Rizabawa was among the handsome villains whom the audience of Malayalam cinema never hesitated to admire. Watching him play John Honai was a sinful pleasure. We knew Honai was a velvet-mannered brute our children should be kept away from, yet his suave Sobharaj-like magnetism we just couldn't ignore.
No wonder when he bid an early adieu to the world on Monday at the age of 55, he was remembered by all as John Honai, one of Malayalam cinema's favourite villains. In a career spanning three decades, he played a variety of character roles, villains and heroes. However, his curse was that his best came at the very beginning of his career. A character that offered him the scope to outlive John Honai never came his way again.
In Harihar Nagar, the 1990 Sidhique-Lal directorial, is still one of the best comedies Malayalam cinema has produced. The film headlined by the deadly comic combo of Mukesh-Jagadeesh-Sidhique-Asokan never fails to impress. Its end-to-end comic sequences trigger a laughter riot even if you play them now. However, the film found its final touch of perfection in the casting of Rizabawa as John Honai, the young, handsome, cruel villain. Rizabawa, with his fair complexion, shaven face, curly blonde hair and stylish dressing, immortalised Honai, the Bombay criminal. The climax scene where Honai terrorises the helpless Ammachi, played by Kaviyoor Ponamma, had sent a chill down the spine of the audience.
John Honai is spoilsport personified. He is the kind of character you never want in an all-out comedy where four young men try all possible tricks to impress a girl in the neighbourhood. The moment Honai enters, a terrifying pulse of electricity sizzles up the screen. Our pale white-clad ghosts looked like the aunt-next-door in comparison.
Rizabawa made the character a study in subtlety, an inevitable feature if you want to survive as an actor in Malayalam.
Rizabawa proved his versatility in the same year when he played Pappan in Dr Pashupathy, again a fun-filled entertainer. He was, however, not the villain, but the almost-hero. Pappan was the antithesis of John Honai. Pappan was a village Malayali youth sporting a moustache and clad in mundu. From 1991 to 2021, he acted in over 130 films, including Georgekutty c/o Georgekutty, Aanavaal Mothiram, Bandhukkal Sathrukkal, Vadhu Doctoranu, Aniyan bava Chettan Bava, Life is Beautiful, Nerariyan CBI and Pokkiri Raja.
If you look at his filmography, he has never had a long break. Films kept coming his way. However, most of his notable characters came in the 1990s. The fact that many of the films he was part of post 1990s did not perform well enough at the box office also made him less noticeable at the later stages of his career. Throughout the ups and downs, nevertheless, the legacy of John Honai lived. When director Lal made a sequel to In Harihar Nagar in 2009, titled 2 Harihar Nagar, he had no option but to bring back the character in a cameo even though we were shown Honai going up in flames in the first film. Ironically, he also had to act in a less-noticed film titled John Honai in which he played the character named Devanarayanan while his In Harihar Nagar co-actor Sidhique played the title role. The film had nothing to do with the Sidhique-Lal film except the character's name, which in a way was a tribute to Rizabawa. John Honai set the benchmark for polished villainy just the way Gabbar Singh had for rugged evil.
As was the fate of some of his contemporaries, Rizabawa had to focus on miniscreen in the 2000s. His body language had become very suitable for the typical Malayali family-man who is an integral part of Malayalam TV soaps.
Rizabawa's voice was as manly as his looks. It helped him perform as a dubbing artiste too in a few films. The only major award that came his way during his career was for the best dubbing artiste in the film Karmayogi (2012) in which he lent his voice to Tamil actor Thalaivasal Vijay. When Anupam Kher came to Malayalam through Blessey's Mohanlal-starrer Pranayam, Rizabawa was roped in to dub for the Hindi veteran.
From theatre to big screen to television, Rizabawa proved his performance skills across platforms and genres. Adieu Honai!