Anjali Menon: When I am writing, I am a surrogate for the audience
The director, along with actors Parvathy Thiruvothu and Nithya Menen, talks about the need for more female friendships in cinema and working with an ensemble in her latest feature Wonder Women
For director Anjali Menon, stories germinate from moments. These moments can just be a look exchanged between two characters, a thought that occurred to her, or an elaborate scene. In her latest offering Wonder Women, a story of six pregnant ladies discovering friendship and building camaraderie at a prenatal centre, it was the scene in which the characters meet each other for the first time and introduce themselves. “That introduction scene came as a huge moment to me,” says Anjali. “My writing process is usually like this. These moments come to me and I fill them up with characters. I string the moments together and I have a narrative.”
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It was the dearth of female friendships on screen that made Anjali search for a story that could be exclusively woven around women. She believes that from sole male bonding to the kinship between genders, cinema has come a long way. “But there is a different energy in female friendships, that was lacking on celluloid,” she says. “I was looking for exclusive experiences in which women could come together and zeroed it down to pregnancy.”
Like most of Anjali’s films, (Bangalore Days, Koode) Wonder Women is an ensemble. Although she feels “lucky” to get her dream cast, writing multiple characters was not easy. “It was still very rewarding,” she adds. “When I am writing, I am a surrogate for the audience. I think from their point of view, and I am discovering these characters from their lens.”
The film has a multitude of characters and actors. There are those who have worked in Malayalam cinema (Nadia Moidu, Nithya Menen, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Padmapriya and Archana Padmini); a Hindi, Marathi entrant (Amruta Subhash) and a singer-music composer making her acting debut (Sayonara Philip).
With so many energies and multiple points of view, filmmaking can become chaotic. “But it was good chaotic,” says Parvathy, who plays the reclusive Mini in the film. “Chaos is not a bad thing. I like working with people who have their own voice and opinions because they inspire me,” adds Anjali. Nithya, who plays the smiling Nora, shares, “It actually didn’t feel like work, it was like hanging out with friends.”
What is unique about Wonder Women is that although it is a film with southern actors and a Malayali director, the characters converse in English. “It just felt more authentic that way,” says Anjali. “When a Kannadiga meets a Goan or a Telugu person meets a Malayali, what language do they talk in? It’s English. There are also characters like Amruta’s who don’t speak or understand the language and there are some who might understand but can’t speak. Wonder Women functions in a confused space, where everybody might not have the same mother tongue and they are trying to find a common language. It felt real.”
In a heart-touching scene in the film, the husbands are invited to a prenatal class. The task is to cradle a baby doll. While some handle it well, others are a bit awkward while “talking” to the baby. “Humans might be the most clueless creatures who are procreating,” says Anjali. “We don’t even know how to hold a child. This is where prenatal centres come in, they help impart the wisdom needed to take care of an infant.”
“Where I come from, prenatal centres are not a big surprise. In my friend circle or in my family, I have seen people go for these classes at a time when it was not that popular,” feels Parvathy. “But during the course of the film I realised that for most, it might be a new concept.”
“It’s actually the dads who need to learn more,” Anjali points out. She says that fathers, expected to be protectors and providers by society, run away from things they don’t understand.
“Even men are victims of the patriarchy,” she said.