Dulquer Salmaan: How Mammootty’s son became face of the cosmopolitan Malayali
With a superstar father, who’s also one of the most revered actors in the Malayalam film industry, Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salmaan was a celebrity much before he was officially launched as a film hero. For an outsider, his success in the industry wouldn’t seem special or even scripted. His recent release, Jomonte Suvisheshangal (The Gospel of Jomon), the story of a prodigal son who slowly wrecks his father’s hard-won fortune could be seen - if you didn’t follow Dulquer’s career -- as a parable for many a star prodigy’s career. But this new release, directed by Sathyan Anthikad, raked in an impressive Rs 2.71 crores in Kerala. A few critics have panned the film calling its storyline ‘trite’ and long-winded. But despite its many defects and strong competition from Mohanlal’s (interestingly, his father’s contemporary) Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, Jomonte seems to be holding on just fine at the theatres.
The success of Jomonte is just another addition to Dulquer’s glittering string of recent successes that include Charlie (2015) Kammattippaadam and Kali (both from 2016).
Charlie and Kali set opening day collection records for him at Rs 2.10 crores and Rs 2.33 crores respectively. Currently, Kerala’s biggest superstar Mohanlal’s Loham that released along with Charlie reportedly collected around Rs 2.14 crores on the opening day. (Charlie released in 106 centres and Loham in 141.)
Dulquer’s ability to attract audiences is no mean feat for someone who made his debut in 2012. Born in Kochi, Dulquer did his schooling from Sishya in Chennai, where he also learned to speak Tamil - (a bilinguality near-mandatory among Malayali stars). After he graduated in business and finance from Purdue University, he worked for a bit in finance in Dubai. But he moved back to India in 2010 and took an acting course from Barry John Acting Studio in Mumbai.
Despite a fairly successful debut in first-time director Srinath Rajendran’s Second Show, Dulquer really only became a household name after he played Faizi, a young man who follows his passion to become a chef in the 2012-starrer Ustad Hotel. Faizi’s struggles as a young man whose unusual aspirations were curtailed by his ambitious and wealthy father struck a chord with Malayali audiences. “The script needed someone fresh and relatable and someone with whom you’d empathise,” recalls filmmaker Anjali Menon, who was Ustad Hotel’s scriptwriter. “Dulquer easily slipped into the role because he was also familiar with the different cultures I mentioned in the film - of a boy who grew up in Dubai, studied in Europe or being the youngest in the family,” she points out.
Dulquer’s popularity also stems from the fact that unlike the stars of the older generation, but like some of his peers, he has taken a gamble by consciously staying away from formulaic action entertainers, just to craft a “mass hero” image.
In an industry that makes room for all kinds of faces and bodies (at least for men), the 31-year-old actor is a fortunate combination of good looks and talent. Much like his successful peers Fahadh Faasil and Nivin Pauly, Dulquer too has benefited much from and contributed to what is called the ‘new generation’ wave in Malayalam cinema. In this new wave, Malayalam movies have moved away from the rural and small town milieu to urban and often-affluent backdrops. Their popularity could be attributed to the fact that the roles are more relatable to the youthful movie-goers.
Dulquer, particularly, has become the face of the cosmopolitan Malayali (Ustad Hotel, Bangalore Days), the expat Malayali (ABCD) and the new generation lover boy (Kali, Pattam Pole, 100 days of Love) and certainly the sexy young Malayali male (Charlie). Unlike Pauly or Faasil, for instance, Dulquer is firmly on Instagram with a million followers. His feed is not just selfie-heavy like every other young star - with his reputation as an auto enthusiast, there are plenty of avatars of Dulquer as a biker. What might be a surprise is the careful tagging of his excellent clothes by designer, stylist and label. It reminds you of director Martin Prakkat’s observation about Dulquer in Charlie, “He is a guy who is comfortable in dhoti as well as harem pants. No other actor but Dulquer could have pulled it off.” Photos alone or with wife architect Amal Sufiya, whom he married before entering the film industry, on social media projects a picture-perfect version of youthful aspiration. He has stayed out of scandals or controversies, unlike his senior Dileep’s very messy divorce and remarriage in 2015, for instance. “He’s got a very good off-screen image too, and I think the audience connects to that,” says filmmaker Anjali Menon.
But onscreen, Dulquer has been careful not to fall into the trap of playing only sweet romantic leads. He has conscientiously, in these five years, picked unexpected roles as well - be it the anguished man inflicting revenge against his wife’s killer in Theevram, the young husband with anger management issues in Kali or a small-time thug who gets caught in a scuffle with the real estate mafia in Kammattippaadam. “He doesn’t do a film unless he is totally convinced of the script. He is very straight and reliable and won’t go back on his word,” says producer Shibu Thameen, who worked with Dulquer in Amercian Born Confused Desi (ABCD).
While Theevram earned him acclaim as a serious actor, it failed to shine at the box office. He bounced back with ABCD playing a newly-returned expat who pretends to be living the ‘simple’ life when the truth was that he was just cut off from family money. The film’s director Martin Prakkat recalls, “I knew Dulquer would fit the role, but I had no idea how he would perform. When I met him for the photoshoot, he appeared so cheerful and energetic that I instantly knew he was apt for it.”
