From Sallapam to Rani Padmini, how Manju Warrier made a successful comeback to regain Malayalam superstar status

Neelima Menon

Mar 17, 2019 15:11:36 IST

The first glimpse of Manju Warrier, if you remember it correctly, was in Sakshyam (1995). She was 17 years old. The very next year she made her quiet debut with Sallapam. Within four years, she became a superstar, completed almost 20 films, got married and stepped away from the silver screen. Fourteen years later, she came back to the ‘new wave’ in Malayalam cinema and is finding her footing again. Here’s a quick look at her journey in Malayalam cinema.

First innings

From Sallapam to Rani Padmini, how Manju Warrier made a successful comeback to regain Malayalam superstar status

Manju Warrier and Dileep in Sallapam

In the mid-90s Shobana and Urvashi were already making themselves scarce on screen. Most of the scripts were written around the heroes and heroines were reduced to fill-ins who were easily replaceable. And Malayalam cinema was witnessing a dip in quality.

In the AK Lohitadas-scripted, Sundar Das-directed Sallapam, an 18-year old was making her debut as a heroine. She played Radha, a domestic worker who falls madly in love with a local singer (Dileep). Nothing about Warrier gave an indication that she was set to reign the industry for the next decade. Except for the captivating smile, she epitomised the Malayali girl next door. “It’s inexplicable. By the mid-90s, superstars were ageing. And here was a kind of heroine who could play strong characters. She had a freshness, a rustic charm and there was nothing intimidating about her. She was a phenomenon that had never happened before. Her exit also created some kind of magic around her. And her comeback also had huge public expectations,” says CS Venkiteswaran, film academician and director.

Then came Kamal’s Ee Puzhayum Kadannu (1996) in which Manju played Anjali, the youngest of three sisters, who is also the breadwinner of the family. Malayalam cinema was witnessing a strong, rooted female character after a long time. Her character went through the whole gamut of emotions — humorous, romantic and emotional. Here was a heroine who was lending her own voice to the character, bringing a distinct identity and gravitas to it.

She followed it up with Sathyan Anthikad’s Thooval Kottaram and Sibi Malayil’s Kaliveedu (both released in the same year, 1996) where she played similar characters — Devaprabha Varma (Thooval Kottaram) and Mridula (Kaliveedu) — temperamental, wilful, spoilt, childish and attention-seeking.

Manju was getting roles written keeping her in mind. In 1997, she played the homegrown version of Desdemona (Kaliyattam), a mother of twins who sacrifices one of her babies (Irattakuttikalude Achan), a girl torn between love and duty (Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu), a naïve village orphan who cuts the alpha male hero down to size (Aaram Thampuran). and a young lover (Kudamattam).

Between 1998 and 1999 she was part of seven films and each one of them had powerful, well-written roles. In the Sibi Malayil-directed Summer in Bethlehem (1998), scripted by Ranjith, she plays a bohemian and free-spirited girl called Abhirami who also leads the brat pack but soon we are told she is biding her time to join her lover in death. Probably one of her most feted roles was in the AK Lohithadas-directed Kanmadam (1998). The mysterious, emotionally detached, grim Bhanu is a hard nut to crack. Forced to shoulder the responsibility of her family at a very young age, her angry and tough exterior is a decoy to steer the lecherous men off her limits. It’s one role most actors continue to pick as their “dream” character.

But nothing quite prepares us for what she managed to pull off in TK Rajeev Kumar’s Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999). Her Bhadra is a feisty village girl who systematically plots a mighty revenge against her parents' killer. She carries vestiges of a painful past — the loss of her parents as a child and the years of loneliness that followed. “I wouldn’t have made this film if Manju Warrier wasn’t there,” the director admitted. Look out for the scenes where she plays this subtle game of seduction with her predator (matching wits with veteran actor Thilakan is no small feat!). It’s a finely nuanced act. The role and the film enjoy a cult following even today.

In the Renji Panicker-scripted Joshiy directorial Pathram (1999), loosely based on the functioning of a prominent Kerala media house, Warrier is Devika Shekhar, a plain- speaking, morally upright journalist. Her introduction scene has her stand in the middle of the road and cross words with a top police officer. Even to this day, we remember her performance more than that of the alpha male hero.

