One can’t say for sure whether it was a calculated move to launch his son through a noir gangster film helmed by a new director, but the fact remains that it was easily the smartest thing the veteran superstar dad Mammootty did, especially when the son had such a formidable lineage staring back at him. It was the most avant-garde debut for the son of a superstar in Indian cinema. Since then Dulquer Salmaan has had a great 6 years in cinema. We take a quick look at his journey as he enters a new year of his life and is about to make his Bollywood debut.
Look at it this way, Second Show (2012), directed by Srinath Rajendran came at a time when social media wasn’t as thriving, scathing or vindictive as it is now. So, this debut of Mammootty’s son arrived without much fanfare, probably as they had planned.
There were no high stakes involved in this debut—the film was made on a budget of under 2.5 crores, had a fresh cast and crew and it told the story of a young man’s journey from being an illicit sand miner to a smuggling baron. For Dulquer Salmaan, it was also a test dose—figuring out his strengths as a performer and gauging the audience’s reaction to him. That he had undeniable screen presence was a given, helped by that baritone voice. It also benefited infinitely that he didn’t look or act anything like his father. So even though it had many actors on board, the star son’s debut got clearly earmarked. He had potential—the public and critics agreed alike.
After that Dulquer Salmaan took the slow and steady stride to stardom. It can be assumed that his second film, Ustad Hotel (2012), directed by Anwar Rasheed, also came via his famous surname. Written by Anjali Menon, this warm, fuzzy, feel-good story laced with food had Dulquer play Faizi, an aspiring sous chef and Thilakan as his lovable granddad who teaches him the philosophy of cooking.
During that time, they had released a 2-minute promotional video of the film, featuring Dulquer with a group of kids breaking into an impromptu jig to the ‘Subhanallah’ song. For the first time, Malayalam cinema was witnessing an actor who looked so effortlessly chic, with an ease in his body language and a panache in his moves. In an industry ruled by a league of macho, prototypically Malayali men whose sex appeal rested on their thick moustaches, this easily made Dulquer Salmaan stand miles apart. He was the antithesis of an average Malayali actor.
The film hit gold, giving Dulquer a true leeway into Malayalam cinema. And he proved his mettle in the same year with an intense act in an otherwise middling revenge thriller, Theevram.
Quality and versatility
Right from the beginning it was clear that Dulquer was keener on quality than quantity and has consciously worked against the tide, experimenting with roles and looks. It was equally important to note that simultaneously, his father was also doing his kind of cinema, more in numbers and as careful to latch on to his three-decade old stardom.
In 2013, Dulquer did ABCD, where he played a spoilt brat of an NRI, Sameer Thahir’s road movie, Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (as Assi who travelled the length and breadth of India to be with his girlfriend), a segment - Kullante Bharya - in 5 Sundarikal, in which he portrayed a wheelchair bound photographer and Pattam Pole (which sank without a trace) in which he played a Tamil Brahmin young man in love.
2014 saw him starring in his most successful film till date—Bangalore Days, where he played a bike racing enthusiast. This was also the time when he was getting bracketed into rich NRI brat roles. He forayed into Tamil with the experimental Vaayai Moodi Pesavum (also released in Malayalam as Samsaram Arogyathinu Haanikaram), that did well outside Kerala but failed to connect with the Malayali crowd.
Another quality of the actor is his affinity for languages. In NPCB, for instance, he easily slips into various languages — Hindi, English, Tamil and Malayalam, without a trace of an odd accent. In ABCD the American accent sits lightly on him, so does the Tamil in OK Kanmani (the role of an urbane, video game designer with commitment phobia was a cakewalk for him) and Telugu in Mahanati. It’s this versatility that makes him dissolve into the pan-Indian space. He doesn’t have a pronounced “Kerala look” or “twang”.
Ranjith’s Njan, was his first stab at the period genre, in which he played novelist and freedom fighter KTN Kottoor. But here, he was clearly struggling to get into character.
Interestingly in such a short span of 6 years and 25 odd films, Dulquer has worked with some of the finest young directors in Malayalam cinema—Rajeev Ravi (Kammatipaadam), Anwar Rasheed (Ustad Hotel), Amal Neerad (CIA), Sameer Thahir (Kali) and Anjali Menon (Bangalore Days).
He has also brought his sartorial taste to the big screen. The cool dude with a knack for coloured jackets and glares in Ustad Hotel and ABCD, leather jackets, glares and boots in Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi, to his boho-chic stoles and kurtas in Charlie.
Giving wings to Charlie
Charlie can be termed as a film that changed the game for Dulquer in Malayalam cinema. Till then, he was in that urban, NRI kid comfort zone—but this loud, affable, quirky, complex do-gooder who is introduced to us through the narratives of various characters he has met was a hell of a challenge for the young actor.
“There was an ease and confidence in his body language which was missing before. He grappled with a role that required him to be totally uninhibited yet leave an air of mystery and he nailed it,” says film critic R Ayyappan. He followed it up with another terrific, nuanced performance as someone battling anger issues in Kali.
Though his co-actors Vinayakan and Manikandan were the scene-stealers in Kammatipaadam, Dulquer’s presence did anchor the film beautifully with a role that was clearly not his comfort space.
His cameos were great crowd-pullers (Ann Mariya Kalippilanu and Parava) and despite the dismal fate of Solo (where he played four stellar roles), one can’t really find fault with his choice of films.
Dulquer’s recent foray into Telugu with Mahanati though widely discussed as a magnanimous move (starring in the biopic of Savitri) is really the actor timing his entry in Telugu perfectly in the role of Gemini Ganesan. And the favourable reviews to his performance underlines this fact.
Next week, he is debuting in Bollywood with Karwaan alongside Irrfan Khan and Mithila Palkar. And he has already signed his second Hindi film, Zoya Factor with Sonam Kapoor.
Making it work like that boy-next-door
What really works in his favour (as is the case with his contemporaries like Fahadh Faasil and Nivin Pauly) is his constant, steady efforts to cherrypick films that refuse to be gratifying star vehicles. “I can never see myself as a star” is his constant refrain. He is looking at the larger picture (“I want to be part of the best films of the year”), unafraid to star in multi-starrers, be part of good sensible films (“the hero is the film and the script”) and stick to relatable and realistic characters. Even with this move to Bollywood, he is clear where his loyalties lie—Malayalam cinema which chiselled and fine-tuned the actor in him.
He has been extremely cautious during his interactions with the media, protecting his family and straining to be politically correct. While he has rarely given interviews for Malayalam television channels, probably to dodge the constant comparisons to his father, Dulquer has been more forthcoming during his interactions with the national media.
Dulquer Salmaan, the man, seems to be as uncomplicated and relatable as the characters he plays on screen. He always comes across as this friendly, warm, sensitive actor who doesn’t throw his weight around, gladly poses with fans (whom he calls his extended family) for endless selfies, posts little intimate family pictures on Instagram (loved those peekaboo ones on his daughter, tiny socks and stuff), is an unabashed fan of his father and lovingly promotes his films on his Facebook page and almost apologetically flaunts his love for cars and bikes and adventure.
There is something very boy-next-door about DQ. His Facebook status updates read more like personal notes to his buddies — the lingo is urban and casual. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he was raised outside Kerala, he has a refreshing humility and prefers not to bask in the glory of his legendary father. Dulquer Salmaan is one of those star sons who makes us believe that sometimes, nepotism is not such a bad thing.