In 1998, newspaper readers in Kerala were shocked to see an item that appeared in their papers.
Manju Warrier, one of the leading actors in Malayalam cinema, and Dileep, a popular actor, had married in a secret ceremony. Cinemagoers had not expected a young and promising Manju to relinquish her position as the queen bee of Malayalam cinema. She had decided to retire from cinema, and take up the role of a homemaker.
Manju entered cinema in 1995, with her debut movie Saakshyam, after winning the prestigious Kala Thilakam in the Kerala State Youth Festival twice. Within a short span of three to four years, she carved a niche for herself in Malayalam cinema.
She acted with the biggest names in tinsel world like Jayaram, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi and Biju Menon, among others. She bagged several awards, including a special mention from the jury in the National Awards for her performance in the movie Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, in the year 1999. She lost out to thespian Shabana Azmi, who won the award for her role in Godmother.
In the few films that she did, Manju spanned a vast range of roles, from a spoilt homemaker to a carefree orphan, to donning the garb of a man. She has always essayed strong female roles in her movies.
In Lohitdas’s Kanmadam, opposite stalwart Mohanlal, she plays a rustic, independent girl who falls in love with a man who has accidentally killed her brother. She and her sisters are awaiting their brother’s return, not knowing that he will not come back. With dishevelled hair, unkempt clothes, and a face devoid of any makeup, she looked every inch an uneducated village girl.
In Daya, a period film, she masquerades as a man. In the movie based on a tale from Arabian Nights, she enters the court of a king, dressed as a man, complete with a beard and a moustache. She stuns the king and the other courtiers with her wit and wisdom as Sameer. In the first part of the movie, she plays Daya, a slave girl.
Sibi Malayil’s Summer in Bethlehem saw her play the role of a bubbly, chirpy, naughty orphan who is caught up in a dark secret which threatens to consume her life. Suresh Gopi and Jayaram play the male leads in this movie. Mohanlal has a significant guest appearance as a convict awaiting the death sentence. Pranayavarnangal, another popular movie from Sibi Malayil, has Manju playing a college girl who comes from a village, with very poetic notions of love and romance.
Range of roles
With Suresh Gopi in Jayaraj’s Kaliyattam, a movie based on Othello, she is Thamara, the village headman’s daughter. As Mridula, the young wife of Jayaram in Thoovalkottaram, Manju plays the role of a lady who has been brought up in great comfort. The two divorce due to a silly trick played by her husband to ‘teach’ her how to be a model wife. Eventually, they reconcile and remarry.
She is paired with Suresh Gopi again in Joshi’s Pathram, a movie on journalism and politics. She plays a firebrand journalist in this movie, which was strongly opposed by two leading Malayalam dailies upon its release. In Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, she plays the calculating seductress Bhadra, who is out to extract vengeance on her parents’ killers.
With careful planning, and making best use of her foes’ vulnerabilities, Bhadra satiates her thirsty spirit. She is paired opposite Thilakan and Biju Menon, who play father and son. This was one of her last movies.
From the 20-odd films she has done, with a career spanning less than five years, Manju has won at least 10 awards. To say that her retirement was a loss to Malayalam cinema would be an understatement.
There can be no replacing someone as talented and versatile as Manju. To those who have grown up watching her films, her roles and mannerisms stand out like a beacon. Her comic timing, her natural reflexes, and her classic beauty made her rise to great heights.