I’m a greedy actor: Nimisha Sajayan of Poacher (and The Great Indian Kitchen) - Hindustan Times
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I’m just a very greedy actor: Nimisha Sajayan of Poacher (and The Great Indian Kitchen)

Mar 09, 2024 06:39 PM IST

She struggled in Mumbai. ‘I think I looked too much like a typical Malayali,’ says Sajayan, 27. Now a name to contend with, she wants to do action, romcoms.

As a child, every time Nimisha Sajayan said she wanted to be an actress, people outside her immediate family looked confused or amused. “I never understood why,” she says.

Sajayan plays the lead role in Poacher, of a fierce forest officer driven by anger and by the assumed guilt of knowing that her late father was a prolific poacher too. PREMIUM
Sajayan plays the lead role in Poacher, of a fierce forest officer driven by anger and by the assumed guilt of knowing that her late father was a prolific poacher too.

As she grew up, she began to understand. “People are so conditioned to see actresses as fair, really beautiful and well-turned-out, that they couldn’t think of me being one,” she says. It is true, of course, that most people confuse “actor” and “filmstar”. Sajayan, 27, never wanted to be the latter, and there is no argument that she is one of the most talented actors of her generation today.

She first made waves in Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), where she played a young wife who slaves endlessly and thanklessly in a filthy, appliance-less kitchen.

She is now the lead in director Richie Mehta’s Amazon Prime series Poacher, where she plays Mala, a fierce forest officer driven by the anger and assumed guilt of knowing that her late father was a prolific poacher too.

Whether it is in the moments of suppressed rage, the much-needed pockets of joy brought to her by her adopted dogs, or that one scene where she breaks down during a conversation with her mother, the actress doesn’t strike a false note.

Sajayan in Dabba Cartel, her upcoming series about homemakers who start to sell drugs in their packed meals, and (above right) in Poacher.
Sajayan in Dabba Cartel, her upcoming series about homemakers who start to sell drugs in their packed meals, and (above right) in Poacher.

“Mala’s combination of sensitivity and aggression really fascinated me. Her deep affection for animals and conservation feels truly selfless,” she says.

Poacher is based on the real-life investigation that busted, in 2015, the largest known ivory-poaching ring in Indian history. Mala is an amalgamation of three real-life forest officers. Sajayan says that conversations with one of them helped her understand her character better. “He asked me how I’d feel if something was stolen from my home, because the jungle is his home. Home is a sanctuary for most of us, so I immediately understood what he meant,” she says.

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Interestingly, though fame was never the goal, it has come her way, after The Great Indian Kitchen. That role fetched her awards and, after it was released on Amazon Prime, “people in the North have started recognising me and it’s also led to more opportunities from there coming my way,” Sajayan says.

She was born in Mumbai to Sajayan Nair and Bindhu Sajayan, with careers in engineering and medicine respectively; the family had no experience or history in show business. “Thankfully, my parents were very supportive,” Sajayan says.

For two years, her mother did rounds of auditions with her in Mumbai. “I realised that maybe I looked too much like a typical Malayali, with big eyes, thick eyebrows and thick hair. I decided to start auditioning in Kerala because nothing was happening in Mumbai,” she says.

She was simultaneously studying for a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and working her way up to a black belt in taekwondo (she represented Maharashtra at the National Games).

Her first break turned out to be a big one. She starred alongside Fahadh Faasil in Dileesh Pothan’s 2017 film Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Evidence and the Witness; a slice-of-life story involving a young couple and a chain-snatcher). “The director was very sceptical about casting me. I wasn’t very fluent in Malayalam. I don’t know why he decided to take a chance, but I am so thankful that he did,” she says.

The film would win multiple awards, including Best Female Debut - Malayalam, at the South Indian International Movie Awards. Sajayan has since been directed by stalwarts of Malayalam cinema, including Mahesh Narayanan, Madhupal, Karthik Subbaraj and Rajeev Ravi. “I have a mental list of directors I want to work with. While I’ve worked with a lot of them, still on my wishlist are Anurag Kashyap, Pa Ranjith and Vetrimaaran Sir,” she says.

Sajayan has played one half of star-crossed lovers in Eeda (Now; 2018); a police officer on the run from corrupt cops in Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu (The Hunt; 2021); and a mysterious woman with a tragic past in the kidnap drama Chithha (Uncle; 2023).

For characters and situations that demand life experience beyond her own, Sajayan has found a role model in her mother. In the sprawling political drama Malik (King; 2021), for instance, she plays Roselyn, the wife of the local don (played by Faasil) and an equal partner in her husband’s empire. “There’s a scene in which Roselyn has lost her child and breaks down. I couldn’t figure out how to do this scene and then I thought, ‘How would Amma react?’” she says. Sajayan sees shades of her mother in quite a few of the strong women she has played, she adds, including Mala in Poacher.

While she’s enjoying being an actor — a film set is her idea of paradise, Sajayan says — she’s fascinated by the idea of directing. “I like this idea of someone who has this story in their head and they bring all these departments together to bring the story to screen. I want to tell the kinds of stories that generate a conversation and make people think — like Nayattu and The Great Indian Kitchen.”

For now, she is looking forward to a wide range of projects. Her next is the streaming series Dabba Cartel, about five homemakers who start to sell drugs in the packed meals they send out; and the Tamil crime thriller DNA, directed by Nelson Venkatesan. “Someday I hope I am offered a romcom and an action thriller. I also want to play a villain. I am just a very greedy actor,” Sajayan says, laughing.

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