We take a look at the journeys of some of the young actors who have broken the mould of ‘superstar’ to create fresh life on screen. From Prithviraj to Tovino, here are some of the game-changers.

Malayalam actors Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan, Tovino Thomas, Fahadh Faasil, Prithviraj Sukumaran
Flix Mollywood Sunday, October 03, 2021 - 11:20

The early 2000s wasn’t perhaps the most conducive time to make a debut in Malayalam cinema. The industry was still groaning under the weight of big-budget superstar films and Malayalam cinema wasn’t yet open to the idea of embracing change and fresh perspectives by way of narratives, actors, and ideas. So, it seemed unfortunate that Prithviraj Sukumaran, who made his debut at the age of 19 in Ranjith’s fantastical romance Nandanam (2002), found himself donning roles that belied his age. In theory, he was being an uneasy beneficiary to the superstar mantle handed over to him. Though age was in his favour, the fact that Malayalam cinema hadn’t yet transitioned from its dependence on larger-than-life films/heroes turned out to be his undoing.

In the first phase of his career, none of the films helmed by veteran directors (ChakramSathyamKakkiAvan Chandiyude Makan), where he was stuck in the “angry young man” mould, cut ice with the critics or viewers. The notable ones were scarce in number (VasthavamThalappavuThirakkatha). Ironically, the tide turned in his favour with a middling potboiler, Puthiya Mukham. His role as a studious engineering student who takes on the rich college bullies turned out to be a sleeper hit. When he launched August Cinema in 2011, in partnership with Shaji Nadesan and Santosh Sivan, it seemed like he was also refashioning himself as a reliable brand. The audience automatically assumed that the films which came out of their production house had the actor’s stamp of approval. As an actor, he was slowly picking roles that stayed away from alpha male narratives.

He quit August Cinema to start Prithviraj Productions in 2017. Though EzraAdam Joan, TiyaanRanamNine seemed like genuine experiments, they eventually came under the scanner for their obsession with recreating Hollywood-inspired narratives. And 17 years after his debut, he decided to enter another phase in his career. Perhaps Prithviraj Sukumaran’s most successful outing yet. His directorial debut in 2019 through the mass entertainer, Lucifer, headlining Mohanlal. Though he really picked all the tropes he had previously balked at, including his aversion to superstardom and his pledge not to objectify women on screen, fact remains that Lucifer turned out to be the highest-grossing Malayalam cinema to date. As he effortlessly straddles multiple positions in cinema, it can be said with certainty that Malayalam cinema is banking heavily on the filmmaker (his next Bro Daddy again headlining Mohanlal is already a much-awaited film) than the actor.

While Prithviraj Sukumaran can be bracketed along with young actors like Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan and Tovino Thomas, considering they are all in their 30s, it is precisely due to the time of his debut and his choice of films that Prithviraj positions delicately somewhere between the superstars and young stars.

Though Nivin Pauly debuted in 2010 (Malarvadi Arts Club), interestingly it was the same year Dulquer Salmaan made his entrance (Second Show, 2012) that Nivin Pauly got his first big break (Thattathin Marayathu). These two actors have managed to co-exist beautifully in Malayalam cinema, despite sharing a lot of things in common. Their films worked with youngsters. There was nothing starry or intangible about them. Both seemed to be one of them—they were young, could easily swap roles, and still make it look convincing, and yet they had a separate fan following of their own. If Nivin Pauly was the quintessential boy-next-door, Dulquer seemed more at ease in an urban, polished milieu. And though Dulquer managed to break the image with effortless performances in ParavaCharlie and Kammatipaadam, Nivin struggled to slip into roles that required him to step out of his comfort zone (Mikhael, Kayamkulam Kochunni). Now and then he would spring surprises (Hey Jude, Moothon). Again Dulquer seems to have a more pan-Indian appeal, it helps that he is a natural with languages, has a charm that cuts across borders, and has an off-screen personality that is deliberately modest. Though Dulquer is yet to embrace success in Bollywood, he is easily spreading his wings across all the languages (Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi). Having said that, Dulquer has been widely panned for not focusing enough on home ground.

But then Nivin, unlike Dulquer, didn’t have automatic access to the industry. And while he had friends who entered cinema together (Alphonse Putheran) and converted them into successful collaborations (NeramPremam), the initial phase of Nivin’s journey has largely been fraught with ups and downs. Today he is said to be the only young actor among the lot whose films have grossed Rs 30 crore at the box-office. In Bangalore Days, as the naive, painfully shy Kuttan, he stood his ground in the company of his talented contemporaries – Dulquer, Fahadh, Nazriya Nazim, Parvathy and Nithya Menen.

Another interesting bit about Nivin has to be his intelligent choice of films, which also coincided with the refreshingly relatable narratives that celebrated the flawed heroes in Malayalam cinema. Look at the smorgasbord of themes generated in Malayalam cinema today—there is space for a superstar vehicle like Lucifer, a mass entertainer like Ayyappanum Koshiyum, a homegrown crime thriller like Joji or Kaanekkaane or a warm feel-good multi-starrer like Varane Avashyamundu or an ambitious psychological thriller like Trance.

