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‘I don’t mind working for free, if it is for a greater cause’: Interview with Nyla Usha

Malayalam actress Nyla Usha’s Porinju Mariyam Jose releases on Friday. In an exclusive interview with The Arabian Stories, she talks about her most challenging role and her experience in working with legendary filmmaker Joshiy.

By Neelima Menon
August 23, 2019

Nyla Usha has been a radio jockey in Dubai for the last 15 years. She also does emceeing for TV, stage shows and of course she is an actor. This is exactly how Nyla likes to order her preference too. After making her debut in Salim Ahamed’s Kunjananthante Kada(2013) opposite Mammootty, she didn’t really go on a signing spree, instead she opted for roles that gave her quality space and most importantly didn’t upset her day job. Joshiy’s Porinju Mariam Joseis her 10th film, and from the looks of it her most challenging role yet, after last year’s immensely likeable Effy Mol in an otherwise middling Diwanjimoola Grand Prix. Through WhatsApp voice notes, she lets me know about Mariam and what happens on a Joshiy set.

You kept saying that you were taken aback when you were offered the role of Alappat Mariam…

That’s because I don’t see myself as a great actor. I am confident as an RJ and emcee but when it comes to acting, it is all role play. Then I am doubtful about slipping into the character or emoting as per the needs of the director. For Porinju, I am supposed to be on the sets of a master director, who has called the shots with some of the biggest actors, made mass mega hits and is known to be a tough master. What’s more, he has given me a title character, which sounds too heavy for someone of my calibre.

What excited and terrified you about Mariam?

When Abhilash Chandran (scriptwriter) narrated the script, I felt this was a larger-than-life character, with a lot of heroic dialogues and body language that I was doubtful people would accept me in. The excitement was to be in an attire I don’t see myself in, to be someone who is so different from what I am and to be on a Joshiy set.

Did it take you a while to figure out Mariam?

I am not a trained actor but someone who goes to the sets with a clean slate and tries to understand what the director wants. They have set a frame for every character and every scene, there is a space and within that space I try to do whatever I can. I was so thorough with the script that even when we were shooting a scene from the middle of the movie, I knew where it fell exactly and where my emotions lie. I think somewhere in between this you start to like the character.

What’s your process as an actor?

I haven’t done enough films to become mature as an actor or even understand the seriousness of it. When someone calls me for a film, I am thinking, “oh god, what I am going to do there?” There will be a new set of people, a new director, a new ambience to tackle, besides a fresh character. But once there, I know I have to do it. So, I listen carefully to the director, watch how co-actors use the space and try out the dialogues. I can’t rehearse a scene and recreate it on the sets. Even on the radio, I do it impromptu—I just let go.

I really like regular days where I can come home, watch my favourite series, go to the gym, sit with my child, help with his homework. When it comes to work, I love being on the radio, it is my forte.

Nyla Usha

Joshiy is known to be a hard task master…

He is very strict about his art.  He doesn’t like to play around, and also makes sure others don’t.  For him, it’s a very serious process of making art, there is a lot of money at stake, a lot of hard work and dreams. If you are very serious about your work, he will appreciate you but quite another matter if you fool around. And yet, he gives us a lot of space. He doesn’t tell you exactly what you have to do. And even the suggestions come only after you have given your first shot.

Somehow I think you get approached more for the “bold and independent characters” …

I was in fact discussing this with friends. Of course, I want to run around trees and play some romance. Just kidding! Usually I am approached for a “bold character.” Perhaps I give the vibe of being a bold and independent woman (which I am in real life!), and that is good to hear. In this film, the difference came in terms of the costume and dialect, otherwise the bold independent front is me.

Which is your favourite Joshiy film?

Though I liked KauravarNaduvazhikalNair Saaband NirakoottuNaranis my favourite film. Mullankolli Velayudhan is such a fascinating character. Joshiy gives such amazing intros for his heroes and even the female actors.

I don’t mind working for free, if it is for a greater cause. But I have a problem if they say that the actress is not paid because she doesn’t have satellite value.

Nyla Usha

How do you manage this balancing act between RJ, emcee and acting?  

Yeah, balancing careers, shuttling between the two countries. I really like regular days where I can come home, watch my favourite series, go to the gym, sit with my child, help with his homework. When it comes to work, I love being on the radio, it is my forte. There is nothing like sitting in front of the mike and talking to people. I have been doing it for the last 15 years. It’s my incentive to wake up early in the morning. Next, I love TV and stage, and then comes cinema. These are the things in the order of my ability.

Photo by Nyla Usha/Facebook

What are the kind of films you want to be part of?  And your take on pay parity?

Films that are very seriously made, that has a scriptwriter who has put in his 100%, a director who has every shot planned, actors who completely want to deliver their craft, and all the departments working together. When I still debate about remuneration, I think it’s also about the respect paid to an artiste. It is not just about solid cash; you also take a lot of things out of a film. There is fame, respect, better opportunities, a launch pad. I put my time and respect across money. I don’t mind working for free, if it is for a greater cause. But I have a problem if they say that the actress is not paid because she doesn’t have satellite value. That really hurts me. New filmmakers, new stories—there is space for everyone in Malayalam cinema today.

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