Sushant Singh Rajput's death has reopened that discussion about nepotism in cinema, with quite a few Bollywood actors calling out the unfairness of the system and how it has made them lose out on several opportunities. Back home, Neeraj Madhav spoke about the need to have “a fair share in the race” and how “having a legacy keeps you in a safe zone” in Malayalam cinema.
“It is foolish to insist that there is some moral compulsion on successful parents to deny their kids, even miserable misfits, what their money and clout could get for them. But big names flooding the film industry with their uninspiring progeny could be the theme of a comic dystopian fantasy but never the reality. The common sense of the market will unfailingly prevail,” observes R Ayyappan, film critic.
What is the deal with the nepotism business in Malayalam cinema, where some of the biggest stars and greatest actors had no solid film background? We take a look.
Pranav Mohanlal made his debut in Aadhi (2018), written and directed by Jeethu Joseph, and produced by his own home production, Aashirvad Cinemas. He plays an aspiring young musician, who accidentally gets involved in a murder. With a cameo by his superstar father, Mohanlal, it had a narrative that focused on his fluidity in action sequences (parkour) and studiously underplayed the young scion’s acting skills or the lack of it.
The film became the highest-earning Malayalam film of that year besides grossing over Rs 500 million worldwide. In the history of Malayalam cinema, that remains the most spectacular star vehicle launch yet, with the title card slipping in a fans’ association in the young actor’s name.
But on the other hand, exactly seven years ago, Dulquer Salmaan, the son of the other superstar Mammootty, had an inconspicuous debut in Second Show. Helmed by a debutant director, featuring new actors and technicians, Dulquer played a small-time don in this noir gangster film. Though it tanked at the box-office, the actor’s deep baritone and charming screen presence were instantly noticed.
In hindsight, it was a smart move by the senior actor, who after seeing the ugly side of stardom at close quarters, did not want the junior to get bogged down by the pressures of his formidable lineage or a spectacular star vehicle. This was a realistic launchpad, a test dose for the young actor to gauge the audience's reactions to him. And a perceptive father predicted that the tongues would wag more frantically, levelling nepotism charges, if he had opted for a more spectacular launch.
From then on, till date, Mammootty has deliberately kept himself away from his son’s path to stardom in public. Over time, they have successfully co-existed in the industry without ever allowing people to indulge in any comparisons between their choice of films or acting styles. It helped immensely that Dulquer did not have any discernible similarities with his father, in style or appearance.
“It was much easier for me. I do not think we have a major auditioning culture in Malayalam. It has not been there traditionally. There would obviously be people like - 'Hey is your son looking to act?' And then I found this one film where I just had the script and everybody is a newcomer in this movie and I thought we can all learn together, make mistakes together. But yes, I will be lying if I say I struggled," Dulquer said in an interview to Neha Dhupia.
Historically, like in every field, nepotism exists in Malayalam cinema too. If one simply picks on the ‘star sons’ or ‘actor sons’ and their success rates, the graph has been dismal. Prem Nazir’s son, Shanavas, made an impressive debut in the Balachandra Menon directed Prema Geethangal (1981) but was unable to recreate his success, despite starring in over 50 films.
Soman’s son, Saji Somashekaran, made a forgettable debut and faded into oblivion.
Sukumaran’s sons, Prithviraj Sukumaran and Indrajith Sukumaran, might have got an easy entry, but they had to really work their way up, dodging the initial round of skeptics and eventually finding their space.
Vineeth Sreenivasan, the eldest son of actor-screenwriter-director, Sreenivasan, made his debut as a singer in Priyadarshan’s Kilichundan Mambazham, then tried acting, which did not find many takers and finally found his niche in direction.
Suresh Gopi’s eldest son Gokul Suresh debuted in Mudhugauv, a rom-com produced by Friday Films, but did not quite sparkle, though he did bag a few films later.
