In Malayalam cinema, Mammootty is God and Dulquer Salmaan is the son of God. That’s why it seemed strange when he decided to launch himself in a relatively small film in 2012, with a bunch of newcomers. Second Show is hardly a dream debut that Dulquer deserved but looking back, it was the absolutely right film for him. Born into Mollywood royalty, he could have got the biggest debut (what we call ‘star son’s debut’) at the snap of a finger, but clearly, he didn’t want to take shortcuts. He wanted to slam it out, do it all his way. I don’t know if you are aware but he and his friends put together Second Show pretty much on their own, without any support from anyone. Second Show is a very edgy and offbeat kind of a film that he started off with and the choice of scripts that followed have been on similar lines. Since then, audiences have come not only to trust Dulquer Salmaan but also love him. He made it to the top on his own strength. For all his mainstream trappings, DQ (as he’s fondly called) is really inclined towards powerful and provocative content. Audiences can rely on him for grime and glamour, equally. His success has nothing to do with his father and that makes him more of an ‘outsider’ than the industry kid that he is. He himself wears his fame lightly.
He’s definitely a heartthrob in his hometown Kerala. Shooting for Solo (a 2017 ode to Lord Shiva, in which Dulquer plays four different modern-day avatars of the three-eyed God), he was mobbed everywhere in Kochi. Half the time, we were managing the crowd so that the shoot could go on smoothly. But I love him more as an actor and as a person than the star that he is. Being a star was a given for him. The first time I saw him in Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), I was mesmerized. I later sought out more of his films and was instantly captivated. I immediately became a fan-boy. Firstly, I really liked his choice of films. He has never played it safe. I liked the cinema he was – and is – championing because given the kind of lineage he has, it was expected of him to follow a preordained path. I think right off the bat he started differently. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed. With his filmography so far, he has proved that he can play a gamut of roles, each different from the one that came before. For instance, in Ustad Hotel, he was a chef. Bangalore Days was a hugely enjoyable ensemble, and yet his character Aju, the mechanic, stood out. In Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani, he played a young techie, a video game developer who falls in love with Nithya Menen. Their chemistry was electric, making O Kadhal Kanmani a must-watch. Then came the recent Mahanati. He was a revelation in it. Though the film was a biopic on Savitri Devi it’s hard to ignore him, as he played her husband Gemini Ganesan, projected as a sort of a grey character who’s a womaniser. But after watching him play Ganesan, you cannot forget him. That’s the impact he has on you.
When planning Solo, I was too tempted to attempt it with Dulquer. In a career full of ‘different roles’, it was surprising to discover that he had never done a film like that before. He had done Kammatipaadam as a not-so-typical gangster but Solo was four roles-rolled-into-one. I wanted to break his image (not that he had any) and try something different. Anyway, when you are doing a Malayalam film, you have to think ‘out of the ordinary.’ The challenge was that in the first story of Solo, DQ’s character Shekhar stammers, in another, he doesn’t say a single word – he just says two words in the whole story. How to get these different emotions across? I think he pulled off all the four roles effortlessly. For Shekhar, the guy with a stammer, we spoke and discussed a lot, about how to avoid making it a cliché stammer. It has to sound real but it could have easily gone into the hammy zone. We tried a lot of variations, he would keep sending me voice notes saying, ‘Does this sound okay?’ Finally, after much back and forth, we hit the right note. Shekhar is an aggressive guy, so we decided that only when the character gets angry does he stammer. Otherwise, he is quite normal. I am a big fan of Dulquer’s process – how he goes about each role, the way he prepares for it and how he delivers it. In Solo, because we were doing bilingual (Tamil-Malayalam) and shooting in different conditions – shoots can be quite chaotic – he was the least of my worries. In fact, he put everyone at ease, no tantrums and no airs. And for God’s sake, he was our leading man!
As an actor, he’s ever hungry for new narratives. Never too afraid to celebrate ordinariness through his characters, he makes a genuine effort to understand the nuances of his characters. Always instinctive and intuitive to the character he’s playing. He draws his characters with flair and imbues them with his own experience and observations. No matter what role, he makes it believable and relatable. Sharp and eager-for-more, he does prep a lot for his parts before hitting the sets. Spontaneously, he’s able to get to the root of what the part is all about and he will never switch. You’ll always find that he’s consistent with his performance and that’s a big boon to filmmakers when you have an actor that’s completely in tune with what’s needed and delivers despite everything else that may wrong. He never compromises on his values as a person. He cares about friends and is there for you unconditionally when you need him. When we had a fallout with one Malayalam producer who cut Solo’s climax out in the first week of the release, he stood by me. We were all upset and Dulquer wrote this long post on social media supporting the film.
