"It’s taken me totally out of my comfort zone,” Manisha Koirala says about her role in Maska, a Netflix original currently streaming on the platform, in which she plays Diana Irani, a Parsi mother of a teenaged son who dreams of him rejuvenating the family’s dying Irani cafe, but Rumi (played by Prit Kamani) nurtures the ambition of becoming an actor. Maska may have met with polarised reviews but there’s been unanimous praise for Manisha’s uninhibited portrayal of a woman who lives life without apology. t2 chatted with the 49-year-old actor — the star of films like Dil Se, Bombay and 1942: A Love Story — on being Diana, her career 2.0 and what quiet time means to her.
Maska is largely a fun ride that pushes the right buttons of nostalgia, roots, filial ties and aspiration. What’s the feedback been like so far?
In these gloomy days, I am glad people are watching the film and reverting with some good feedback. By and large, most people have liked it. Some haven’t, and of course, we need to respect everyone’s opinion, you know. Those who have liked the film have praised it for being slice of life, light-hearted and have said that in the times we are living in, it’s a relief to watch something like this, which is beautiful and peaceful and loving and cute. Also, they have spoken about getting nostalgic… people who know Bombay, who know the Parsi community and understand the value of Irani cafes, have liked the film. Generally, it’s being praised for being light-hearted and cute.
Were these the factors that made you want to be a part of Maska?
When I listened to the narration, I just loved the script. I knew it was going to be a sweet film. The character that I play, Diana, is a mother who is slightly eccentric but also very lovable. In my career, I haven’t played many verbose characters. I have, knowingly or unknowingly, always bent towards more serious and silent characters. I am comfortable in that zone, and I thought the role in Maska would be a nice challenge. It would be a change also… it’s time I took a step towards light-hearted stuff.
You had to master a different accent, change your look as well as your body language. As an actor, how much did you have to stretch yourself for this role?
I am now constantly looking at doing parts I haven’t done before. As actors, we always try to learn new skills and not repeat ourselves in terms of the parts that we play. This film and the character provided me with a certain variety and all I had to do was be strict with my diction. I was very scared, because Diana is over the top and always in a hyper state. That’s how she is. She abuses at the drop of a hat, but she doesn’t come across as offensive… it’s second nature to her. I tried to be mindful of not overdoing it, I tried to be mindful of correcting my diction as much as I could. I am sure a Parsi person is sitting somewhere and digging out all the flaws! (Laughs) But I did my best, in terms of body language as well. The whole look is different… we did many look tests before zeroing in on the salt-and-pepper hair look. I enjoyed the process of preparing for and playing this character.
You’ve been having a good run with Netflix, first with Lust Stories and now with Maska and then there is Freedom with your Lust Stories director Dibakar Banerjee. Is the focus of your career now going to be more on the web?
I feel today the world has opened up because of OTT platforms. There’s a lot of creativity happening. Also, those who didn’t have access to big stars but had a good idea for a film but no means to make it, are finding a platform now. That’s brought about such a boom in terms of new actors, directors, writers…. I think India, today, is at the global centre stage of creativity.
Honestly, to break into the Bollywood structure is so tough sometimes. I am not criticising it… I am, after all, a product of Bollywood. But Bollywood is tough. These platforms bring in new talent and help them showcase their work.
What’s also happened is that even the big directors and producers of Bollywood are now investing in content on digital platforms, which allows them to experiment with ideas and stories in the way they have always wanted to tell them without the burden of the box office. It’s a huge creative outlet for everybody.
You had said in a recent interview that there is a difference in the way in which you approach your career now. How are you picking and choosing your work?
I can be excruciatingly painful when it comes to saying ‘Yes’ to a project! (Laughs) At this age, I only want to take on projects that I feel I will enjoy giving 30 days of my life to. And on those 30 days, I will be focused on giving my 200 per cent and work towards making a film that I will be happy and proud of. For every project, we put our best foot forward… everyone goes in with that intention and that’s what really matters. I am moving forward with that goal in mind and with the hope and prayer that I make the right choices. Of late, I have said ‘No’ to some projects… I hope I don’t regret that later! (Laughs)
Is this shift in mind space the result of your health scare or has it come with age and experience?
I think it’s a combination of all of that. I want to do limited work and in that work that I do, I want to exhaust myself completely and then take a break to rejuvenate myself. When I don’t work, I simply disconnect from everything. I go deep into nature and then I come back with new vigour and renewed enthusiasm. I have done almost 90 films in my career and for me to continue to keep interest in my work, I need to be able to disconnect and enjoy the other aspects of life. And when I like a story and my role in it and if I feel the makers can make a good film out of that story, I will take it up and give it my 200 per cent. At the age I am at and having been there and done all that, I have other interests. I love my quiet time, I love my space and it’s very important to me.
What do you like doing in your quiet time?
I am a very earthy person… I like to be rooted. I really like going to jungles, but I also love the mountains and the sea. I really like to be at one with nature. I have grown to appreciate the beauty of this earth and to value this second chance that life has given me (Manisha is a cancer survivor). I love connecting with my family and with old friends… one-on-one contact is very important to me. I also love travelling. I have friends all over the world and I spend time travelling and staying with them and exploring new things.
Since travel is momentarily out of the picture, are you, like the rest of us, spending time streaming content during this lockdown?
Of course! I loved Money Heist… I thought it was incredible. I also watched Guilty and Yeh Ballet. I watched Stranger Things and just yesterday I watched this series on Netflix called Freud. I also watched Okja, directed by the man (Bong Joon-ho) who made Parasite.
But honestly, I am also trying to limit my screen time. I am utilising this time to read quite a bit. It’s a habit I want to continue with.