Kerala State Award-winning actress Nimisha Sajayan on getting a good start and playing complex roles

Neelima Menon

Mar 02, 2019 17:58:38 IST

Six films into the world of cinema, and straight into the hearts of the audience right from her debut, she has already won the title of Best Actress at the 49th Kerala State Awards. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Nimisha Sajayan.

Kerala State Award-winning actress Nimisha Sajayan on getting a good start and playing complex roles

Nimisha Sajayan. Image from Twitter/@CinephileMonk

We are barely ten minutes into the telephonic conversation and Nimisha Sajayan has already warmed up to me — this impersonal voice on the other end, who is placed some 600 odd miles away. It’s like listening to a familiar character from a postmodern MT Vasudevan Nair film—in fact, she vacillates between a Janakikutty (Ennu Swantham Janakikutty) and Ammini (Aranyakam). Be it gently, innocently slipping in a query after the end of every sentence— “Chechikku Manasilayo?” to fondly giggling at her mother’s unconditional love for her acting, Nimisha has an endearing honesty and innocence that instantly wins you over.

The 22-year-old Malayali actor, born and bred in Mumbai, who made an impressive debut in Dileesh Pothan’s 2016 film Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum has already won her first Kerala State Award for Madhupal’s Oru Kuprasidha Payyan and Sanal Kumar Shashidharan’s yet-to-be released, Chola.

“At first it was disbelief, then I got emotional, I don’t know exactly how to articulate my feelings,” she smiles, recalling the first few minutes after the news of the award reached her. The award jury mentioned that the two films were poles apart in characterisation and presentation. She was a teenage rape survivor in Chola and a rookie lawyer in Oru Kuprasidha Payyan and played both with finesse and precision. She admits it’s difficult to pick one character over the other in terms of what challenged her more. “You can’t compare the two. They were two extreme characters.”

“Her Hannah is nothing like a lawyer we have seen on screen before. She is fresh out of law college, diffident but honest and wants to make an impact with her points. There is a school girlish nervousness that she exhibits throughout her performance, which gels well with her character,” says Arya, film critic.

Having said that Nimisha admits, Chola’s Janu was not an easy character to essay. There was a 10-year difference between Hannah and Janu — as the latter was a 13-14 years old and the film was directed by independent filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, whose previous works have been Sexy Durga and Ozhivudivasathe Kali.

“If you look at Sanal Kumar’s films, they don’t show a character’s background much. It’s up to the audience to guess. When I initially heard the story, I was confused and couldn’t quite read Janu. Then I had a session with Joju chettan, Sanal ettan and got an idea about Janu and her background. Then the shoot started.” Sanal Kumar, according to the actor, works on perfection a lot and demands the subtlest of expressions from an actor. “It might just be a glance!" It wasn’t easy to play someone that young, as the mannerisms were different and difficult. But Sanal was very helpful with suggestions. She also discovered the joy of working in a small unit, with people who were all equally passionate about the film. They filmed in the middle of a forest, with basic facilities.

Despite the complexity of the character, Nimisha went in without any apprehensions as she was already familiar and confident of the director’s work. “Oraalppokkam has a spiritual poetic mood. None of his films can be compared. I remember meeting him after a screening of Sexy Durga. After Eeda he called me.”

In a way the age of the character also excited her as she had been grappling with matured roles since her debut (she played a feisty village girl, who elopes with her lover). She recalls a particularly trying scene where she was required to cry and was unable to stop it even after the director called for cut. “You are crying for all those girls who suffered this trauma,” a fellow actor told her. That shook her up.

But otherwise, she can’t recall ever taking a character back home—"I am an actor between action and cut. How else can I play other characters? But yes, sometimes certain scenes affect me a lot.”

Catch them young

Nimisha is into serious movie binge-watching on an average day at home. That’s her updating tool.

Her mother used to take her for auditions when she was as tiny as four years old. In school, she was active in sports (a national level Taekwondo champion) and arts (she does brilliant charcoal sketches). But after 12th, she knew this was her calling as a) she would get bored with a 9 to 5 job and b) she wanted to explore herself through acting.

At the age of 19, she sent her photos to Dileesh Pothan’s team and was called for the auditions of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. But Pothan, who was looking for a village girl between 25-30 years was skeptical of this 19-year-old Mumbai-born Malayali with her heavily accented Malayalam. By the third round, Pothan asked her whether she was ready to hear the script. That’s when she knew she was on.

She has a hazy memory of the events that unfolded around her during the first film. There are vivid images of Pothan standing opposite her and making her act. For a scene, she recalls her fellow actor looking at the camera, saying the lines and wondering how that happens? Will she be able to pull this off?

On the first day of shoot she says she avoided talking to Fahadh Faasil out of sheer fear and was stumped when he came over and wondered why she wasn’t talking to him. “Gosh! And I was his biggest fan. Imagine!”

Is she Miss Congeniality?

When I tell her that, considering the easy camaraderie she has with half the actors in Malayalam cinema today, she will easily win the title of Miss Congeniality, she laughs aloud. “I don’t know, Chechi. But Tovi chayan (actor Tovino Thomas) says that I am as mischievous as his daughter.”

Her Instagram is jammed with random photographs of children and smiling elderly wrinkled faces. Are they the ones she took? “Yes, yes. I love kids and Ammummas. Most of them were taken in Vaikkom and they loved Thondimuthalum (which was also shot there). ‘Dear girl, he swallowed your gold chain,’ they would tut-tut. I love their innocence.”

Hmm...why is it that she has never shaped her unibrow? My curiosity gets the better of me.

She is amused— “Ayyo Chechi, they keep telling me not to do it. I remember being bullied in school for my unibrow and finding comfort in actor Urvashi’s lovely ones. Right now, this works for me.”

Has she a list of do’s and don’ts in cinema for instance? She is almost shocked by the question. “Cinema is a pure art form. I never understand when they bring the question of morality, political correctness and ethics into this. When we draw, don’t we draw nudes? Isn’t it beautiful? It’s about the freedom of expression and speech. I don’t have such boundaries set for myself when it comes to characters.”

Talking about nudes, I bring up the superb nude paintings she has put up on Instagram. There are also deep charcoal sketches, half-hidden faces. “I am an untrained painter. When I go mad watching too many films, I take up my paint brushes.”

She describes herself as hyperactive, someone who loves to talk non-stop and create instant bonds with human beings. It’s amazing how quickly she gets along with people, both young and old. While mentors Dileesh Pothan and Rajeev Ravi are people who don’t require daily conversations to connect, Madhupal calls her Ammu (name of his elder daughter). “Probably because I am young and love to play, they join me most of the time. Rajeev Ravi isn’t as serious as he looks.”

Nimisha is a self-confessed fan of Manju Warrier, someone who loved every character she did. “Kanmadham’s Bhanu is a favourite. And it’s my biggest dream to do a character like the one she did in Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu”.

It’s a good scene now, better characters are written for women and they are given lot of space in cinema. “I have been lucky to get a great start. I am not worried about what awaits me in cinema. If nothing else I will be around as an assistant director.” On the right track, we say.

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2019 17:58:38 IST