From ABCD to Maradona, how Tovino Thomas became one of Malayalam cinema's most versatile young actors
A close look at the career path, choices and methods of one of the best actors in Malayalam cinema this decade — Tovino Thomas.
He has taken his time to establish himself — as a character actor and comedian, and finally as the unchallenged lead of a film. His films have stories that look beyond the pithy narrative of a hero, and he plays all his parts to perfection. In this short profile, we look at the career path, choices and methods of one of the best actors Malayalam cinema has seen in this decade — Tovino Thomas.
In the Dulquer Salmaan starrer, ABCD (2013), Tovino Thomas, dressed in sparkling whites, played Akhilesh Kumar - an ambitious young politician. With a clean-cut face that would sit easily on magazine cover pages and a warm, cheeky smile, he slips into the grey character with the ease of an experienced actor. The next year he showcased a nebulous yet important trait for a good actor with You Too Brutus and he surprised us. This was, I would say, a breakthrough role — as the smooth-talking gym instructor who was a total ladies’ man and manipulated a friend into believing he is a Casanova. Tovino showed off his comic timing very effectively and unpredictably. At the same time Malayalam cinema was witnessing three talents growing in stature and popularity — Fahadh Faasil, Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly. Fahadh was already carving a niche for himself as an actor with gravitas (Amen, Annayum Rasoolum, Artist), and was in no hurry to sign every film that came his way. Dulquer was the young stallion, judiciously picking roles that appealed to a wider section of the audience. Ditto with Nivin Pauly, who had turned into an overnight sensation with Premam. Tovino Thomas was the dark horse.
But he was growing. Gradually. With stellar cameos. The stylish bad guy (Style); a brief but intense role as someone dealing with unrequited love in a film headlined by Prithviraj and Parvathy (Ennu Ninte Moideen). That he has always been secure as an actor is reflected in his decision to do so many cameos (Ezra, Charlie, Monsoon Mangoes, Aami). And in these films, he has always stood out amid a sea of talents. In fact, Tovino’s charming Lord Krishna, who was basically strolling around with a warm, gentle smile was the best part of Aami. Tovino was intelligently laying down his versatility cards. What always worked in his favour is that he has seldom been part of terrible films. Guppy (2016), a low-budget, well-made film by newcomer John Paul George — about the rivalry between a teenager and a visiting engineer in a local fisherman’s village — was one of the earliest signs that Tovino wasn’t interested in being bracketed. His character had an interesting grey arc to it.
“It’s not like he plans his films. It’s more about how much he loves a character, or being part of a good film,” says friend and Godha director Basil Joseph. In Godha, probably his first solo hit, he perfects the role of a young man who is confused about a lot of things in life — be it his career or love life. In the scene where he confesses his love towards her, only to be rejected, he reacts with a mixture of indignation and disappointment. In the film, Tovino worked hard to build a wrestler’s body. “As an actor, I think he is more spontaneous and doesn’t prepare much, but he doesn’t mind going that extra mile to physically transform himself into a character,” admits Joseph. After sporting a lean frame to play the part of a chain smoker in Theevandi earlier this year, the actor has gone on a rigorous six-month bodybuilding workout for the role of a cop (reportedly modelled after Mammootty’s iconic Inspector Balram) in the upcoming Kalki.
The real deal happened last year. In Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi, no one expected Tovino to pull off this complex, layered role of Mathan, who lives a dual life as unscrupulous land dealer and desperate lover. But he did and with nuance, bringing pathos, vulnerability and strength to the character. And within a few months he reassured us that it wasn’t a one-off case with another cracker of a performance in Maradona. He plays a man with a dubious past and present, who makes money breaking bones and blackmailing people, and then goes on a path of redemption; Tovino is riveting in this superbly written character, easily pulling the film several notches up. “I think, when he is racing, he can hold the camera, while seemingly trying to escape it. There is a toughness about Tovino that I feel is just two notches below Fahadh Faasil,” says film critic Sreehari Nair, who was blown away by his performance in Maradona. “He made me believe he’s actually going through whatever the character is going through. Both physically and psychologically. You know he isn’t faking it,” says film research scholar, Ramakrishnan.
The actor has 11 films lined up for 2019 (the most for any actor in Malayalam cinema next year) with experienced and new directors. Ever since Dulquer Salmaan became busy with this whole crossover business, Tovino seems to be the next best bet. “The best thing about Tovino is that you don’t have to go through various channels to reach him. He picks his own calls and doesn’t involve others in his selection process. It goes without saying that he has a fantastic script sense. He is the most approachable actor among the younger lot if a new director wants to pitch a story,” says a source close to the actor.
During a telephonic interview, when I asked him what’s the worst thing an actor can do to himself, Tovino had replied, “Do a film only for money. Cinema is art, never treat it as a business. Once a cinema releases, it is part of history — I will be judged based on my choices.” He is as good as his word.
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