Nivin Pauly's Onam release Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela is holding up well at the box-office, though it snuck up a surprise on audiences. The film's teaser and promos gave the impression that it would be a romcom, with its producer and star Nivin at the heart. However, those who have watched the film will know that the story really revolves around Sheela Chacko played by Shanti Krishna – who made a comeback to the big screen after 19 years with the film.
Nivin, who plays Kurien Chacko, appears as Sheela’s chubby son. His character is devoid of heroics. He's clumsy, awkward, boasts about coming from London, and has a deeper relationship with his packets of Lays than with any of the people around him.
A few months ago, Fahadh Faasil appeared in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum as a small-time thief. The character not only doesn't get a heroine or a duet, he doesn't even have a name of his own. He makes his entrance well into the film and even after he does, the thief does not take over the story. Each person in the narrative has an arc and the film does not, at any point, pander to the star on screen.
In fact, it is Suraj Venjaramoodu who usually plays comic or supporting character roles, and debutante Nimisha Sajayan who get the lion's share of the screen space. And the songs.
So too in Take Off, Fahadh – who was arguably the biggest star in the cast – doesn't appear for a good portion of the film. When he does, it's in a supporting role. The hero of the film was Parvathy.
In Kammatipaadam, Dulquer Salmaan may have played the character we see the most of in the narrative. But it is Ganga, played by Vinayakan, who drives the film ahead. Suitably, it was Vinayakan who was nominated for Best Actor (and not Best Supporting Actor) for the National Awards.
These choices may not seem especially comment-worthy in the Malayalam film industry. The stalwarts Mohanlal and Mammootty, too, have played roles that are not conventional hero parts in the past. However, compared to films produced by the neighbouring states, they can still take the uninitiated viewer by surprise.
The Tamil, Telugu and Kannada industries constantly pour their money into unabashed star vehicles. And reap big returns for them too. In these industries, the star plays only himself and not the character. The name, profession, and love interest are merely draped on him, and no one expects his speech and mannerisms to change dramatically beyond a few completely artificial catch phrases and trademark moves.
The script, in case, never offers him the scope to do so. The dialogues are usually never addressed to the other characters on screen, but are a speech to the star’s legion of fans. While there are small budget films by new directors that – time and again – capture the imagination of the audience and go on to taste box-office success, they tend to be outliers rather than the norm. It's the difference between what Dhanush did with Pa Paandi (and even here, his cameo had its share of heroics) and the figure he cut in the VIP franchise.
Even if the big stars may experiment with the roles they're playing once in a while, they are likely to be present in almost every frame of the film. The other characters, especially women, are swept aside and barely have any depth to their roles.
This is not to say that the Malayalam industry is a very equitable space. Women stars have opened up about the discrimination they face within the industry, with Bhavana recently pointing out in an interview that the majority of films still cater to the heroes. Behind the scenes, it's still a very male-dominant industry. But, on screen, at least, there is certainly more willingness among the male stars to give priority to the story and the script, rather than their own image as heroes.
While Mammootty and Mohanlal are increasingly playing alpha male roles with crowd-pleasing sequences, the younger lot seems keen not to be tied down by the construct of the hero. They're willing to play down their image within the industry and outside – Prithviraj played a villain in Naam Shabana and Fahadh will soon be seen in Velaikaran as the antagonist. Kunchacko Boban, who made his debut in 1997 and is an established star, was willing to play second fiddle to Manju Warrier in How Old Are You, in the unflattering role of a selfish and controlling husband.
The current generation in Malayalam cinema is breaking boundaries and garnering new audiences outside Kerala too. With the growing multiplex culture and with theatres across south India screening regional language films with English subtitles, there are people who don't understand Malayalam in metros who are willing to go and watch these films. Malayalam cinema, could easily take the lead in redefining what the mainstream means for more than just Malayali audiences as long as it continues to promote good content over larger-than-life heroes.