OTTplay Logo
settings icon
profile icon

Newsletter | 11 Years Of Dulquer Salmaan: From 'Second Show' To First Among Equals

Neelima Menon charts the rise of a new age superstar.

Newsletter | 11 Years Of Dulquer Salmaan: From 'Second Show' To First Among Equals
Dulquer Salmaan in a publicity still for King Of Kotha

Last Updated: 12.57 PM, Feb 24, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on February 21, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


A CLEVER FAN-EDIT of Dulquer Salmaan doing the rounds of social media succinctly depicts his rise to pan-India star: It begins with a clip of him being booed at his first public appearance, then switches to his boisterous entry scene in Kurup, all interspersed with glimpses of his famous father (Mammootty).

In 2022, Dulquer had four releases: Telugu blockbuster Sita Ramam, R Balki's Hindi film Chup: Revenge Of The Artist (with the actor earning acclaim for his nuanced performance), the Malayalam OTT drop Salute, and Tamil romcom Hey Sinamika. Unsurprisingly, he remained a sought-after guest at most year-end round table conversations. His line-up for 2023 includes the highly anticipated King Of Kotha, a perfect showcase for Dulquer in his 11th year in films.

IN WHAT WAS possibly one of the most low-key debuts for someone of his starry lineage, Dulquer's film innings began with 2012's Second Show, an avant-garde noir gangster flick that featured a bunch of newcomers. The debutant's screen presence and baritone didn't go unnoticed. Both of these were to soon receive greater mileage in the Anwar Rasheed-directed Ustad Hotel (2012; with a script by Anjali Menon). Dulquer played Faizi, an aspiring sous chef who learns the nuances of gastronomy from his grandfather (Thilakan). The jugalbandi between these two actors from different generations was endearing to watch.

From such unassuming beginnings emerged a new era for Malayalam cinema, with Dulquer forming one part of a powerful triumvirate along with Nivin Pauly and Fahadh Faasil. Dulquer-Nivin-Fahadh made up for the absence of bona fide young stars from Malayalam cinema... stars a new generation of moviegoers could relate to and identify with.

Still, Dulquer's trajectory remained far from smooth. Initially, a bulk of his characters seemed to adhere to the urban rebel/prodigal son archetype (Neelakasham Pacha Kadal Chuvanna Bhoomi, ABCD, Bangalore Days). His collaborators at the time saw sparks of the consummate performer he could be. For instance, Dulquer's Neelakasham... and Kali director Sameer Tahir refers to him as a "thinking actor and thorough professional" whose "mood often changes according to the depth of his roles".

Ranjith’s Njaan (2014) saw Dulquer essay the dual roles of freedom fighter KTN Kottoor and a young blogger Ravi, who is inspired by his writings. It was one of Dulquer's first feature-length attempts at stepping out of his comfort zone, but the experiment failed at multiple levels. Not only was he unable to pull off the verbose Malayalam dialogues, but also, his portrayal of Kottoor lacked the necessary gravitas.

It felt like a step back from Kullante Bharya, the Amal Neerad-directed short in the anthology film 5 Sundarikal, in which Dulquer had deftly infused life into the role of a wheelchair-bound photographer who observes the world around him through his apartment window.

Perhaps rendered apprehensive by his Njaan experiment, Dulquer — according to industry insiders — was very hesitant about Mani Ratnam's proposal to cast him as the lead in OK Kanmani. Fitting into an unusual milieu was a concern for the actor, and as per a source who worked on the film, it was Mamootty who advised him to get over his doubts and join the project.

OK Kanmani ended up being a milestone in Dulquer’s career, and he aced Adi, a videogame creator in a live-in relationship with Thara (Nithya Menen). It opened up new avenues for the actor, who was now being noticed across industries.

“He is diametrically opposite to Mammootty. It is a great feeling to watch a young man who has grown up under a giant, to not have shades of him at all. To be independent and unique in his own way, without any traces of his father and still be such a good talent [sic]. He is a wonderful actor, very real and energetic,” Mani Ratnam said of his OK Kanmani star in an interview.

THE TRANSITION from boyish protagonist to man was completed by the time of 2015's Charlie (dir. Martin Prakkat; written by Unni R). As the elusive-yet-alluring bohemian protagonist who spreads compassion and laughter wherever he goes, Dulquer was unequivocally charming.

A string of roles with substance would follow Charlie: A guy who grapples with anger issues (Kali), the reformed and reluctant strongman caught in a real-estate netherworld (Kammatipaadam), a son hoping to restore his father’s dwindling fortunes (Jomonte Suvisheshangal), and multiple parts in Solo (dir. Bejoy Nambiar).

