With her exotic looks and innocent grin she is definitely a whiff of fresh air. But for an actress making her entry in an all-new industry, Surja Bala Hijam is anything but nervous. The pretty heroine of Samir Tahir’s Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi’is brimming with confidence when she speaks about her South-Indian outing. The Manipuri starlet will be sharing the screen with Dulquer Salman for the road movie which is expected to hit the marquee next month. “In the film I play Assi, a north-east girl who comes to Kerala as a student. She falls in love with Dulquer’s character, but they are forced to part ways as their cultural identities come in-between,” she explains her character in the film.
Bala, as she is popularly known in her homeland, says Manipur cinema is more like a cottage industry compared to the multimillion entertainment market in Kerala. “We don’t have big banners or mega-budget projects, just a few privately owned film companies. I was awestruck by the industry here,” she says.
As the first north-east girl to debut in Malayalam, Bala says she was more than excited when the offer came in. “Kerala was an absolute surprise package. Everything felt exotic, right from the language to food and clothes. At first I was not able to eat anything as coconut oil goes into almost every dish in Kerala. Coming from a land of mustard oil users I was totally uncomfortable with the local flavours. But now I can polish off plates of food with that typical coconuty taste,” says the actress who stayed in Kerala for a 20-day shoot.
The actress adds that she was totally clueless about who Dulquer was when she signed the dotted lines. “When the contract came I didn’t know Dulquer was the son of a superstar. While shooting in Kerala he was mobbed by his fans a couple of times. It was the first time I came across such frenzy,” says Bala who adds in the same breath that Dulquer has been the most supportive co-actor she ever had. “He helped with my dialogue delivery giving tips and suggestions.”
Ask her about her comfort level with Malayalam and she says, “Of course I was a bit nervous about the language part. But my character has very few Malayalam lines, the rest of the dialogues are in English. Samir had briefed me well about my character and so there was no confusion. During my stay in Kerla I picked up a couple of words but I can’t remember any now.”
Malayalis might be hardly plugged into Manipuri cinema, but Bala says signing a south film was not a haphazard step. “I have watched Tamil and Telugu films with subtitles so it’s not like entering an unknown territory. I must confess that I was not much into Malayalam films. But after the first schedule of NPCB I watched films like Chappa Kurishu, Big B and Salt n Pepper. Tamil and Malayalam sound so much alike, but now I know there is a huge difference between the two.”
Bala, who breezed onto screen when she was a class 8 student, now has a handful of films in her filmography. Soon she will be breaking into Bollywood through Ravindra Surya Bashi’s Zindagi on the Rocks. “The shoot is almost done and the film will be released shortly. Again, I will be the first Manipuri actress to enter mainstream Bollywood. Since Hindi films have a wider audience and market I am keeping my fingers crossed for Zindagi’s release,” she signs off.