How Malayalam filmmakers, writers are taking up lead roles

'Manjummel Boys' features the highest number of directors in acting roles

63-Manjummel-Boys Scene stealers: Manjummel Boys features the highest number of directors in acting roles.

In Indian film industries, there is a prevailing belief that pan-India success is reserved for mega-budget films featuring larger-than-life characters capable of executing extreme action. The monumental, nationwide success of Tollywood’s epic film Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) laid the foundation for this notion. Post pandemic, Malayalam cinema gained significant traction and appreciation across India, thanks to its content-driven offerings on OTT platforms. However, attempts by the industry to crack the pan-India success code by emulating the style-over-substance formula, successfully executed in Tamil or Telugu cinema, resulted in dismal failures. But February 2024 brought with it an epiphany of sorts for Malayalam cinema―it realised that it could maintain its focus on content-driven filmmaking and still achieve pan-Indian appeal.

The success of our films proves that hereafter our attempt should not be to copy the format and style successfully pulled off by technicians from other industries. ―Gireesh A.D. director, Premalu

Dubbed “super February”, the last month saw a diverse range of Malayalam films sending cash registers ringing countrywide. Director Chidambaram’s Manjummel Boys was the biggest blockbuster. Based on a real-life story from 2006, it shows 11 young men from Manjummel near Kochi on a fateful mission to save a friend who fell into a crevasse during their trip to Guna Caves in Kodaikanal. With a budget nearing Rs20 crore, this survival thriller has grossed more than Rs200 crore and continues its successful theatrical run. Gireesh A.D.’s Premalu (Rs10 crore), a romantic comedy, has crossed the Rs100-crore mark, while Rahul Sadasivan’s horror film Bramayugam (Rs27.73 crore) has raked in over Rs85 crore.

“The success of our films proves that hereafter our attempt should not be to copy the format and style successfully pulled off by technicians from other industries,” Gireesh told THE WEEK. “For instance, the Telugu industry is well-versed in creating ‘mass’, larger-than-life characters. They have mastered it. But that is not the case with an industry like Malayalam. So we have to stick to our strengths.”

In addition to these box-office triumphs, another notable trend peaked in Mollywood during this season: prominent directors and writers transitioning into established actors. Manjummel Boys stands out by featuring the highest number of directors in acting roles. Soubin Shahir, who portrayed the lead character in the film, started out as an assistant director in 2003 (Chronic Bachelor); he donned the director’s hat in 2017 (Parava). Shahir is no stranger to acting though―he made his acting debut in 2013 with a supporting role in Annayum Rasoolum. In 2018, he won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actor for his stellar performance in Sudani from Nigeria.

64-Siddharth-Bharathan-in-Bramayugam Mystery keeper: Siddharth Bharathan in Bramayugam.

But, for accomplished directors Jean Paul Lal and Khalid Rahman, it was their first proper foray into acting. Ganapathi S.P., casting director for Manjummel Boys, said that it was not an intentional decision to cast directors in acting roles.

“Prior to filming Manjummel Boys, we conducted interviews with all the real-life individuals involved in the Guna cave incident,”said Ganapathi, who also played a significant role in the film. “We did the casting based on their mannerisms and lifestyles. The real-life Siju, played by Jean Paul, exudes swagger, style and possesses a unique fashion sense and distinct slang. Although Jean Paul has previously portrayed some small, villain roles, his humorous flair and style haven’t been fully utilised in any films until now. Additionally, Siju is the brother of Sixon, played by Balu Varghese, who is Jean Paul’s cousin. We saw an opportunity to leverage these unique dynamics on screen.”

66-Basil-Joseph-in-Falimy True to his characters: Basil Joseph (second from left) in Falimy.

Ganapathi saw in Rahman an unassuming and innocent Prasad, the driver of the Toyota Qualis that the friends hired for the trip. Rahman had impressed him on the sets of Sulaikha Manzil (2023). “Rahman has a limited number of scenes in Sulaikha Manzil,” said Ganapathi. “However, in those scenes, his innate calmness and natural acting stood out. We needed someone that serene to portray Prasad’s character.”

In Bramayugam, a horror classic by Sadasivan, director Siddharth Bharathan portrayed a distinctive and mysterious character. Despite debuting as an actor in the 2002 campus drama Nammal, Bharathan has acted only in a few films over the past two decades. Why did Sadasivan cast him alongside a formidable actor like Mammootty? “I envisioned this character to harbour a sense of mystery,” explained Sadasivan, who is known for delving into the profound reflections and tribulations of the human psyche and bringing them to the fore in his films. “I felt Siddhu could bring forth the irritability and subtlety required for this role.”

Gireesh A.D. director, Premalu Gireesh A.D. director, Premalu

When it comes to Premalu, it was not an established director who took on a new role as an actor, but rather National Award-winning screenwriter Syam Pushkaran (Maheshinte Prathikaaram, 2016). Premalu was produced by Bhavana Studios, cofounded by Pushkaran with actor-director Dileesh Pothan and actor Fahadh Faasil. Interestingly, the people behind Manjummel Boys and Bhavana Studios played a significant role in establishing Mollywood’s most successful brand of ‘director-turned-actor in lead roles’ in recent years―Basil Joseph.

Joseph landed his first lead role in Jan.E.Man (2021), which was Chidambaram’s directorial debut and Ganapathi’s debut as a casting director. The character of Joymon in Jan.E.Man required a certain “boy-next-door” appeal to resonate with the audience. “We sensed a Joymon-like quality in Basil’s real-life persona, which is why we approached him for the role,” said Ganapathi.

Chidambaram and Ganapathi approached Joseph for the lead role in Jan.E.Man during the pandemic. “Even before Covid, some lead roles were offered to me, but I declined them,” recalled Joseph. “Supporting roles typically require a commitment of only 10 to 15 days, which isn’t the case with lead roles.” He confessed that he finds more enjoyment in his directorial ventures as he has control over the creative process. “However, during the pandemic, there was a dearth of work, and I found the character in Jan.E.Man appealing, so I accepted the offer,” he said.

Though more such offers came his way, he turned down most of them, except for Bhavana Studios’ Palthu Janwar (2022), Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022), Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham and Falimy (both 2023). Interestingly, all of them became hits.

“After three consecutive successful projects, numerous offers poured in, and at one point, I felt overwhelmed; I felt pressured to participate in projects even if I didn’t want to,” said Joseph. Being a lead actor has its comforts, realised Joseph―decent income and fewer risks compared with directorial ventures. It was tempting to stay in that comfort zone. What made it more confusing for him were the conflicting advice he received from various quarters. “Some advised me to fully concentrate on directorial ventures at this stage of my career, while others expressed a desire to see more of me on screen,” he said.

However, Joseph seems to have found a balance and is now focusing on scripting a mega project, which is rumoured to be a pan-India one. “I have found that my profile as an actor is now complementing my profile as a director, and vice versa,” he noted. “My directorial profile helps me to say yes only to good scripts and projects, while my acting career provides me with the time to work meticulously on my directorial project and scripts. I no longer feel the need to take on too many directorial projects simultaneously.”

Financially, this has provided a sense of stability and peace of mind for Joseph. However, because he is engrossed in a mega project, he hints at taking an acting break for at least two to three years. After all, he is a former engineer from Infosys who sacrificed a secure IT career to pursue filmmaking.