In the 18 years that she has been in the industry, actor-singer Mamta Mohandas has had many gaps; “a consistent wave,” as she puts it. The actor has done close to 50 films in Malayalam, several in Tamil and Telugu, and continues to be a much sought-after professional. And in all these years, through all those gaps, cinema and music have been constant; they have also played more roles than one might think as evident when she looks back from the time she grew up in Bahrain.
Those days, in Bahrain, Mamta’s portal to cinema was through music. She recalls how it was either by renting out VHS tapes of films — one fond memory is falling in love with Alaipayuthey for its music and never returning the tape — or through the only television channel, Channel 55, that had Indian content. “There is something special about understanding ‘my land, my nation’ through cinema. Wanting to be more Indian was so inbred because what you are kept away from is what you desire the most,” Mamta says.
Though the film lover in her would have wished her good luck, Mamta entered the film industry reluctantly. “I was a reluctant actor because I wasn’t even an actor. There was no part of me that was about presenting myself; I was nervous, I had body image issues, and a lot of inhibitions that made me shy and unconfident.” It isn’t the process of making a film that made her feel so; in fact, that’s the part she enjoys the most, she says. “Being an actor is also about how you put yourself out there, say, during promotions, and that was difficult to embrace.”
The flip side of these gaps in Mamta’s career, due to her battle with Hodgkin lymphoma and the subsequent changes, she says, might have inadvertently prolonged her cinema career. “I was able to stay more informed and re-informed. For instance, every time I went away and came back, something about cinema would have changed, like the way we present characters or do visual drama. Had I been consistently present in the industry, I would have been out already.”
She sees another silver lining from the time she moved to Los Angeles in 2014 for treatment — “an unexpected happiness that brims your heart when you have nothing, no expectations, and no certainty about the future. That happiness was something I never thought could exist because I didn’t know if I would make it past the first three months. I renewed myself in that space and I learnt my biggest life lesson during that beautiful phase.” This experience made her, she adds, confident as an individual and gave her a never-satiating hunger to perform as an actor. “Now I have an extreme hunger to fully understand the entire film and how the director is thinking and seeing my character.” This is why Mamta urges young actors to not lose sight of their human side. “An actor has to touch the ground and experience things,” she says.
Mamta prefers the director first narrate the story and not just her character outline; perhaps how you might see her in a film like Jana Gana Mana, where though she has very limited screen time, the character creates enough impact for a whole film. “Jana Gana Mana was told to me in just 30 minutes but something about the way it was conveyed to me made me fall in love with it.”
Her upcoming Tamil film, Maharaja, co-starring Vijay Sethupathi, is also one such film. “Producer Sudhan Sundaram’s (of Passion Studios) brief about my character was short but he told me that a layer of this character could be felt throughout the film.” No, Mamta assures you that she isn’t dying in this film, unlike in Jana Gana Mana or her previous Tamil appearance, Enemy. “I think people like to kill me on screen, it’s as if they think ‘she didn’t die in real life so let’s kill her on screen’ (laughs).” In Maharaja, a revenge saga, Mamta plays the single female lead and the actor says that the drama has a well-written protagonist and antagonist. “There are several beautiful characters who influence the decisions and emotions of the protagonist and move him in ways even he would not have experienced — that makes its storytelling powerful.”
But more than the character and the story, what really made her agree to do Maharaja was that it’s a Vijay Sethupathi film, in fact, his 50th. “I just love him. Sethu sir is a serious actor. In fact, more than an actor, he’s an artist. That’s very rare to come across in the industry. According to me, India has three artists in cinema: Mohanlal sir, Kamal Haasan sir, and Vijay Sethupathi sir.” Mamta reminisces about the time she met Vijay Sethupathi for the first time at an award function. “He was then shooting for Super Deluxe (in which he plays a transwoman) and I could see that he was still in character! Even when he went on stage, I observed that he had greatly shifted from the masculine form that he was in. That’s the kind of inspiration you need to keep going in this industry.”
The first Vijay Sethupathi film that Mamta watched was Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, a film in a genre she loves. “I love such ‘timepass comedies with loose-laughs’. Even among my own films, My Boss and Two Countries stand out in that aspect.” Mamta loves to see the comedy out of the serious, as evident as it is from the sarcastic quip she made about why filmmakers kill her on screen. So, why isn’t she doing more comedies? “I would love to. In India, we have always taken ourselves too seriously but now, we have realised that it’s okay to make jokes about our culture and tradition because nothing has gone as per our plans. I do want to do more comedies but the timing and chemistry with your co-artist should also work.” She agrees that this is a cue for Tamil directors as most of her Tamil films have been serious, like Thadaiyara Thaakka, Enemy, and Maharaja.
Mamta is also waiting to don a new hat: as a producer. In 2020, she started Mamta Mohandas Productions and even released a single. However, the banner hasn’t made a film yet. “We released a single and we still have some ideas for music. But the production banner has been put on hold because I have been doing films back-to-back in Malayalam post the pandemic.” Apart from Maharaja, she also has Otta, the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty, in which she says she has a ‘friendly’ appearance. She signs off by revealing that Tamil audiences might soon see her in a full-fledged role, details of which are currently awaited.