Malavika Mohanan - On Making Her ‘Iranian’ connections

  • 05 May - 11 May, 2018
  • Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
  • Interview

In her first attempt at a Hindi film, she raised the bar really high for those who wish to pursue acting; while not many actors are lucky enough to work with the Iranian auteur Majid Majidi, it was Malavika Mohanan who bagged the opportunity. From working in Malayalam and Kannada films, it was now time for Malavika to prove her acting mettle in Hindi films starring in not just about any movie but the great Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds. In an exclusive chat with MAG over the phone, the talented actress tells us all.

“The film is about the journey of two siblings,” Malavika Mohanan tells me. The film is a powerful piece of cinema, and it gives Malavika an eye-opening benchmark to launch her Bollywood career, while she already has three Malayalam and one Kannada language film to her credit.

Daughter of K.U. Mohannan – renowned cinematographer of Don, Raees, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Fukrey, Talaash, We Are Family and Samay – Malavika, who grew up in Mumbai, was the last addition to Beyond The Clouds.

“I came on board so last minute that I didn’t really have time to mentally prepare myself about whether I’m going to do this (and that with the character). The moment the film happened, I dived right into the character. I mentally cut off myself from my family and wouldn’t speak much to anyone, for I felt the need of space to build this character,” says Malavika.

Having seen the film mere hours before typing this interview, I can attest that Malavika is outstanding. Having talking to her a week before seeing her performance, I can also attest that she is an astonishingly easy person to talk to.

In the film Malavika plays Tara, an underprivileged, independent young woman who ends up in jail because of her estranged brother’s troubles. It is a difficult role, one which gradually changes the character’s mindset right until the end.

Her character Tara works in Mumbai’s dhobi ghaat, however, Majidi doesn’t shy away from showing us her delicate and dark sides. “There are some aspects that I could relate to and there were also a lot of aspects that I couldn’t relate to,” she says.

“For example, the social economical background she comes from is different from mine. I come from a middle class family and always had a very secure home to come back to where I was much protected. I never had to be alone since a young age, and you always take that for granted – it’s actually such a privilege to have all of that and Tara doesn’t have any of this you know”.

“Despite this, she is a very independent girl. I still live with my family but yet a very independent girl. It has to do with your thinking, your thought process. My family never pushed me to do anything, or pulled me away from anything I wanted to do. So I feel that I can make my own choices in life”, she divulges.

The film isn’t really a departure for Majidi as a director; he is after all, known for his immaculate and raw stories of common people and common circumstances. How did he function and adjust to India as a filmmaker, I ask.

“Majidi Sir had spent a lot of time in Mumbai and other parts of India. The film is very well researched. A lot of people don’t know this, but he spent a lot of time to get the correct nuances right, to get the whole setup right,” Malavika explains. “There were certain parts of Bombay I discovered through him, despite being a Bombay girl”.

I questioned if there was a language barrier on set, since Majidi is an Iranian and Malavika has an expected response to it. “There was,” she replies, adding, “He doesn’t speak Hindi and even the English he speaks is very basic, but there is a Hindi translator on the set, so there was always clarity on what to do, how to perform and what was expected from us in the film.”

After completing a shot, Malavika would check the director’s expression for approval. The more they worked, the easier it was to make small changes. “I realised there are other means of communicating which go beyond the language one speaks; language is, of course, the most crucial but when you get to know a person and get the very understanding of the their sensibilities, it helps so much in knowing what they want,” she shares how the cast bridge the language gap with Majidi.

Familiar with the director’s style, as a film critic I sometime see razor-sharp preciseness in scenes, and at times, it felt as if he gave the actors the liberty to play the scene as they see fit. Was it the case with Beyond the Clouds, I ask. “He is a very versatile director. There are certain times when he is very specific, so he’ll ask you to look and take a beat, then look away and take you to another beat. And then there are times when he sets up a shot and tells you to go do it, and you suddenly realise ‘Aray, tell me the right move’,” Malavika laughs and adds, “In retrospect, I realise that for an actor (these small variations) keep you on your toes. Not getting used to something, you are always alert. You don’t know what he is going to do, which also keeps you very aware so you react more naturally to the situation.”

The film mostly uses the brother-sister story as a springboard for the characters. Although the two share few scenes together, one pivotal moment describes their dire circumstances, separation and the choices they made. Malavika plays sister to debutant Ishaan Khattar – actor Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother and shares how they got to know each other. “Ishaan and I didn’t get to spend a lot of time before we came on set,” she makes it known. “As siblings, we are supposed to have a very natural and comfortable relationship with each other because it’s a rapport you share. You know each other inside out. Because we didn’t have an (actor’s) workshop (to prepare for the roles), the time we spent together on set was the only alternative.”

Malavika’s intelligent performance is a sure-shot sign of her ability as an actress and Beyond the Clouds is bound to run as an award-season and film festival contender – irrespective of the fact that it is a full-featured story for the masses, brimming with small joys and deeper sorrows.

As I earlier mentioned, the film gives Malavika a shining platform for a grand film career – and not just in Bollywood. If she gets a good role from Pakistan, she sees no reason to not accept one. We speak about Pakistan and Malavika shares that she has heard a lot about Hunza Valley’s beauty, and would one day like to visit the country. She, of course, sends her love to Pakistanis, and hopes that they go to cinemas to watch Beyond The Clouds.