From playing heartthrob to unexpected characters: Kunchacko Boban on his career arc

Though he started as a romantic hero, in the last few years Kunchacko Boban has broken the shackles of the heartthrob image and stepped up his act. His next movie ‘Bheemante Vazhi’ releases on December 3.
Kunchacko Boban
Kunchacko Boban
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This writer was in Class 12 when Aniyathipravu (1997) was released. Though touted as Baby Shalini’s debut as a heroine, teenage girls took stock of the quiet young man who looked deep into her eyes at the public library, handed her a romance novel and walked away, with a throbbing romantic melody wafting in the backdrop. During a time when Malayalam cinema was still grappling with themes that paid obeisance to the alpha male heroes, Kunchacko Boban was like a breath of fresh air, who took on the mantle that was left vacant by chocolate hero Rahman of the 80s.

For the longest time Kunchacko played heartthrob and danced like a dream, and every teenager in the 90s had a crush on him. But somewhere around the halfway point of his career, he seemed lost, struggling to break away from his heartthrob image. Though he regained some clarity during the last decade, it wasn’t until the last few years that the actor has really come into his own, broken the shackles of an image that had tagged him all through his three-decade career, and stepped up his act. Be it Dr Abel Thariyan in Traffic, Rajeev in How Old Are You?, Melvin Philip in Vettah, Shaheed in Take Off, Raman in Ramante Edanthottam, Koutta Shiva in Varnyathil Ashanka, Ramendran in Allu Ramendran, Dr Suresh Rajan in Virus, Dr Anwar Hussain in Anjaam Pathiraa to the widely acclaimed Praveen Michael in Nayattu, Kunchacko has made a deliberate attempt to step out of his comfort zone and has most importantly aced it.

With Bheemante Vazhi ready for release on Friday, December 3, TNM caught up with the 45-year-old actor for a quick chat.

Ashraf Hamza, the director of Bheemante Vazhi, insists that you are not a nice man to know in the film. Was that the catch for you?

That is definitely one of the factors. Initially, they had come to narrate another story. But when I suggested keeping it for another day, they came up with this simple story inspired by real life. It was very rooted. I play this ordinary guy who isn’t very pleasant. That interested me as the role was not something that people expected from me. The story is based on Chemban Vinod Jose’s (the film’s writer) friend Bheeman, and events have been polished to accommodate the cinematic space.

Ashraf hails from the new school of filmmakers who don’t go by the subscribed school of filmmaking. They talk about improvising on the sets and not having a bound script. How does that work with you, considering you have also worked with old-school filmmakers?

This whole give and take between actors, the various conversations I can have with the director and writer, and their openness to suggestions definitely improves my skill set, and aids in the performance. We can give more shades to what has already been conceived. It’s an interesting, organic process.

We heard the real-life Bheeman (on whom the film is based) visited the sets. Have you incorporated his mannerisms or have you given your own interpretations to the character?

I have given my own interpretation as he is not a famous person so I could be more flexible there. He’s a bit of a rogue. Though his name is Sanju, friends call him Bheema, and he calls others Bheema. We haven’t really picked on a slang or milieu as well.

You have the cream of projects in hand right now. Would you call this the best phase in your career?

I would say even Malayalam cinema is going through a great phase. In the OTT space, our films are still ranked among the top 5 Indian films. Recently at the SIIMA awards, it was heartening to hear all the other language actors going out of the way to talk to us and rave about our films. We have some quality-driven entertaining films now.

You’re at an interesting turn in your career. Pushing the envelope, surprising viewers with each film. Was it all deliberate? What was that one film that changed the game for you?

I think there were deliberate as well as organic changes. Like the famous Paulo Coelho quote. I can’t pick a single film, there were several films, and it was a gradual process of learning and unlearning. Even the period when I took a break helped. Even the bad films helped me learn. Considering our cinema is being accepted across languages, it is important to be part of quality films.

Was asking for roles part of this change?

Yes. I no longer mind asking for roles. That’s how I grabbed the role in Nayattu. So many people were skeptical, but the widespread acceptance was a reply to that. Even Senna Hedge with whom I’m doing my next film couldn’t stop talking about Nayattu—that’s what that character did for me.

Nayattu was such an unfamiliar milieu to you. Was Praveen Michael difficult to crack?

Unfamiliar milieu, yes but the good part was that since it was shot in chronological order and in sync sound, it really helped in the character’s journey. That perhaps helped in keeping it very realistic and natural. Also while doing the dubbing, directors will tell you to dub it exactly as they heard it in the pilot version. It’s impossible to recreate it. But with sync sound, you can capture all the nuances of the voice modulation, including tiny variations, while shooting and that elevates the performance. At a dubbing theatre, there is so much stress on perfection that perhaps the naturality gets lost. Such technical assistance really helped too.

There is a change in the way you pick your characters now. A surprise element has crept in.

The other day someone sent me a text that said fatherhood has made me fearless and uninhibited about my image on the screen. This is not the Chackochan you are familiar with. So maybe that is the answer.

What’s your process? How long does it take you to inhabit a character?

I really don’t know what to say to that. It depends on so many elements—my understanding of the character, on-the-set vibe, cast, and crew. It can take from a day to a few days, and almost depends entirely on the director and writer.

For some unfathomable reason, I feel Raman in Ramante Edanthottam is someone closest to what you are. The charm, maturity and warmth.

Thank you. That’s a huge compliment. I was very comfortable playing Ram as maybe he is very close to my basic character. A lot of Ram’s personality was inside me. Yeah, so you’re right.

But I wish you will still do occasional romantic roles too.

Ah! You just wait for Bheemante Vazhi. (laughs)

So much build-up! You have really aroused my curiosity now.

I won’t claim that it’s something out of this world. But yes, it will be something unexpected.

It’s your 24th year in cinema. It’s been a roller coaster. How would you sum up your journey?

I started right from the top, then came down to the bottom. I have evolved as an actor, not as a star. I have enjoyed stardom, now I want to be known as an actor. It’s a never-ending evolution, keeping yourself updated, trying out different methods of acting. The plan is to give more than what they expect. I’m totally in the act and I love that. I make it a point to grab the opportunities. I think not being repetitive is challenging for an actor.

How far will you go for a character?

The extent to which the character demands. You don’t have to overdo it. But you need to keep trying or you will get sidelined.

Have you turned down a film because you thought it was politically incorrect?

I have probably turned down films for personal reasons. There might be some traits of the character I felt I wouldn’t be comfortable doing. But yes, they all became hits. Then I understood that as an actor I have to keep that aside. You need to break those mental blocks in your mind and change yourself to accommodate that character. I think I’m in that zone now, where my personal whims and fancies don’t stop me from attempting a character.

How has fatherhood changed you?

It has made me much more younger and vibrant as I keep running after my son. We’re always vigilant.

You are known to be Mr Congeniality in film circles. Everyone has a favourite Kunchacko Boban story.

I don’t consider it special. I don’t want bad things to happen to people. That can at times bounce back though (laughs). You get what you give.

What inspires you as a creative individual?

I’m inspired by what all the other talented actors around me are doing, irrespective of their experience. I keep track of good films and good actors.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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