For a teenager, Esther Anil, who shot to fame as the little girl in Mohanlal-starrer Drishyam, is remarkably lucid in her thoughts. Soon to debut as a female lead in Olu, she admits to not understanding some script nuances, declares that she’s uncomfortable enacting romance, and laughs off all distasteful comments on her Facebook page
Esther isn’t home when I call her number on a Wednesday afternoon. “She is at school. Shall we talk in the evening?” her mother, Manju, says. The 16-year-old actress, who debuted in Malayalam cinema seven years ago, is the protagonist in acclaimed director Shaji N Karun’s next, Olu (Her), a social drama centered around a young destitute caught in a web of complexities. The first look poster of the film came out last week, and it is all about Esther – her petite figure submerged in water, surrounded by wild lotus flowers and roots.
We talk in the evening, and the first question I ask Esther is about her transition from that of a child actress to a semi-adult playing lead roles, shouldering subjects that are quite heavy. Were you nervous at all, I ask. “Not really,” she says with a laugh. “After Drishyam, I was confident that I could do lead roles. And when Shaji (N Karun) sir cast me in a film, there was no reason to be hesitant,” says Esther.
Esther’s father Anil Abraham agrees that Olu is the most complex character Esther has ever played. He remarks that it was the only script she wasn’t able to understand. “Always, it is Esther herself who decides whether to sign a project or not. We will listen to the script, and ask her if she wants to be a part of the film. She is an intelligent, strong-willed girl. If she doesn’t like a story or isn’t interested, it would be impossible to convince her to take it up,” he says. “Manju and I we were elated to learn that Shaji N Karun sir wanted to cast her in a film. She listened to the script, and told us she couldn’t comprehend it completely. Yet, she didn’t want to give it a miss. It is a performance-oriented role.”
The film has extensive CG sequences, and involved a lot of work. “Everyone on the set worked enthusiastically with so much passion. It motivated me. It wasn’t an easy project, but I wanted to give my best because the whole set was so inspiring,” says Esther.
Esther’s first film was Nallavan (2010) in which she essayed the childhood self of the heroine, actress Mythili. She has worked in over 20 films since then, but it was Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam that made her famous. She played Anu, the youngest daughter of Mohanlal’s George Kutty in the film. When Drishyam was remade in Telugu and Tamil, Esther was retained as the younger daughter, while the rest of the cast members were replaced by actors from the respective industries. Anu in Drishyam wasn’t just another adorable little daughter, but an individual who rightly grasped the gravity of the situation her family was in. Esther’s performance was restrained, with a level of maturity only found in a gifted actor.
Her profession, the child actress thinks, is partly responsible for shaping her into someone mature beyond her age. “Right since childhood, I have spent more time amidst adults on film sets than with children my age. Sometimes, it was fun, especially when there were actors like Mohanlal sir who would play with you and talk to you like a friend. On the sets of Olu, I was the only little one. Everyone else was much older.
Esther’s professionalism is something that has amazed her father. “Both Esther and Eric (her little brother who is also a child artiste) have always been very cooperative when it came to work. They have never asked me to postpone a shoot for them. Rarely have they complained of being moody or sleepy. There are times they have had to get up as early as at 6 am and head to film set. They have done it gladly,” he says.
Esther, however, has memories of being cranky on the sets. “When I was doing my first couple of projects, I didn’t understand [what was happening], or like being on a film set. I would sulk, and vent my anger on my father who would patiently put up with it. After three-four projects, I got used to it,” she says. “In the Telugu film I worked in, if I had a late night shoot, they ensured that I was free the next morning. My health and comfort were taken seriously. But in some Malayalam projects, I was made to work long shifts, like an adult. Now, things have changed a lot,” she says.
Anil is not informed of any special rule that pertain to child artistes working in the film industry. “These days, most directors deal with child actors sensitively, without making them work long shifts. We work mostly with production houses we are familiar with. They understand our concerns and treat us well. For instance, Anto Joseph’s productions are great to work with. Shaji N Karun sir treated Esther like his own daughter. He would ask her to take breaks every now and then, so that she wouldn’t get exhausted,” he says. They have had trouble a few times though, with small projects that worked on tight schedules and budgets.
Esther was in class three when she was noticed by a cameraman who was at their place in Wayanad to shoot a cookery show. Soon, she was approached by the director of Nallavan (2011) in which actor-producer Maniyan Pillai Raju played her father. He spotted the spark of talent in little Esther, and in his next production, Oru Naal Varum, she played Mohanlal’s daughter, a character torn between a workaholic father and an estranged mother. “We were hesitant initially. We are from Wayanad, a place far off from Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram where the film industry is based. I am a farmer. We had our doubts,” says Anil. Recently, the family moved to Kochi – to support the kids’ education and film career.
