2019 is almost coming to an end, and this means that apart from the usual best-of-the-year lists, there’s also the chance to take a step back and see what the highlights of this decade were. Malayalam cinema has gone through a significant churn over the past ten years—the rise of the category called ‘new gen’ has led to a shift in the star system, creating room for debutants and actors who find a niche that may not have existed earlier. This hasn’t meant a complete overhaul, of course—the big stars still call the shots and women often get a raw deal from the industry. But if this list is anything to go by, there is good reason to expect more miracles from Malayalam films in the next decade as well. Compiling this wasn’t easy—we had to eliminate many worthy contenders—but here’s our list of the breakthrough performances of this decade from Malayalam cinema.
1. Mammootty (Unda, Munnariyippu )
In the Khalid Rahman-directed Unda (2019), Mammootty plays sub-inspector Manikandan, who has been sent on election duty, along with a group of young cops, to Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Mani is in his mid-50s and combines a paunch and greying hair with the disposition of a well-meaning uncle. For the glamorous actor, the weary ageing cop who hasn’t fired a gun in his career was a clever subversion of the 30-odd policemen roles he has played over his long career. Mammootty plays Mani sir with an astonishing eye for detail. There is a scene where he enters a room, sweaty and tired, gently rubbing his chest. He then collapses on to the mat and grabs a medicine box, and your heart goes out to him. When he apologises to his boys for being unable to rise to the situation, it’s a truly empathetic performance that only an actor of his calibre could pull off.
In director Venu’s Munnariyippu (2014), Mammooty’s C.K. Raghavan is a rather shady figure, serving a life term for double homicide. A journalist who is fascinated by the weighty philosophy Raghavan...