Text by Akshaya Pillai. Illustration by Aishwaryashree
I wheel my chair away from my writing table and sit there for a second, detached, debating whether to shut the window. I have been listening to the 10-year-old who lives in the adjoining house mugging up a poem for the past 15 minutes. It is the urge to go on an endless rant about rote learning that takes me back to a conversation with Geetu Mohandas that took place over refills of Pepsi, a few months before the pandemic.
In the 7th-floor apartment that opens its windows out to Kochi’s expanding cityscape, we sit on adjacent sofas and fidget with our devices, attempting to wrap our brains around the digital advancements meant to make life easier. “What milkshake would you like?” she asks, looking up from her phone, which, a few weeks after the release of her third movie, Moothon (The Elder One), is still delivering praises. It takes her as much time to trust Uber Eats with a credit card reversal as it does for me to get familiar with my new recording app’s cloud sync feature. But when we finally make peace with technology, it seems apt to take a stroll back in time to when she was a school kid.
The overpowering scent of incense from her memory finds its way to the living room on an otherwise hot afternoon. All of 14, Mohandas and her school friends had been asked to interview a celebrity for an assignment, and she recalls the time they made their way up to the first floor of Ambadi Apartments. With their notepads and stock questions ready, the children opened the door to find Kamala Das swinging in a wooden unjaal (swing). “Her hair was down, and the apartment smelled like a shrine. She was swinging with her red bindi and flowing sari, creating an imagery of sorts herself. We just had a few generic questions, but she poured her heart out. We were thrilled by the content that we got because she spoke of life, birth, motherhood.”
Excited, they transcribed Das’ exact words, but the school (most of us have been there) preferred naivety; the faculty rejected the assignment because, to them, the content and tone seemed ahead of the students’ years. “That is something I found ridiculous in the school system, and, after all these years, I see the same regressive attitude even today,” says Mohandas. “They want children to study four hours a day, score well, and that’s all. They fail to ready them for the world.”
It comes as no surprise that the actor-turned-filmmaker repeatedly casts children. Her first short, Kelkkunnundo (Are You Listening?, 2009), was about a visually impaired four-year-old, who passes her time listening to other children having fun in the nearby playground. I ask her if she’s still in touch with Hansa, the little girl who played herself in the film. “Little girl alla, aval ippol valiya kutty aa (She’s no longer little; she’s a big girl now), preparing for her 12th boards. I am also in touch with her teacher,” she replies. Then there was debutante Manya Gupta who played the three-year-old daughter in Mohandas’s first directorial feature, Liar’s Dice (2013), also India’s official entry for the Oscars the following year. Mohandas loves working with kids and tells me the trick is in treating them like adults.
She is petite and dressed casually, like a college-goer, speaking gently except when it comes to the matters she feels strongly about. “Don’t camouflage things. Just be sensitive to your child’s knowledge because, trust me, they know more than what you want them to. For instance, I can’t simply place the kids in Kamathipura and tell them we are in a candy store or theme park. When we shot Moothon, the kids saw the beautiful people of Kamathipura through my eyes. They saw that they have different jobs and that some are not accepted by the conditioning of society,” says Mohandas, who often takes her six-year-old daughter, Aradhana, to set with her. She believes it’s important for a daughter to watch her mother at work. “Her mother commanding,” she emphasises, raising her chin and lifting her index finger into the air.
There’s nothing gimmicky or formal about the interview. Throughout the two hours, she putters around the house looking for snacks and offers me chips and chocolates straight from their jars. She confides how she makes an effort to not drink Pepsi when her daughter is around. If writers can measure their lives in coffee cups, why should an occasional Pepsi be a vice? I ask as we add ice to our soft-drink-filled glasses on the sweltering day. At one point, she borrows my phone to make a call; this is a pleasant turn of events because it’s usually me who’s forgetting my cell, running out of charge or forgetting the screen password.
Mohandas can go without writing for months. But once she starts, it’s all she’ll do. “I don’t have the luxury of taking off somewhere and writing. If I were to do that, it is not something my daughter would understand. “So, the ironing man will come, the maid will walk in and out, and my daughter will want to tell me a hundred things. Even if I’m writing the most intense scene, all worldly things will be happening on the side. But I go for shooting or post-production work during weekends, so I feel guilty even at the thought of getting away for writing,” she confesses.
This makes sense because while I am in her home, the doorbell rings at least a dozen times – from her mother to the maid, to her friends, the driver and the bank manager. “I don’t even have the luxury to shut the door because then my daughter will knock a hundred times. Even when she was a baby, she would sit by my side and want to play with the keyboard. I would tell her, ‘Amma’s working’, and now she knows. Sometimes, even when Rajeev [Ravi] touches my laptop for browsing or something, she’ll say, ‘Nooooo, Amma’s work’.”
