The realisation that he would have to contend with the likes of Yesudas if he were to turn playback singer, prompted Manoj K Jayan, son of the celebrated classical and devotional singer Jayan of the Jaya-Vijaya duo, to opt for a career in films as an actor.
Three decades and hundreds of films later, Manoj has never had to rue his decision for he remains one of the first choices for directors who need a charismatic character actor for their films.
Manoj enrolled in a film institute in Kerala but discontinued the course and began to scout for offers. A blink and miss role in Ente Sonia in 1987 set the actor on course but his potential was noticed in the film Perunthachan released three years later in which the late actor Thilakan was the main protagonist.
Quite early in his career, Manoj realised that he was not cut from the same cloth as Mammootty or Mohanlal and that craving for leading man roles only could cost him his career. This decision enabled him to shift seamlessly between genres and exhibit his versatility in the process. The handsome actor has since excelled in portraying a wide range of characters, some tinged with comedy, others more poignant and absorbing, but not one of them exaggerated or superficial.
One of the finest characters that Manoj K Jayan has enacted on screen was undoubtedly â€˜Kuttan Thamburaanâ€™ in the Hariharan directed Sargam, released in 1992. Just five years into his film career, Manoj was signed to play the role of a wastrel prone to epileptic seizures, a mischief maker who incurred the wrath of the villagers with his outlandish living style.
Vineet, a Hariharan discovery in Nakhaksthangal, was cast in the sedate role of Kuttanâ€™s best friend who alone could rein in the boisterous vagrant. Kuttan is forced by his parents to marry a young girl as astrologers had predicted that marriage would cure him of his malady.
Later, it dawns on Kuttan that he had wedded his best friendâ€™s lover. Stung with remorse, Kuttan takes his own life. A complex role where the actor could have easily gone overboard in the emotion laden sequences was handled with a great deal of finesse under the watchful eye of the director. This film was a turning point in Manojâ€™s career.
Scenarist John Paul, who wrote the script for the late director Bharathanâ€™s Chamayam, had marquee star Mohanlal and veteran Thilakan in mind for the lead roles of two fishermen with an abiding passion for theatre. However when the project took off, the roles were done by Manoj and the late Murali with the former playing the role of the extrovert Anto and Murali his friend cum rival Esthappan.
The film had the distinct Bharathan touch and the stars fit perfectly in their roles. The sheer ecstasy in the number Anthapurathu sung by MG Sreekumar, where Manoj whips up a fast dance number with Murali egging him on, lit up the screen for its sheer vibrance and vitality. With Sithara, a sublime presence as the heroine, Chamayam could well rank among Manojâ€™s top films.
Internationally renowned cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan made the film Anandhabhadram in 2005 and a surprise pick for the villainâ€™s role was Manoj K Jayan. The role of the diabolic Digambaran, a black magic practitioner who terrorises a village was a complete antithesis of everything that Manoj had done thus far. With his larger than life image, kohl lined eyes blazing like charcoals, large fingernails and giant strides, Digambaran was modeled on characters drawn from Keralaâ€™s finest art forms Kathakali and Theyyam.
The film was a dark fantasy in which Manoj completely overshadowed the hero Prithviraj and Kalabhavan Mani, who played the role of a visually impaired samurai warrior taking on the sinister and maniacal Digambaran. For a cool and composed individual in real life like Manoj, Digambaran was a real baptism by fire and he ended up vindicating the faith of the director.
It was Hariharan again who gave Manoj K Jayan another pivotal role in his period film Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja where Mammootty was cast in the title role. A lavishly mounted film with enchanting visuals, Pazhassi Raja featured Manoj in the role of a local chieftain Thalakal Chandu. Although Mammootty hogged the limelight in the film, Hariharan had taken care to ensure that the character of Chandu did not receive short shrift and Manoj had an opportunity to steal the thunder in the scenes allotted to him.
Pazhassi Raja, scripted by Jnanpith awardee M T Vasudevan Nair also had a spectacular box office run and did much to further Manoj K Jayanâ€™s career.
The versatile actorâ€™s performance as a hijra in playback singer M G Sreekumar produced Ardhanari, a highly charged, melodramatic film however was a letdown as it was a totally over the top portrayal and though the character was meant to elicit empathy, audiences gave the film and the character a frosty reception.
For the hero turned character actor it was a pleasant turn of events when director Farooq Abdul Rahman plumed him to play the lead role in the film Kaliyachan, released in 2015. The role of Kunhiraman, a Kathakali dancer and his relationship with his guru provided Manoj an opportunity to once again showcase his acting skills.
Manoj K Jayan is one of the few stars of yesteryear who has managed to strike a chord with the younger set of filmmakers and they have always reposed faith in him. His roles in films like Alphonse Puthranâ€™s Neram, Bejoy Nambiarâ€™s Solo, and his being part of the soon to be released Prithviraj â€“ Parvathy starrer My Story, Zacharaiah Pothanâ€™s Jeevichirupundu and a number of films on the floors, signify that the actor continues to be in demand for strong, character roles.
Manoj has worked with almost all the top names in Malayalam cinema and was also a part of two of Adoor Gopalakrishnanâ€™s films Naalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Rendaanum. The actor has also ventured into Tamil and Telugu films but has hardly done any significant work. In most of his Tamil films he has been typecast as a police officer and though these films including Dhool, Thirupaachi and Villu were box office hits, they did little for him career-wise.
Incidentally, it was director Mani Ratnam who gave him his first break in Kollywood in the Rajinikant-Mammootty-Arvind Swami film Thalapathi. Well entrenched in the industry. the actorâ€™s zest for films stands undiminished and though he has only won a few awards, he has endeared himself to the audience with his portrayals in varied roles and along with veterans like Nedumudi Venu, Innocent, Siddique etc. remains always in contention for vibrant supporting roles.