‘I blush when I see Aniyathipravu’: Kunchacko Boban on 25 years in Malayalam cinema

From once being type-cast as the ‘chocolate boy’ to finding that he got a kick out of roles that challenged him, Kunchacko Boban speaks to TNM on the films that played game-changers, his brief break from films, and more.
Kunchacko Boban in blue
Kunchacko Boban in blue
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A vague figure on a motorcycle rides into a long bridge, taking on pillion, the woman walking towards him. On screen they are both blurry, moving to a sad title song, introducing the two as actors making their debuts as grownups. Shalini, who had been a popular child actor, barely needed introduction - she was the little girl with the bangs who won a lot of love in the 80s. Kunchacko Boban, the hero of the film, had only one role as a child that he barely remembered. He was therefore introduced in big block letters in Aniyathipravu, a movie that would be celebrated as a romantic classic in the late 90s. Twenty five years later, Kunchacko Boban is one of the most sought-after actors in Malayalam, a world away from the timid young man who rode his way into cinema, proving himself over and over again, that he was game for anything.

"Dhanya (his 1981 movie as a child actor) was when I was like five years old and I didn't have the slightest idea what was going on. By the time of Aniyathipravu I had not wanted to be a part of cinema, because I had bad memories in my childhood of what cinema brought to my family," Kunchacko Boban tells TNM in an interview. 

His family famously owned the Udaya Pictures – one of the only two production houses that existed during the early days of Malayalam cinema. Those days, actors were so closely tied to studios that they would be identified by the one they worked with. Udaya was the pioneer, Kunchacko's grandfather and whom he got named after setting it up as early as 1947. It ruled the industry along with its rival, Merryland, for decades. But a few years after the death of grandpa Kunchacko, the downfall of the studio began, and the family went through a financial crisis. Little Kunchacko Boban would have bad memories of those days. 

But his father -- Boban Kunchacko -- wanted to see him as an actor, he says. "It was his greatest desire that I should do a film and one of my friends, Mathew, also compelled me a lot to give it a shot. So when Aniyathipravu was announced, I went for the audition, expecting to get rejected. I was super confident that I would not be selected. But then things turned out differently, I was cast as Sudhi - the male lead," he says.

Kunchacko and Shalini in Aniyathipravu days / Courtesy - Facebook / Kunchacko Boban

The theatres were nearly empty during the first few days, he recalls, and people had booed at some scenes. But gradually more people began to come out and watch the film, and it ran straight for 250 odd days - those were times of no multiplexes and fewer movie halls, which meant successful films ran for hundreds of days.

Kunchacko, young and dancing and romancing, immediately won plenty of young fans. Girls in their teens fell in love with him and wrote plentiful letters to his Alappuzha address. He was 20 at the time, too young to comprehend the shift in his stature. He says it, however, created no "major impact" on his character or attitude towards life. "I took it all very casually. Whole thing did not weigh upon me much for I had not then intended to continue acting. Even though I did later on, I always believed that what came so fast will also disappear fast," he says.

He fell, in those early years, into a 'cage' - to use a word he describes his typecasting with. He had begun as a romantic hero, a college student, going to any length to make his relationship work. It had worked, it should work again, or so they thought. They put him in tender lover roles on and on again - three more came opposite Shalini, NakshathratharattuPrem Poojari and the big hit of the millennium, Niram. He was kept busy those years - romantic comedies like Mayilpeelikkavu, Chandamama, Mazhavillu, Priyam and Sathyam Sivam Sundaram came out in successive months and years. 

Watch: Song from Niram

"I was caged in a tag called 'chocolate lover boy' and if I tried to do different kinds of roles, people just wouldn't accept it. During the course of time the fire in me was doused and I didn't have that energy or passion to continue with my acting career. So I took a break in between," he says.

A few of his performances had stood out in that first decade. Narendran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka saw him as a young man visiting his father's homeland to sell a piece of property and getting entangled in an old family feud. Kasthooriman had him play an ambitious college student trapped in poverty and falling in love without the drama of his earlier films ("was the most mature character I did until then," says Chacko). And in Ee Snehatheerathu he gave an incredible performance as a young man with mental illness, overly protective of his mother (Jaya Prada). Kunchacko won a special mention by the jury for his performance in the film at the Kerala State Awards.

By then it was mid-2000s and he took his break. If you look at his filmography there is only one year without any films - 2007. Though he did a couple of films in the next year, what brought him new attention was Gulumaal, a crime comedy made in 2009, in which he played the lead along with Jayasurya. 