I love watching a lot of filmmakers when I am making a film. The list is like a ‘back to basics’ one. It’s always Mani Ratnam, Padmarajan and I.V Sasi. For example, Sasi is a hardcore commercial Mollywood filmmaker, who specialised in mega-budgeted ensemble films. Every film had 7-8 heroes and as many subplots. It was like an event film. Similarly, with Padmarajan, every Malayali worth his/her salt who has grown up in the 1980s and 90s has been influenced by him in some way or the other. Padmarajan successfully managed to marry art with commerce. His subjects were way ahead of their time. For example, Thoovanathumbikal (1987) is about Mohanlal who leads a double life. In the village, he’s a soft-spoken and straight guy but every weekend he goes to the city where he has a completely different lifestyle. He is like the biggest player ever. We are shown this story through the eyes of another guy who has seen Mohanlal’s two worlds, one of which is about how he falls in love with this prostitute on the first day of her job and he is her first client. Years pass, but he is not able to forget her. When he is about to get married, he does not hesitate in telling his fiancé, “I love you and want to marry you but I can’t get her out of my mind.” It’s like a doomed relationship but it is done so lyrically and beautifully.
Dulquer and I have grown up watching his father and Mohanlal do all these kinds of films. So, he comes from such a background and when you see his films, you realize these films must have had a definitive influence on him and must have shaped his own sensibility in terms of how to walk the fine line between good literature and commercial value. He’s not a star-star. He’s an actor first.
Malayalam New Wave
In fact, right now, it is such an interesting time in Malayalam cinema. It’s enjoying something of a renaissance. That’s why even I went and did a film there. Malayalam cinema of the 1990s and early 2000s, I’d say, was in a slump. They were just peddling mediocre stuff and didn’t know where it was all headed. I guess they were too busy trying to ape Tamil and Telugu cinema and lost out on our own roots in the process. It was a mess. I think in the last decade, all that changed and the sense of purpose and meaning came back into our cinema forged by the talented new pool of filmmakers like Lijo Jose Pellissery, Anjali Menon, Alphonse Puthren, Anwar Rasheed and Dileesh Pothan. They came in and changed the game, pumping up the excitement to all-new levels. So much experimentation is going on there now and the audiences and the makers alike seem to be inspiring each other, in this effort towards embracing different subjects and styles. Unlike Bollywood, Malayalam is a close-knit industry and even though a healthy competition exists, there’s no place for bitter rivalries. For decades, Mohanlal and Mammootty have played off against each other but their work or ideology never affected their friendship. Today, you see the same spirit in Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly and Dulquer. They all have their own space and are big stars in their own right. At the same time, they do films together and are bringing about this change more or less as a team.
Over the years, Dulquer has made his own fanbase thanks to his easygoing charm, good looks, considerable talent and modesty that makes him so unique. He lives between Kochi and Chennai and dabbles in Tamil and Telugu language films, besides Malayalam. He’s got exposure in different markets and I feel his foray into Bollywood is just a small part of that exploration. When he does Karwaan or the latest The Zoya Factor, it doesn’t mean he wants to move here permanently. His endgame is not to be a Bollywood superstar. Of course, he’s neither the first nor the last Southern star to try out Hindi cinema.
All South superstars who ventured into Hindi cinema have tasted success in their own way. In early 90s, Venkatesh had a massive hit in Anari. Tamil legends Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth are familiar faces to Hindi audiences, having done so many successful Bollywood films. Nagarjuna’s Shiva with Ram Gopal Varma remains iconic. Look at Mohanlal. He did Varma’s Company despite having a supporting role (as a police commissioner based on real-life D Sivanandan). Mohanlal could have easily got the biggest launch. Instead, he opted for a smaller but more meaningful role because the idea was not to be a Bollywood hero. Everybody had their fair share of success but they chose to balance it out by not focusing on Bollywood alone. Their roots are down South and they don’t want to leave that. Their Bollywood calling is because they believe in Hindi cinema and the creative potentials it has to offer. And if anything interesting or exciting shows up that’s when they come here and do some stuff. Dulquer Salmaan is no different.
(Bejoy Nambiar is the director of Shaitan. He made the highly experimental Solo with Dulquer Salmaan and wrote Karwaan starring him. He spoke to Shaikh Ayaz)