Kalidas Jayaram, son of Jayaram, was launched as a hero in a Tamil film (before that he had won a National award as a child actor), where Kamal Haasan introduced him to the media at the audio function. And despite repeated box-office failures in Malayalam (Poomaram, Mr and Miss Rowdy, Argentina Fans Kattoorkadavu) he is still sought after.
The same can be said about Dhyan Sreenivasan, the second son of Sreenivasan, who made his debut in Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Thira, appeared in quite a few multi-starrers, directed a disaster called Love Action Drama, headlining Nayanthara and Nivin Pauly, and yet continues to bag films.
It is also important to note, at this juncture, that quite a few of these actors have bagged awards for their debut performances at various award functions.
“A Pranav Mohanlal despite delivering a disaster like Irupothonnam Nootandu gets signed by Vineeth Sreenivasan and there is Kalyani Priyadarshan playing the female lead. There is an advantage and they get more opportunities to fail than someone outside the industry,” says media professional Sagarika.
Bharath Gopy’s son Murali Gopy left his job in journalism to pursue a career in cinema. He first debuted as a screenwriter for Rasikan, along with playing an antagonist in it. The film flopped and he resurfaced four years later in Bhramaram, but then came Ee Adutha Kalathu, directed by Arun Kumar Aravind, which he scripted, and it changed the game for him.
Widely considered as one of the facilitators of the new wave in Malayalam cinema, Murali has never looked back since. With the success of Lucifer, he has upped his saleability in mainstream cinema.
Other actor sons include Sudheer Karamana (Karamana Janardhanan), Arjun Asokan (Harishree Asokan), Shane Nigam (Abi), and Shammy Thilakan (Thilakan).
Then there have been sons of the directors. Sidharth Bharathan, son of Bharathan, ironically made his debut as an actor, flopped, shifted gears to direction, which eventually proved to be his calling. Sathyan Anthikad’s son Anoop Sathyan recently made his first film, Varane Avashyamundu, produced by Dulquer Salmaan, who also acted in it. It goes without saying that providence alone was not enough in bringing together an ensemble of actors like Shobana, Suresh Gopi and Urvashi, with Priyadarshan and Lissy’s daughter Kalyani Priyadarshan playing the leading role.
Ditto for Nitin Renji Panicker, son of screenwriter/actor Renji Panicker who made his debut with the Mammootty film, Kasaba and Lal Jr, who made Honeybee. Kunchako Boban comes from a reputed film production family (Udaya Studio).
The gender ratio of nepotism entries is predictably skewed. Daughters of actors/directors/technicians entering this field have been fewer. Notable exceptions have been Keerthy Suresh, daughter of actor Menaka and producer Suresh Kumar and actor Augustine’s daughter Ann Augustine. Can it also be assumed that the female actors who come from a “film family” get to dodge the potential exploitative nature of this industry? Or perhaps that can be one reason why so many of these actors/technicians/directors are discouraging their daughters from entering the field.
Malayalam cinema’s longest-standing superstars — Mammootty and Mohanlal were outsiders, with no background in films. Some of the popular names in the business — Manju Warrier, Urvashi, Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Bharath Gopy, Suresh Gopi, Jayaram, Jayasurya, Murali, Biju Menon, Sreenivasan to a Nithya Menen, Rajisha Vijayan, Parvathy Thiruvoth, Nimisha Sajayan, Asif Ali, or Suraj Venjaramoodu, they had no legacy to back them up.
Nivin Pauly, who entered through an audition and recently celebrated 10 years, has some of the biggest hits in Malayalam cinema to his name. Tovino Thomas entered as an assistant director and worked his way up. In the last two years, he has had a release almost every month, making it a subject of memes on social media.
“Malayalam cinema has seen star kids trying their luck in acting over the years, but to label it as nepotism would be far from reality, considering the success they have achieved. Or rather, the lack of it. In an industry dominated almost totally by Mammootty and Mohanlal, who made it on their own and continue to reign supreme (more importantly after making a mark on their own merits), things have changed drastically during the past few years. Malayalam is one industry where the viewers accept movies based on its content and at times the makers have more brand value than the stars. The difference could have been due to the discerning viewers in Malayalam,” says Vijay George, film critic.
