Pavithran’s face is unshaven, his salt-and-pepper hair dishevelled, as he sits awkwardly in front of a policeman. His wife and child, who had gone missing, have shown up at the police station after he filed a complaint. When his wife says she wants to stay with her lover, Pavithran takes it bravely, but insists that he wants his daughter back. But when the woman refuses, admitting that the child is her lover’s, his face crumples. Devastated, he draws the little girl to him and showers her with kisses, like he’s saying a final goodbye. He slowly gets up and tells the cop with a heart-breaking smile, “She’s joking. Please tell her not to say such things even in jest.” Then he fumblingly leaves the room, nodding at no one in particular.
With that short scene, Suraj Venjaramoodu, who plays Pavithran, walked away with Action Hero Biju (2016). It was a breakthrough performance from an actor who, until then, was mostly known to viewers for his sometimes funny, often annoying roles as a comic sidekick.
By then, it had been more than a decade since Venjaramoodu first appeared on the fringes of Malayalam cinema. When he won the National Award for best actor in 2013, even regular moviegoers were surprised—few had watched Perariyathavar in a movie theatre. So the cameo in Action Hero Biju, Venjaramoodu’s 210th film, was an eye-opener.
“After the National Award for Perariyathavar, I realised that I was still being offered comedy roles. Since no one saw the film and I didn’t want to get back into a rut, I started asking directors for roles. That’s how Action Hero Biju came to me. Initially it was supposed to be a full-fledged role but was changed into a cameo at the last minute. But that clicked and since then, things started getting better,” Venjaramoodu told HuffPost India.
The bet paid off as Malayalis realised that the man who shot to fame with his lampooning of the distinctive Thiruvananthapuram slang could handle subtle, poignant roles as well. It was a make-or-break moment, and Venjaramoodu grabbed his chance with both hands. A look at his filmography since then shows how well it has worked—43-year-old Venjaramoodu is one of the few actors in Malayalam cinema to have emerged from a creative rut as a ‘character’ artist, one who now anchors movies on his own.
From a dialect coach to a comedian
Venjaramoodu once wanted to join the Army, but a broken arm came in the way of pursuing his dream. After finishing an ITI course, he joined a mimicry troupe at the insistence of his brother.
Even before cable channels took off, mimicry as an art form used to be popular in Kerala, with people thronging live stage shows often organised as part of church and temple festivals. As channels began telecasting comedy shows, many artists became familiar faces to viewers, which sometimes translated into film offers.
Venjaramoodu’s mimicry, especially his acts featuring the ‘Thironthoram’ slang, became popular through stage shows and a comedy show called Jagapoga on Kairali TV. This was later made into a spoof movie by the same name, starring mimicry artists, which was his movie debut. After the movie bombed, he followed it up with inconsequential roles in a few films.
When Mammootty wanted to master the Thiruvananthapuram dialect for Anwar Rasheed’s Rajamanikyam (2005), he turned to Venjaramoodu. While the comedian didn’t land a role in the big-budget film, in 2007, he was cast as Mammootty’s sidekick in Mayavi, where he managed to impress by delivering some hilarious dialogues.
From then, Venjaramoodu became a familiar face in Malayalam movies, cracking one-liners, often laden with innuendo, and acting as the hero’s punching bag. While he did a range of roles—his Dashamoolam Damu in Mammootty’s Chattambinadu (2009) continues to inspire memes—his acting skills didn’t really excite viewers at that point.
“During a college inauguration, I found myself staring at a banner that said, ‘Welcome, Dashamoolam Damu’. Here I was, dressed nattily in jeans and shirt but expected to mimic the character. That’s when I realised the impact of the character and how they were finding newer definitions to his various expressions. At that time, I was just casually giving all those expressions. This year, we are coming out with a movie with (the character of) Damu as the hero. It’s such a happy liability for me,” says the actor.
Venjaramoodu’s characters during this time were exaggerated, quirky and loud—in many, he was asked to repeat his Trivandrum slang shtick.
“At that time, I would do four characters a day and naturally they turned repetitive. Sometimes it would be for a friend’s role and I was only briefed about the scene, the script was often read on the spot. I would be someone’s friend or brother-in-law. They didn’t give me a backgrounder and I never asked them,” the actor recollects.
“The mimicry skill in him is predominant when he does comedy. So, when he does a drunken scene, it looks like he is imitating another drunken act he has watched on a mimicry stage,” said R. Ayyappan, a Malayala Manorama journalist.
