Though eclectic film watchers always followed Malayalam cinema, this kind of popular appeal was something new.

The Nivin Pauly phenomenon The actor whose charm transcends boundaries
Features Mollywood Wednesday, July 06, 2016 - 18:49

As a Madras-born Malayalee who now lives in Pune, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of Nivin Pauly for the longest time. Then one day, my mother arrived with packets of banana chips and DVDs of Malayalam films that she felt I should watch. I wasn’t too enthusiastic. I’d grown up watching some truly fantastic Malayalam films (firmly in the Mohanlal camp) but had also witnessed the industry’s slow spiral into producing slapstick nonsense that turned me off its cinema for many years. But one afternoon, when I had the house to myself, I looked through the pile of DVDs and decided to watch “Om Shanti Oshana”. Mainly because the chap on the cover had a rather fetching beard.

I spent the next two hours giggling and blushing like a hormonal sixteen-year-old. “Om Shanti Oshana” is the kind of film that rarely gets made. It’s about a girl, Pooja Matthew (Nazriya), who falls for a guy, Giri (Nivin Pauly), because he saves her from a goon – such a cliché, right? It would have been if it had stopped right there and the film had become all about Giri, limiting the heroine to making a few song-and-dance appearances.

Thankfully, the script veers away from this much beaten path and we’re taken through the delightful trajectory of Pooja Matthew’s attraction towards Giri, through the years and through her eyes – the characters grow, the silly crush turns into something deeper, conflicts appear…and true love (and lust) prevails.

Female desire is almost never represented with dignity or authenticity in Indian films – women may fall in love but are too ‘innocent’ for lust. Or they are so lusty, they speak strangely through bee-stung lips while wearing clothes that threaten to tear if they as much as burp.

Om Shanti Oshana was refreshingly different and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it had struck a chord with women outside of Kerala too. Malayalam films have always had an audience outside of Kerala who’ve praised it for its subtlety, storytelling and realism, but these were mostly eclectic film watchers who followed serious cinema. But, this kind of popular appeal was something new. 

When I yakked away to my Telugu husband about what a find Pauly was, he reminded me that we’d already watched him in “Bangalore Days”. Wait…what? This surly-burly-angry-commie was the same guy who played Kuttan?! In “Bangalore Days”, I’d had eyes only for Dulquer Salman though I remember feeling a lot of platonic affection for Kuttan. Pauly’s ability to swing into character with ease was…dare I say it… Mohanlal-esque and after this, it only made sense that I hunted for every Nivin Pauly movie ever made and watched them.

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I watched “Da Thadiya” in which he plays a villain exploiting fat people. I watched “Neram” in which he plays a man harangued by family problems and rowdies. I watched “Mili” in which he was happy to be side-lined by Amala Paul (and this movie came out after Pauly was already a star). I watched “Oru Vadakkan Selfie” in which he plays the role of a ‘loafer’ in a comedy of errors. I watched many of his older movies and sure, not all of them were perfect, but Pauly’s talent was on display for anyone to see. And then came “Premam”, a blockbuster that made Nivin Pauly a phenomenon.

Why exactly did “Premam” enjoy such wild success? Story-wise, it wasn’t particularly original. Cheran’s “Autograph” followed a similar story arc. But something about its unique characters and execution caught people’s imagination. Nivin Pauly plays George, from the stage of an adolescent to a grown man, and at so many moments in the film, I was afraid that this was going to degenerate into one of those narratives that senselessly promotes an aggressive brand of masculinity. 

 In Part 1, George is what we call a ‘vaayanokki’. Like all the other boys of his acquaintance, he imagines himself to be in love with Mary (Anupama Parameswaran) and follows her around. That stalking is the way to a woman’s heart is common logic in our cinema, so I was immensely happy when Mary ignores all the fellows – including George - who make a fool out of themselves over her and chooses a boy (who is not part of this gang) to be her boyfriend. This young version of George is juvenile and he is portrayed as juvenile – there’s no attempt to persuade us that he’s a character worthy of emulation.

In Part 2, which opens with the heady “Kalippu” number, I was once again concerned that it would be George’s macho man characterization that would sway the girl as is often the case. But here, Malar (Sai Pallavi) is not only older than him in age, she isn’t in the least intimidated by him. She comes across as a sensible woman and George too, is never disrespectful or aggressive in how he responds to her.

In Part 3, George is responsible and mature enough to understand how to approach a woman he’s interested in. And he handles Celine’s (Madonna Sebastain) rejection well – despite the soup songy “Ivalu venda da” number. Once again, a refreshing departure from how heroes typically ‘win’ a girl’s heart.

And of course, I’d be dishonest not to confess that I watched it several times because Nivin Pauly looked so dishy in that white mundu-black shirt combination!

Following the humongous success of “Premam”, Pauly took the risk of producing “Action Hero Biju”, an episodic film in which he plays a police officer. One would have expected him to capitalize on the reception that George’s machismo got, but the film is not your average cop movie in thundering khaki. Biju comes across as an ordinary human being who goes about doing his job without superhuman powers. The romance in the film, too, was surprisingly limited. Despite the initial negative reactions, “Action Hero Biju” went on to do well, proving that Pauly was box-office gold.

In “Jacobinte Swargarajyam”, Pauly appears with a slight paunch, playing the role of a rich boy who has led a soft life but is thrown from that protected atmosphere overnight. The film was a little too saccharine for me to love it completely but once again, I was impressed by Pauly’s willingness to take up films where he isn’t always hogging screen space or playing the alpha male.

Nivin Pauly’s fanbase is not restricted to Kerala (check out this Buzzfeed piece) and it isn’t surprising that his next project is a Tamil film. Dulquer Salman has already made some in-roads in Kollywood with “OK Kanmani” becoming a hit and other stars like Fahadh Faasil too have managed to charm fans beyond Kerala. Many non-Malayalee friends of mine who were reluctant to sit through a Malayalam film earlier are now eager to watch these films. Like me, they too are enthralled by this new crop of stars who have not only popular appeal but are also capable of delivering hard-hitting performances in well-executed films. It will be interesting to see if Pauly can achieve a breakthrough in the Tamil industry where male Malayalam stars have not enjoyed much success. The ladies who can’t stop gushing about his eyes, his smile, his charm, his mundu avatar and the works are looking forward to it, heart in mouth, anyway!