Rima Kallingal opens up on her role as producer in Virus: 'I want my art to be strong and hard-hitting'
Rima Kallingal on her upcoming film based on Nipah Virus, 'I think the film will help reduce the fear.'
When the interview gets postponed for the next day and we finally sit for a telephonic chat, Rima Kallingal sounds anxious about a sudden development in the Kerala. There has been news about a suspected case of Nipah virus outbreak and if that gets officially confirmed, her production venture Virus, directed by co-producer and husband Aashiq Abu might need to be postponed for 2 weeks. We agree to push the interview for another day considering the circumstances.
The next day, we finally get the interview. Rima, who plays Nurse Lini (she died while treating the patients and contracting the virus herself) in the film, is already an encyclopedia on the topic. “Through the film we are trying to show why we should be a cautious, but also not to fear, and how we overcame it. We are so much more prepared today. I think the film will help reduce the fear. The viral outbreak, oddly enough, brought people together in their bid to combat it and this spirit of collectiveness is what the film reflects.” Excerpts from an interview:
Virus is your first film as a producer. Before that you were an executive producer in Maheshinte Prathikaram and Mayaanadhi. What’s the progression there?
I have always been fascinated with the production setup in a cinema set, how the minutest details of the day to the running and day to day life of every person involved is taken care off. For me, this was such a learning experience, standing in the centre of a such a huge project, with an amazing group of people putting together a historical movie. It’s based on real life incidents, so many people have lost their loved ones and we have to think about its moral side, not to hurt them with our stories. When we shot at the medical college, we had to make sure it didn’t affect the functioning of the hospital.
We also wanted representation for people fighting out in the #MeToo movement and also had instituted an internal complaint cell for artistes/technicians in the film. But of course, it helped that they are also brilliant actors.
How did Lini’s role come to you? And did you speak to her family?
I think because we have a faint resemblance. Yes, I did speak to her husband and family, but we simply stuck to the medical aspects of her treatment. It would be selfish to go beyond that. Her mother, I was told, was quite moved by the trailer. We don’t know how this film will affect them. We have tried to put together the stories that we have seen and heard.
All the actors who have worked in an Aashiq Abu set come out gushing about it…
When it comes to this set especially, I was quite moved by the camaraderie and how giving each actor was. There were no negative vibes. They were all together for their own cinema. There are always people around him at home, friends, family, that’s his favourite space. There is a voice for everyone on his sets and that invariably lends a beauty to his cinema.
Frankly speaking, I am disappointed by the time gap you take between films. Abhasam seems eons ago. Did being vocal about a lot of inequalities in Malayalam cinema take a toll on your career?
I really don’t know. I was telling Aashiq at one point that maybe I wasn’t really talented as an artiste. Problem is that I don’t intend to change. Yes, I am married and that has really affected my career at one point. But then I am very happily married. I don’t also believe in asking for roles. Artistes are supposed to be diplomatic and I am very vocal about right and wrong. That way I am not fit for this space. Also, we all want to work with people who think alike, don’t we?
Are we still a long way off from reaching pay parity in Malayalam cinema?
Definitely. There is a huge disparity in pay between the superstar male actor and superstar female actor in the industry. Look at the recent Uyare, which is still running well. I see Parvathy giving a week off for promotions, and she takes care of every little detail of her character. Earlier, most female actors were not made part of the process of filmmaking, just expected to be beautiful and glamorous. Today, we have a definite idea of what is happening in cinema, post-production, pre-production, scripting, researching, process of creating music. We are learning about it. Today, we are taking all the responsibilities we were not taking earlier, so we have to be given our due. We are speaking out, spelling it out, we are telling you what is hurting us, why we are stuck where we are, we have screamed out loud that there is a huge elephant in the room. Now don’t tell us we are not worth it anymore.
Do you see a change post WCC and #MeToo?
Changes won’t happen overnight. It’s just two years of WCC and we are trying to undo what has been done in the last 90 years. We have the power of the right kind of government, media, such brilliant women journalists and the power of the internet. So, when the Time’s Up moment and #MeToo came to India, it directly helped us here. We were part of a much bigger movement outside. Before Time’s Up, we had started WCC here.
Recently #MeToo accused Vikas Bahl was reinstated as director of a Hrithik Roshan film. That seems troubling.
I think as a society we are still understanding how to deal with it. What do we do with such people? The problem is that men and women alike are conditioned to believe that men are entitled and have a right over every woman out there. That’s how they are brought up. Now women have said, ‘enough is enough.’ We are not taking this culture of silence anymore. The next generation of boys and girls together will dismantle this culture of abuse and power.