Venjaramoodu’s roles didn’t vary much because in the mid 2000s, Malayalam cinema was still grappling with the weight of superstardom, which meant the stories were still primarily focused around a few big heroes. While a few small movies clicked with viewers in between, it was only after 2011, with Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic, that a change began to be visible. Slowly, mindless star vehicles made way for fresher stories and ordinary characters, which also coincided with the entry of actors like Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly.
The strong division between ‘commercial’ and ‘award’ movies at the time also meant that actors such as Venjaramoodu—strangely, he didn’t really have many competitors in that in-between phase—were not getting the kind of author-backed roles that comedians from an earlier generation, such as Jagathy Sreekumar, Mamukkoya and Kuthiravattam Pappu, got.
‘Perariyathavar’ and after
While Venjaramoodu was getting steady work, it was clear that both his comedy and his roles were stagnating. He was desperately trying to switch to character roles when, out of the blue, came a call from director Dr. Biju.
“I was fascinated by the fact that the character (in Perariyathavar, as a sweeper) didn’t have many dialogues. Besides, the character was someone I had seen. I was heartened by the fact that Dr. Biju could see a spark in me as an actor ,” says the actor.
Biju told HuffPost India it was Venjaramoodu’s stage performances that made him choose the actor. “Even in some of his plastic comedy acts, there was an ease in his body language which I thought would suit my character, who was required to behave and not act. He told me he will come to the sets as a blank paper, which really helped. This was also his first experience with sync sound.”
Biju disclosed that Venjaramoodu took home the only shirt he wore in the film as a souvenir and his father wore the shirt for a long time.
Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, film critic at Silverscreen.in, picks the actor’s role in Lal Jose’s 2013 comedy Pullipulikalum Aattinkuttiyum as the one that first revealed to her that there was a good actor in Venjaramoodu.
“His performance had the layers an everyday comedian isn’t usually expected to bring to the table,” she said of Mamachan, who did odd jobs in a village, doubling as a real estate and marriage broker, and a travel agent.
If the award-winning Perariyathavar (2013) was the first indication that the actor had it in him to push the envelope, the heart-breaking cameo in Action Hero Biju was the mainstream revelation he needed. The same year, 2016, he followed it up with interesting performances in the sports drama Karinkunnam Sixes, where he played Nelson, a sexist jailer who ridicules Manju Warrier’s talent as a volleyball coach, and Oru Muthassi Gadha, a haphazard rom-com in which he played the harrowed son of a tyrannical mother.
By then, it was becoming clear that Venjaramoodu was picking his roles with caution, favouring substantial characters over the mindless comedy the audience had expected from him so far.
It helped that a new crop of young actors and directors had emerged in Malayalam cinema by then. The films they made had room for ‘ordinary’ heroes and heroines.
Sowmya Rajendran, film critic with The News Minute, credits this to “the industry’s willingness to experiment and the audience embracing the trend”.
“Not just Suraj, other unlikely heroes like Soubin (Shahir), Vinayakan, Vinay Forrt and Joju George have also emerged and found success in mainstream cinema,” Rajendran told Huffpost India.
But it was 2017’s Thondimuthalum Driksakhiyum which is still seen as the milestone in Venjaramoodu’s career. In the film, which the actor once said he got after he expressed a desire to work with Dileesh Pothan, Venjaramoodu’s Prasad elopes with heroine Sreeja and the couple are on their way to start a new life when her thali chain is burgled on a moving bus.
Prasad is a kind, pragmatic but insecure man who supports his wife but also sometimes struggles to understand her. In a film filled with great performances, Venjaramoodu managed to hold his own against Fahadh Faasil, who played the thief. He even made the initial romantic scenes with a much younger Nimisha Sajayan seem convincing.
“When I asked Pothan why he chose me, he said because I am an actor! But he admitted it was Action Hero Biju that sealed the deal for him. He moulded me as an actor, would detail me about Prasad at every step and once I got him, he would finetune it. It’s difficult to explain,” said Venjaramoodu, who prefers to give credit to the creative process that social media fans of Pothan lovingly call ‘Pothettan’s brilliance’.
“He had more screen time than Fahadh Faasil in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, which shows how the current crop of actors in Malayalam cinema industry respects the script as the hero,” said Rajendran.
Then Venjaramoodu turned around and topped that role with an underrated performance in Varnyathil Ashanka, where he played a seemingly nice guy with shades of grey who, when he finds himself part of a jewellery heist, slyly turns the tables in his favour. The actor said he loved the character, but rues that the film didn’t get the “audience it deserved”.
