Manju Warrier: Arabs and the Arabic culture is at the centre of 'Ayisha'

Actress opens up about her unique new movie that straddles Arabic and Indian culture

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Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Thu 19 Jan 2023, 5:02 PM

Set in Saudi Arabia, Ayisha tells the heartwarming story of a maid that transcends the boundaries of culture, countries and language. The film, touted to be the first bilingual Malayalam Arabic movie, will release in theaters in the UAE today. In addition to Malayalam, the movie will also be released in Arabic.

Based on a true life incident, the story revolves around Ayisha, played by leading Malayalam actress Manju Warrier, who moves to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid in the house of an Arab. The cross-cultural film is directed by newcomer Aamir Pallikal and features a large number of actors from various countries including Egypt, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

The movie, which is produced by Zakaria and scripted by Ashif, was completely shot in Ras Al Khaimah. A song from the movie, Kannilu Kannilu has already won kudos for its lively steps and unique costumes. Choreographed by Prabhu Deva, the video song has so far garnered over 5 million views on YouTube.

City Times caught up with lead actress Manju Warrier over Zoom to ask her about the film, her experience shooting for it and what prompted her to take her bike license last week.

What can you tell us about Ayisha?

It will be a beautiful experience for people. It is a feel good film that is unlike usual Malayalam films. The story happens in Saudi and the film reflects the Arabic culture. Majority of the characters are non-Indians and the film has a very fresh tone to it. Even when the producer and director first met me with the script, I could feel that they had a very unique perspective.

I have never worked in a Malayalam film of this nature. I won’t go as far as saying it is a story that has never been told before but it is a very interesting, unique film. As cliched as it may sound, I play a very strong and bold character. It portrays several emotions and the entire incident has been shown in a very interesting light. It is hugely inspired from a real life incident. The film is not biographical or anything but it comes from a certain incident in a person’s life who many of us might know.

It is a very intersectional and multilingual film. It happens very organically and does not feel forced at all. Every character speaks their own language and they interact with each other in broken English or broken Arabic, very much like how we all interact with people who speak other languages. So it has a very natural feel to it.

Could you tell us more about the person the story is based on?

Ah! I can’t tell you that. You will have to watch the movie to know. It is in the end credits.

How do you think will Dubai audience connect to this movie?

I think they will love it. In every movie where there have been Arab characters so far, most of the time, they are either in a cameo role or have a very small screen time. However, in this movie, Arabs and the Arabic culture is at the centre of the film. A lot of research has gone into getting as many details as possible right. Even the maid uniforms we wear, it wasn’t just designed as a fancy costume. Samira, the costume designer, studied the kind of uniforms worn in Arab houses and drew inspiration from a lot of places.

This is not a usual sob story where someone comes as a maid and has to struggle and slog. This is a story of a relationship between the maid and the majesty, if you may say. It is a very real story with very real characters. I think people in Dubai will be able to relate very much to it and recognize characters they have seen around them in this film.

With so many different nationalities and people speaking different languages, how was the experience shooting for the film?

It was all very new to me. Usually when you work in an Indian film, you more or less know the language and understand what the other actors are saying. Here, the movie is multilingual. Each person speaks their own language. So a lot of times, even in very emotional scenes, I would have to learn what the last word of their dialogue was to know when to start my dialogue. It was a very novel experience for me.

However, none of this affected our performances as actors. Every single actor on the set was so professional and such fine artists. It was very interesting to see how they communicated, how they understood and perceived a scene. When you see them speaking a different language, you automatically become curious. I also had to say a few lines in Arabic but unfortunately I had to do it by learning it by heart and I forgot the lines as soon as the scene was over. I did not have the time to understand the language and the words. It seems like a beautiful language, though.

How was the experience on set interacting with all the other actors?

It was very interesting. Most of the movie is set in a house. So in between shooting scenes, there was no caravan to go back to. So we would sit in the house and speak to each other. I would say, it was a very enriching experience for me. I learnt more about their culture, their traditions, their food. The Arabic food is something I was familiar with because I have been to Dubai so many times.

Your recent performance in Thunivu has been garnering a lot of attention and applause. How was the experience?

Thunivu was such a fantastic experience. I absolutely loved being a part of it. Of course it was directed by the ace H. Vinoth and Ajith sir was in it. The duo have given some excellent films together in the past. So I didn’t have to think twice about saying yes to it. The role itself was amazing and I got to do a lot of action sequence, which again was an exhilarating experience for me.

We heard that you took a bike license recently. Was that always the plan?

I have always wanted to take a bike license, even when I was a young girl. It was on the bucket list. But the triggering fact was when Ajith sir invited me to accompany him on a bike ride during the shoot of Thunivu. Going on the ride and hanging out with fellow bikers was a great experience and I decided that I really must get the license. So as soon as the shoot was over, I filed my papers with the RTO office. Last week was my test and I passed.

Ayisha is out in UAE theatres from January 20

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