The crew of 'Sallapam' (1996) were waiting patiently in the noonday sun, at a distance from the Shoranur railway station. Soon, they could see the train to Chennai pick up speed. Manju Warrier was playing Radha, a woman who wanted to commit suicide because her lover had rejected her. As Radha's cousin, actor Manoj K. Jayan was supposed to save her.
“As the train came close, at a speed of 100 kms per hour, Manju was so involved with being Radha that she threw herself with full force towards the track,” says Manoj. “An actor should always be in control whenever he or she does a role. But it seemed to me as if she had lost control. There was one terrifying moment when I felt that she would slip out of my hands.”
But he held on, the train whizzed past, and the four-minute sequence was shot perfectly. As soon as the shoot was complete, everybody clapped, except for Manju who burst into tears, because she was still in character. “That is Manju for you,” says Manoj. “Even, during this first film, as a heroine, she displayed the talent and poise of somebody who has acted in more than a hundred films. There is no doubt that she is one of our greatest actresses.”
Music composer Berny says that Manju is also a good singer. A few years ago, he, along with his elder brother, Ignatius, were making an album of festival songs by celebrities like Mammooty, Mohanlal and Manju.
“She learnt the song quickly and sang it like any professional singer,” says Berny. “Manju has a natural gift for singing. In fact, she has a wide-ranging talent: she can act, sing and dance also.”
Artist Radha Gomaty has another explanation. “Manju has a tremendous charisma,” says Radha. “She is beautiful in an unusual kind of way. It is not about glamour, but a certain grace combined with strength and an extraordinary flexibility.”
Collins Leophils, a designer, most notably of film posters, remembers seeing Manju at a photo shoot for the film ‘Mayamohini’, in which her husband Dileep played the hero. “The family had come to the studio,” says Collins. “Manju was wearing a saree and looked striking.”
Another reason for her impact was because she gave so much to her characters. “Even in a light-hearted film like 'Summer in Bethlehem', she brought an edge to her role as a tomboy who hides a sensitive heart,” says Radha. “In 'Aaraam Thampuram' she plays an insecure, temperamental but lovable rural woman. In 'Kannezhuthi Pottum Thotte', as the fiery Bhadra, she literally sets the screen aflame. Who else can carry it all off so well but Manju?”
One who agrees is director B. Unnikrishnan. “Manju has acted in a way that was never seen before in Malayalam cinema,” he says. “She was such a young girl, and yet she was able to show so much of feminine power. She is the female equivalent of Mohan Lal.”
The good news is the persistent rumour that Manju will be making a comeback. However, the worry is that, after a gap of 14 years, her talent might have become rusted. “Can a talent ever get rusted?” says Unnikrishnan, with a smile. “Art is a mystery and magic.”
A practical Manoj says, “There are a lot of people who admire Manju, so I am sure if she comes back now, she will be able to make an impact. Having said that, the industry, today, is at a different level, but she has the talent to be at the top.”
Radha is also sure Manju will do well. “Till now, there has been no script based on women characters in their mid-thirties and forties as raw and powerful as KG George's ‘Adaminte Vaariyelle,’” she says. “But now with new directors who are able to think out of the box, Manju's talent stands a chance to be utilised to the fullest.”
Jazeer Mohammed, an advertising film-maker, knows of many directors and producers who are waiting for Manju to restart her career. “She will get a lot of opportunities,” says Jazeer. “I don't think there is a problem that she has been away for so long.” Radha feels that she might take one or two films to get her groove back. “I am sure, one day, Manju will be back at her best,” she says.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)