In your Ted talk on misogyny, you discussed a metaphor about getting an equal piece of fish fry and it didn’t seem to go down well with a section of men and women.
(laughs) Perhaps they are worried about giving away their share of fish fry one fine day, when it has been their entitlement for so many years. So many men came up to me and said, ‘we didn’t realise the privilege we had.’ I questioned it because I come from a family who treated me and my brother equally so even a minor shift in power set me thinking.
How do you deal with that kind of flak on social media?
I really enjoy the discussions. That’s the only way to take it forward. Someone has to make a regressive statement so that somebody else gives a progressive answer to it.
When you take on a role today, do you insist on your rightful pay?
I assign a value for myself, for my time in the industry. I might leave a margin here and there, but otherwise I won’t devalue or undersell anymore. I have way too much self-respect.
Parvathy and you seem to be cut from the same cloth...
Yes, though we are very different, in a lot of ways we think similarly. The sisterhood that was part of being in a collective kind of rubbed off the both of us. Having said that, I see a lot of women like that in WCC—well-read, well-informed, aware of their rights, seen different cultures, and ready to speak up. We will change things around us, and we have the power to do it.
What are the aspects you can’t tolerate when you watch a film today?
Misogyny, racism, sexism, ageism and the last is not something we have addressed yet. Also, body shaming, LGBT community representation. Just be respectful to all human beings is what one means by being politically correct.
Do you find it difficult to watch some of the celebrated popular films of yesteryears?
It’s amazing to think that we were all conditioned enough to laugh at some of them. But I remember thinking back then when the hero says “You are just a woman” (Mammootty film The King) that last three lines rankled me. While watching Pathram, I wondered what happened to Manju Warrier’s character in the second half. We have clapped as well because we were used to heroes taking centre stage, playing saviour and celebrating toxic masculinity as the norm. When you travel, read and understand that it’s not right, then you question it.
Women characters are finally controlling their destinies.
Yeah, I think it has become a trend now. It’s good to be a feminist now. It’s good to be on the side of women, good to be politically correct. I like this phase where everybody wants to be on their right side. I think WCC started a conversation, we started shifting the whole focus from victim to survivor and fighter. That’s how we are going to go about it.
Which character left a lasting impression on your personality?
Tessa (No. 22 FK) will never leave me. It kind of awakened the fighting spirit, brought me to the forefront. I haven’t really struggled in the industry per se. I started with a random reality show, a beauty pageant, a Vanitha cover and then Ritu (debut film) happened. I was very happy on stage—travelling and dancing and it was a great space. I was 100% sure Malayalees wouldn’t like me—I almost sound like a man, have curly hair, and I lived in Bangalore. But then I started getting offers. In the beginning there are so many things happening around you and you don’t understand. And then understanding the art, the process, the outcome, the effect the art and the medium have on people…then you get into the magic of it. It touches so many lives. That’s what Tessa did to me. That kind of high doesn’t come very often.
Don’t you think when it comes to female actors, the audience have this strange fondness for them that is linked to how they behave off screen?
Yes, stereotyping off-screen spills over on screen. Filmmakers get excited about casting this male actor in a very different role but with female actors, they mostly cast them according to how their real-life persona appears. That’s how so many of us get stuck in modern and traditional image traps. After a point there is no evolution in her. She has to keep doing different stuff, keep challenging herself. How else will you grow? Usually for an actor it takes 10 years to understand the medium, craft, roles and then they take off from there. For an actress 10 years will mean the end of the career. She is not even given time to evolve. That’s why we only have a handful of brilliant female actors. Every year we have different female actors while male actors enjoy longer innings.
Do you like to watch yourself on screen?
I don’t really like it, but I should, and I think all actors should as much as it is organic and comes from the soul. It’s an art form that has its own technique, you need to understand yourself on screen, to reach the optimum level of performance and in which instance it came rightly. You need to go back and forth and understand yourself better.
Is there a performance that scared the life out of you in a positive way?
More than the performances, I look at cinema as a whole and how it touches me. And I usually love the underplayed subtle roles. I remember watching Sairat and after the climax, I couldn’t move for 30 minutes. I like movies to shake me up. It should either make me very happy or disturbed. I cried watching Newton. I want my art to be strong and hard-hitting. Even a love story should make me feel lovey-dovey.
And a line from a film that stayed with you?
I had major fun lines in 22 FK (directed by Ashiq Abu). Syam Pushkaran (one of the writers) and Aashiq would insist that female leads should speak powerful punch lines. I like that line when Fahad Faasil tells me “F**k you” (after she bobbitises him in the climax) and I shot back — “Not anymore.” The entire set laughed their heart out.
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