Twenty-one-year-old Nimisha Sajayan, the face of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Eeda – two critically-acclaimed and successful films – isn’t sure if she wants to make cinema her career. I’m aware of an actresses’s limitations in the industry, she says
In one of the most telling scenes in Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), a young girl, nervously waiting at a police station to retrieve her stolen gold chain, confronts a defiant suspect in a sudden fit of rage. “Stop lying,” she snaps, looking straight into his eyes. The next moment, a senior police constable shouts her down, and she shudders. The girl and her husband are in a place where they know no one. Their only prized possession, the chain, is gone, and now, the hope she had invested in the police has taken a hit. Quietly, she walks back to the chair.
Those watching this scene are bound to be affected by the extraordinary acting of the artistes on screen. Fahadh Faasil and Alencier, who play the conman and cop respectively, are seasoned actors, but the one whose performance towers over them is that of 21-year-old debut actor, Nimisha Sajayan’s (playing the girl). She delivers an equally stunning performance in Eeda, which hit the screens a couple of weeks back.
Both films that Nimisha has been a part of are commercial films with a difference; they are sternly political and don’t follow the irrational masala recipe of Indian mainstream cinema. Sreeja, Nimisha’s character in Thondimuthal, isn’t a feeble shadow of the male protagonist, but is a well-etched out role with a fair screen-space. In Eeda, she plays Aishwarya, a young girl fighting for love in strife-torn Kannur. She is there in most of the scenes in the film. Her restrained and mature acting is a delight to watch.
Basking in the fresh success of Eeda, Nimisha, who was born and raised in Mumbai, is currently in Kochi – her new home. Her Malayalam isn’t perfect, a little broken here and there. “I have promised myself that I will dub for my character from the next film. Only then, I will be able to take complete credit for my performance,” she declares. In fact, she had nearly lost Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum due to this language limitation. “During the first audition, Dileeshettan told me they were looking for an actress who can speak Malayalam fluently. Luckily, I landed the project after three rounds of audition. They were happy with my performance and looks,” she says.
Eeda was co-produced by Rajeev Ravi who cranked the camera for Thondimuthal. Nimisha regards Dileesh and Rajeev as her mentors. It was Rajeev Ravi who recommended Nimisha to B Ajithkumar; Eeda was in the pre-production stages then. “They are the people I reach out to when I hit a dead-end. I feel blessed to have been introduced to the film industry by them,” she says.
There are no apparent similarities between Nimisha and the characters she has done so far. Both Sreeja and Aishwarya are small-towners caught in complex social situations that Nimisha cannot really relate to. “I can put up a fight for what I believe is right, but I might never do what Aishwarya does for love. She is so strong in love,” says Nimisha. “Although I have never met women like them in my life, I try to empathise with them, and derive inspiration from that.”
“My approach to acting is that I try to understand the characters and act like them. I don’t want my characters to look like me. I try to talk and behave like Aishwarya. I try to be a different person altogether. My friends say my characters do not resemble me at all. I try to bring that difference to the body language too – in the way I walk or swing my arms,” she says.
Nimisha says she has the ability to detach herself from her character the moment the camera stops rolling. She cites the opening sequence of Eeda when Aishwarya and Anand (Shane Nigam) have a bitter exchange of words. A stranger, he offers to take her home on a hartal day, but she is barely grateful. Laughing out, Nimisha says, “I really wondered why she did that to the poor guy who was only trying to help her.” This talent comes handy when working in films such as Eeda where the mood is intense and dark most of the time.
“It was at the preview show that I first watched the whole film. Only then I realised how impressive this character is,” she says. One of her favorite scenes in Eeda is the one in which Shane’s Anand climbs on to the balcony of Aishwarya’s house at midnight, to meet her. That is when you really know how close these two young people are, she says. “I particularly like the dialogue I say in this scene – ‘ne ente koode illenkilum jeevichirikkille.. athu mathi’ [We may not get to live together, but, if you are alive and safe, I will be happy]”
The scene that is garnering a lot of appreciation from the audience is the one that features Aishwarya on her wedding night; she locks herself inside a washroom in the groom’s house and phones her cousin to say she can’t live without Anand. “I cried watching that scene in the theatre,” she says.
Ajithkumar had given her a rough idea of Kannur’s political situation. “I still don’t know anything other than what he said. I grew up in Mumbai, and I don’t know much about Kerala’s politics,” she says. The director let his actors freely improvise during the shot. “Shane and I would discuss and come up with ideas on how to perform a scene. Sometimes, we would give each other suggestions on individual scenes. If Ajithettan found anything particularly wrong, he would tell us,” she says
As a child, Nimisha auditioned for commercials in Andheri. “My mom used to accompany me to the auditions. I used to be a tomboy then, with close-cropped hair and all that,” she laughs. “I still have a video from when I was in fourth standard; I would face the camera and introduce myself. As a teenager, I was blessed enough to be in a school where I was immensely encouraged to take part in cultural activities. My principal was very fond of me, and used to tell my mother that I was good at dancing and acting. She asked my mother to never stop supporting my artistic talents. By the end of school, I had made up my mind that I wouldn’t ever end up doing a 9 to 5 desk job,” she says.
Nimisha adds that she doesn’t worry about the future these days. “I like to go with the flow. When I spotted the casting call for Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, I sent my photographs, not expecting to get selected. Earlier, I had unsuccessfully auditioned for Poomaram.” She has already signed two other films – actor-director Madhupal’s Oru Kuprasidha Kallan in which she is paired opposite Tovino Thomas, and Soumya Sadanandan’s debut feature film in which Kunchakko Boban is her co-star. “We play a married couple in Sou’s film,” she says.
Sometime recently, Nimisha collaborated with photographer Cyril Syriac, for his project, Draupadi, a series of 30 photographs that portray the angst of a mother who loses her daughter to a rapist. She had to perform the concept and not just pose for still photographs. Cyril captured the moments from the performance, and made it into a marvelous photo story.
She describes that work as a contribution on her part to the women community across the world. “I am aware that women in cinema across the world are going through a crucial phase. I have great hopes for the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC). I have never been through a bad experience in the industry, but I am happy that such a group for women exists here,” she says.
She was one of the few women on the sets of Thondimuthal. “Making Thondimuthal was one of the sweetest periods in my life,” she says. “Everyone made extra efforts to ensure that I was feeling comfortable. I didn’t face an unsettling word or gesture from anyone,” she says.
Nimisha is an undergraduate student of mass-communication. “I have enrolled in a college in Kochi. I had to leave my course in Mumbai after I started working in films.”
She is yet to consider cinema as a long-term career. “For me, acting is a hobby. I am having a lot of fun doing it. I am aware of an actress’s limitations in this industry, so I don’t really know if it is possible to make it a long-term career. Certainly, I wish to get more films like Thondimuthalum and Eeda, and characters that stand the test of time,” she says.
The Nimisha Sajayan interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.