Anjali Menon on celebrating flawed women through her latest film 'Wonder Women'

The English film boasts an ensemble cast including Nithya Menen, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Nadiya Moidu and Padmapriya



By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Tue 15 Nov 2022, 3:14 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Nov 2022, 2:35 PM

Anu Prabhakar

The first time I interviewed Anjali Menon was about 10 years ago. I’d just watched the Malayalam movie Ustad Hotel which was scripted by her, and told her that a few people in the audience had clapped when they saw her name in the opening credits.

“That must have been the crew of Manjadikuru,” she joked. (Manjadikuru was, back then, her only feature film as a director). Her witty comment came to mind when two years later I watched her next directorial venture, Bangalore Days, at a suburban theatre in Mumbai. This time, more than half the audience erupted in applause.

The award-winning writer-director’s latest movie Wonder Women starring Nithya Menen, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Nadiya Moidum, Padmapriya, Amruta Subash, Archana Padmini and Sayanora Philip, among others will stream on November 18, on SonyLIV. The movie, in English, with bits of Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam thrown in, is about a group of pregnant women who meet at a prenatal class and their subsequent journeys.

Pregnancy, Menon says, is just the context in which the story is set and that the movie is about friendships and being in a ‘fertile ground’ that allows one to rise to their potential.

“We are celebrating ordinary people going through extraordinary circumstances,” says Menon, when we chat via Google Meet. “Women are bearing it with grit – they are juggling so many things in life, trying to keep it together, making mistakes, making a mess. None of these women are perfect – from the trailer you may think it's all sunny, but they are all flawed.”

Menon has been fascinated by pregnancy, birth and motherhood ever since she became a mother 11 years ago. “Since then, I’ve had a chance to be closely associated with women's groups and see a lot of feminine energy at play. I've actually been in girls’ schools and colleges and there is a certain different kind of energy but at that time, we're not really appreciative of it… I find there is a sort of a resurgence of that celebration of the feminine. And it's something that I deeply connect to because I find there's a great level of empathy and diffusion of that empathy and of ideas when groups of women come together …”

A still from Wonder Women starring Nithya Menen, Parvathy Thiruvothu among others
A still from Wonder Women starring Nithya Menen, Parvathy Thiruvothu among others

In Wonder Women, Padmapriya plays Krishnaveni, who lives with her traditional Tamilian family. In an email, the actor describes her as someone who “in spite of her fears, always sees the sunny side to life.”

“Never have I been on a film with such a powerhouse of talent in one frame,” she says, while praising Menon’s ability to “patiently observe, engage, love and respect everything around her while being able to preserve and assert herself.”

Thiruvothu, meanwhile, plays Mini. “What drew me to Mini was the way she chose to take this path as a single mother. It's amazing how she has a very scary path to traverse to not only go through this alone, but also to open up to support and friendships along the way while still protecting her space,” she writes in an email.

Dubai days

Menon was raised in Dubai and enjoyed a childhood that was steeped in culture. “We were instructed to speak only in Malayalam at home. Be it the food, the culture, everything was very Indian.” But home was still a cosmopolitan space, an ‘open house’ for friends from all over the world.

“Every festival, my parents would invite people who were not from our culture because they felt that's how they will get to know about (our culture).” Indian classical dance and music were a huge part of her life, as were movies – and not just the Thursday night Hindi movies that used to air on Channel 33. “It was important for my parents to get us to watch Malayalam cinema. And it was a treat.”

Her father first came to Dubai in 1959, before the oil boom and when the Gulf rupee was still in use. “My dad was one of the earliest Indians in Dubai, right when the Indian Association and the Indian Sports Club were set up. He was there in that lot.”

Her parents often spoke about old Dubai and how its economy has been built ‘bit by bit’. “There was a sense that we're all from the outside but we're here to make something happen and contribute value,” says Menon, who is also working on a collection of short stories on migrants.

The craft of storytelling

Menon tends to disappear after every movie. After the Kerala State Film Award-winning Bangalore Days, her next movie Koode came out four years later in 2018. She hopes to change that, now that her son is bigger – in fact, she’s shot a short film, a documentary and Wonder Women this year alone.

“My son was two when I started Bangalore Days. Anybody else in my space would have been out there, signing projects. But my work was over and I wanted to be back with my son and just go back home.”

During her off-time, she leads an extremely private life. She hangs out with a small circle of friends who she’s known for years, takes her son to pottery and swimming classes, reads and travels. “I'm a person who's very much in an oyster shell.”

Menon’s movies offer a realistic portrayal of a Malayali’s life, where there are no larger-than-life villains to be defeated, but there could be personal demons to overcome. Her films delve into the messiness and euphoria of modern love and the frictions of familial relationships through nuanced storytelling that’s ably carried forward by a carefully chosen ensemble cast. Popular actors like Prithviraj, Fahadh Faasil, Nazriya Nazim and Dulquer Salaam have all worked with her.

“I need to find the actors inspiring as individuals because I rarely connect and work with an actor just because their craft is great. For me, it is important that we can have a conversation, we can engage outside of our work.”

Menon with her cast during the shoot of Wonder Women
Menon with her cast during the shoot of Wonder Women

Her movies are also notable for its well-rounded, relatable characters and she explains that she’s never really thought in terms of ‘female’ and ‘male’ characters. “I like to approach them with the same sensitivity,” she says. “I don’t create people who we don’t know or who do not belong in a real landscape. That doesn’t do anything for me.”

Menon says that after every movie, she takes stock of what she got right, her mistakes and lessons learnt. She talks about how she shouldn’t have shaved off seven minutes from Bangalore Days as it was her favourite cut, and learning to rely on her own judgment over others’.

An interesting confession: she gets as emotional as her actors. “I end up experiencing whatever they go through and that is not a good thing because you have to think, ‘Okay, what is it that I need to get from the film’ and while you inspire the actor to get there, you have to be mindful and be able to step back. That is something I am still learning to do,” she smiles.

QUICK TAKE

Anjali Menon on changes in the industry since the Women in Cinema Collective was formed after the sexual assault of a film actor in 2017.

She says there is more cognizance of what is and what is not acceptable in the industry. “There is also much more respect at the work environment,” says Menon, who is a co-founder and member. However, she adds, there are also those who hold on to outdated values, leading to suppression and power equations. “As more people who are empowered and sensible come into the industry and we get a more professional culture, there will be a transformation. But it will take time. Real change takes time.”


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