Sathyan to Dulquer: The way Malayalam stars pick roles has changed

While the male lead actors of the 60s and 70s didn’t mind playing the fallible man in movies, expectations that have come with being a superstar appear to limit their successors.
Mohanlal, Sathyan and Dulquer
Mohanlal, Sathyan and Dulquer
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In Oru Penninte Kadha, actor Sathyan, in one of his last films, played a horrible rich man who raped an estate worker’s daughter and abandoned her when she got pregnant with his child. It was a hateful character every which way you looked at it and filmmaker Sethumadhavan didn’t let you forget that. He had no qualms about letting a leading star play the wretched old man. The actor didn’t seem to mind either. Sathyan had embraced many nasty characters in the movies that came his way. He wasn’t an exception. That’s what lead male actors – like Prem Nazir, Madhu, and Jayan – in Malayalam cinema in the 60s and 70s did, even as they passed on the baton to another generation. Younger actors growing into stars occasionally played the bad guy or a smaller role in each other’s films. But somewhere along the way, this stopped.

It was a gradual change as the decades went by. Male lead actors who had once taken on all sorts of roles, not appearing to care how little or big, or if the character was good or bad, slowly slipped into increasingly typecast and all-powerful personas. A habit that would inadvertently pass on to this generation of stars, albeit with few exceptions. A world away from the early Malayalam lead actors who didn’t seem to mind the role they got as long as they contributed to the art.

During those early years (the 60s-70s), nobody called these actors superstars. Audiences and fans didn’t expect them to play the nice guy or be superhuman in every film. They were used to their favourite actors turning into villains and gladly accepted it. Prem Nazir, who still holds the record for playing the hero role in the most number of movies anywhere in the world, had many such films where he played the anti-hero. Sethumadhavan, who gave that horrible character to Sathyan, made Prem Nazir play an even worse character in Azhakulla Saleena (1973) when the actor was at his peak. In Kootukar, where both Sathyan and Prem Nazir play friends, the latter plays a cheat.

Azhakulla Saleena poster / msidb/

The actors in those days "were like that", said Malayalam director Kamal. They’d give up roles they thought another deserved more, they’d play second fiddle to each other without a second thought, he recounted to TNM in a story on Sathyan. He then quoted the example of Sathyan giving up playing the lead character in Sethumadhavan’s Aranazhikaneram, the film version of the iconic novel by Parappurath. Kamal who later became assistant to Sethumadhavan had heard the story from him. Sathyan told the director and his producer MO Joseph that Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, an older performer of the time, would do much better as Kunjonachan, the old man that the story revolved around. When Joseph and Sethumadhavan said they wanted Sathyan in the film, he agreed to do a smaller role as the old man’s son. Prem Nazir did an even smaller role.

Those were the days when Prem Nazir hardly had a free moment, floating from the sets of one movie to another. But he never got the recognition he deserved, not even a proper State award (only one came later for Lifetime Achievement), wrote journalist Baiju Chandran in The Hindu

Baiju Chandran’s piece, titled, ‘The original superstar’, throws light on the actor's versatility which was little used in films of the time. It showed his desire to play the offbeat role, rather than the evergreen lover he was often bestowed with, when he chose to play the spoiled rich brat in Nizhalattam or the simpleton in Iruttinte Athmavu.

Watch: Scenes from Iruttinte Athmavu / Courtesy Dr Saji Kumar

Actor Madhu, another leading hero of those days, said in a recent interview with Mathrubhumi magazine, that Prem Nazir had a lot more potential in him than what was seen in his popular films. He saw glimpses of that potential in many less celebrated performances of the actor. Madhu himself had no desire to be "a star". Being a star is like being in a prison, he said, it is difficult to come out of it. A viewer or a fan expects superhuman characters from the star, defying all logic, Madhu said. But when you are just an actor you can do any role and that's how he decided to cast himself as a villain in the first film he directed, Priya.

In fact, the term superstar was such an alien thing that a story goes that Thikkurussi, one of the earliest heroes of Malayalam cinema in the 50s, had to wear a t-shirt proclaiming himself to be one because no one else would. Jayan was another actor that some people called a superstar, though it happened posthumously. His superstardom even if it existed would have lasted only a few years, he died too soon.

