The stars look very different today: Anupama Chopra on changing cinemascapes
Irul means darkness in Malayalam. It’s the title of a murder mystery starring Fahadh Faasil, Soubin Shahir and Darshana Rajendran, set to be released on Netflix India this week.
As I watched the trailer, in which these three stellar actors play a macabre cat-and-mouse game, I once again marvelled at how streaming platforms are expanding horizons for both artists and audiences. Subtitles (or, as Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho put it, “the 1-inch-tall barrier”) are rendering language and geography irrelevant.
Actors no longer need to work in Bollywood, or do the kinds of big-budget sagas that are dubbed and released across the country, in order to have pan-India appeal. Thanks to streaming platforms, we are discovering artistry from across the country. And it’s changing the notion of what constitutes a star.
A case in point is Faasil. In October, he starred (again with Rajendran) in C U Soon, a small-budget drama shot during the lockdown, which played out entirely on screens. The film was released on Amazon Prime, amid a national publicity blitz. One of the publicists coordinating interviews with the usually reticent and media-shy Faasil told me she was being inundated with requests from mainstream media houses in Delhi and Mumbai. “I had no idea he was so popular,” she said.
Over the past decade, Faasil’s films — from Bangalore Days and Kumbalangi Nights to Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Super Deluxe and Trance (which was a box-office failure but found a cult following online) — have cemented his place in the pantheon of great Indian actors. He shapes stories with his expressive eyes and isn’t, like so many Bollywood counterparts, a prisoner of image or his own success. So he can play, with equal ease, a psychopath (Kumbalangi Nights), a harassed, betrayed husband (Super Deluxe) and a preacher with a God complex (Trance). Next, he is set to play the antagonist opposite Telugu superstar Allu Arjun, in the upcoming Pushpa.
Another favourite from Malayalam cinema is Shahir, an extraordinary actor with a chameleon-like ability. I first saw him in Sudani from Nigeria (2018), in which he plays Majeed, the manager of a cash-strapped football team in Malappuram. When Majeed’s star player, nicknamed Sudu, is injured, Majeed decides to nurse him back to health in his own home. Sudu in turn helps heal Majeed move past his bitterness and resentments.
Shahir is the Everyman but he is also so much more. Watch him in a scene in Kumbalangi Nights in which his character Saji visits a counsellor for the first time. It’s like a dam has broken. Saji holds the man and weeps like a child.
Incredibly, Shahir can do comedy equally well. He appears in just a cameo in last year’s Halal Love Story, directed by Zakariya Mohammed (who also made Sudani from Nigeria), but his performance as a perfectionist sound recordist on a chaotic film set is the highlight of the film.
I’m a late-comer to the genius of Suraj Venjaramoodu. I discovered him in January, when I watched The Great Indian Kitchen, in which he plays an entitled, obnoxious husband to such perfection that I wanted to lean into the frame and slap him.
Months later, I saw the National Award-winning actor in Android Kunjappan, playing a man twice his real age, who forms an intimate bond with a robot deployed to look after him. The transformation was so complete that it was impossible to imagine that this cantankerous octogenarian was ever youthful.
These artists don’t fit into any of the leading-man stereotypes of six-pack abs or styled-from-head-to-toe beauty. They command the frame with presence and talent. And that is real stardom. I hope they continue to demolish boundaries.