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'You Can Be Ice Cold Evil'

May 06, 2024 11:04 IST

'You don't have to be screaming and making faces to be evil.'

IMAGE: Manisha Koirala as Mallikajaan in Heeramandi.

"The experiences of life contribute to a performance. I have a bank of emotions now and understand life much more deeply now," Manisha Koirala tells Subhash K Jha.

"I see through people. The complexities of human behaviour are more comprehensible to me. There is an empathy I feel to everything around me. Of course, with time, life pain and suffering, I think I've become a better person.

"But it doesn't always work that way. A lot of people become bitter rather than better after suffering. I don't want to be bitter, resentful or vengeful.

"From a young age, it has been my constant effort to not hurt anyone. I wish I had been careful about not hurting myself. It has been a conscious effort for me to retain my innocence and vulnerability. I don't want to be a person who knows it all."

IMAGE: Manisha Koirala with Salman Khan in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's first film, Khamoshi: The Musical.

Manisha's Mallikajaan in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar is fetching rave reviews.

Their association goes back a long way.

"I first met him (Bhansali) during the shooting of Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 1942: A Love Story. Then he directed Khamoshi. Honestly, I am in awe of the man. He has evolved a lot. He makes grandeur look so cool. Not too many people talk about Khamoshi now, but the same subject was made in Hollywood two years ago (Sian Heder's CODA) and that film got an Oscar.

"Khamoshi is very special. It is sensitive and poetic. Every character -- Helenji, Seema Biswasji, Nana Patekar, Salman and me -- were so beautifully written. He created a beautiful world in Khamoshi.

"Heeramandi has so much grandeur. If Sanjay can make a very intimate Khamoshi, he can also make a lavish Heeramandi. His range is staggering."



IMAGE: Manisha Koirala with Satto-Phatto (Nivedita Bhargava and Jayati Bhatia) in Heeramandi.

Manisha admits that she has evolved over the years.

"I have changed a lot. I am no longer what I was. When I was younger, I was more impulsive. I was very instinctive in my acting. It was almost like God was guiding me to do what the director wanted without me working hard. It didn't feel like I was putting in too much preparation.

"Nowadays, I love to prepare for my role. I don't want to do anything that I have done before. I could just mimic myself and be done with it. But no. I want to be an original, better version of who I was. At least, I want to try to be different in each and every film."

IMAGE: Manisha Koirala in Heeramandi.

She reveals she prepared profusely for Heeramandi.

"You must have noticed the change in my voice? I worked really hard on it. A dear actress friend of mine asked if Rekha had dubbed for me in Heeramandi. I was thrilled she thought so. It meant that I wasn't sounding like Manisha Koirala. I worked very hard on my diction and voice modulation.

"Sanjay gave me a very good diction coach named Muneera Suratiji All the Heeramandi actors worked with her. I worked the maximum with her. I knew my nukhtas and the spoken Urdu were not perfect. I wanted my weak point to be my plus.

"Sanjay Bhansali was always there to guide and restrain me. He is a director who believes in God being in the detailing. His expertise was invaluable."

IMAGE: Manisha Koirala with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the sets of Heeramandi. Photograph: Kind courtesy Manisha Koirala /Instagram

Manisha discusses her dancing skills in Heeramandi: "As far as the body language was concerned, Mallikajaan was the huzoor of all the tawaifs. She had to be larger-than-life. She had evidently learnt Kathak and Hindustani classical singing during her childhood. She reminded me of my Daadi who was a Bharata Natyam and Manipuri dancer. My mom was a Kathak and Bharata Natyam dancer. We used to have dance and music get-togethers at home.

"Sitarabua (Kathak exponent Sitara Devi) has come to my apartment when she was very old. She would sit in the chair and dance with her eyes and hands. Pandit Birju Maharaj was my mom's teacher. Renowned Bharata Natyam dancer Chandrashekharji was a family friend.

"So I have grown up in an environment of classical dancing and singing. I copied the graceful postures of my Mom and Daadi. I tried to remember how they talked and walked."

IMAGE: Manisha Koirala with Sanjeeda Sheikh, Richa Chadha and Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi.

Manisha discusses Mallikajaan: "I drew a backstory of her mental landscape. She must have been scarred at a very young age.

"I drew inspiration from Meryl Streep's The Devil Wears Prada, how casually evil she could be. She would say evil words and then casually move away while her juniors would be shattered.

"I also saw Peaky Blinders as a reference. You don't have to be screaming and making faces to be evil. You can be ice cold evil. That's what I wanted Mallikajaan to be. These were my role models.

"I don't know how much I've succeeded. Knowing how scarred Mallikjaan was at a young age, and the fire that she had in her belly to rule at any cost, the whole environment in the Kotha is such that women don't have too many choices. It's a cut-throat world.

"A few days before shooting, I had gone on the sets and spent hours trying to absorb what it feels like to rule in this place. I took in everything. With the help of my brilliant director and the team, everything fell into place for me. Sanjay decided her clothes and her jewellery, but I had to interpret Mallikajaan's inner world with his guidance.

IMAGE: The different shades of Mallikajaan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bhansali Productions/Instagram

The emotions don't necessarily come from a personal space.

"As actors, we have to act and not necessarily go deep within ourselves to bring out the emotions. What I really had to is understand Mallikajaan's psyche, what her childhood must have been like, what her sister must have done to her, the fear and trauma...

"After her child was born, it was taken away with her. I had to understand what she does, and why. Her value system had to be understood. She is just not evil. She is also a mother. She has that protective instinct. But she will also throw any person out like a fly in milk. I constantly had discussions with Sanjay to understand the character thoroughly."

Photograph: Kind courtesy Manisha Koirala/Instagram

At this stage of her career, Manisha is still looking for new challenges.

"I want to play characters I have never done before, and I want to do them with flair and finesse. I want to do characters who are alien to me. Before I die, I want to play a character the way Balraj Sahniji did, so effortlessly. He played a sophisticated man in Anuradha and a rickshaw puller in Do Bigha Zameen equally well.

"I want to be that kind of an actor who can play anyone equally well -- where people don't see Manisha Koirala. They only see the character.

"I hope I get such a role, but it's not in my hands. I want sensitive directors like Sanjay Bhansali, Mani Ratnam and Vidhu Vinod Chopra to work with me again."