The third angle of the triumvirate, Fahadh Faasil though debuted at the same time as Prithviraj, with a dud like Kaiyethum Doorathu, went into hibernation and resurfaced a decade later. Today he is widely considered as one of the most talented actors of this generation. He may be Malayalam cinema’s first metrosexual actor, a contrast to the moustache-twirling, sexist alpha male heroes who had been dominating the screens for long. None of his films fall under the easy labels of celluloid heroism, also it can be that Fahadh knows it is the everyday man who sits lightly on him. That also explains why he prefers to attach himself with cliques (Dileesh Pothan, Syam Pushkaran or Mahesh Narayanan). He is the Malayalam superstar of OTT. From Maheshinte PrathikaramTake OffThondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Kumbalangi NightsTranceCU Soon to Joji, Fahadh has proved to be one of the most reliable actors of our generation who, through a mix of successful and failed experiments, now has viewers waiting for the next surprise he will spring on them.

The trio despite being polar opposites in their choice of films, talent, positioning or box-office dividends strangely remain fastened to each other in Malayalam cinema. These three actors will always be remembered for bringing freshness, relatability, imperfection and youth to an artistically decadent space (2000s) in Malayalam cinema.

And Tovino Thomas has already proven himself as the fourth wall. The dark horse, who came out of nowhere, steadily carved himself a space in Malayalam cinema with stellar cameos and intelligently laid out his versatility cards. Initially, it was rumoured that every time Dulquer refused a role, it came to Tovino, who was the next best bet. But a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. He has come into his own, proved to be an actor who can be relied on. Though he has been on a signing spree in the last few years, it is also true that Tovino has seldom been part of bad films. Be it GuppyGodhaMayaanadhiMaradonaLucifer or the recent Kala and Kaanekkaane, what makes him stand apart from his contemporaries is his will to go that extra mile for a character. And a conscious attempt not to do “compromised formulaic roles”. Be it Kala or Kaanekkaane, they were unconventional and grey. Also, in the OTT deal, Tovino has proved to be a surprisingly dependable star, unlike Dulquer and Nivin who haven’t ventured much as yet.

Yes, we have a surge of young talent. Yes, the cinematic grammar has changed, the superstar narratives have been overhauled, and thanks to the OTT platforms, Malayalam cinema is reaching a global audience. But this new wave cinema also happened in the 80s, which created two of our greatest superstar actors. The Mammootty and Mohanlal era facilitated the golden period in Malayalam cinema. They began similarly, with flawed, ordinary characters in relatable narratives and then evolved into the superstar-actors we see today. It will be interesting to see how the careers of Prithviraj, Fahadh, Nivin, Dulquer and Tovino will progress in their 40s and 50s. Will they remain attached to the ground realities or succumb to the vagaries of superstardom? Only time will tell.

Upcoming films

Prithviraj Sukumaran

Apart from Bro Daddy, billed to be a breezy entertainer, a sequel to Lucifer, Empuran is expected to release in 2022. Prithviraj is also starring in a handful of projects—there is his immediate release, Bhramam, an official remake of Andhadhun, directed by Ravi K Chandran, Shaji Kailas’s Kaduva, Mohanlal’s Barozz, Dijo Jose Antony’s Jana Gana Mana, Ratheesh Ambat’s Theerppu, Jayan Nambiar’s Vilayath Budha, Alphonse Puthran’s Gold, and the magnum opus, Blessy’s Aadujeevitham.

Dulquer Salmaan

Kurup, directed by Srinath Rajendran based on the fugitive Sukumara Kurup, is already one of the most awaited releases of this year. There is also Rosshan Andrrews’s Salut, where he plays a cop for the first time, and one film each in Tamil (Hey Sinamika), Hindi (R Balki’s untitled film) and Telugu (Yudham Tho Rasina Prema Kadha).

Nivin Pauly

There is Rajeev Ravi’s period drama Thuramukham set in the '50s, Ratheesh Balakrishnan’s Kanakam Kamini Kalaham which is said to be a family satire, and Liju Krishna’s Padavettu. He has also signed Rajesh Ravi’s Bismi Special and there is Gangster of Mundanmala, directed by newbie Ronnie Manuel Joseph, co-written by Aneesh Rajasekharan and Ronnie, in the pipeline.

Fahadh Faasil

Surprisingly Fahadh has two films in Tamil (Vikram, Lokesh Kanakaraj’s film co-starring Kamal Haasan and Vijay Sethupathi), Telugu (Pushpa directed by Sukumar co-starring Allu Arjun), a rumoured Mari Selvaraj film and Sajimon Prabhakar’s Malayan Kunju in Malayalam.

Tovino Thomas

For Tovino, Minnal Murali, directed by Basil Joseph where he plays a local superhero, is perhaps the biggest film of his career as well as the most awaited film of this year. It will get a direct release on Netflix this December. At least 10 of his films have been announced. Some of the prominent ones include Prithviraj’s Empuran, Khalid Rahman’s Thallumala, Aashiq Abu’s Naaradan (written by Unni R) and Darwin Kuriakose’s Anweshippin Kandethum.

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 Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. 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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