Rima Kallingal: “People can say whatever they want, it is not going to bother me”
Breezy, welcoming and a host who puts you at ease instantly. Presenting Rima Kallingal, actor-dancer or ‘the artist’ as she would prefer to call herself. The first few chapters of her professional life may seem familiar—dancer, reality show participant, Miss Kerala finalist and then films. The clichés end right there.
She marked her entry into Malayalam films with an urban-chic role in Ritu, a film by the intelligent and skilled Shyamaprasad, and almost simultaneously gave us a traditional charming look in creative genius Lal Jose’s Neelathamara, a remake of a 1970s film. No fears or apprehensions of a beginner, Rima, the actor, breathed life into every character she portrayed… and continues to do so.
A handful of fun films later came 22, Female, Kottayam, a film that shook the audience, woke up their conscience and urged people to think. Always choosing quality over quantity, Rima continues to give us roles that have a certain something in it for all of us.
Married to her good friend and director Aashiq Abu, Rima is now busy with her biggest dream Mamangam—the dance school, and also the other film projects that she has taken up. And while she has performed ‘great acts’ in front of the camera, in real life she refuses to put up an act. Rima Kallingal, the person, has strong views and opinions and never shies from expressing them.
Let’s hear what she has to say to Kochi Post:
An actor or a dancer first…
I am an artist first, and that’s how I see myself. I like to be part of anything that is creative and beautifully executed—be it dance, acting or any form of creativity. Everything I do, be it the way I dress, the way my home is, how I design my work space, or be it my dance… everything needs to look nice and have a touch of aesthetics to it. So, yes, I am an artist, a performer; the medium is secondary.
You play a variety of ‘created’ characters and you also have a regular life to lead. At times, do the characters consume you so much that it becomes a struggle to come back to the person Rima?
I usually have a clear cut approach to it. When I am acting, I know I am playing a character. But in some cases, characters do influence you, like Tessa of 22FK.
She is clearly the strongest role I have done so far, and also the longest I have associated with a film. Tessa had become very close to my heart.
At one point while discussing the climax, Aashiq described Tessa as ‘filled with negative energy’ and I reacted strongly. I couldn’t see her like that and fought for her.
Finally, he (Aashiq) had to tell me to relax, calm down and take it easy. I was so taken in by Tessa that someone calling her negative was like calling me negative. So it does happen at times.
Nidra, directed by Siddharth Bharathan, was another such experience. He had told me the story almost 2 years before we actually started filming. So I had a lot of time to study the script, and I completely got into the psyche of the character, Ashwathy.
I remember the first day of shoot; Siddharth and the entire crew was anxious to see how I would handle it because my opening shot was an emotionally exhausting one. But I was so in sync with Ashwathy that I got it right in one take. So in rare cases, characters do influence you and might linger on in your mind for a little longer.
While doing Ritu, it was a different story. Varsha had a lot of me in her, my personality, body language, and I even wore my own clothes. She was very close to what I really was. So that sometimes kind of merges—Varsha and Rima—and I quickly tap myself and snap out of it.
Interestingly, characters also at times affect public opinion about you. For example, Tessa totally changed the way people saw me, in a very positive way.
And I am very happy it happened the way it did. So some influences stay on, some don’t. But I don’t let such influences stick to me for too long because that can affect me when I do my next film.
So, you don’t work on more than one film at a time?
No. I did it once and it was bad. It doesn’t work for me. I am not that great an actor yet, that I can snap out of one and get into another character just like that.
From walking the ramp to moving to the world of films… typically, this is considered the natural career graph. But is that the reality?
It doesn’t just happen like that. I really feel it’s all about being at the right place at the right time. Some of the most talented, most beautiful people don’t get here. It’s a lot of other factors that come together, and some people are lucky.