At Rajagiri Public School in Kochi, Esther is a regular class 12 student in the commerce stream. Her classmates often tease her of her star status, commenting that she, unlike them, has already charted out a plan for life. She refutes that. “In the film industry, there is no guarantee for success. I don’t even know if I would be an actress a year down the line. There is insecurity. I am not set for life,” she says.
Esther isn’t sure if she wants to be a full-time actress, or take up heroine roles in the future. She doesn’t like wearing make-up, or getting decked up. “I am more confident when I am at my natural best, sans any make-up,” she says, and goes on to tell me about an upcoming film where she has a no-make up look. Recently, she rejected a number of offers from Telugu and Tamil film industries to be the leading lady of popular male stars. I am not very confident about playing romantic roles, she says. “When we tell them (the filmmakers) that I am just 15, short and very much cherubic, they tell us I could do a heroine role already because I have a good, photogenic face,” she laughs. “I am as confused as any girl of my age. Right now, I think I want to work in the field of human resources.”
Anil has taken note of Esther’s love for travelling. “She follows actress Parvathy on Instagram, and says she wants to travel the world like her when she grows up. If that is what she wants to do, I will never stop her. She should do everything she wants to do,” he tells me. When I tell Esther about it, she laughs shyly. “Who doesn’t want to travel?” Esther counts herself lucky for being in a profession that lets her travel a lot. “Recently, I went to Jodhpur to shoot Olu. It is not just the place that awed me, the culture of the place, the history… I really want to explore places that way. Sometimes I feel like just going off to a new place, randomly. But that isn’t practical,” she laughs again.
She is aware of the amazement and excitement that her presence elicits in the school campus. “The teachers at my school in Wayanad always treated me like an ordinary student, sans any star status, because they had been seeing me right from standard one. They would secretly ask of the films I was working in, but in front of the class, I was just another student who would get rebuked for not submitting assignments. In my new school in Kochi, things are a little different,” she says. Students from different classes and divisions gaze at her and whisper among each other. Teachers pretend not to be aware of her celebrity status, and when she goes out with her friends, she gets stared at and smiled at. “I am getting used to being treated differently,” says Esther. “I don’t know if there is anything I can do about it. It is a disadvantage, too because you can get blamed for things you don’t even know about. I am just happy that I am being recognised and loved by all these people I have never met,” she says.
Esther has no godfathers or mentors in the film industry. There is no one she approaches for an occasional career guidance or a word of advice on script selection. “It is my family that supports me the most. Sometimes, when we hit a dead-end on a script-related issue or (film) association related problems, we approach Raju uncle (Maniyan Pillai Raju) for help,” she says. More than anything else, she is training herself to be self-reliant. “It has been over five years since I started. Now I have become familiar with the industry.”
It was Anil who started a Facebook account for Esther which now has over 3 million followers. He admits that he knows nothing more than just the basics of social media. “I post photos, and checks comments. Once in a while, a lewd comment or two appear, and I make sure that I delete it immediately. But how much can we hide from the kids?” he asks. “Esther is now in Class 12. Not really a child anymore.”
Esther says lewd comments posted by strange men used to make her uneasy earlier. “Appa would tell me of people who would send messages and make calls frequently. I was scared that one day those people might come home and ring the door bell (laughs). Two years ago, we had to file a complaint at cyber cell about one such person. People have such weird fetishes. These days, I am rather cool about it.”
Anil and Manju have always let their children know what is going on around them. “Keeping them ignorant about the dark side of social media is not a solution. We won’t be around to protect them all the time,” he says. He recalls the time when he posted a photo of Esther in a sleeveless gown, attending a film award function. “Comments in bad taste started pouring in, and I deleted the photo. I got paranoid. But when Esther came to know of it, she laughed it off. I am glad she is not afraid of these things.”
Anil has told Esther and Eric that they should quit films once they get tired of acting. “I don’t ever want my children to say that it was us who ruined their life. They should do what they feel is right. I have never tried to gloat in the stardom of my children,” he says. “We didn’t move out of Wayanad for a long time because we didn’t want the kids to lose their childhood. Sometimes, I ask Esther and Eric if they are enjoying their film career. They aren’t just my kids, but close friends.”
The Esther Anil interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.