Column | Suraj Venjaramoodu: Malayalam cinema’s ‘Higuita’ is performer of the year

Column | Suraj Venjaramoodu: Malayalam cinema’s ‘Higuita’ is performer of the year

One of the first things that Suraj Venjaramoodu did after becoming a star was launching a theatre group in his hometown Venjaramoodu. His troupe, Kashinatha Theatres, stages plays and light-and-sound shows using local talent. The small town, which had more art clubs than tea shops at one point, also holds the distinction for being home to the first children’s theatre troupe. The clubs have been training a large number of children and youth from surrounding areas in stage performances. It is this kind of a training ground that brought out the comedian and actor in Suraj Venjaramoodu, the performer of the year in Malayalam cinema.

As a comedian, Suraj has been signed by directors to play roles otherwise reserved for someone like Jagathy Sreekumar, who was a permanent fixture in most of the films. After an accident forced Jagathy to retire and the death of many talented actors such as Thilakan, Rajan P Dev, Cochin Haneefa and Kalabhavan Mani left a huge void, Suraj was gradually made to step into the shoes of many of these actors. Watching Suraj do only comedy roles, hardly anyone would have expected him to transform to the actor that he is today. Thanks to Perariyathavar (2015) and Action Hero Biju (2016), that perception did not last long.

I watched his Christmas release, Driving License, out of my curiosity to see how Suraj would perform in a role that measures up to Prithviraj, the hero (who is also the producer). Barely a month ago, he had touched a new high with his impressive act in Android Kunjappan ver 5.25. Driving License did not disappoint as an entertainer, thanks to Suraj who is in top form. By the end of the first half, he had made enough impact that the juxtaposition of his face with Prithviraj’s on the interval card felt fully justified.

Column | Suraj Venjaramoodu: Malayalam cinema’s ‘Higuita’ is performer of the year
Suraj and Prithviraj in 'Driving License'

In the film, Suraj performs a motor vehicle inspector named Kuruvilla who gets in to a full-blown tussle with a superstar of Malayalam cinema whom he is an ardent fan of. Driving License is more of a Suraj Venjaramood show than a Prithviraj movie because Prithviraj’s character is monochromatic while Suraj’s has many hues. In his portrayal of motor vehicle inspector, Suraj elevates himself to a perfect antagonist who fights for his self-esteem, which he later likens to poison.

Suraj’s previous outing Android Kunjappan was a smaller film in which he played the protagonist--a lonely old man named Bhaskara Poduval--who is caught between a robot that is programmed to be his housemaid and his own self-sufficient, rigid lifestyle after his son decides to move abroad to pursue his career. The unnatural make-up aside, it was a brilliant show. Suraj had mentioned that he had based his portrayal of Poduval on his memories about his late father’s talking style and mannerisms.

In the same year, he was seen in two more landmark roles of his career: first, as Varughese master, the father and coach of a cycling star in PR Arun’s Finals and the next, as the real-life, deaf-and-mute character Eldho in Emcy Joseph’s Vikruthi. These three films, along with Driving License, stand out in terms of role selection and performances. I doubt whether any other actor in Malayalam cinema had shown such versatility in back-to-back releases in the same year.

One of the hallmarks of best casting is matching the strengths of a character with a performer who can express those strengths on stage or screen with conviction. On that count, most directors, both new and experienced with whom Suraj had worked, knew what they could extract from an actor of his calibre, be it Dr. Biju (Perariyathavar), Abrid Shine (Action Hero Biju), Dileesh Pothan (Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum), Fellini (Theevandi), Jubith Namradath (Aabhasam) or Lal Jose (Pullipulikalum Aattinkuttiyum). Why else would Abrid Shine cast Suraj for barely a one-scene appearance in Action Hero Biju? The actor left a hell of an emotional impact with his understated acting as a heartbroken father forcibly separated from his child, that it became the most memorable scene of the film for many.

Column | Suraj Venjaramoodu: Malayalam cinema’s ‘Higuita’ is performer of the year
Soubin and Suraj in 'Android Kunjappan'.

Perariyathavar’ won him the national award for best actor while the other roles established him as a performer a director can trust. After this high point of his career, he never had to look back.

Like his role model Thilakan who had transitioned from theatre to film and excelled in characters of varying shades, Suraj’s affinity to stage is written large on his screen performances, especially his loud comedy roles. Stage actors are taught, among other things, to be unafraid of making an eejit of themselves, never know more than what the character knows, and to use dialogue to affect, connect and change the way the audience thinks. He learnt cinema more as a soundtrack than as an audio-visual experience because as a child, he used to ‘listen’ to movies outside a talkies because he could not afford to buy a ticket. This experience must have helped him master the art of mimicry that eventually showed him the path to filmdom. The actor seems to be slowly shrugging off the influence of mimicry and stage by carefully picking versatile roles.

The state award jury of 2014, while ignoring Suraj’s performance in Perariyathavar, declared him as the best actor in a comic role for his work in two commercial potboilers, sending out the message that he did not belong to the marquee category of best actor. The curious thing to note is, they did it soon after the national award jury adjudged him as the best actor of the year along with Rajkummar Rao. Though many, including the film’s director, criticised the jury for being elitist, Suraj took that snub in his stride saying that probably the state government and jury wanted to see him more as a comedian. After a good five years, perhaps nobody can deny him a seat in the elite category of best actors.

Some of Suraj’s ill-written and hastily done comedy had started becoming repetitive and cringe-worthy, largely due to his use of signature terms, accent and loud tone. I guess he too had realised this pulse of the audience at the right time. His switch to versatile plots and characters and cutting down on the number of films reflect such a change in his thought process. The actor had said comedy is his most favourite genre but his dream is to do roles like those performed by Thilakan. Ironically, his next film is named Higuita. René Higuita, to the uninitiated, was the legendary Columbian goalkeeper who is known for stepping out of his mandated role of preventing goals to score goals for his team through some smart moves. For Suraj who made the difficult transformation from a full-on comedian to a quality character artiste, no genre or role seems impossible to attain. Suraj Venjaramood should be happy to be having a section of fans who look forward to see his caricaturistic character Dashamoolam Damu’s antics in a full-length comedy film as well as a different section of the audience who look forward to his performance in a serious drama like Higuita. With his Vikrithi and Android Kunjappan co-star Soubin Sahir drawing a swell of audiences to theatres with a similar mix, the actor is in excellent company.

Column | Suraj Venjaramoodu: Malayalam cinema’s ‘Higuita’ is performer of the year
Fahadh Faasil and Suraj on the sets of 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum'.

(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)

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