Actor Kalabhavan Mani, who died Sunday, was a rupture in Malayalam cinema. He was the anti-thesis of everything the “star” in Malayalam cinema had come to represent. And yet, he was a star, as the many thousands who turned up at his village for a last glimpse revealed. His popularity was not merely a product of his contribution as a film actor. The immense warmth he exuded as a performer and a human being endeared him to friends and fans. As an actor, he was an energetic, boisterous presence on the screen. He could sing, dance and act with his entire body. A Dalit, a rarity among Malayalam actors, Mani would influence filmmakers to recognise his talent and get scripts written for him. In a cinema that continues to be on the lookout for chocolate heroes, he was the difference; an uninhibited actor who spoke to audiences across barriers.
The actor in Mani got national acclaim in 2000 for his role as a blind singer in Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum. Thereafter, films began to be written for him though it is his many cameos and support roles, especially comic characters, that are likely to be remembered. Even after making it big as an actor, he refused to distance himself from his roots and remained the local boy to the end, always accessible to residents of Chalakudy, his hometown in central Kerala. He was an integral part of public life there, contributing to temple and church festivals as an organiser, fund-raiser and performer, participating in protests to protect the Chalakudy river, donating funds to his school, and so on. He was always conscious of his working-class origins — he was an auto driver before he became an actor — and made it a point of celebration. He went through terrible poverty as a child, but transcended the bitterness of that experience with his generosity. He refused to make his poverty a fetish or wallow in self-pity, but recalled his past to affirm dignity and the human being’s capacity to fight, endure and build in the face of adversity. This public self contributed immensely to the making of his profile as an actor and a star, according to culture critic C S Venkiteswaran.
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Mani came to cinema after a stint as a mimicry artiste in Kalabhavan, a popular Kochi-based troupe that has been the home of many Malayalam film actors since the 1980s. A school dropout, Mani considered Kalabhavan as the university where he trained as a performer.
Here again, he seemed to have been different from the rest of the crew. In his tribute, Dileep, a star himself and Mani’s colleague in Kalabhavan, wrote: “When we all imitated film personalities and such, Mani would dominate the stage by transforming himself into cat and tiger and lion,” Mimicry, in those years, was a platform that helped many people, especially from the underclass, to showcase their talent and finally enter cinema.
Venkiteswaran says Mani with his enormous energy was a presence that initially baffled Malayalam cinema. “It could not handle the menacing energy he posed with his body,” he adds, recalling that Mani, in his early years as an actor, had to play a lot of characters with abnormalities or sub-human features. He had to be an alcoholic, mentally deranged, disabled, tantric and once a bear in films. His sense of humour, helped by remarkable diction and timing, made him a natural for comic roles. It took a while before writers began to respond to his potentialas an actor.
Ironically, some of these were well-crafted, anti-hero roles. Venkiteswaran observes that Mani grew as an actor bankable at the box-office when Malayalam cinema began to look beyond the superstars. In his later years, Mani found popularity in Tamil cinema, which offered him wider scope.
His other major contribution was as a singer. He dipped into the enormous corpus of folk music, reviving songs by village bards of his childhood, even contemporary ones, and occasionally sang his compositions. Reportedly, the first folk music album he released sold out on the day of the launch. These performances were expressions of a proud subaltern cultural self and identity.
Despite the adulation he got, the question remains if Malayalam cinema did justice to this actor. The past decade or so has seen the aesthetic and the political economy of popular Malayalam cinema shed the trappings of its feudal inhibitions to focus on the unexplored terrains of Kerala’s social landscape. An actor like Mani would have added value to such explorations. At 45, he was too young to die.