das, claims that restraint is the natural by-product of the “hyper-sensitive times” we live in.

Cyber warriors who are easily offended and who take to social media to vent their opposition and dissent or the self-appointed moral police doesn’t help the matters either.

“When you are making a movie in India now, censorship is the norm so it will be naturally sanitised. When we make a biopic, we have to keep the censor board in mind… When you have such a volcanic personality or writer on the big screen, it is difficult to explore the world the way she saw it… Cinema is under Emergency [rule] and is still under heavy censorship,” said Gopy.

The Left Right Left actor implores the viewers to look at this film as the interpretation of Kamala Das’ life by director Kamal. Gopy plays the husband of Das. His character is old enough to be her father and shows undercurrents of a different sexual orientation in Aami. But despite his glaring shortcomings, Gopy claims that his role is progressive and is a portrait of a man who shied away from his patriarchal roots and became a support for Das’ literary pursuits. He wasn’t worried about playing second fiddle to Aami and revelled in the complex layers of his role.

“I considered it my honour to play this role… He can easily be the reference point to all modern marriages of today.”

The arc of his character is pronounced as the film chronicles the changing dynamics and shift in power as the marriage progresses. Initially, he came off as a misogynistic patriarch who didn’t understand his teenage bride or her inner workings, but later became her biggest strength. Aami’s biggest strength is their relationship and its growth.

As Warrier and Gopy soak in the reviews that are streaming in, both actors agree that their roles are close to their hearts.

“It’s God’s grace and the affection or love showered on me that makes me feel really blessed. I just feel gratitude… It’s a great time for women to be in the movies,” said Warrier.


Don’t miss it!

Aami is now showing in the UAE.