When I came to the industry, I never really thought I’d make it here. Seriously! I had curly hair, wasn’t the conventional pretty face, I was nothing that the Malayali wanted to see on screen. I thought I’ll do one movie and then continue with my dance career. But it’s been almost 7 years… and I am very happy with the kind of movies I am getting. I have worked with some amazing people, too.
It’s not just a natural progression; many other factors play a role. If it weren’t for Shyamaprasad or Lal Jose, this might not have been the path that I followed. And if it weren’t for 22FK, I would have faded out long back. We have often seen that with actresses and their careers!
How many actresses have had the opportunity to stay on and create an impact? I have a lot of movies and directors to thank for the kind of roles given to me. Most actors don’t easily get a strong platform. When they don’t have a chance, where do they prove themselves? They don’t have a canvas to paint on.
It’s a problem with Indian cinema as a whole. But it is definitely changing. If you look at recent films like Queen, Mary Kom, Margarita With A Straw… strong women characters and brilliantly executed films. Actors like Vidya Balan, Kalki Koechlin, Priyanka Chopra are part of that change. There are people who are really trying. I just wish everybody tried together so that the momentum gained strength.
After strong characters like Tessa, do directors hesitate to approach you for lighter roles?
Yes, always. I am happy with the ‘bold and beautiful’ tag given to me. I like the fact that people respect me for my opinions and feminist views. But coming to the professional front, the artist in me would like to explore more. Why would I want to keep doing the same thing? It’s safe, but I don’t want to play safe.
A lot of people stick to what they are doing because they know they are good at that. It’s totally fine. But I would like to push myself further and seek variety in my roles. I want to do a very normal naadan love-struck girl’s role, an athlete’s role, or maybe a boxer. I was an athlete in school, was the sports captain, but I don’t think anybody is even thinking of a female athlete movie.
[We sure hope more fun challenges come your way.]
Have you felt people (read audience, fans) sometimes keep unreasonable expectations off-screen from actors and such celebrities?
In today’s world, yes. A decade ago, you didn’t even know how Shobhana chechi or Urvashi chechi really sounded. You only heard Bhagyalakshmi’s voice. But today you are out there in the public eye always, everything about you is discussed—the way you talk, what you wear, where you go… everything. Initially, I used to think I had to live up to these expectations. But now I have reached a stage in life where all this doesn’t really matter to me.
As an artist, as a member of the entertainment industry, I think I am very responsible to my audience. I try to do films where the audience feels some emotion as they leave the theatre. It may not be just happiness, but it needs to leave an impact somewhere.
On a personal level, I don’t think I am answerable to anybody. People can say whatever they want, it is not going to bother me. I have a wonderful set of people around me—from my husband to my fans to my friends. I live a very comfortable, beautiful life. Nothing else really matters.
But when fame first hit you, did you find it difficult?
Oh yes. I really didn’t understand or know how to handle it. I still remember, during Miss Kerala, we were on stage and there were all these cameras flashing at us. I was like ‘what is happening’! Until then, I was a normal kid living a normal life in Bangalore.
Miss Kerala and none of this journey were planned. Dancing as a profession was the only plan I had. Everything else just happened. So when the flashlights hit me first, I think it was tough. Coming to terms with this fame and attention happened only recently. I think I managed my career very badly in the initial years. I understand my mistakes and I am trying to change things in a better way.
What, would you say, is the most important thing our culture has lost (not necessarily to Western influence)?
Respect. Respect not just for other people, but respect for yourself, respect your right to be who you are, and also respect for other people, their privacy, their views, principles, their choice of life, etc. It’s okay… you don’t have to judge everybody and everything around. I have learnt to understand that unless I respect myself, nobody else is going to.
In my field, particularly, it can be really tough. You might be the only woman on the set with more than 100 men around. So you are always on guard. Most of them are very chauvinistic; and they don’t even really want you there. At one point, I was fighting it all. But then I realised that I don’t have to fight all those battles. I realised that I have to respect myself, be confident and happy about who I am. And only then will I gain respect. That is how I found my balance. So respect is very important.