In the last 10-12 years, Malayalam cinema has witnessed quite a few radical changes. The new wave emerged, bringing along a fresh set of directors, writers, actors, and technicians who did not belong to any cinema background.
According to Amal Neerad, his debut film Big B, headlining Mammootty, broke the rigid hierarchy that was rampant in Malayalam cinema. At a time when it was given that a new director had to work with an experienced crew, Amal brought in his own team of fresh technicians on board. So, Big B had a new writer (Unni R), poster designer (Papaya Media), musician (Gopi Sundar), costume designer (Praveen Varma), cinematographer (Sameer Thahir), editor (Vivek Harshan) and not to forget four assistant cinematographers who later went on to carve a niche for themselves in Malayalam cinema — Shyju Khalid, Jomon T John, Satheesh Kurup and Renu (Renadive).
Cinema was evolving, content had taken a 360 degree turn and superstar films were becoming redundant. That also meant there was space for aspiring actors coming from film schools, theatre groups, who earlier struggled to fit into a cinema which only glorified larger-than-life heroes. A new culture of auditions, casting directors (still at a nascent stage) and workshops emerged, making the process more transparent.
The insiders in Malayalam cinema talk about the emergence of cliques in the last decade, which by virtue of the kind of glorious content they produce seems to have done only good for cinema.
If earlier Malayalam cinema was mostly restricted to Thiruvananthapuram and their Nair lobby, the emergence of Kochi as the hub of cinema activity resulted in a gang of young talents, who were determined to rewrite the rules, hegemony, and grammar of Malayalam cinema. A group from Maharajas college (Anwar Rasheed, Amal Neerad, Rajeev Ravi, Ashiq Abu), Vineeth Sreenivasan nurturing a young promising team of technicians and writers, directors like Lijo Jose Pellissery, Dileesh Pothan, Zakariya, Basil Joseph, Midhun Manuel Thomas making their debuts, and then the floodgates opening.
Filmmakers from every nook and corner of the state found a space to tell their kind of stories. The narratives became more involved in the ethnicity and ecosystem of a region and less about heroes. Ironically, the new wave cinema was restoring the very tropes which were part of the golden '80s in Malayalam cinema but in a more informed, pragmatic, and alluring milieu.
Out came Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakhiyum, Angamaly Diaries, Sudani from Nigeria. A film like Unda would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, which had superstar Mammootty sharing equal space with nine other principal actors and not making a big deal of his stardom.
Fahadh Faasil, despite his lineage, cannot be accused of using that nexus to further his entry into the industry, considering that his journey from a failed debutante to one of the most admired young talents in Malayalam cinema today is a result of the collaborations he made with the new age directors.
Today, for any aspiring actor, Malayalam cinema holds promise in how they have given a platform for actors like Soubin Shahir, Vinayakan, Chemban Vinod, Joju George, Antony Pepe, Shane Nigam, Anna Ben, Grace Antony or a Sreenath Bhasi and most importantly allowed them to thrive. In which other industry can you witness a film like Virus, that had a long line up of A list actors securely performing without scrambling for their own screen space?
“Of course, there is nepotism. But a more relevant question would be whether such familial favouritism has become so dominant as to stifle Malayalam cinema. And the answer lies in how we perceive Malayalam cinema today. Has it become bolder, in terms of themes? Has it thrown up greater variety, in terms of filmmaking styles? Has it thrown its doors open to a wider range of talents? If the answer to these three is yes, there is no point worrying about nepotism,” says R Ayyappan.
And then there is the Malayali audience that has always been discerning and overly critical about what they watch, to put in place more filters for the insiders than outsiders. True, superstar films still co-exist with realistic cinema, but it has been proven categorically in Malayalam cinema that only those with talent hold the test of time. Maybe the insiders will be given a long rope, but the audience will only keep their eyes on the finish line.
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.