Prithviraj Sukumaran definitely got an easy entry into cinema. But, to be considered a tour de force of any kind in the industry by the discerning Malayali audience, he has had to prove his talent, wading through brickbats, trolls and accusations from time to time. Today he is a producer, the director of one of the biggest hits from last year, and an actor who has evolved into a capable performer with time, and positioned himself as someone with an eye for good cinema. On his 38th birthday, we took the time to rank some of his performances in the order we liked.
1. Koode: Joshua’s eyes at the start of the film are like that of a dead fish. After his sister’s birth, her illness plunges the family into a financial crisis, forcing the parents to send the teenage Joshua to finish his later education at a relative’s home. His transition into adulthood, marred by an abusive uncle, turns him into a reclusive, troubled young man who is unable to reach out to his parents as he feels betrayed by their decision. The narrative traces Joshua’s bond with his sister, as it leads him to exorcise the demons from the past, find love and himself all over again.
Writer-director Anjali Menon (who adapted the screenplay from the Marathi film Happy Journey) had said in an interview that some of Joshua’s characteristics came from her interactions with Prithviraj. Maybe that is how that internalisation happened with the actor, which is not something he has done very often in his 2-decade-old career. He softens himself to absorb Joshua, leaving no traces of the actor there. The smile held vulnerability, eyes reflected helplessness and pain and his warm, frothy bond with Jenny seemed real. He beautifully evolves from a battered soul to a man who finds the capacity to love again and it is sublime to watch.
2. Ayyappanum Koshiyum: When he gets into an ugly ego battle with Ayyappan over a petty issue, our initial anger towards the rich planter soon thaws, when we meet his father. That Koshy is a by-product of a feudal chauvinistic father who abhors vulnerability in men, makes it easier to empathise with the conceited human he has turned into. So even when Koshy wants to retreat and offer a truce, his father sees it as weakness and that oddly makes us feel sorry for the young man.
For Prithviraj, Koshy is a flexible garb to get in, as like him, the veneer of arrogance sits easily on the actor. But that conceit also comes with occasional vulnerability which the actor balances efficiently. He is the poor little rich boy who has been misled by a dominating father. So, in effect Prithviraj epitomises Koshy with an intensity that takes you off guard in this film directed and written by Sachy.
3. Ayalum Njanum Thammil: Though the grey hairs look superficial on Dr Ravi Tharakan, as it is evident there is a younger actor behind that elderly make up, it is how Prithviraj aces the internal shift that makes this Lal Jose directorial written by Bobby-Sanjay, an important performance. Ravi Tharakan, in medical college, leads a carefree life, romancing his junior and hoodwinking professors, unable to identify even the surgical gear. But a heartbreak subsequently leads to an incident that changes his life, and he transforms into the dedicated doctor admired by all.
Watch: Song from Ayalum Njanum Thammil
As the younger Tharakan, the actor is effortless, finely capturing the anguish of lost love. His scenes with Kalabhavan Mani are a steal. When the character ages, the actor embraces the alteration, bringing a mellowness and wisdom in his performance. As an aside, Prithviraj would have perhaps perfected it today minus the elderly make-up.
4. Memories: A personal tragedy turns ASP Sam Alex into an alcoholic, making him a bitter unpleasant man. But after much prodding from his superior and mother, he agrees to be part of an investigation to nab a serial killer.
Directed and written by Jeethu Joseph, it is the consistency Prithviraj lends to the character that makes it work. He nails the gait of a man addicted to the bottle, and there is a look of utter dejection in his face, clearly conveying his loss as well disillusionment with the police force. Once back in the force, he struggles to keep the energy in pace and that is tellingly conveyed in a scene when his alcoholism almost gets the better of him, prompting him to buck up. One of his coming-of-age performances.
5. Mumbai Police: ACP Antony Moses is not a nice man to know. He is cocky, sexist, foul tempered and will bend rules to have his way. When a close friend catches him in a compromising position with a man, he gets him killed by a hired assassin to salvage his public persona. The film directed by Rosshan Andrrews, written by Bobby-Sanjay, begins with a road accident where Moses suffers a partial memory loss and is assigned to unravel the murder of his close friend.
Undeniably, the character sketch of Moses is tailor made for Prithviraj—especially the flawed, cocky, angry-young-man bit. Not just that the actor gets the nuances of Moses perfectly—his masculine ego that gets punctured when his sexual orientation is revealed, allowing us to look closer into a man who can be merciless when he wants. The aggression, the false ego and his trauma post the memory loss that also clashes with his sexuality is finely brought to the fore by the actor. Quite a ground-breaking role for an actor of his stature as well.
6. Ivide: Adopted by white American parents, Atlanta-born police detective Varun Blake is a divorcee, prone to temper tantrums that has often resulted in trouble at work, although he is a proficient cop. Blake is not the usual celluloid cop one has witnessed in Malayalam cinema, more so considering he is placed in a foreign milieu and expected to fine-tune himself to the detailing of an NRI who has never seen India, including that heavy American accent. If director Shyamaprasad gave him a realistic identity, Prithviraj lent a vulnerability and complexity to Blake, putting in a terrifically nuanced act.
7. Driving License: Written by Sachy, directed by Jean Paul Lal, the film explores the affiliation between a superstar actor and his die-hard fan. An unfortunate misunderstanding creates an ugly rift between Superstar Hareendran and his fan, Motor Inspector, Kuruvilla Joseph, resulting in a series of unforeseen events in a narrative that is slightly partial towards the Superstar, though it ends on a happy note. Prithviraj slips comfortably into a role which was originally written for Mammootty. If there is one thing that keeps Prithviraj head and shoulders above his peers and the younger actors, it is his irrefutable screen presence. He has this absolute star quality that shines bright in this film, helping him to fill in the shoes of a much-loved superstar and make it extremely believable.
8. Anarkali: Shantanu is an epic lover. The one who is on an endless pursuit for the lover he has almost lost. Not that the actor is able to completely shrug off his conceit in this act—the smug grin, the affected laugh, it is all there. But what really makes this a much better act than his overrated Moideen is that despite that very flaw, Shantanu manages to touch your heart with his earnestness. You know this guy will swim across the Pacific to be with his girl. The underlying pathos of that lover is etched well in this film written and directed by Sachy.
Watch: Anarkali trailer
9. Amar Akbar Antony: It is his biggest image breaker. True, he did try, unsuccessfully, to break that in Teja Bhai and Family but in this Nadirshah directorial, scripted by Bibin and Vishnu Unnikrishan, he suavely pulls of the street-smart Romeo, Amar, who has a bad track record with girls, and ends up getting the stick every time. The actor who has never been known for his comic timing matches wits with his co-actors (Jayasurya and Indrajith) effortlessly. That some of the jokes were at his own expense also makes him one hell of a sport!