Tabloids have a funny way of pushing certain celebrities into public consciousness. Case in point, Malavika Mohanan, who had entered mine in 2017 courtesy of multitudes of semi-sleazy headlines that cited her as the mystery Malayali actor who had replaced Deepika Padukone in Beyond the Clouds. Four years later, I still know her - not only because I have seen her walk the ramp for countless designers at fashion weeks, or heard about her unfeigned movie performances from fellow South Indian friends - but because of news that had made headlines back in 2020. Malavika had called out the blatant sexism in a Master-inspired fan art, and gotten trolled for it. In certain parts of the country, a young, barely-few-films-old female actor shaking things out of predictability by questioning patriarchy is still slightly unsettling.
To profile Malavika is like dipping your toes into waters of extreme fandom - the kind only reserved for actors and actresses of the South. Just look up the comments on YouTube videos of her and you'll know what I mean. When we speak over the phone on a particularly humid, do-nothing evening in June, I am jolted by the actor's personality. She's part erudite, part goofy, and one hundred percent divergent from her Internet persona of a 20-something celebrity who is riding the crest of a blockbuster movie.
Malavika is in the kitchen, sublimely indulging in her evening smoothie and sharing her quandary about food like any Everywoman. "I'm trying to eat healthier now, which I didn't earlier. But I don't gain weight easily. Even if I don't workout for a very long time. As a child, I was athletic. So, now, I feel my body has muscle memory, you know?" she says, almost making certain that when this interview comes out, a lot of women will envy her preternatural ability to eat and hold out the weight. After all, who doesn't want to eat heaps of biryani and still have a perfect midriff?
Apart from the fact that she was a remarkably active kid, she describes her life from back then as pretty much ordinary. She shares her house - which she describes as “mini-Kerala" - with her parents and a brother who is five years her junior. "I was a very productive but an introverted child, who was into arts and crafts - always creating and making something. I didn't watch a lot of TV or play video games," she tells me, admittedly convinced that her childhood was pretty lacklustre. "I would spend most of my time reading or writing. The adult me is not productive at all in comparison." Her unassuming childhood would probably not have come as a surprise had her father, K.U. Mohanan, not been one of the most venerated cinematographers in the film business and had she literally not grown up watching the industry from the inside out. And despite this, acting was not on her list of things to do.
Malavika's first movie, the Malayalam romantic drama, Pattam Pole, came to her when she was 20 years old. How she landed the role, she says, is textbook happenstance. Mammootty, one of Malayalam film industry's biggest actors, was shooting an ad film in Mumbai with her father. "I've grown up watching Mammootty movies," she tells me, "so when he came here, I had to see him." At the time, Dulquer Salmaan, Mammootty's son, had already been cast in Pattam Pole and the search for the female lead was underway. "When Mammootty sir saw me, he thought I would be perfect for the role. He had one of those huge tablet-like gadgets, you know? He whipped it out and asked me to move around the set while he recorded. So, my audition for Pattam Pole was basically just walking for Mammootty. Can you believe that?" I tell her I cannot; that it is too good to be true.
Although Pattam Pole didn't exactly scream blockbuster in terms of numbers, Malavika's earnest performance and chemistry with Dulquer was widely appreciated. At least, it was enough to make her explode onto the screen with movies like Nirnayakam (Malayalam), Naanu Mattu Varalakshmi (Kannada), and The Great Father (Malayalam) where she shared screen space with Mammootty himself. Sure, these movies guaranteed her vertiginous ascent in the South Indian film industries, but they did very little to help her get the attention of Bollywood-devouring audience. That prestige was reserved for her headline-grabbing portrayal of Tara in Beyond the Clouds. The movie she famously replaced Deepika in.
One has to understand why Deepika is the locus in my conversation about Beyond the Clouds. Pictures of the actor - brownface, in rags, and standing in Mumbai's Dhobi Ghat with the movie's legendary Iranian director, Majid Majidi - were so widespread that it had become difficult to separate one from the other. Naturally, when the role went to Malavika, public interest in her roared to a crescendo. She became the subject of endless clickbait listicles, even upending Ishaan Khatter, who made his cinematic debut with this movie. "It was surreal," she says, unable to - even after all this time - find the words to describe the feeling of landing the role.
The story, I discover, is indeed pretty surreal. Malavika was asked to give a customary look test by casting director Honey Trehan with a disclaimer that it might go in vain. It was almost as if she was going to be just another name in the mix, competing for the role against industry bigwigs who had shown interest in working with Majidi. She did her own makeup, fixed her own look, and took some pictures with her father. Once the pictures reached Majidi, though, he couldn't shake her off. The rest is history.
Malavika wasn't exactly a newcomer in the strictest sense when she was playing Tara, a woman who is incarcerated for an act of self-defence against her perpetrator. She knew what it feels like to walk a few miles in the shoes of the characters that she is playing. And even then, the emotional turmoil that came with along with a Majidi film got to her on various occasions. "We're so far removed from the ground reality in our everyday lives that it gets physically and mentally exhausting to play these intense roles," she says, reminiscing her sporadic emotional breakdowns on the set.
Perhaps, it is this awareness, that comes from ruminating on difficult sentiments, which helped Malavika in delivering her echt monologue in the Rajinikanth-starrer Petta (Tamil). A small but powerful role that ultimately affirmed her status as a veritable actor in Kollywood. "I had to deliver this monologue after the death of my character's father. It was an especially long one. I wanted to get the emotions right, so I wanted to do it in Tamil. I started working with a tutor, almost a month before the shoot started, to help me perfect my language so I can deliver the lines." In the end, she tells me, her efforts paid off because when the shot ended, Rajinikanth broke out into clapping. If this isn't an incontrovertible feeling of having 'made it' in the acting business, what is? Or maybe it is the fact that while most actors are hamstrung because of the pandemic, the biggest success of Malavika's cinematic career came in the form of Master in 2021. The Thalapathy Vijay-Vijay Sethupathi starrer that raked in more fame than any other Indian movie in the post-pandemic era.
Malavika is less than 10 films old, and she has already worked with two of the biggest stars in Indian cinema. Both Rajinikanth and Vijay, with whom she shares an almost speed-dial kind of relationship, peppered with equal parts awe and admiration. I can't help but ask if she feels invisible in these commercial movies, cast especially alongside these stalwart names. "I feel quite the opposite, actually, because acting in commercial movies gives you a certain kind of exposure. One of your biggest struggles as an actor when you're starting off and establishing yourself is to be known. These movies build a credibility that attracts more directors to you, more scripts to you, and more characters that you actually want to play as an actor." I can't help but wonder what roles does she think will define her career? The answer, for someone who is unafraid of holding her ground, is obvious - strong female-centric ones that will challenge the status quo. "As an actor, I have an option. Either wait around for the idealistic role to come along, or continue doing roles that will keep you relevant. That's what Anushka Sharma did, no?" she asks me rhetorically. "She waited, until she could create roles for herself that mean something to her. That's what I want to do, too."