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

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.

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.”