The Kumbalangi Nights and Sara’s actress has hit a purple patch with her releases being lauded for its themes and her brilliant performances
Anna Ben in a still from Sara's
A breath of fresh air – this seems to be the phrase that has accompanied the reviews of most of Anna Ben’s movies, and her characters deserve all the credit for it. While she’s just four films old, Kumbalangi Nights, Helen, Kappela and Sara’s, the 25-year-old actor has already made her mark in the Malayalam film industry and has caught the attention of the non-Malayali audience.
Her latest feature Sara’s, which is directed by Jude Anthany Joseph and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, boasts of a refreshing take on a relevant topic of women’s body autonomy and her choice of being childfree. Anna, who plays as assistant director whose priority is to helm a project in Sara’s, talks to OTTplay about what attracted her to the movie, why she was nervous working with Aashiq Abu and how she rates her progression as an actor.
What was your reaction when Jude first narrated the script of Sara’s?
Whenever there is a discussion on marriage, this is a topic that everyone talks about. I have a lot of friends who got married and they have all had this conversation. There are couples who don’t want kids and some who want children only after five or six years of marriage; but it’s their personal choice. Sara’s talks about that; that you have the freedom to decide for yourself. That spoke volumes to me. It’s very important, yet people don’t realise that they have a choice and it’s an extremely private matter. That’s what first attracted me to the script.
I didn’t want it to be preachy. It’s a delicate subject and if we don’t communicate it well, people will get the wrong idea. I felt Jude ettan understood the importance of this and also had the clarity to execute it. So, I was excited to take it up.
While the movie talks about a woman’s body autonomy and her choices, it’s scripted and directed by two men. Did you feel that the movie always stayed true to what it was trying to convey, especially because it is constructed with arguments for and against the concept of being childfree?
I think it’s beautiful to see how Jude ettan treats such subjects. Even Ohm Shanthi Oshaana is told from a girl’s perspective. He has the vision to talk about these issues and I appreciate the honesty with which he does. He is very open-minded when it comes to these topics. He talked to a lot of women including me about these and asked for our opinions. So, he had done his research and arrived at a perspective talking to several people. He has connected that well into this film. (Scriptwriter) Akshay (Hareesh) is also a doctor and I think doctors understand better how physically challenging it is for a woman to go through pregnancy, labour and everything connected to that. He also understands the gravity of the subject and must have encountered a lot of women, who have faced such troubles. So, this story came from a well-intentioned space.
The movie itself deals with a difficult subject, that’s hard to communicate to people and make them understand. While we wanted to keep it light, there were portions that had to get serious. I think we were able to bring about a balance.
Your past three films had you in confined roles, literally. In that sense was Sara Vincent a liberating character?
Sara’s advantage was that she has parents who understand her and have made peace with her dreams, the way she wants to live and find love. But even though they are progressive, they also have difficulties when it comes to certain topics. I think we could communicate that well through this film. We wanted to show that even forward-thinking people discuss this and have trouble accepting it.
How much of Anna Ben is there in Sara?
Sara is also career-driven. She has respect for herself that she has the freedom to choose for herself. I believe the same. In that aspect, I do relate to her. But I also feel for her when she is faced with the dilemma. Even though she is stern about her decision, she also cares deeply about her family and husband. So, it’s a grey area. We are all independent but we do love our parents and have to make a space where we have to make them understand who we are without hurting them. Those are the aspects that I could connect with.
Sara and her dad Vincent, played by your father Benny P Nayarambalam, shared a very cute relationship. How was it acting with him?
It was fun. I was so excited when Jude ettan told me that he was going to be my father in the film. Jude ettan basically asked us to “just be”. We are more or less like how you see us on screen. He respects my decisions and I seek advice from him; that’s what you see in Sara’s as well. Both of us could relate to the characters and it was fun to play the roles. It was also nice to see him act. I have never seen that before; I have heard from his friends that he is a brilliant actor when he was doing theatre.
All four of your films that have been released had you working with fun teams. How much are you enjoying your career already?
I wouldn’t say it’s been a breeze. There were hardships but I do enjoy them too. The way these films are received makes it all worth it. But it has not been easy. Especially during the shoot of Sara’s, there was COVID-19 all around and we had to be very careful. A film set is generally a high-pressure environment because we have a lot of creative minds and we have a schedule to complete every day. So, we do get drained of all energy at the end. At the same time, we do manage to have fun, somehow.
Tell us about your progression as an actor from Kumbalangi Nights to Sara’s.
There’s a lot of learning and unlearning happening with each of these films. Kumbalangi Night’s sets were not like Helen’s, just as Helen’s weren’t like Kappela’s and so forth. That said, I go with a fresh mind because the way each film’s director and the crew works would be very different. Kumbalangi Nights was a big foundation for me. I started off having no clue about acting. Dileesh (Pothan) ettan, Syam (Pushkaran) ettan and Madhu (C Narayanan) ettan still call me and give me honest feedback after watching my films. I have these people looking out for me and that’s a big blessing. I also have my dad and a few friends I go to, after each film, for feedback. That pushes me to see where I have gone wrong and where to improve. That constant check is very important, I have realised.
You have also completed the shoot for Aashiq Abu’s Naradhan. Could you draw comparisons with the film’s sets and Kumbalangi Nights?
He used to come to the sets of Kumbalangi Nights but wasn’t there a lot. Naradhan’s sets were completely different. The film demands a different vibe altogether. It’s a great subject and my character is extremely different from what I have done so far. It demanded a lot of maturity. It was challenging but also fun to do. I generally don’t get nervous but for this film, I was. I am not sure of the reason but probably because the character was challenging for me. Also, I adore Aashiq ettan and I was dying to work with him at one point. It happened so fast, when I was not expecting it at all.
Have you figured out a process for getting into the skin of the character by now?
Like I mentioned earlier, every film demands a very different perspective from our side to develop a character. For me, going with a fresh mind has always worked so far. But I do prepare, in terms of the background work for each role. I firstly ask the director if there is anything specific that I need to do and get tips from them. If I am underprepared, I get nervous. So, there is always something about the character in my head before I do it. I am still figuring it out, I guess.
With your father being a scriptwriter and you having visited the sets of his movies growing up and now working in the industry, has there been a huge shift in terms of your expectations?
I know there have been a lot of discussions on how the film industry is and everything, but I have always had a sense of comfort at the sets when I was going with my father. It could probably be because I was going as a child and didn’t have any responsibility. I enjoyed that atmosphere and vibe with everyone bustling and working. When I was acting, especially in Kumbalangi Nights, I noticed that the sets were more relaxed, probably because everything was so well planned. Otherwise, there is still a lot of work and excitement involved. Right now, I think there isn’t a hierarchy as such. Everybody collaborates rather than just one person telling everyone what to do. There is a lot of give and take happening.
All your films till now have been among the favourites of non-Malayali audiences too. How have your support system, especially your friends, been reacting to your success?
They are actually more excited than I am. My family and friends are my biggest support. They watch all my films on the first day and get back to me. It’s cute to see them share my posters. They take so much pride in it and it’s overwhelming. It’s also humbling at the same time because when we spend time together, we talk about the same things we did. It’s not about movies, it’s about life, growing older and how things have changed.
After the success of Kumbalangi Nights, Helen, Sara’s (all on Amazon Prime Video) and Kappela (Netflix), Anna Ben will next be seen in Aashiq Abu’s Naradhan, which also has Tovino Thomas in the lead. The actress is also part of Ranjan Pramod’s next that had her training in kick boxing and she has signed Vikruthi director Emcy Joseph’s Ennittu Avasaanam, which also has Madhoo and Arjun Ashokan.