Check out our social media and the chaos there. Sarcasm and humour are fine, but people are very extreme in their reactions. There is so much hatred around us. It’s such a short period we all have, let’s spread the love. Also, society is becoming increasingly intolerant. I want at least our next generation to have a better thinking and open mind.
What are the causes you strongly associate with and wish to bring about a change in?
Religious intolerance and gender inequality are two issues that really bother me. In a state like Kerala, even political intolerance is at a peak. We are getting divided and compartmentalised on more and more terms rather than getting unified at one point.
I would like to look at myself as a global citizen and work in that direction. People need to be more tolerant and accepting. Like Mother Teresa said, ‘If you judge people, you have no time to love them’.
I only believe in the religion of humanism. I was culturally brought up in a Hindu family, and that’s where it ends for me. And I have my parents to thank for that. They allowed me that freedom and taught me to ‘live and let live’.
Gender inequality, too, is a serious issue these days. I face it on an almost daily basis. If I have to fight it, then my heart goes out to every woman who travels by public transport or is out there to make a living. It is not easy to be a woman these days!
I know I have been harping on this point forever. I always try to voice my opinion because until I am loud and flap my hands high up in the air, nobody is going to notice or hear me.
[Adds with a laugh that her friends often warn her that she might scare away her male following with these comments.]
Working and living conditions may not change overnight, but we can initiate a change. If I can make things a little easier for the next generation, then I will be glad.
Have you ever regretted speaking your mind?
Not at all. In fact, I think I haven’t done it enough. We all need to stand up and make ourselves heard. It’s centuries of patriarchy, and it might take centuries more. But there is a thought, there is a strong movement. It’s a start…
Is an actor’s responsibility to the audience limited to the roles one plays or should it spread over to social/political commitment as well?
I can speak only for myself. An actor has such a strong power over her/his audience and fans, however big or small they maybe. If a little girl sees me as someone to look up to and follow after, then I have a responsibility towards her. I don’t want to give her a wrong message. I want to take up that responsibility. I want to inspire at least one person. I take that responsibility beyond the movies, I want to do that.
Social media: should we become more responsible users of this medium?
Of course, we should (laughs out loud). But then we need to view the scenario, too. We are in an era where the internet just exploded and took over our lives. There is this generation which has seen this whole medium change and grow. We never thought the internet would dictate our lives like this. We didn’t think it would become a parallel medium. Today, if a news medium or publication quotes me wrong, I can go online and tell them this is not how it is. We didn’t have that choice earlier.
Also, many people who didn’t have a platform to vent their frustration use the anonymity and convenience of social media. You can’t really help it. But slowly, people are realising the danger of it, and understanding the need for social media responsibility. That change is going to happen. We are all humans, we all make mistakes. We understand, get up and move on and find a way to overcome it. I think it will happen. Let’s be positive.
You take stands on issues, endorse genuine causes, support healthy living and so on. Was there always a socially and morally responsible person in you or was that a side you discovered over the recent years?
Definitely, it should have been there from my childhood. I have to get the vibes from other people to realise what is wrong and what is right. It is certainly thanks to my parents, the upbringing given to me, my school, teachers and people around me. Right from my young days, I felt the need to question things and point out what I felt was wrong for every little thing.
I credit my parents and my brother for giving me that exposure and fair treatment. I have always fought for equality, asked questions and rebelled. I give it to my parents and husband for tolerating and living with me.
Of course, over the years the causes have changed and today I see more serious issues like gender equality, equal pay and so on. In my industry especially, the pay pattern has a serious discrimination. There are very many reasons to fight for and raise your voice against. It will take a long time but we can bring about a change by reacting.
What is the most uniquely Malayali thing about you?
My love for Malayali food, surely. I can travel to any part of the world and I will still want to come back to Malayali food, especially fish curry.
Dance, acting… what are your other areas of interest?
