My apologies for hurting some sentiments here, but let us admit, we Indians love a Cinderella story. The fantasy of some prince who happens to notice a ‘pretty nobody’ amongst a bevy of lovely ladies eyeing him, while he rushes out holding a glass shoe to find that face in the crowd. And voila! Your life is changed forever the minute you fit into that stupid shoe.
If only life was that beautiful. So when Kerala-born Bombay-bred Malavika Mohanan was chosen for the role of Tara in world-acclaimed Majid Majidi’s film Beyond the Clouds it was impossible for the media to not turn this great achievement into a fairytale. Stories were aplenty: Majidi spotted her on a street in Colaba and said, ‘yes this is my Tara’, ‘Malavika was not even aware she was the chosen one’, ‘Malavika was not even looking for a career in the industry’… all of them well narrated to quench our thirst for that shining prince in armour ending. In a way, it probably is about our collective eternal hope that looks for these little nuggets.
This is what actually happened. “Honestly, it was not like I was discovered out of the blue for this role. I had to work hard. My first film was Pattam Pole with Malayalam superstar Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salmaan, who is again a big star and is now hitting Hindi cinema. So, if you actually ask me it was Mammootty who “discovered” me. I was on the sets and he said, “So do you want to give it a try? Until then cinema was passion for me, not exactly a career option. I thought about it, and agreed after I asked what the story and the script was. I think the fact that the world of cinema is not a mirage helps me take the right decisions that will eventually help my career or how it will turn.”
Malavika’s comfort comes from her father K.U. Mohanan, who is a well-known cinematographer and has been working in the industry for several years spanning different languages. So, cinema is not exactly unchartered territory for Malavika. She grew up going to sets, watching films with her parents, talking good cinema, watching films in different languages, discussing characters and their portrayal with her father, understanding the value of a visual. Cinema is literally in her blood. “But that didn’t mean I had decided that acting was really my calling. I just had the kind of exposure to cinema in a very different way.”
After her first Malayalam film hit the screen, Malavika went on to do a few more. “That is when I started following casting sessions. Having grown up in Bombay I thought why stay away from the mainstream and just limit myself to southern cinema. So when I heard that Majid Majidi was casting for his first Hindi film, I was interested. But then, I also knew that there would be a queue of stars trying to grab it. It is not like my father is a big star or anything, he is a technician in this big world called Bollywood. Obviously, that was not going to really help me cut the queue. Then one day, my sister sent some photographs to my casting director Honey Trehan and the next morning Honey told me to send more images and that he wanted to show it to the casting crew of Majidi.”
That’s the point when Malavika decided that she wanted the role. “I felt I would fit into this role. I knew the Bombay that the movie depicted, I could relate to the dhobi ghats and chawls and was familiar with the accent.” But, Malavika did not want to send yet another bunch of her portfolio images or “for that matter some random ones shot at home. I wanted the pictures that I sent to be character of the film.”
It had to be convincing. “I imagined what Tara would be like. The way she would tie her sari, her skin tone, the way she would walk, talk… all of it and I was in costume. I asked my father to take my photos in various parts of Bombay where Tara would be. We were consumed in this process and I sent those pictures to Honey. You know, I was so anxious and apprehensive that I kept my phone with me all the time. Every time it would ring I would jump and my heart would skip a beat, day and night. The phone didn’t ring for four days. And I said may be… and the next day Honey called me and said, Majid Majidi would like to see you.”
But Malavika knew the test was not over. She thought of all the answers she would give and how well she was ready for the role. “And when I reached, there were absolutely no questions. Actually, Majidi did not even speak to me. The team gave me the script to read and get ready to roll in ten days. Beyond the Clouds was rolling and so was I.”
In retrospect it may seem like a fairytale. But, reality is that there was nothing easy or sudden about it. Malavika had to prove that she was worthy of the role and that the character could rest well on her shoulders. “Given the story, the emotions between a sister and brother, it was not one of those romantic glamorous roles. The depth that I had to bring to it was important.” It isn’t as though she could tear a leaf out of her own life either given her relationship with her own brother, Aditya, an archaeologist, five years younger.
“No, it didn’t really help. The age difference between us never helped build a real sibling relationship. When he was ten, for instance, I was already in my teens. By the time he touched teenage I was in my twenties. During our growing up years, there was none of that bonding. But now as adults I feel things are changing between us. I guess it is only natural,” she says.
So, daddy’s girl, little Malavika? “That is so funny. No, I think now they know that my decisions are based on my own logic. For instance, when I decided to pay more attention to Hindi cinema, there was a reason behind it. At one point, Malayalam and Tamil produced great films. Actors such as Mohanlal and Mammootty, directors such as Priyadarshan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, their films are cult. You will always remember those dialogues, like every Malayali’s favourite from Mohanalal would be: Eda Po Mone Dinesha or Savari Giri Giri. I veer more towards the director because he is the one who actually makes these characters immortal.”
Malavika is at the moment preparing for a Rajnikant-starrer film. “It is an outright blockbuster script. But, I wanted to do it for two reasons. One, I don’t want to be stereotyped in the Majidi mode and two, after doing that kind of film I did not want to step down the ladder. I want to also test my bandwidth, though I know I will never be able to do a comedy. It requires timing, an attitude. I don’t have that. Juhi Chawla used to be so perfect at it.”
For the girl from Payanoor in Kerala, who grew up in Bombay watching all kinds of cinema, it is ultimately the character and its power that matters. Which is one of the reasons she does less of southern cinema of late. “Sexism has always been an issue in our industry, as well any other. But, if I were to compare southern cinema and Bollywood, the extent of sexist dialogues, misinterpretation of woman’s opinion, is so much more. Sadly, the south, and I don’t mean just cinema, is regressing. “Have you heard the word Feminichi? I am sure you haven’t. It is a word that some morons have created as an abuse for women who talk about women’s rights and gender equality. Women are judged for what they wear, talk in public. Believe it or not, when I was doing a casting for a Malayalam film, I was told that they are looking for an ‘innocent girl who could look like a virgin.”
Malavika laughs (even as you sense her frustration and anger), and asks, “Even today we want virgins. Or women who could look like virgins. Do you remember Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? Now, Shah Rukh Khan’s character did not even notice Kajol’s character when she was a tomboy. But years later, when she comes with her luscious hair blowing in the wind wearing a sari, he realises that she was marriage-worthy? How ridiculous is that? And through films we go on reiterating this idea of virginity or how a daughter-in-law should behave. You know good girls don’t have sex. It is as though women have no right to such desires. That’s why I admire
Priyanka Chopra. She lives her life on her terms and gives a damn to her critics.”
What about Malavika’s desires? “Of course, I have desires. One of which is to act with Shah Rukh Khan. I have found this really hot guy and after playing hard to get we are now on chat sessions. What I like is that we can actually have a conversation. How many good looking men do you find today who are intelligent as well? Let us see how that goes,” she saying, giggling. Touché to that, girl.