Male lead actors of the time also frequently showed up in movies where women led the show and the men had smaller roles to play. Kallichellamma, Udyogastha, Karthika, Agniputhri and Chattambi Kalyani are a few examples.

Kallichellamma / Courtesy -

None of the practices disappeared overnight. It continued in the 80s when newer actors emerged and the senior lot limited themselves to father characters and the like. Prem Nazir died in 1989 at the age of 61. In his last years, he played the less important grey-haired characters with pleasure. It was a time when along with Mammootty and Mohanlal, a crop of other male actors were making their debut. Ratheesh, Nedumudi Venu, Bharath Gopy, Shankar, Venu Nagavally, Sreenath, Prathap Pothen, Balachandra Menon and others became part of noteworthy movies. Sukumaran, Soman among those who began working in films in the 70s, also made their contributions.

Mammootty played smaller roles in films where Nedumudi (Oru Katha Oru Nunakatha) or Bharath Gopy (Akkare) or Balachandra Menon (Shesham Kazhchayil) had meatier characters to play. Mohanlal frequently played minor characters in Shankar movies of the 80s, after debuting as a villain to Shankar’s hero in Manjil Virinja Pookkal.

Watch: Scenes from No 20 Madras Mail

Even when they got the superstar tag – by the beginning of the 1990s – they appeared as supporting characters in each other’s films. In No: 20 Madras Mail, Mammootty played himself in an extended cameo while Mohanlal appeared as himself in Mammootty’s Manu Uncle. Even in the 2000 film Narasimham, Mammootty played the advocate character to Mohanlal’s titular one. But by then these were seen as superstar cameos. Mohanlal had one such at the end of Summer in Bethlehem where Suresh Gopi and Jayaram played the male leads.

At their peak, they also let themselves be seen playing unlikeable characters, without any attempt at glorifying them. Case in point – Mohanlal’s Adhwaytham and Mammootty’s Vidheyan. They played second fiddle in women-led movies too like Panchagni and Aattuvanchi Ulanjappol.

Watch: Scenes from Vidheyan / Courtesy - Cinedote

After that, perhaps they fell into the “prison” that Madhu said stars would. A series of superhuman, lengthy-dialogue cracking, unbeatable characters came to both the stars at the turn of the century. It was like a trap they could not get out of, varying scripts camouflaging the same kind of role clothed as a lawyer or a police officer or an underworld don who behaved like the unbearable class topper, desperate to impress the others.

Mammootty played the petty rich man in Azhagiya Ravanan and the jealous military officer in Megham but both the films had to take U-turns and make him the good guy that wins hearts at the end of it all. Mohanlal’s last memorable character with shades of grey was in Devasuram, where he portrayed an arrogant feudal lord before life experiences make him a better man. A couple of decades later when he played a powerful man with criminal undertones in Lucifer, he could no longer afford to show himself defeated, like the fallen Neelakandan. He was no longer the Mohanlal who jumped to his death at the end of Uyarangalil.

It was like it went out of their hands, and even if they had wanted to play a hateful character who is under no pressure to be ‘liked’ or ‘celebrated’, they couldn’t. The whole Kasaba controversy proved that in a matter of days. Mammootty played the police hero with misogynistic lines for a female colleague. But these were written to be celebrated. Not criticised as many did. Actor Parvathy Thiruvothu was subjected to years of online abuse for speaking against the glorification of such characters. And Mammootty had to remain silent for long, perhaps unsure of how the fans may react, though he reacted later and supported Parvathy’s future films openly and showed where he stood in the matter.

Unlike the previous generation, even when these stars entered their 60s the kind of characters they played did not change. They didn’t have to limit themselves to characters of their real-life age. They continued to play young heroes and stick to formula movies, though occasionally they strayed and did a witty Pranchiyettan or a tricky Georgekutty (Drishyam).