Poster of Gulumaal / A & M Entertainment / Wikipedia

"In the early days, I did enjoy the stardom though it never made me think I was the biggest star or that I was unbeatable. I loved the way people loved me. Sometimes, I felt dejected that I could not give all that love back. When I made my comeback, I wanted to make sure that I gave my best to them.  I tried it very slowly but confidently. I took one step at a time. Even though it was slow I hoped I was moving forward.  Now when I have completed 25 years and almost 100 movies, I think I am on the right track. I will continue to work harder," Kunchacko says.

He made the changes, he says, by getting out of his comfort zone. Not an easy step to take when you have always been loved for what you did and what you could easily do again. Post 2010, Kunchacko's trajectory appeared to look back at the journey so far, scuffed and scorned, and launched itself on uncertain terrains.

"Before that, the kind of characters that came to me, the kind of films and the songs and the dancing (I love dancing though I am not trained), all of these had made me really comfortable. I liked that part of my film career. But later on, when I tried to change tracks, I also began to like the way I was going out of my comfort zone. I began to try out different things, different characters, appearances, subjects and movies, different kinds of ambience. That gives me the kick these days and I enjoy that process," he says. 

He's taken a leap in his story here, to the last few years when he kept appearing in avatars you don't expect him to, breaking the old mould over and over again - negative roles, second fiddles to leading women characters, serious cameos, a thief here, a bus conductor there and a poor milkman elsewhere.

There were game changers for him all through his career, he says. To begin with, there was Aniyathipravu and Niram in the 90s. Ee Sneha theerathu (“people accepted me more as an actor with his film”), Kasthooriman, and Gulumaal came in the 2000s. "With Gulumaal, I got accepted as someone who could try his hand at humour. It was an image breaker for me," Kunchacko says. 

In 2010, Traffic happened, he says - a film that made a big difference in the Malayalam film industry. It is often identified as the film that set the ball rolling for a new wave of cinema, with a pack of new directors walking in and trying out filmmaking in unseen ways and patterns, and getting accepted for it. 

Watch: Song from Traffic

"Malayalam industry was taking a different route, and so was I. Traffic was followed by Elsamma Enna Aankutty for which I did another image breaking role as Palunni. Then Ordinary happened (in which he played a bus conductor alongside Biju Menon's driver character). A lot of movies after that made me commercially acceptable," Kunchacko says.

Year 2020 - not the best for many with COVID-19 setting roots everywhere -- had begun well for Kunchacko. It brought him Anjaam Paathira, one of his biggest commercial successes. The crime thriller put him in the role of a consulting criminologist, solving a murder series. Twenty years ago, you would not have imagined Kunchacko in a role like that, someone who hardly smiles, a serious man who spends all his time with books and thoughts and chasing criminals. 

Just before Anjaam Paathira he had played a doctor in Virus - a medical thriller based on the real life incidents circling Nipah, another virus that had wreaked mild havoc in Kerala ahead of COVID-19. 

Movies like Virus have made him look at the social issues around him with perspective, Kunchacko says. "I have done socially relevant movies like Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal which dealt with the endosulfan issue. It moved me much and I remain committed to the cause, joining the fight of the survivors. I have also become part of movies on women empowerment like How Old Are You and Take Off. Even if you take Bheemante Vazhi (a recent release), it addresses a relevant issue," he says. 

Watch: Trailer of Bheemante Vazhi

Two other post 2019 releases, Allu Ramendran and Nayattu, had him in police roles, neither portraying him as the back-talking, high-flying, daring official (a tiring old cliche in Malayalam cinema), but the rather lower rank inspector with many problems of his own.

His latest release, Pada, which came out last month, rolled him out as one of the activists invading the Palakkad Collector's office, unafraid and with a criminal record - a role he aced, inviting critical appreciation and awe for the bold choices he was making at this stage in his career. Years earlier, he would have played that unfortunate Collector, on the right side of the law. The man was simply growing unpredictable at a time most actors would have settled into comfortable, safer roles. 

But there have been movies that he feels deserved a lot more attention and didn't. Chirakodinja Kinavukal, a first of its kind spoof movie attempted in Malayalam, tops the list, he says. "I still feel a slight pain for the reception (or lack of) it got. But you have to take it in your stride and move on."

Watch: Clip from Chirakodinja Kinavukal

He moved on. He took up so many challenging roles that he is feeling pretty overwhelmed at this milestone he's reached - 25 years of acting, nearly a hundred films. "Looking back, I don't think I miss Aniyathripravu days but I relish those memories. Whenever I see portions of Aniyathipravu, it makes me blush, at how I have enacted the character. I know in what ways I could have made it much, much better if I was able to do it today. But there are a lot of good memories. I was a newbie to the industry, I was enjoying the whole thing. Now, 25 years later and after all these movies, I feel I have evolved a lot more as an actor and I feel I have been striving to be a better version of myself each day."

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