Dulquer has not only consistently delivered box office hits but has also delivered an impressive performance in a period film directed by Ranjith -- Njaan, an adaptation of TK Rajeevan’s acclaimed novel K T N Kottur: Ezhuthum Jeevithavum. In fact, when we discuss Dulquer in the context of Kerala’s new generation filmmakers like Sameer Thahir or Amal Neerad, Prakkat protests, “[But] Dulquer has worked with the older filmmakers like Sathyan Anthikad and Lal Jose. I don’t think you can fit him into just the new-generation genre.”
The actor landed the role of Arjun aka Aju in Bangalore Days alongside Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Nazriya Nasim, Nithya Menen and Parvathy. It was tailor-made for Dulquer, who is a self-confessed gadget and automobile enthusiast. “The first picture of Dulquer that Anwar (Rasheed, the director of Ustad Hotel) sent me while he was working on the film, was Dulquer posing near car miniatures, which I too have a big fetish for. I could only think of Dulquer for Aju in Bangalore Days, as over time we had discovered a lot in common between us. If it wasn’t for Dulquer, I wouldn’t have weaved so much of the motocross racing into the script,” says Menon, the director of Bangalore Days.
The multi-starrer Bangalore Days is credited to be one of the films that has taken Malayalam cinema out of its traditional sphere and opened up fresher markets outside the state. Made at a budget of Rs 10 crore, the movie collected over Rs 45 crores at the box office making it one of the best grossing films in Malayalam film history.
After Bangalore Days (2014), the biggest spike in Dulquer’s financial graph has been Charlie (2015), registering a first day collection of Rs 2.10 crores in Kerala. “It was a Dulquer release that people were waiting to see after a long time, and may be that contributed to Charlie’s phenomenal opening. It set a first day opening record for Dulquer. I think it’s a role that will remain with him forever,” Prakkat says.
Dulquer is often pitted against Nivin Pauly, a fast-rising star like himself, who is considered a box office rival. “Fahadh, Nivin, Dulquer and Nazriya and Parvati were always helping each other with their performances while shooting for Bangalore Days. I did a number of takes and they took turns giving each other’s cues. All this talk of rivalry - it was never there on the sets. It was a lot of warmth and fun,” says filmmaker Anjali Menon.
Nivin Pauly did his first movie in 2010. It’s too early to tell whether he and Dulquer will have the kind of contest that Mohanlal and Mammootty have had for decades. But Pauly and Dulquer are in the same pay scale now. Nivin hasn’t had a release since April 2016 and Dulquer has had two hits in between. Fahadh is not currently in the race as he hasn’t had a release since Maheshinte Prathikaram (early 2016), although he could bounce back any time.
Dulquer’s role in Charlie was that of a charming quirky do-gooder but in reality things seem a little different: The word that appears in his Instagram bio between ‘film and auto enthusiast’ is ‘business’. That said, it’s true that Dulquer, Pauly et al don’t just look at money when they sign a project. The Malayalam industry is very small. If the script is good, but budget is a constraint, the actors don’t mind making a bit less or getting compensated post release through area rights or satellite rights.
Producer Shibu Thameen too talks about Dulquer’s bankability. “Frankly, we were initially drawn by the fact that he is Mammootty’s son. ABCD was only his fourth movie and the crowds that we saw in theatres were unforeseen. Today, Dulquer’s opening is definitely one of best in the industry, irrespective of the cast and crew combinations he is working with,” he vouches. Shibu is planning a Tamil project with Dulquer that will take off in 2018, indubitably a full-fledged commercial entertainer.
Now, Dulquer may not be as popular as some of the familiar faces in Tamil cinema like Ajith, Vijay, Suriya, Dhanush, or Vikram, but he has without doubt captured the hearts of many young women through his two roles as Aravind in Vaayai Moodi Pesavum and Aditya in OK Kanmani.
“I had heard that he grew up and did his schooling in Chennai. When I met him, I found that he could speak pretty decent Tamil and so we decided to go ahead and use his voice to dub,” says Balaji Mohan, Vaayai Moodi Pesavum (Samsaram Aarogyathinu Haanikaram in Malayalam). “Surprisingly, it did better in Tamil than Malayalam, though we expected it to be the other way around. For an experimental film, it did quite well at the box office.”
In Vaayai Moodi Pesavum, Dulquer plays a chirpy salesperson, who wants to be a radio jockey, and is paired with his Malayali counterpart Nazriya Nasim, who plays a doctor. Interestingly, he shared the screen again with a Malayali actor for his next Tamil film - Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani, a breezy story on love, loss and living together.
Moreover, Dulquer’s looks, charm and his flair for appealing romance, stood him in good stead in the new industry, where he was hailed as the next big ‘chocolate-hero’ in town after Madhavan in Alaipayuthey (also a Mani Ratnam film).
Dulquer, in a way, ticks all the boxes, but filling the very large shoes of a Mammootty or a Mohanlal (if at all) looks to be a huge challenge and he still has a long way to go to achieve the status of a ‘megastar’ that his father has earned over the years. Master storytellers of his father’s generation like Hariharan or Adoor Gopalakrishnan are no longer around to mentor young upcoming stars. And extraordinary scripts are sometimes hard to come by. Dulquer seems to be on the right track as far as the numbers game is concerned, but his future will depend as much on improvising enough to expand his range of performances as his smartness in making the best of the options available.
(In arrangement with Grist Media)
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