Ayyappan has a theory for why Venjaramoodu’s ‘serious’ roles have struck a chord with viewers.
“Jagathy is an instinctive comedian and when he transitioned into serious roles, he couldn’t completely shrug off comedy from his body language. But in Suraj’s case, it’s the reverse. He is an inspired comedian but a theoretical actor who systematically studies his characters. Therefore he can bring more originality to the sombre roles,” said the critic.
How 2019 became the year of Suraj Venjaramoodu
The actor’s consistent attempts to push himself out of his comfort zone were on full display last year. Of his varied roles, the best were Varghese Master in Finals, Eldo in Vikruthi, Bhaskara Poduval in Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 and Kuruvilla in Driving Licence.
Varghese master’s introductory shot tells the viewer a lot about him—a pair of anxious, tired eyes rest on his daughter (Rajisha Vijayan), who is about to join a cycle race. He is in his mid-50s with greying sideburns, stubble and a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. A fallen sports coach, Varghese’s only route to the glory that eluded him in his prime is to make an Olympic winner out of his daughter. Very few actors portray defeat as convincingly as Venjaramoodu (as Pavithran in Action Hero Biju showed us) and he does it subtly here, all the while holding back the overwhelming love he has for his daughter.
Sreehari Nair, a film critic with Rediff, describes Venjaramoodu as “psychologically taut”.
“Even in his mimicry performances; the best ones have something that’s beyond just ‘behavioural’. His finest turns are therefore not just attempts to refine the “Suraj Venjaramoodu” character—he is interested in people; a liberal who genuinely wishes to embody a range of personality types,” he said.
In Emcy Joseph’s Vikruthi, Eldo, based on a real-life character, is a mute person who loses his job and reputation when a photo of him sleeping on a Metro train is posted on social media. Joseph said that Suraj thoroughly read the script, offered suggestions and got engrossed in the making of the film. For Eldo, they took references from the real-life character, as they wanted to keep it subtle.
“He is a quick learner and involved so much into the character that throughout the shoot, he remained in the character and would even converse with us in sign language. Since he is a busy actor, he got very little time to prepare. I think he is a natural actor,” said Joseph.
“Initially the character only had a limp. But then I told them if he is mute in real life, why don’t we incorporate it? So that part was added a day before the shoot began. It was a difficult role as I had to show emotions through my body language. In fact, I was doing Android Kunjappan and Vikruthi simultaneously,” said Venjaramoodu.
But cranky Bhaskaran in Android Kunjappan Version 5:25—which Rajendran calls ‘spot on’—was nothing like the actor had ever done before. A widower in his ’80s, Bhaskaran isn’t pleased with the new robot his son has procured from Russia to look after him. But eventually, it wins him over and the man starts taking care of him like his own son. It was, perhaps, the actor’s most physically complex role. While makeup can aid in the initial bulwark, the rest of it has to come from the actor—the bearing, voice modulation, the internalisation—and it has to be consistent. Suraj blends dry humour into Bhaskaran’s sobriety and nails the complexity of the character, expressing his petulance, loneliness and growing affection for the machine that borders on the insane.
For the role, Venjaramoodu observed the mannerisms of his father as well as director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s father, and spoke to people from Payyannur to pick up the dialect.
“On paper, it just says the character is this old. But the rest of it comes through discussions with the director and writer. I show it in the rehearsals and then take it forward. It was a very difficult role to maintain and it took me two hours daily to get ready. The whole concept of exchanging emotions with a robot was fascinating,” he said.
Driving Licence, written by Sachy and directed by Lal Jr. is about a superstar (Prithviraj) and his fan, a motor driving inspector called Kuruvilla, played by Venjaramoodu. When a misunderstanding creeps in between the two, the star-fan dynamic gets blurred and egos take over. Venjaramoodu excels in the emotional scenes, especially when his character gets humiliated in front of people. It’s a performance filled with such empathy that despite the narrative leaning towards the superstar of the story, the viewer is left with the feeling that Kuruvilla deserved a better closure.
When he reflects on the twists and turns in his career, the actor is as unassuming as the characters he now plays.
“Every good and bad film helped me to better myself. I can say this in two ways—either the romanticised version of how I am able to do roles I love or how things just happened. Or can I say that it’s the thought of my children’s school fees which fuels my ambitions as an actor?”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.