I love to travel and read. These are two main interests. I would rather read the book than watch its movie adaptation.
On a personal level, it’s a little over a year of married life. Can’t avoid the cliché, does life change?
It has changed me a lot. Aashiq is a huge influence on me. I got married at 30 and he was 36, and both of us thought we would never get married. So there is a reason we are together, and it’s not just for the married tag. I really feel that he has influenced me and inspired me to be a better person on a lot of levels. I want to give him full credit for that. If I am any finer a human being today, a lot of the credit goes to him.
Has it changed him?
Oh yes, indeed! You’ll know it when you see Rani Padmini [the new project by Aashiq featuring Rima and Manju Warrier]. He had a lot of subjects to choose from, but he strongly wanted to do this film—a movie focusing on the women characters. Also, our writer Shyam Pushkaran, is another person I totally like and respect. I have seen him and his writing change after his marriage. That’s wonderful. I love it when you can influence each other positively. At the end of the day, Aashiq and I look at marriage as that process of touching each other’s lives, growing and becoming better people. It really works for me like that.
Do you watch a lot of films?
I love this whole process of going to the theatres and watching a film… the planning, the popcorn, the big screen and all of it. I just love it. And Aashiq doesn’t. Both of us actually watch very few films. If there is a lot of hype or hope over a movie, then we go.
Right now, would you say life is beautiful?
Life has always been very beautiful for me. I have been blessed with wonderful parents who let me be and follow my desires, an amazing brother who taught me everything, awesome friends, and an exciting life so far. I travelled, I rebelled, I got into a wonderful profession, and had good roles come my way. Then I met Aashiq… it’s been a beautiful journey. I am really very happy.
Recently it was Aashiq’s birthday and we were at this beautiful property in Wagamon at this beautiful property, watching the sunrise and I was telling him ‘life is good, life is beautiful’. I am very happy.
Mamangam—a Rima Kallingal dream. Your aspirations for it…
Mamangam is a huge commitment. It takes up a lot of my time and everybody around me has adjusted to that. I always wanted to be a dancer, a performer. I was a trained classical dancer and that was all I was exposed to. But when I joined Christ College, Bangalore, there I saw students performing a variety of dance forms—salsa, ballet, martial arts and more. I was awed by it all. That was my introduction to contemporary dance forms. I found it very liberating; it just opened my world up.
It was a wonderful time. I worked with a dance company, handled their PR, did choreography, danced, travelled the world with them for stage shows, met some great artistes… it was an amazing experience. The exposure to different dance forms, the interactions with many artistes and dance workshops moulded and inspired me. It helped me grow as an artist. This is what I hope to do in Mamangam.
I want to introduce different styles of dance. We hold performances at Mamangam. We just had Odissi, we are having Chakyarkoothu, and I am trying to bring Tholpaavakoothu, etc. The idea is to revive art forms in my own little way, bring it to a generation that hasn’t seen or experienced these amazing arts.
At the same time, we also focus on contemporary dance and its many forms like salsa, flamenco, classical ballet, and so on. We are moving into a bigger space and I hope to bring in more art forms and their experts to teach our students.
What has been the response to your dance school? Has your celebrity status been helpful in popularising it?
Presently, we have around 70 students across six different streams. Also, there is a huge participation whenever we hold dance workshops, which is very exciting to see. People like to come, learn, interact with the artists and understand more. That kind of momentum is great.
Recently, I went for this Mohiniyattom performance in the city by a renowned artiste, and the hall was packed. It was a great feeling to see so many people who are culturally inclined and appreciate classical art forms. I want to work towards that kind of a culture, where youngsters are equally thrilled about all forms of art.
About my celebrity status being an attraction, I am not sure. But if it does help, then I would gladly use it to promote art.
Mamangam embraces dance in all its forms—classical, contemporary, fusion, etc. Is there a specific form of dance you absolutely enjoy?