Watch: Scenes from Drishyam

The ‘superstar’ baton, therefore, didn’t quite pass on to another generation, though a number of new stars cropped up through the years. It wasn’t limited to a few names. Prithviraj Sukumaran, Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Tovino Thomas, Asif Ali and Kunchacko Boban churn out movies that appear to suit each of their comfort zones. A generation of actors before them – the likes of Jayaram and Mukesh – didn’t quite enjoy the lasting effects of their contemporaries and immediate seniors – Mohanlal and Mammootty. Suresh Gopi, briefly, enjoyed superstar status and appeared in quite a few action movies, stereotypical of the late 1990s, showing him as always angry and sprouting long lines against the authorities. An exception was Biju Menon, who began earlier but proved his skills much later on.

Among the newer lot, Prithviraj and Dulquer won the star status soon after their respective launches. There was also the time when some of the actors were rumoured to “tune” scripts to make them look good. This was not a practice in the earlier years of Malayalam cinema. Baiju Chandran pointed out that Prem Nazir never asked for custom-made scripts, implying that it became an unacknowledged practice in later years.  

Watch: Trailer of Kurup

One has to worry if like their predecessors, the newer lot may fall into the trap that Madhu warned about. In Dulquer’s latest success, Kurup, he plays a plotting, manipulative murderer who gets away with it. A real-life character whose story is known to all generations in Kerala, decades after he disappeared and escaped punishment. The movie Kurup did not try to dilute the character or make him look better than the real-life version. But Dulquer’s Kurup got the last laugh, getting applause, letting the audience forget who they were cheering for – a guiltless murderer. Has it reached a stage where Dulquer can’t play the bad guy without audiences glorifying him, you have to wonder. Madhu was right. Stars have to remain unbeatable and walk away with winning smiles, no matter what their character is.

Many Malayalam stars appear to have more choices when they step out of Kerala and into a neighbouring industry. Mammootty had Kandukondain Kandukondain where he played the role of an injured military man, taking little space in the long film and Mohanlal played father to Vijay in Jilla. Dulquer was appreciated for playing Gemini Ganesan to Keerthi Suresh's Savitri in Mahanati, which was essentially her movie out and out. In an interview with Rajeev Masand, when he was asked about this, Dulquer said that he had enough films in Malayalam where the story revolved around him and roles such as these -- playing a star of the 50s – were challenging. 

Funnily enough, Fahadh Faasil, who has absolutely no qualms in playing the most wicked characters and making them unlikeable, is an actor whose films are eagerly looked forward to. There is no saying what weird role he will do next, the creepy Shammi of Kumbalangi Nights is still fresh in our minds. He never succumbed to the star status, famously disallowing any fans’ association in his name. Nivin Pauly also shows remarkable taste, choosing to be the misunderstood and wayward Akbar in Moothon

Watch: Scene from Kumbalangi Nights

Asif and Tovino both play villains and good guys all the time, you can’t predict if you would root for their characters or be disgusted by them. Asif became the acid-thrower in Parvathy’s Uyare and just as easily played her lover who goes away in Aanum Pennum. Tovino, even in his superhero film Minnal Murali, plays a man who is absolutely selfish and petty till circumstances push him to change. Newer actors, like Sreenath Bhasi and Roshan Mathew, appear to be of this mould, springing unpredictable characters on the screen, not often liked or applauded. 

In a hopeful change, Prithviraj almost got beaten as a rare flawed character he played in Ayyappanum Koshiyum. Director Sachy lets you root for Biju Menon’s cop character, with an interesting past, while letting Prithviraj be the less likable military man with only a vengeance to carry him forth. Both roles were written as strong ones. Prithviraj also shared the lead role with Suraj Venjaramood, another talented actor, in Driving License, both of them playing antagonists to each other in an interesting plot.

Perhaps the acceptance of these many different and unexpected films will take away the pressure from the stars to always be the adored man onscreen. They can fall and fail and be beaten and pushed and not hog all the screen time in the movies they sign on. They can be second fiddles or disappear halfway through a film when a role is done, find hidden talents and new expressions they couldn’t discover because of mindless expectations. They will know as Nazir did and Sathyan did all those years ago, that they will still be liked.

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