Be it appearing alongside stalwarts, or carrying a film on her own shoulders, Anna Ben has become an audience favourite in just a year.
Anna Ben says she’s never herself on screen. “Kumbalangi Nights’ Baby Mol is who I closely relate to, in real life. But even then, it’s not completely me. I find it really difficult being on screen, or in front of the camera as myself. I get really flustered. It’s easy for me to be somebody else on screen,” says Ben, who is amassing acclaim for her roles in Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Helen (2019), and Kappela (2020).
And yet, there is a parallel between Ben’s reel and real lives. As Baby Mol, Helen, and Jessy, she won hearts playing the quintessential girl-next-door caught in extraordinary moments in otherwise ordinary life. Ben, too, was going about her life, working as a designer in Bengaluru, until one day, she decided to respond to an audition call on Instagram. It was for the role of the straightforward and sensible girlfriend, Baby Mol, in 2019’s massive hit Kumbalangi Nights. Now, this curly-haired, petite actor with an infectious smile, has added three seminal Malayalam movies to her kitty within a year.
Initially, Ben did not make much of auditioning for the role. She didn’t even tell her father — not even when her father is well-known Malayalam screenwriter Benny P Nayarambalam. “I didn’t want to put my father in a spot where people would say, ‘Does she even know what she’s doing?’ An audition is just to see if you can do the job. I didn’t think I’d come through. I just did it for fun, and they shortlisted me,” she says. That Ben has carved a name for herself at a time when the Malayalam film industry is seeing something of a revolution makes her achievements even more significant. And this comes from an actor who did not nurse any dreams of entering films.
If Ben made her mark in Kumbalangi Nights despite the presence of towering actors like Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir, in her solo outing, she made us root for Helen, as she struggled to stay alive after being trapped in a frigid meat freezer in the eponymous film. The survival drama, which earned her a special mention at the Kerala State Film Awards, is set to be remade in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi. While she doesn’t consider herself a method actor, Ben did keep a journal as Helen. “It’s just something I did without really knowing if it would work. It was just my second movie, and I wanted to do whatever I could to make it work and put my best into it. It helped me a lot with the freezer portions, because it was just me, and nobody to talk to or emote with.”
For Kappela, which traces the story of village girl Jessy who narrowly escapes being forced into sex trafficking, the city-bred Ben lived in a village for a month to familiarise herself with the geography, and the ways of the place. The film was forced to cut short its run at the theatres due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only to get a second life on Netflix. “In Mollywood, we’ve had great movies, but our audience base was always small. But now it’s grown so much. Now OTT is breaking the language barrier. As a whole, cinema is coming together. So, it’s the best time to do experimental work. Small or big, just do it as a piece of art. These platforms have given us a great opportunity,” she says.
The actor says she wants to try it all — romcom, comedy, and musical. She even joined a group of friends to film a music video, Kahaani, by Kochi-based band, When Chai Met Toast, during the pandemic. Trying her hand at a show like the British spy thriller Killing Eve, which she has been hooked on to, is on her dream list. “I’m like water right now, very fluid, fitting into each and every vessel I’ve been given. I’m trying to figure out how I can mould myself into them. I’m just juggling and experimenting. I don’t know what’s going to fail, or what’s going to work,” she says.
Ben is now back on sets after eight months, filming for a rom-com by director Jude Antony. Next in the pipeline are Aashiq Abu’s Naradan and Ennittu Avasanam slated for release in 2021. The actor has had some time to introspect during the pandemic. She says she finds fake wokeness and online hate troubling. It’s easier to point fingers, it takes guts to be nice, she has realised. “Just be nicer to people.”