There aren’t many light moments to savour in Aashiq Abu’s 2017 Malayalam feature Mayanadhi. As the tumultuous romance between Appu (Aishwarya Lakshmy) and Mathan (Tovino Thomas) unfolds, the only memorable moment of mirth comes from a disgruntled filmmaker who vents his irritation for having to make creative compromises – a cameo that is perhaps Basil Joseph’s first notable acting stint on celluloid.
When the heroine insists that he delete a shot from a song sequence, director Jinu (Basil) is first outraged, and when he realises that he is cornered, he lets out a powerless rant — “Let Malayalam cinema be ruined.” And though one can interpret it as a meta moment, Basil brings an artlessness to the act, making us empathise with him, but not before holding a laugh. There is something about his body language that makes it easier to sell greyness on screen.
Though Basil Joseph is a filmmaker with several hits to his credit, over time, he has evolved into a reliable actor. Interestingly, his trajectory as a director also points towards this reliability when it comes to perceiving the audience. Be it his directorial debut Kunjiramayanam (2015) set in a fictional village filled with quirky characters, Godha (2017) that had a Punjabi female wrestler causing havoc in a Kerala village, or Minnal Murali (2021) with Kerala’s own local superhero, Basil's cinematic universe as a filmmaker has relied on humour, realism, and originality, just like his on-screen persona as an actor.
Historically, Malayalam cinema has always had a range of talents who carried this tag of relatability. From Mammukoya, Sankaradi, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, and Kuthiravattam Pappu, to Innocent, Sreenivasan, and many more, who would perhaps look the same in every film irrespective of genre, character, or topography, their presence was enough to bring in tremendous dependability to the narrative. They were like comfort food. Basil, within a few years, has achieved similar credibility in Malayalam cinema.
When Basil debuted as an assistant director in Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Thira (2013), he also made his debut as an actor in the same year, with a cameo in Up and Down. This was followed by Homely Meals, in which he played the part of a movie editor. Eventually, if Mayanadhi left the door ajar for Basil as an actor, it was Dileesh Pothan’s Joji (in which Basil played Fr. Kevin) that opened the floodgates. The stern and ratty Jacobite priest who nitpicks and gets into a sparring match with the eldest son (Baburaj) in the family was done with precision by the actor. Basil admitted to the writer in an earlier interview that the priest was inspired by his dad, who was himself a priest. “They knew my father was a Jacobite priest and it would look more authentic than casting me as a Roman Catholic priest,” he said.
While acknowledging that his filmmaking was shuffled, with the climax scenes being shot first, he was all praise for Pothan’s process with actors — “Dileesh improvises according to the actor’s mannerisms and attributes. It evolved from there. Most of their work gets done by the right casting, the rest of it depends on how you are performing it. My inputs are also considered for the character’s growth. That’s why their actors' performances are so feted.”
Basil’s NRI Joymon in Chidambaram’s Jan. E. Man (2021) was a lucky lad for the world, making enough money to afford a lavish lifestyle. But in reality, he was miserable and hated everything about his life as a nurse in Canada. He missed home and the few people whom he considered friends. While battling the biting cold, he would wistfully think of home, and make frantic calls to friends who aren’t as keen to speak to him. Back home, the desperately lonely Joymon decides to throw money to get attention. He is loud and annoying, yet his loneliness seems very perceptible. “I am something like Joymon in real life. My wife vouches for that.” Considering Joymon is mostly high-strung, there is an unexpected moment of poignancy between him and his neighbour Monichan (Balu Varghese) who remain mostly intoxicated, which reflects their shared sense of isolation and both actors beautifully complement each other.
If Basil handled the brief but staid Judge in Rathish Balakrishna Poduval’s Nna Thaan Case Kodu (2022) with flair, his advocate Jikkumon in Ganesh Raj’s Pookkalam (2022), despite being a tailor-made comic character, was a casualty of a poorly written and executed narrative.
If one was asked to pick his career best, look no further than the toxic, sexist spouse Rajesh in Vipin Das’ critical and commercially acclaimed Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022). It’s the ease with which he trades his toxicity that catches you off guard. Rajesh is into wholesale chicken trading and is extremely patriarchal. He is remarkably out-of-depth about romance or companionship and thinks his wife (Darshana Rajendran)’s primary duty is to be his slave. Basil, who looks like he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, slips into the character without much trepidation, systematically evoking rage and contempt in us.
There are several brilliant scenes featuring the actor, but an instant recall would be the one in which he challenges her for combat with a tremble in his heart, and gets smothered in the process. In another instance, he talks about how men find it difficult to live without a partner, and you feel a mix of pity and anger.
Sangeeth P Rajan’s Palthu Janwar (2022) was more within the actor’s comfort zone—the coming-of-age story of a reluctant veterinary livestock inspector (Prasoon) who eventually discovers the meaning of his life. For Basil, his unassertive exterior ensures that he is already halfway into the character and combined with his ability to genuinely appear out-of-sorts helps in easing into Prasoon. There is a lovely scene in which his elder sister (Unnimaya Prasad) gently lets him know he is better off taking up this new job as he has had too many failures. Basil looks crestfallen, but as he reluctantly accepts the truth, you feel an odd affection for him.
Interestingly, Basil’s Bachu in Muhasin’s Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham (2023) has a bit of Rajesh, Prasoon, and Joymon in him. He is unable to empathise with his sister who refuses to go back to her husband without an apology. Bachu carries a lot of false pride, including a wave of misplaced anger towards his father for being an absent parent, despite knowing that he had to toil in the Gulf to fend for them. At times you feel Bachu is needlessly discontent, very similar to Anoop in Nithish Sahadev’s Falimy (2023). Anoop is a dubbing artist, and he seems sourly unhappy with his job and hasn’t had a conversation with his father (Jagadish) for years. And hasn’t had much luck in the marriage market. Basil’s sulky face can be called a trope now and it gets the work done without much conversation. But in Falimy, a film that pivots around a dysfunctional family, his comic timing is on point. The scene when he does the Malayalam dubbing of a Hindi serial with exaggerated intonation deserves mad props.
Except for minor distinctions, most of his characters carry similar traits, but somehow Basil makes them work and very reliably so. One thing is clear, he is a minimum-guarantee actor and his smart choice of films also ensures him a loyal audience.