Interview with Malayalam filmmaker Anjali Menon on her new film Wonder Women releasing on November 18

The ‘Bangalore Days’ director’s new film has the characters talking mostly in English – “it’s part of our culture”, Menon says

The ‘Bangalore Days’ director’s new film has the characters talking mostly in English – “it’s part of our culture”, Menon says

Anjali Menon

Anjali Menon

‘The wonder begins,’ said a post by Malayalam actor Parvathy Thiruvothu on Facebook last month, accompanied by a photo of a home pregnancy test. Even as netizens went into a tizzy and congratulatory messages poured in, similar posts began cropping up from the social media handles of other actors — Padmapriya, Nithya Menen and Amruta Subhash — and of playback singer Sayanora Philip and filmmaker Archana Padmini. That is how Bangalore Days director Anjali Menon announced her new film,  Wonder Women, premiering on SonyLiv on November 18.

Scripted and directed by her,  Wonder Women is about the journey of six pregnant women from different walks of life who meet at a pre-natal centre in Kozhikode, Kerala. “It is a subject I have been fascinated with ever since I had my son, who is now 11,” Menon says.

Why a movie on pregnancy now?

According to Anjali Menon, there are many myths and misconceptions around pregnancy and what women are like when they are together with each other. “I thought it was a good opportunity to debunk both sets of mis-truths. We actually look at what groups of women are like through the lens of pregnancy. It will be interesting to see a space we don’t usually get to see on screen,” she says.

In the movie, each of the women feels differently about her pregnancy, and through them the director explores issues of infertility, the stigma of childlessness, unwanted pregnancies, and so on. “We are not showing an ideal world, we show a real world,” says Thiruvothu, who plays Mini, an introverted character.

Menon’s films, from  Bangalore Days to Ustad Hotel (script) to  Koode, have always explored the ups and downs of relationships. With  Wonder Women, Menon says it is time we “celebrate oestrogen” in the testosterone-driven world of Indian cinema. Edited excerpts from a Zoom conversation:

Anjali Menon (centre) with some of the leading women of ‘Wonder Women’.

Anjali Menon (centre) with some of the leading women of ‘Wonder Women’.

We have seen motherhood and pregnancy in several films, but the focus is not always on the pregnant woman.

Right from the time I was a child, I have noticed the buzz every time someone says they’re expecting; there is so much that goes on around them, so much anticipation, hope, excitement. Just the thought of a baby puts a smile on everybody’s face. And why is that? Because they signify hope. They talk to us about tomorrow.

But when it comes to talking about what a family goes through or the unsettling feeling when a baby comes along, we don’t get into those conversations much. There are also so many people today who decide not to have a baby. What is their perspective? What are the feelings behind that decision? There are so many aspects that deserve to be discussed.

You’ve pulled off a casting coup. Evergreen Nadia Moidu is working with you for the first time, while playback singer Sayanora makes her debut as an actor.

I am inspired by the people I work with. And it is a different high when they are people who inspire me off-screen as well. All the [leading] actors in  Wonder Women, as individuals, are driven women who march to the beat of their own drum. It is that energy within them that we are trying to bring to the screen.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the film being mostly in English, with bits of Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Marathi…

(L to R) Nadia Moidu, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Nithya Menen, Amruta Subhash and Archana Padmini are part of the main cast of ‘Wonder Women’.

(L to R) Nadia Moidu, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Nithya Menen, Amruta Subhash and Archana Padmini are part of the main cast of ‘Wonder Women’.

For me, the choice of language has always been based on where the story is set, who the characters are, and the language they are most likely to think in. In this case, we have characters who think in English. And the few who do not, speak in their own mother tongues. It was an organic decision, but we had to put a lot of thought into it. Why is it in English, people asked. That is a very strange conversation for me. If you can have films in American English and British English, why not in Indian English, when we have so many people speaking the language?

This too is part of our culture, the contemporary city culture in India. It is important to take cognisance of that. Each of the characters in  Wonder Women is speaking her own English, depending on where she is from. That makes it even more interesting.

‘Wonder Women’ is only your sixth film in 15 years. What’s your creative process like?

Only when a story stays with me for a long time do I feel compelled to take it up. I constantly shuffle between ideas and not everything excites me for too long.

I like to immerse myself in my work and it has to be something that holds me. The character has to be someone who makes me want to fall in love with them enough to hold on to the idea for a year before I commit to it.

Padmapriya remarked that but for you, none of the actors playing pregnant women have experienced motherhood. Did you give instructions or share your experiences to help them get into character?

Sayanora is a mum. But all of them are dedicated actors, they have played pregnant women earlier. They had done their research, perfected their walk, the way they stand… I remember pulling out all the books from my pregnancy and sharing it with them, mailing documents that said what to expect when you are expecting. They started bringing dolls to the set. It was great fun. More than anything, with them, I didn’t have to work too hard, they were already in character.

‘Ustad Hotel’ is the only script you wrote for another director — Anwar Rashid. Will you be writing for someone else soon, or maybe direct a film written by someone else?

Let’s wait and see. I don’t want to announce anything before it really happens. But there are projects in the pipeline.

saraswathy.nagarajan@thehindu.co.in

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