Crispin in Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) is an oddball from the word go. He is naïve, well-intentioned but ends up doing more harm than good. In Crispin’s world, there are no filters—be it making friends or triggering a fight, in explaining the politics between Mohanlal and Mammootty to the woman he just met or in wording the after-effects of consuming an egg puff. While one can’t take away the ingenuity of the well-written (Syam Pushkaran) role, it’s also a fact that Soubin Shahir occupies the character with such a disarming honesty and spontaneity that he blurs the boundaries between self and the character.
“I would say Soubin is an irreplaceable actor. You can’t visualise any other actor doing the characters he has done,” observes writer Muhsin Parari, who collaborated with him for Sudani From Nigeria and Virus.
The biggest irony about Soubin Shahir is that he became an actor out of compulsion from friends. Son of Babu Shahir, director Fazil’s long-time associate and production controller, Soubin came into cinema at a very young age, as one of the assistant directors of Siddique’s Chronic Bachelor. It was his dream to be a director that made him slog on the sets of films by Fazil, Siddique, Amal Neerad, Santosh Sivan, Rafi Mecartin, Rajeev Ravi, P. Sukumar and Anwar Rasheed for 14 years.
“Earlier, a scene was shot on film and there was no monitor to playback. The director would check through the camera lens and okay the shot. Though tedious, I was lucky to learn that part of filmmaking. It was fun to cut the film, glue it with a cellotape and send it for processing. Now you have on-the-spot editing,” Soubin said in an earlier interview to this writer.
Acting happened simply because his “friends insisted.” Despite branching out to acting and directing, he is still ready to assist anyone he has worked with before: “Every film is a new experience, a new system of working.”
Soubin made an impression in his debut film, Rajeev Ravi’s Annayum Rasoolum (2013), where he plays a drug peddler and one of Fahadh Faasil’s closest friends. He recalls the jail sequence where he had to inform Fahadh that it was Anna’s wedding the next day. When Rajeev Ravi briefed the scene to him, he was petrified— “I told him I will make a mess of it. Let Sunny (Wayne) do it. But he was insistent. The minute I said my dialogue, Fahadh started laughing and so did the whole set. Finally, we got it right after a break.”
The films he did later were all “friendly collaborations”—be it one of the bad guys in Amal Neerad’s Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014), a roadside Romeo in Kullante Bharya or Dileep’s man Friday in Chandrettan Evideya.
But in Alphonse Puthren’s Premam (2015), Soubin proved that there was a reason why his friends were vouching for him. In the coming-of-age tale of George (Nivin Pauly), he makes an appearance as the college PT master, Shivan Sir, who gives wooing tips to his colleague Vimal sir in exchange of free lunches. The character gets a witty spin in the hands of Soubin who plays it with an endearing irreverence. The little eccentricities he gives to the character are hard to miss—the timely whistle blowing during George’s father cameo, how he sneakily gets an extra helping of rice or how he admits that he only knows “difficult dance steps” to an anxious Vimal sir. The character, according to Soubin, was the culmination of a lot of spot improvisations, even during dubbing. And a few mannerisms of the teachers he met. Soubin’ famous “Chillinkoodu” steps were added on the spot.
The roles that came later attested to his goofy mannerisms and fantastic sense of comic timing. Be it the small-time thief Sunikuttan in Martin Prakkat’s Charlie, the thief who needs glares during the day to recognise the homes he burgled, the naïve trouble-maker Crispin in Maheshinte Prathikaram or the annoying colleague in Sameer Thahir’s Kali.
“Soubin seems like a loser who is in on the joke. As if he knows he does not amount to much and would rather laugh at that. He gives the vibe of someone who thinks men are not as strong as they are shown to be,” say Asha Menon, journalist.
In between, he did a stunning cameo as a thug in Kammatipaadam—an indication of things to come. Finally, in 2017, he made an impressive debut as a director with Parava, a slice-of-life account around two boys and their love for pigeon racing in the backdrop of Mattanchery, where Soubin grew up.
What perhaps altered his narrative as an actor was a film like Sudani from Nigeria (2018) where he played Majeed, the manager of a local sevens football team in Malappuram. Majeed (also his first full-length lead role) had Soubin stepping way out of his comfort zone (also successfully breaking away from the comedian mould), as a sensitive young man who is unable to get over his mother’s second marriage and dislikes his stepfather. The actor shuttles between his trademark punchlines and emotional breakdowns with practised ease and in a moving scene, he lashes out at Samuel (Samuel Robinson who plays the Nigerian footballer) for betraying him, fumbling with his broken English, mixing it up with the Malappuram dialect. In another scene they share their sorrows in broken English, yet it’s so wonderfully conveyed.
“We only give the script and don’t really modulate the dialogues to Soubin. When we write the dialogues for Soubin, I feel like I can hear him say it. He just needs to be told once and he gets it. It’s easier to visualise him as the character when you write. I have never seen him as a comedy actor. I think he is one of the best actors we have today,” says Muhsin. Also, Malayalam cinema’s current cinematic grammar and narrative gives enough space to an actor like Soubin Shahir who thrives in such rooted, slice-of-life milieus. When the teaser of his latest film, Ambili, where he plays the main lead was released on social media, it became instantly viral.
He pulled off a deeply complex portrayal in this year’s Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights as Saji, the vulnerable, sensitive and wayward elder brother of four siblings in a dysfunctional family. He just owns the scene where he asks for his little brother’s help to visit a psychiatrist, confides and cries all over the doctor. It’s enough to understand the actor’s stupendous evolution.
Soubin continues with the balancing act with ease—the smart aleck, villain, sidekick, flawed hero, sensitive hero—and we are buying it all as easily. That’s why Soubin Shahir is one of the most exciting and reliable actors we have in Malayalam cinema today.