Amid the discourse over Fahadh's performance in Tamil movie Maamannan, Neelima Menon looks at nine Malayalam actors’ finest performances in the cinema of other languages.
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AFTER a race, when his dog is brought to him having failed to finish in the finals, Rathnavelu strokes the animal’s head — and plants a stinging slap on his unsuspecting trainer. Rabid with rage, Rathna then batters his dog to death.
Rathnavelu is played by Fahadh Faasil in Maamannan (Tamil; June 2023). Time and again, the actor has proved that he excels at roles that require him to immerse in the greys of the human psyche. Edgy outbursts, dark glares, smirks, stepping over the line between sanity and insanity — all of it is par for the course, and Maamannan almost seems tailor-made for Fahadh’s craft to shine
As the cocky, cruel and greedy scion of a politico, Rathna treats those he considers beneath him with as much contempt as he does his dogs. While Fahadh’s performance isn’t overly revelatory — there is a sense of having witnessed versions of his act before — he is so invested in Rathna’s viciousness that there isn’t a moment when you don’t find him repulsive.
Maamannan is not Fahadh’s first Tamil film — that was 2017’s Velaikkaran. But with the discourse over his performance still fresh, here’s looking at a few more Malayalam actors’ finest performances in the cinema of other languages.
Mammootty — Peranbu; Dr Ambedkar
Mammootty has played a plethora of father figures in his illustrious four-decade career, but in Ram’s Peranbu (in which he portrays the dad of a cerebral palsy-affected child), the actor is at his quietest. There are various moments when Amudhavan breaks down, helplessly out-of-depth with his daughter and it’s intensely poignant to watch the actor dilute himself into this state of vulnerability and self-loathing. In sharp contrast is the scholarly magnificence that he exudes as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in the film based on the great leader. This time he has the added responsibility of a language that required special lessons. But Mammootty pervades the astuteness, kindness and intellect of Ambedkar with a dynamism that’s compelling to watch.
Mohanlal — Iruvar; Company
What makes Mohanlal one of the finest actors of our times is the ease with which he inhabits a character. From the moment Mohanlal enters the frame in one of Mani Ratnam’s most feted films, the actor is already MGR. The purported transition isn’t visible here. From the body language, gesticulations and emotional complexities of the former Chief Minister and Tamil cinema superstar, Mohanlal perfects them. So many actors after him have tried to play MGR, but they couldn’t hold a candle to that masterclass. Four years after Iruvar, Lal played a supercop based in Mumbai, in Ram Gopal Varma's Company. The heavily accented Hindi, the dead calm exterior that hides a terse, alert mind laced with a wit that’s sublimely placed, there are various instances in Company when Lal catches you off guard with his brilliance. His Sreenivasan is the scene stealer in a film headlined by Ajay Devgn and Vivek Oberoi.
Fahadh Faasil — Super Deluxe
In this Thiagarajan Kumaraswamy film, Mukhil is an aspiring actor who not only has to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity but also needs to find a way to dispose of her paramour’s dead body. Fahadh’s searing gaze works its magic as his character battles anger, hatred, jealousy, his ego and helplessness, as Mukhi tries to team up with his wife to find a solution to the sudden catastrophe in their lives. Fahadh oscillates between melodramatically funny and shamelessly cowardly, urging you to empathise with their predicament, eventually hoping for a happily ever after closure.
Dulquer Salmaan — Chup; Sita Ramam
While Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani is seen to be Dulquer’s big ticket to fame outside Malayalam cinema, his piece de resistance came much later. The psychotic florist who murders film critics in R Balki’s Chup was a dramatic departure from the boy-next-door roles Dulquer was previously bracketed in. Chup’s Dany was a charmer who hid a distressed past, never allowing anyone to get past his barriers. Dulquer brings ease to the character’s duality, totally selling the charmer and the psychopath aspects of Dany’s persona.
Dulquer also added a heartbreaking poignancy to his portrayal of Colonel Ram in the Telugu blockbuster Sita Ramam. Ram’s love for Sita could move mountains, and he later martyrs himself for his country. What Dulquer added to the role was a naivety that also embodied Ram — his transparent love for Sita, his eyes that shone every time he saw her, and that last segment where the soldier does what is expected of him. Magical!
Jayaram — Ponniyin Selvam
Over the last decade, Jayaram the actor had digressed into a mime artist, taking up roles and films that hardly did him credit. And then came Ponniyin Selvan, in which the veteran was riotous fun as Alwarkadiyan Nambi. Jayaram carried the garrulous and clownish demeanor of Nambi — who was constantly mocked for his pot belly, appetite and attitude — with an abandonment that made this one of the finest performances of his career.
Joju George — Jagame Thanthiram
It is no small feat to dwarf a performer like Dhanush when he’s in the same frame as you. But Joju effortlessly does just that, in his first Tamil film. In an extended cameo, Joju shines as Sivadoss, a don with a kind heart, who helps refugees find shelter. His screen presence is unmatchable in a role that has scant dialogues, and it is his towering image that lingers in this mostly middling film.
Keerthy Suresh — Mahanati
Savitri calmly accepts the director’s challenge to perform a scene where she must shed exactly two teardrops from one eye. Once done to perfection, the director acknowledges her feat with humility. It’s a craftily designed scene ushering in the first female superstar of Indian cinema. In a way, it underlines the colorful folklore surrounding Savitri, who ruled South Indian cinema in the 1950s and ‘60s. Apart from her unquestionable aura, talent and generosity, there are pages from her life that make us think she was also a feminist, a stubborn fighter who refused to be beaten.
True, she reluctantly agrees to act post-marriage, but achieves greater success soon after, refusing to let her corroding relationship with Ganesan affect her career. It’s during these multifaceted scenes that Keerthy Suresh really takes charge. The actor takes her own sweet time to absorb Savitri, initially looking out-of-sorts with her forced enthusiasm and later stunningly dissolving into the psyche of the superstar. Nag Aswin’s Mahanati excavated the actor in Suresh, who had hitherto been part of several superhit Tamil entertainers, merrily playing the conventional heroine to the hilt. And it rightfully won her a National Award.
Manju Warrier — Asuran
One of Warrier’s most powerful performances in her second innings is fiery Pachaiyammal, wife of Sivasamy, a quiet villager with a forbidding past. Maybe one can call it a more evolved version of her Bhanumathi in Kanmadam — but Pachaiyammal isn’t carrying a raging storm within her, unlike the former. It’s just that both characters inhabit a rough milieu, and Warrier plays them with nuance, with age adding more gravitas to Pachaiyammal’s portrayal. One of the most heartbreaking scenes from Asuran has to be Pachaiyammal wailing by her son’s corpse. A very “lived-in” act by Warrier.
Nitya Menen — OK Kanmani
If there is a heroine who would fit into every celluloid era, then it has to be Nithya Menen. She exudes a warmth that’s almost blinding. You pitch her on screen next to any established actor and Nithya smoothly brings the focus onto herself. In Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani, Tara is a refreshingly relatable post-modern woman, who doesn’t allow anyone to walk over her. Be it her relationship with Aditya or her mother, Tara is her own woman. Nithya slips into Tara’s skin with the smoothness of a hot knife through butter. She can be saucy, kind, sexy and somber all at once, and Nithya makes Tara irresistible.