I love the freedom that contemporary dance gives. There are no set rules, it’s flexible, it gives you freedom but also gives you more responsibility because you need to connect to the audience in your own way. As an artiste, that’s fabulous. Classical has a more structured form while contemporary is free-flowing. But yes, I must say to fly high you need to get the basics right.
At Mamangam too, that’s what we focus on. One needs to have his/her mind, body and soul into it to truly experience the joy of dancing. We do not encourage dance merely for competitions and youth festivals. Mamangam encourages you to understand your body language, feel the art form, learn about its legends, and understand the ‘whole’ experience.
We have a special batch for women who have nurtured a desire for dance but haven’t been able to pursue it seriously. It’s an energetic and wonderful batch, and it’s a joy to watch how much they enjoy just dancing and understanding the art. It makes you feel happy as an artist.
Does Mamangam take away time and focus from the actor Rima?
Not at all. I have a great team who takes care of things so I can focus on my acting too. It’s working for me well. I just did a film recently. Now I am working on Rani Padmini.
Acting will always happen, as long as I want to. When I took a year-long break—I was busy setting up Mamangam and travelling—people thought I had given up acting after marriage. Nothing can stop me from doing anything other than myself. Wonder why people drag marriage into such things?
Marital status and age often work against women in entertainment careers. Have you felt so?
To be a good artiste, you need to have experiences and exposure. This process of evolving takes time. But here, especially in films, women actors fade off the screen by then. They are told their time is over. How do they prove themselves when they aren’t given the time or opportunities?
When I was doing Ritu, Shyam sir wanted me to just behave and be myself, which was easy. But in Neelathamra, Lal sir had a different requirement for his character. Her body language, modulation, personality was all different, and I had to draw references from people I had met or read about. It wasn’t very easy. But with more movies and more characters, I started understanding the process better. But that requires time, thought, experience… you need to go through a few films to understand this. But women don’t always get that opportunity here. From your name to the way you are addressed, why does everything have to change after marriage?!
That’s Rima for you. With her, what you see is what you get. The act is reserved just for the screen. Off it, she is a fine balance between style and sophistication, dreams and challenges, passion and patience, sensitivity and sensibility, rebellion and acceptance, intelligence and inspiration… of happiness and more happiness. As we say our good-bye, she remains the perfect host, walks us to the door and chats away effortlessly till the elevator arrives. We leave with a smile that lingers for much longer.
Rima beyond the reel Favourite subject: History. I love reading about places, their history…
City of dreams: Goa. It’s my go-to place and I hope to own a nice home there some day.
The best thing about me: I am a happy person, and I am very happy about it.
A quote/person you found inspiring: Nothing specific really
Favourite food: Fish curry
Actors you most enjoyed working with: I actually like working with directors, Shyam Sir, Lijo Jose Pallissery, Aashiq. Each has a different style and they all moulded me in different ways.
Favourite Malayalam movie: Manichitrathazhu. I can keep on watching it.
Favourite music: Right now I am hooked to Shahbaz Aman and his music. But generally, I enjoy all kinds of music, depends on my mood.
Travel wish-list: Aashiq and I have this plan to retire after 10 years or so, and just travel. I would have been travel blogger if I wasn’t an actor. The Northern Lights and deep sea diving at The Great Barrier Reef are on the agenda right now.
Favourtie book: Many many interesting books, actually. But my current excitement was reading Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Open Heart by Tim Butcher, a book about Africa, its life, culture and lots more. I picked it while filming for Escape from Uganda. I prefer non-fiction, and love to read about other places, its origins, history, people, etc.
Favourite hangout places in Kochi: Kochi has been home for the past 5 years. I like it here, but would like to move a little away from the city to a quieter life. Our pace of life is not this fast, and we like to take it a little slow. I love the culture of Fort Kochi… a little relaxed. Places I like to chill out would be Spice Harbour (Fort Kochi), our own Café Papaya, any place at Fort Kochi, and maybe, occasionally, PVR.