From Mahendra Varma to Ayyappanum Koshiyum, tracing 25 years of Biju Menon in Malayalam cinema
Biju Menon's three-decade old career can be divided into two parts—the conventional and the experimental
Biju Menon completes 25 years in the Malayalam film industry in 2020, and it's been quite a surprising ride. Many of us remember Menon as the quintessential elite/rich villain — a role he perfected in the cult classic Mannar Mathai Speaking, and reproduced many times after. From then to this, another breakout role, as Ayyappan Nair marks the exemplary evolution of the actor in Menon.
SI Ayyappan Nair is a man of few words. Even to those close to him, he rarely displays any emotions. He is a responsible, disciplined cop who hates crossing the ethical boundaries in his job. But when he gets on the wrong foot with an affluent stranger, Koshy, a retired havildar, he ends up losing his job. That’s when we realise that Koshy has in effect awakened a sleeping lion. Soon the skeletons of the past tumbles out of the sombre cop’s closet to reveal a beast who has been freed from a leash. Directed and written by Sachy, Ayyappanum Koshiyum is a breakout role for Menon, who essays the character with a passive rebellion, silent empathy and practicality.
Biju's (the actor turns 50 this year) three-decade old career can be divided into two parts—the conventional and the experimental. In the first decade, he dug into supporting characters—variations of a friend, brother, people in power (mostly cops), loyal henchman and interesting offbeat characters. He first made inroads into television with a popular show called Mikhayelinte Santhathikal which was later made into a feature film, Puthran, marking his debut in 1995. Biju opted for the role of a rich greedy businessman who torches his wife to usurp her property in the Siddique-Lal written Mannar Mathai Speaking in the same year.
In the Kamal-directed Azhakiya Ravanan, he starts off as a hero but soon drifts into a villain when he agrees to trade his girlfriend for money offered by hero Sankar Das (Mammootty). Myriad roles have come his way and interestingly he has always had a handful of releases every year since his debut. Though the 90s and early 2000s showcased his mileage as an actor, it was always within the precinct of a certain type of character. They were invariably men who were either angry, nursed a broken heart or were slackers. In Kudamattam (1997), Kaliyattam (1997), Pranayavarnangal (1998), Innalekalillathe (1997) Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu (1997) he essentially played different versions of the unrequited lover. But amongst them the eccentric, by-product of toxic masculinity, Akhilachandran who has been promised to Meenakshi (Manju Warrier) stood out. He is unstable, violent and yet in his own way he loves Meenakshi who is forced to be with him after a promise she made to her father. Despite the problematic climax where Akhilachandran literally pushes her to be with her lover, Menon’s nuanced actor wins you over. In Pathram, Oru Maravathoor Kanavu, Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu and Sneham he has done characters which come under the wide umbrella of shirkers which he does without much difficulty.
Despite his quintessentially macho looks, deep baritone voice, Menon for some reason has never really posed a threat to the leading superstars back then. Be it with Suresh Gopi in Randamoozham, FIR, Kaliyattam, Pathram, Mohanlal in Run Baby Run, Baba Kalyani, Onnaman, Mammootty in Pattalam, Oru Maravathoor Kanavu, Daddy Cool, Menon has gamely played second fiddle to them. While industry insiders blame it on the actor’s inherent slackness (something which was pointed out by Malayalam superstar Mammootty in an interview to a regional magazine) others feel he didn’t have lofty ambitions as an actor. “In his initial days there was an attempt to imitate Mammootty and he did hold similarities with the older actor. That might have hindered his chances, apart from the fact that his body language was very stiff initially,” observes Meera KP, film critic. Also, his attempt to pull off a conventional action hero floundered in Shivam, where he plays a righteous cop.
When Menon was called for the coveted part of Edachena Kunkan in Hariharan’s period ensemble Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, he reportedly excused himself citing his fear of riding horses. The role finally went to Tamil actor Sharath Kumar. “I have not seen a more contended zen-like person than Menon. He is a very happy positive person for those around him. He is one of my favourite co-stars,” says Prithviraj Sukumaran about his Ayyappanum Koshiyum co-star.
Whenever he has dissolved into the sombre romantic roles (Madhura Nombarakattu, Megha Malhar, Mazha) it has worked in his favour. “But then they are not considered passports to stardom,” notes Krishna Kumar, film critic.
The second coming
In 2010, he got his first breakthrough, playing a baddie with a comical twist in Marykkundoru Kunjadu. He played a thief and murderer who gate-crashes into a friendly neighbourhood in the guise of their long-lost brother. The actor doesn’t have a single dialogue in the film, he is ominously silent, with a sullen expression plastered on his face. Yet in the narrative with undertones of comedy, his Jose ends up stealing the scene right from under the nose of the hero Dileep. In the same year, he pulled off a grey character in Pranchiyettan and the Saint with surprising intensity along with a largely overlooked performance in Shyama Prasad’s dark Electra, based on the Oedipus complex.
Suku in Sugeeth’s Ordinary is a KSTRC bus driver, who instantly keeps you on his side with his Palakkad flavoured Malayalam. In a film with an ensemble of actors, headlined by Kunchako Boban, Menon’s Suku remains the biggest takeaway. It’s also the first film which showcased his effortless comic timing. His brand of deadpan humour found more takers in Vellimoonga, Romans, Kunjiramayanam, Madhura Naranga, Anarkali, Salt Mango Tree, Marubhoomiyile Aana and Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu. The last one especially had the actor at his charming best, playing this middle-aged villager who is the picture of contentment, playing cricket with boys half his age, idling at work and making no fuss about the acts of goodness he does for everyone in the village. He plays Baiju with an irreverence, falling back on dry wit and keeps the wafer-thin storyline together. “The plan is to do something different than the previous roles. Sometimes I do take up roles for friends too,” says Menon in a television interview. In fact, he has had many such friendly collaborations with Director Lal Jose (10 films) and Sachi (where he featured in 7 of his writing-directorial ventures).
Though he did experiment with an author backed role as Kuttiyappan who wants to put to action his bizarre sexual fantasy in Leela and as the brooding middle-aged cop who tries to reignite his decade old marriage in Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, his comedy pieces were getting stale (recently Padayottam, Rosapoo, Adyarathri, Mera Naam Shaji, 41). “He is good in a safe zone, a limited range, but he is very effective in that zone. I think he is more at ease now, earlier showing a natural comic flair in Ordinary and Baiju. But Ayyappanum Koshiyum could be his next breakout. The character was unconventional, and the casting was also a surprise,” offers Kumar.
With over 150 films, Menon’s evolution as an actor has been gradual, beginning awkwardly, finding feet in between, tripping slightly again, and rediscovering a new comfort zone each time. He will remain Malayalam cinema’s most reassuring sight for a long time to come.
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