Tovino Thomas is among the busiest actors in the Malayalam film industry. He’s also fast becoming its most versatile star from the current generation. His last release Thallumaala made close to Rs 75 crore and is the second highest grossing Malayalam film of 2022. Directed by Khalid Rahman, the title translates to ‘a ballad of brawls’ and the film is exactly that – the characters are introduced through fights, friendships are formed through fights, the plot develops through fights, people fall in love and break up through fights. The audience has to figure out which fight came first in the non-linear plot to make sense of it all – and there are social media fights on whether this is an adipoli film or a thallipoli one.
Tovino is a revelation as ‘Manavalan’ Wazim in Thallumaala. The son of a theatre owner, Wazim becomes an internet celebrity after his wedding with Instagram influencer Beevi (Kalyani Priyadarshan) is called off. A video from the wedding in which Wazim is throwing punches at the guests goes viral, and before he knows it, he gets invited to be the chief guest in a college. Even those who found the screenplay of the film to be too chaotic acknowledge that this was a break-out role for Tovino. The actor fights, dances, sings and looks absolutely smashing in eye-popping clothes.
Thallumaala’s success came as a shot in the arm for Tovino whose previous theatrical releases Vaashi, Dear Friend and Naradan didn’t do well. But even so, Tovino’s versatility in these films did not go unnoticed. If he’s the definition of naive flamboyance in Thallumaala, he’s the polar opposite as Vinod in Vineeth Kumar’s unusual thriller Dear Friend. A man of many secrets, Vinod is charming, surly and manipulative all at once. He goes missing one fine day, leaving his friends to piece together his past life to solve the mystery. Tovino’s cynical act as Vinod comes as a surprise, an unnerving twist that denies the viewer the satisfaction of an emotional justification for his behaviour.
Kaanekkaane, directed by Manu Ashokan, is another risky choice. The slowburn thriller is about a man whose wife is found dead in an accident – but things are not what they seem, and her father (Suraj Venjaramoodu) starts to suspect her husband, Alan (Tovino). Though the film becomes convoluted towards the end, Tovino was able to pull off the challenging role of a guilt-ridden man with finesse. Watch the scene when he and Suraj are in a room in a lodge – you can cut the tension in the air with a knife. Can you really empathise with a man who let his wife die on the road because he was having an extramarital affair? Tovino comes dangerously close to making you see the circumstances through Alan’s eyes.
In Minnal Murali, Malayalam cinema’s first superhero movie, Tovino plays a naadan superhero whose costume for the most part is a towel wrapped over his head. Directed by Basil Joseph, the film was released on Netflix directly and made it to the global list of Top 10 non-English films on the platform. The film didn’t have the advantage of the massive budgets of Hollywood productions, but then Basil wasn’t trying to imitate Marvel or DC. With a reliable leading man in Tovino and a compelling performance from Guru Somasundaram who plays the antagonist, Minnal Murali proved to be a completely satisfying experience.
If Tovino looked mature and rugged in Kaanekkaane, he is baby-faced and innocent as tailor Jaison in Minnal Murali. The transformation isn’t only about facial hair and body weight – it’s also about how he carries himself and is able to become the character in its entirety.
Those who follow Malayalam cinema will know that the stars in the industry seldom stick to a template. Be it Mohanlal, Mammootty, Kunchacko Boban, Prithviraj, Jayasurya, Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly or Asif Ali, they are open to experimentation and are not image-conscious to the extent of male stars in other industries. Tovino’s willingness to push boundaries, therefore, may not be unique in Mollywood. However, there’s something to be said about his intelligent script selection that always manages to flout the audience’s expectations.
Take three films where he plays the macho man – Mayaanadhi, Maradona and Kala. Each of these characters is capable of violence and wears his masculinity on the sleeve. Yet, Maathan, Maradona and Shaji are different people on screen. From how they walk and talk to how they fight and make love, they emerge as distinct personalities. Of course, the writers and directors of these films must also be credited for this, but it falls upon the actor to incorporate variations in his performance to make each character come alive. The temptation to find something that works on screen and stick with it is a difficult one to conquer – but the actor seems to have no trouble quelling it.
Tovino has received some flak in the past for his ‘liplock’ scenes. While long drawn out violent sequences and scenes glorifying misogyny have been normalised in our cinema, consensual kissing has always made people uncomfortable. However, Tovino did not back down because of the criticism; he made it clear that he would do whatever a role demanded from him. Over the years, the tender vulnerability he brings to these scenes has grown on the audience. Watch him in the beautifully shot ‘Mizhiyil Ninnum’ song from Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi for a sample.
Tovino made his debut in 2012 with Prabhuvinte Makkal, and slowly got noticed for supporting roles in films like ABCD, 7th Day, Ennu Ninte Moideen and Charlie. His role in Guppy as an engineer with a troubled past who spars with a teenager was widely appreciated and is considered to be his breakthrough. In his decade-long career, his hunger for good cinema is apparent in the scripts he picks (including supporting roles), ranging from courtroom dramas to thrillers, to action and romance films. He has had a few misfires like the baffling romance Abhiyude Kadha Anuvindeyum or the insipid Edakkad Battalion 06, but to a large extent, Tovino’s films are not colossal disappointments.
In an industry that makes so many critically acclaimed films, it is difficult to stand out. But by constantly mixing things up and refusing to be boxed in, Tovino has built himself an impressive filmography. This is one star about whom one can confidently say, the best is yet to come.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.