Which actor can we compare Biju Menon with, both in style, roles and career in general? After watching Ayyappanum Koshiyum, a friend, who is an avowed George Clooney fan, offered an interesting comparison: that Menon is our own George Clooney. In hindsight, the comparison indeed holds water.
Here is some trivia to start with. Both George Clooney and Biju Menon had made their acting debut on television around the same time before starting their successful run as movie actors. Clooney later turned a director and producer with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Welcome to Collinwood, respectively. In 2012, Biju Menon too turned producer for the film Chettayees the same year Clooney won an Oscar as producer for the film Argo.
There may be many such similarities in the way these actors have risen up to fame and the effortless charm that characterises their acting styles but the comparison falters when it comes to the personalities and the choices of the roles. At 58, Clooney still has a sex appeal that can be matched by a few. A couple of years ago, Clooney had declared that he had acted for a long time and, he “is not the guy that gets the girl anymore.” “Acting used to be how I paid the rent, but I sold a tequila company for a billion f*****g dollars. I don’t need money.” Biju Menon is younger and is content with playing second fiddle to the younger and older heroes as he has always been, apart from picking up a random lead role that he thinks would suit his style. Moreover, he seems to be enjoying every moment he is in front of the camera.
In the last 25 years, we have seldom seen Biju Menon playing the conventional romantic hero, even in his younger days. Whether it is Sarath, the young director in Azhakiya Ravanan, the music teacher Sastrigal in Lenin Rajendran’s Mazha, or his Cassio act in Jayaraj’s Othello retelling Kaliyattam, the directors had their distinct reasons for casting him, other than just looks and his baritone voice.
Menon has carefully carved out a distinct space for himself in Malayalam cinema that no other can claim to be theirs, even with some effort. You see him on the big screen most of the year, in roles big and small, as a brooding villain, a trusted lieutenant, a ruthless politician, an alcoholic husband or as a compassionate commoner, and more. That he is part of diverse productions throughout the year is not essentially a testimony to his versatility as an actor but to the flexibility and an absolute absence of ego while picking up roles. As an actor, Biju Menon knows his range and limitations. You may have never seen him pick up a part in any film that he cannot shoulder well.
For a long time, Biju Menon’s role as Alotious in the Doordarshan serial Mikhailinte Santhathikal has been one of my most powerful performances on the small screen. Its big screen adaptation that also marked his film debut did not quite repeat the appeal of the original but it made Biju Menon stick. His handling of the spoilt brat Akhilachandran in Kamal’s Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu (1997) in the very second year of entering films won him the state award. The same year, director Sibi Malayil’s superhit Pranayavarnangal had Biju Menon as Victor, the understated and supportive friend to Arathy played by Manju Warrier. His mature charm won him the state awards the second time. In T.D.Dasan Std VI B, he portrayed the compassionate ad filmmaker who decides to play father to a destitute boy who enthusiastically writes letters to his father without realising that he was no more.
Jeevan in Lal Jose’s Randam Bhavam (2001) triggered many successful outings for Menon in the police uniform. His lead role as a tough cop in Shivam stands out among a host of others that include Rasikan, Chintamani Kolacase, FIR, Cover Story, Robinhood, Twenty:20, and the very latest box office hit Ayyappanum Koshiyum. Menon’s portrayal of Ayyappan Nair is brilliant in the film. The role of a mild-mannered policeman who carries a monstrous rage inside his uniform that is waiting for a trigger to explode, offered him huge potential to come out of the usual looks and mannerisms and portray the long cycle of violent ego-clashes and revenge in a way only he could. Another hit, Anuraga Karikkinvellam, had Menon in uniform once again, but as a family man whose love life intersects with that of his son when he is tricked in to bringing the romantic spark back into his life. Part of the credit for the film’s appeal goes to his chemistry with the co-stars Asha Sharath, Asif Ali and Rejisha Vijayan and his impeccable comic timing.
Biju Menon makes even the run-of-the-mill films such as Swarna Kaduva in which he played the self-centered and opportunistic Rinichan and Sherlock Toms in which part of the focus is on his troubled relationship with the wife played by Srinda, worth a watch. He seems to be enjoying the process of making any role that he signs work. Driver Suku, the supporting role that he had played in the fast comedy Ordinary is definitely a notch above his other characters in terms of comic timing. Vellimoonga, another patchy comedy-drama, owes its success almost entirely to the performance of Biju Menon as a street-smart politician.
Directors and producers often attempt to repackage some of these old roles to cash in on Menon’s fan following among the family audience. The only way the actor can continue to stay relevant in the changing landscape is by staying clear of the clones of his roles in successful films such as Vellimoonga, Chettayees and Ordinary. I am game for a Biju Menon film anytime, provided it’s not a rehash of his earlier roles.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)