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Newsletter: The OTTplay Guide To Syam Pushkaran's Best Characters

Screenwriter Syam Pushkaran intrigues with characters who are extraordinary for their ordinariness.

Newsletter: The OTTplay Guide To Syam Pushkaran's Best Characters
Syam Pushkaran's flawed characters aren't afraid of falling down, or picking themselves back up.
  • Neelima Menon

Last Updated: 04.44 PM, Jan 18, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 12, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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EASILY AMONG the most beloved scriptwriters of contemporary Malayalam cinema, Syam Pushkaran has been on a winning spree post-Maheshinte Prathikaaram. His writing has perspective, with a deceptive simplicity that unravels the profundities of life. It flows organically, with a delicious wit that lands beautifully. Most intriguing perhaps, are Pushkaran's characters: extraordinarily ordinary, flawed people who aren’t afraid to fall down, or own up to their mistakes. Here are nine of our favourite characters from his repertoire.

PSYCHOLOGY 101
Detail from the poster for Kumbalangi Nights
Detail from the poster for Kumbalangi Nights

1. Shammy from Kumbalangi Nights

With his half smile; thick, finely-trimmed moustache; and penchant for perfectionism, Shammy (played by Fahadh Faasil) is at the top of our list for the simple reason that in the mainstream Malayalam cinema of the '90s and 2000s, he would have been the hero. He's a devoted family man, protective of his kin. But slowly and steadily, Pushkaran's writing exposes the chinks in his armour, under the guise of humour, and before you know it, Shammy appears as the embodiment of toxic masculinity: a bigot who keeps his wife and mother-in-law under his thumb, doesn’t take kindly to his sister-in-law’s independent streak, and looks down on those from below his socio-economic strata. Pushkaran's eventual reduction of this seemingly everyday misogynist into a man derailed is questionable. However, the writer may have felt that this was the best path for subverting the notion of alpha male heroes who have typically been celebrated on screen.

2. Appu from Mayaanadhi

Appu (Aishwarya Lekshmi) is an aspiring actor; she's ambitious and knows what she wants — yet allows her family and friends to push her around. In a way, even her relationship with her beau Mathen is no different, it’s just that though she gives him several chances, it’s only with him that she is truly ever being herself. She ghosts him, begs him to leave her alone, yet reserves just enough space for him to sneak back in again. She is a survivor who wordlessly takes the hand-me-downs of her famous actor friend, but tells the director who offers her a supporting role that she deserves better. A woman who doesn’t allow society to define her, tells the man that a night of passion doesn’t mean she needs to be tied down to him, and is a blend of quiet strength and vulnerability. Appu is among the finest sketches of contemporary women on screen.

3. Mathen from Mayaanadhi

Mathen is a strange paradox of a man. A henchman by profession, as a lover he is helpless and unflinching. Tovino Thomas brings forth Mathen's moral greyness so deftly, you feel like reaching out to the character. Mathen has consistently been on the other side of the law, yet his love for Appu hasn’t dwindled even a fraction. He is needy, and follows her like a lost puppy despite her infinite rejections, as he knows he is the cause of her anger. Mathen is just an ordinary man who goes off the tracks, doesn’t pretend to be nice, but yearns to be loved and cherished despite all that. What he has for Appu in a way defines him. At a time when we have seen male leads playing in binaries, Mathen endears with his divisiveness.

4. Crispin from Maheshinte Prathikaaram

How do you size up this chit of a man who walks into a house, strikes up a random conversation with a girl, and never allows you to keep a straight face thanks to his rollicking sense of humour? Crispin is naïve, uncomplicated and fairly straightforward. His idea of flirting is to laugh about the awkwardness of eating an egg puff. He introduces himself to Mahesh (Fahadh Faasil) and glibly talks about bombing a dog and getting caught. The role is written and enacted with such flair (by Soubin Shahir) that you don’t know whether to cry or laugh at Crispin's persona and antics. There's an entire fan base for Crispin's outburst (when accused of flirting with the boss' daughter) on social media. Having a Crispin in your neighbourhood could be potentially explosive!

5. Rani from Rani Padmini

In a household full of women, Rani takes it upon herself to be the provider. Thankfully, she isn’t a throwback to the multitudes of sacrificial single women we are so familiar with on screen, who would even sell their souls in order to sustain their families. She is irrational, impulsive, witty, and a fighter. Despite having to battle a dramatic, conservative mom at home — and mounting debts — Rani (as portrayed by Rima Kallingal) doesn’t allow her sense of self to be overwhelmed. She takes it all with spunk, courage and a bit of humour.

6. Saji from Kumbalangi Nights

Malayalam cinema has always had a template for the 'big brother': He is honourable, responsible, fiery, self-sacrificing and a messiah. The big brother cannot possibly put the wrong foot forward. And then came Saji (played by Soubin Shahir yet again) — the eldest and most out-of-sorts in a dysfunctional family. He is lazy, unruly, reckless, and lives off his friend's meagre salary. When an accident turns his world around, he has a meltdown, and asks his younger sibling for help. The scene where Saji weeps uncontrollably before a pyschiatrist, wetting the latter's shirtfront with his copious tears, is among the film's most memorable.

7. Simi from Kumbalangi Nights

There is something about her husband Shammy that doesn’t sit quite right with newlywed Simi (Grace Antony), but she lets it be. Her intrinsically patriarchal upbringing allows her to brush it under the carpet and that means coming up with excuses for his rude behaviour as well. She is obedient and kind, and would never cross the line with him. But when he misbehaves with her sister, Simi momentarily drops her fear and lets Shammy know she isn’t quite the doormat he thinks she is. And just when he is shocked at her uncharacteristic outburst, Simi quickly reverts to her usual self and goes back to being the wife Shammy knows. But the statement has been made.

8. Panachel Jomon from Joji

In a household bursting with hyper-masculine energy, Jomon (Baburaj) — despite embodying it — endears you with his contradictions. A divorcee and alcoholic, Jomon is quick-tempered and impetuous but remains the tenderest presence in the film. While his two younger brothers hanker after their father’s money, Jomon worships the ground the patriarch walks on. He seems wholly unaware of the greed and tension lurking just below the surface in his family. Look out for the scene in which he locks horns with the local priest, for the sake of his father. He has a lot of love to give, and he does it with such naivete that his ultimate fate crushes you.

9. Jimsy from Maheshinte Prathikaaram

Jimsy (played by Aparna Balamurali) knows exactly what she wants, and she won't budge until she gets it. It can be a plate of ripe jackfruit or the man she loves, Jimsy knows her mind. What strikes you at first about this girl from a small town is her forthrightness. When she sees the photograph Mahesh clicks, she doesn’t bother to hide her disappointment, inadvertently leading Mahesh to introspect about his skills. However, she does it with such sweet bluntness that it lands correctly. And the same Jimsy will walk into Mahesh’s room and let him know he was fabulous. So when she proposes to Mahesh, braving rejection, putting forth all the pros and cons of the match, you aren’t surprised. With someone like Jimsy around, you don’t need extra sunshine.

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