‘I hope that Jai Bhim will bring me strong characters’
Lijomol Jose speaks about her recent Amazon Prime Video release, Jai Bhim, that has brought her much acclaim for her intense portrayal of an oppressed woman
How unusual for an actor to get a stronger character than the star at the centre of the film! With just two Tamil films in her career so far, Lijomol Jose aced such an opportunity in the Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim, and despite the presence of proven performers like Prakash Raj around her, she stood out with a searing, physical performance.
“Gnanavel sir, who was impressed with my performance in Sivappu Manjal Pachai, was particular that I accept the role purely on its merit and not because I get to share screen space with a star like Suriya sir,” begins Lijomol in this conversation, in which she takes questions about the film, her character, Senggeni, acting alongside Suriya, and more...
How did you begin getting into the mind of a tribal woman?
Right at the beginning, I was told that we would be part of training and acting workshops. Usually, I manage without taking references for the performance, but this film is set in the 90s and is about a character from a particular community I did not know much about. So, Manikandan annan and I underwent proper training by living within the Irular community for about 40-45 days. In fact, some of them are part of the film. We observed the way they talk, their body language, their daily activities.... To help us understand their problems in depth, we were also given a book that dealt with similar cases. Gnanavel sir also narrated a lot of backstories for our characters that did not make their way into the film.
It seemed like a really internalised performance.
To be honest, I still haven't come out of its effects. The film has a lot of emotionally heavy scenes that have taken a toll on me. The dubbing process made it all more intense, as I had to relive everything again. So affected was I that I have now decided to do a light-hearted film next.
Being a Malayali who has lived all her life in Kerala, what gave you the confidence to do this rooted Tamil film?
After the first narration, I realised that the character has a lot of space to perform. Moreover, I could connect to Senggeni and her emotions. But yes, I did doubt myself initially because, during the training period, I could barely speak any Tamil. I could not really interact with the community due to this. Until the end of the first schedule, I wasn't even sure of my performance. It was then that the nationwide lockdown was announced. The free time helped me get into the character's psyche and understand her better. During that period, Gnanavel sir kept calling and motivating me. I usually think in Malayalam and then speak in Tamil. But he suggested I start thinking in Tamil and react to situations like Senggeni would.
What’s your take on criticism on ‘blackface’, where a fair-complexioned actor is made to look darker for a role?
I think the director would be able to answer this better. I didn't choose the character; I was chosen to play it. Many actors auditioned for this part, but the director liked my performance best. All I sought, as an actor, was a challenging character with good scope for performance.
This also provided you with the opportunity of working with a star like Suriya.
Initially, I was excited and tense. But all my anxiety went away on the very first day when he came up to me to discuss a scene in length. He ensured that I was comfortable because only then would our combination scene work. He put in a lot of effort to help me out. During the shoot in Madurai, he arranged jigarthanda for all the cast and crew. He went all the way to make us all feel comfortable.
It’s safe to say then that this film has been a transformative experience for you as an actor?
Sure, yes. This is the first film I took an acting workshop for, an exercise I was skeptical about initially, as I’m a reticent person who takes time to mingle with a group. But this has been a revelatory experience. In my earlier films, I was an actor on the sets. Once my shot would get done, I would go back to my caravan. But for this film, we all worked as a team helping each other out. This was new, and as an actor, this is my biggest takeaway.
You began on a great note in Malayalam (Maheshinte Prathikaram). It appears that your Tamil career has got off to a great start as well.
In Malayalam, I faced the issue of getting stereotyped and kept getting Idukki-based roles. I didn't want to get boxed like that and preferred to wait for a good role. Currently, I'm doing a Malayalam film I believe in. Similarly, after Sivappu Manjal Pachai, I was mostly approached for sister roles in Tamil, but I trust that Jai Bhim will land me similarly strong characters.