Her cinematographer husband comes back home, in time to go pick up their daughter from school. We exchange pleasantries and talk fondly about Mumbai for a bit. “I am a feminist because of the great views of the men in my life and because they showed me the right way to treat women, and I cannot tolerate anything else,” she says as Ravi walks away, immediately following with, “Isn’t that a nice line?” I take some time to process the juxtaposition, but I come to understand that its origins lie with a father who believed his daughter could do anything that his son did, and do it better, and in a marriage where she’s an equal.
Their years of courtship seem distant, but she tells me she was fascinated by her husband’s knowledge of cinema, by his quiet demeanour and sense of humour. While she always makes him the primary reader, Mohandas usually shares her first drafts with friends. She swears that by now, half the people in the industry have her next script, which is for a gangster flick. “I’d like to believe that I’m a receptive person, and I love to get feedback. But I take what I want, and I mostly do whatever the fuck I want to.” At this point, her phone rings, and it’s one of the big Ks of Bollywood calling to congratulate her on Moothon. She does an adorable little dance before excusing herself.
Mohandas was a wide-eyed five-year-old when she starred in Onnu Mutal Poojyam Vare. She doesn’t think of it as a life-changing moment because even as a child, she loved writing and making up stories. The first story she recalls was called ‘My Holy Grail’, written sometime during middle school, about a child visiting a cemetery. “I was not passionate about acting. To be honest, I don’t remember the time when I was an actress. From 2000, that entire decade was the worst time for Malayalam cinema. The content was ridiculous, and even now, I sometimes have friends who ask me, ‘Can you do this role?’, and I get defensive. I will never act again.”
Actors are just one element of cinema for Mohandas, and it irks her when people place them above the film itself. But she believes, “What the good ones do is profound. It’s not a job to be taken lightly. You need to be intelligent to be an actor; you need presence of mind and to be receptive. All these qualities are not there in each person, so it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But even if you are not a great actor when you start off, you can finish your career as the epitome of brilliance because you can learn acting along the way, with experience.”
When it’s time for me to wrap up, perhaps because she first mistook me for her best friend who has hair similar to mine, we part with her promising to share a tutorial on how to tame my frizzy curls.
Back in my writing room, I make up my mind to shut out the neighbouring kid’s poem. I go near the window but first pause to see if I can catch a line, maybe guess the poet. Something about death and ambition and love. I switch off the fan in time to hear the ending lines: Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
It felt like Raymond Carver and Google agrees. This discovery changed everything, and I lean in to listen to the entire poem. I have half a mind to hold Ultramarine out through the window and ask the boy to read ‘Shiftless’ next. I do no such thing though, and instead I ring up Mohandas to see how the pandemic is playing with her anxieties and talk about lockdown routines, online education and digital film festivals.
Moothon has recently swept up the Best Actor, Best Film and the Best Child Actor awards at the New York Indian Film Festival. But she tells me that more than such recognitions, what she takes pride in is her film’s sense of purpose. Not only have many members of the LGBTQIA community reached out to her for creating the characters of Aamir and Akbar, but she was also the chief guest at Kerala’s 10th Queer Pride March.
Working on scripts over Zoom discussions with her co-writer, Megha Ramaswamy, and attending online school with Aradhana comprise her new normal. I remember Mohandas telling me she prefers the movie-going experience to watching them at home. She has now swapped this with revisiting the classics: Pedro Almodóvar, Jiri Menzil and KG George. And, as part of a pandemic ritual, she’s also embraced a kid-friendly list. “I try to restrict screen usage now that Aradhana’s spending a lot of time in front of the laptop for lessons. But we watch a film together every other night. Last night, it was Jojo Rabbit,” she says.
It’s almost six in the evening, and like in most houses, the telly is on at the neighbours’ – the child’s recitation has been hushed. The Chief Minister will soon be reading out the day’s COVID-positive counts. Let it not cross 1000, I think as I swipe through the meagre selection of photographs she’s shared with me on WhatsApp. It is in search of a better picture of her that I find myself on her Instagram page, but I am gripped by her July 2nd post. In freshly learnt cursive, her daughter has scribbled a few lines about the night sky. Seeing this fills me with such warmth and fondness for Mohandas and all the wonderful mothers who repeat the advice: “Understand, then write it in your own words.” The ones who take their kids to every book fair in town. Get them library memberships. Share a pillow and read the same book. Gift them Scholastic books on how to become a writer at eight-years-old. Okay, I am now largely talking about my own mother – but then again, this chapter of Mohandas’ story, as I see it, is about a mother and her daughter more so than anything else.