Ironically, the role in which Dulquer shone most during this phase, however, was a cameo — in 2017's Parava. The moment Dulquer's gentle, orphaned Imran appears on screen, it gains a quiet radiance. You see the actor forging ahead, internalising this simple Mattancherry youth who speaks in the pronounced local slang/dialect.

2018. The year of Dulquer's Telugu and Hindi film debuts. The actor stepped into the towering part of superstar Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati, a biopic on the legendary actress Savtri (played by Keerthy Suresh). It was a brave, and momentous, choice — one that could have easily slipped into the realm of imitation or fan-service. But Dulquer made the part his own. On the other hand, playing an angry dissatisfied Avinash was easy enough for the actor in Karwaan. However, the riveting presence of his co-star — the supremely gifted Irrfan Khan — overshadowed Dulquer. (His Karwaan director Akash Khurana would still note that Dulquer is an "instinctive and intelligent actor who can modulate his performance to perfection".)

A misstep was to follow: 2019's The Zoya Factor was panned as a "soulless" film, although Dulquer's turn as the debonair Indian cricket team captain Nikhil Khoda was described as its sole redeeming aspect.

It was perhaps Kurup (2021) that truly tapped Dulquer's true potential for pan-India stardom. Not only was it released in four languages (with Dulquer dubbing for the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi versions, apart from Malayalam), the promotions were designed to appeal to audiences across the country. The strategy of publicising the film in all the major metros reaped rich dividends, pulling a pandemic-wary audience back into the theatres.

According to Nimish Ravi, the cinematographer of Kurup and the upcoming King Of Kotha, being on a DQ set/production fills him with a sense of ease, despite some teething troubles early on. "He is such a hardworking actor, okay with any number of retakes. Our fight master used to say that he looks very calm in person but transforms in front of the camera. Dulquer can light up even a mediocre frame with his presence. He is a very good producer: there is no hierarchy on the sets, and Dulquer makes sure everyone is well cared for."

"ONE REASON FOR Dulquer's pan-India appeal — apart from his looks — has to be his skill with languages. He dubs for himself and that matters. And it is very difficult to dub in Telugu for a non-Telugu speaking actor,” says Brinda, Dulquer's Hey Sinamika director.

To some viewers (and this writer), the actor's turn as a doting house husband in Hey Sinamika didn't translate convincingly on screen, but Brinda deems it a courageous choice nonetheless.

"On the sets, he doesn’t talk much and likes to keep to himself. I remember he was too shy to dance in 'Pattam Pole'. [But] I felt his body language was so fluid, apt for dance. He danced the western [routines] so well.”

Brinda compares Dulquer to Tamil superstar Vijay in that you can't really read his mind. "He gave me so confidence as Hey Sinamika was my directorial debut," the choreographer-turned-filmmaker muses. "He even helped me with the scenes. It is only when you see the [rushes on the] monitor that you realise the depth of his performance. As an actor, he is someone you want to do a lot of close-up shots of."

2022's Sita Ramam will be remembered as one of Dulquer's career-defining performances. As the tender and steadfast Lieutenant Ram who falls madly in love with the mysterious Sita (Mrunal Thakur), Dulquer was so compelling and charming that his death as a martyr in the line of duty leaves you inconsolable and bereft. His depiction of Ram had incredible nuance and honesty, and importantly, made quick work of overcoming the language barrier.

From here it was a 180-degree turn for Dulquer as a serial killer targeting film critics, in Chup: Revenge Of The Artist. Chup's Dany was a far cry from the gentle, mild-mannered Lieutenant Ram and Dulquer showed he could ace that duality. By day, Dany is an unassuming florist, romantically involved with a journalist. By night, he is a psychotic killer who clinically slashes his victims before disposing them off. It was a hitherto unseen facet of the actor.

Yet another of his facets is his acumen as a producer. Wayfarer Films, Dulquer's production house, started with a fantastic collaboration of talents (as well as many interesting debuts) in Varane Avashyamund. There was Anoop Sathyan, the son of Sathyan Anthikad, making his debut as a director. It was the first Malayalam feature for Kalyani Priyadarshan, the daughter of veteran actress Lissy and filmmaker Priyadarshan. The narrative itself — a light-hearted romance between a middle-aged couple (played by Shobana and Suresh Gopi) — imparted a modern tweak to the feel-good format previously perfected by Anoop's father. Dulquer himself was cast in a supporting role.

Wayfarer has used a mix of direct-to-streaming and theatrical release strategies. Salute and Maniyarayile Ashokan had OTT premieres, while Kurup did brisk box office business.

In the 11th year of his film career, Dulquer Salmaan continues to take consistent strides ahead. Though he continues to be next only to Mammootty and Mohanlal when it comes to initial box office pull in Malayalam cinema, Dulquer seems keener on widening his base across India right now. We'll be eagerly awaiting the Next Decade Of Dulquer.

Get the latest updates in your inbox