Then there were author-backed roles — in the fantasy-period film Daya, directed by Venu, scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair, she had the titular role. She played a slave who slips into the clothes of a boy to escape her predators. Daya eventually wins over the King and gets appointed as a Minister. Her love interest was a wimpy prince. But the movie fizzled out at the box office. She is probably the only actress during her time who could carry a film on her shoulders. She shared equal billing with the male superstars in Malayalam cinema. “In her first innings, she could do strong rooted characters. It wasn’t about just being a stereotype heroine. In Pathram or Summer in Bethlehem, you only think about her. Kanmadam and Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu showcased her as an actor,” says Devendranath Sankaranarayanan, performance researcher and acting coach.

Post comeback

Manju Warrier in Rani Padmini

Manju Warrier in Rani Padmini

After her femme fatale outing in Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, she bid adieu. Despite Warrier making it clear that a comeback seemed highly unlikely, there was a sizeable population — directors and her followers included, who looked forward to her return to the screen. It took her 14 years to finally do that. With that she also broke an unwritten rule in the industry — that actresses lose their market value after marriage. Even more remarkable was the fact that filmmakers sought her out for author-backed roles. It was indeed an exciting proposition that a 36-year-old actress was getting roles written exclusively for her. This in an industry where the cut-off age for a leading heroine is 25 years.

The Rosshan Andrrews-directed How Old Are You? (2014) (which was later remade into Tamil with Jyothika in the lead) is a strong, inspirational tale of a middle-aged married woman’s fight for identity with a tagline that goes, “Why should there be an expiry date to a woman’s dreams?” Ennum Eppozhum (2015) directed by Sathyan Anthikad, saw her matching wits with Mohanlal as a single mother and lawyer who bravely elected to walk out of an abusive marriage. “I think maybe she didn’t get the right kind of roles. She should team up with new crop of directors instead of old timers. See how effective Rani Padmini was. Her partnership with Mohanlal only seems to be pulling down both of them,” maintains CS.

Aashiq Abu’s Rani Padmini (2015) is a valiant, no-holds barred tale of female bonding (in which she shared equal billing with Rima Kallingal). Padmini, hailing from a nondescript town in Kerala, bravely decides to step out of the confines of her husband’s home in Delhi to pursue him. She treks through the Ladakh landscape in the hope of meeting him.

In the underwhelming Jo and the Boy (2015), her character — an animator — is interesting on paper. Vettah (2016) has her in the role of Commissioner Sree Bala who is assigned to unravel the disappearance of an actress. In Karinkunnam Sixes (2016), she is a basketball coach — yet another first for a mainstream actress in Malayalam cinema. C/O Saira Banu and Udhaharanam Sujatha (remake of Nil Battey Sannata, 2016), literally rode on her shoulders. Last year, when Vidya Balan decided to walk out of Ami, the Kamala Das biopic, during the eleventh hour, Manju Warrier seemed the obvious replacement.

Manju Warrier with Anaswara Rajan in a still from Udhaharanam Sujatha

Manju Warrier with Anaswara Rajan in a still from Udhaharanam Sujatha

This year, she will be making her big Tamil debut opposite Dhanush in Vetrimaaran’s Asuran. In Malayalam, she plays the female lead in Prithviraj Sukumaran’s debut directorial Lucifer starring Mohanlal. There is Santosh Sivan’s Jack N Jill and Priyadarshan’s magnum opus Marakkar: Arabi Kadalinte Simham.

Social media, WCC, social causes

It is not that Warrier had a smooth joy ride on her second coming. There were a group of social media warriors who were more concerned about passing judgments on her personal life. So, there were “well-wishers” who advised her to go back to her husband and child. Anger, worry, concern, derision — their reactions vary but the free-flowing advice never stops. It’s as if there is a separate moral committee to make decisions for the female actor’s life. Some of the comments on social media by those claiming to be well-meaning fans are outright abusive and vulgar. But the day Dileep (ex-husband and actor) married Kavya Madhavan, the same social media warriors did a volte-face, and sympathy started pouring in from all quarters for showing the courage to walk out of an abusive marriage. And Manju Warrier turned into Joan of Arc overnight.

A trained Kuchipudi dancer, she regularly performs on stage, lends her name to social causes and endorses several notable brands. “After a successful first innings, she was embraced as wholeheartedly during her second innings. She was also the beacon of hope during the #MeToo moment. She stood up for her colleague, taking on the reigning superstar.  She was the face of WCC initially. She is a self-made icon for many women today,” concludes Ramachandran, film critic.

(Images courtesy Twitter)

Updated Date: Mar 17, 2019 15:11:36 IST