Actors Mathew Thomas and Naslen K Gafoor in the Malayalam film 'Neymar'
In the last few years, we have had some interesting actors between the ages 18-25, with more narratives centering around them. This goes to show that Malayalam cinema, which was once too preoccupied with burly alpha males, is turning more autonomous. I pick four favourites from the pool of new actors who are hitting screens on a regular basis.
Franky Napolean is the youngest of the four brothers in the Napolean family that’s huddled inside a derelict little home near the backwaters. Yet, he is the most sorted in the family, the one who brings his dysfunctional brothers together, with a perceptiveness that belies his age. That was 20-year-old Mathew Thomas’s debut in the film helmed by another debutant director, Madhu C Narayanan. Mathew easily inhabits the emotional complexities of a teen who is yearning for a normal, happy family. His joy to see his brother’s girlfriend at home, his desperation to bring his mother home and that scene where he takes his brother to the shrink were instances when the actor really comes on his own. But post that sparkling debut, except for a Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, Mathew has been largely repetitive as a performer. Having said that he was endearing as the confused teen battling unrequited love and a manipulative professor in Girish AD’s TMD and as the angsty teen madly in love with an older woman in Christy.
On the other hand, Naslen Gafur, who made a memorable debut as Mathew’s whacky friend, Melvin in TMD is more original. Melvin’s deceivingly calm way of putting things forward is so hilarious that there isn’t a dull moment whenever he is around. There is a refreshing candor in Naslen’s body language that makes it difficult to ignore him on screen. He was surprisingly effective as a young Muslim lad simmering with resentment against the system in Kuruthi and the internet-obsessed Charles Oliver Twist in Home. The striking relatability factor aside, the actor was able to bring subtle variations to characters that looked similar on paper. Sangeeth, who is nursing a silent crush for Sharanya in Super Sharanya and Rohit’s infatuation for Appu in Makal that prompts him to impersonate a Bengali was Naslen being his uniquely goofy self. Even in Jo and Jo, despite Mathew headlining as the cheery and chauvinistic Jomon, it was Naslen’s compelling presence as his friend Manoj who is infatuated with Jomon’s sister that holds our attention. Even in the recent Neymar, it is his Shinto, who springs up as a problem solver for Mathew’s Kunjava who makes us sit through the otherwise stretched narrative that revolves around a canine. Naslen’s steady growth as an actor, along with his breezy screen presence makes it evident that Malayalam cinema has a find in him as a promising hero.
Anaswara Rajan embodied the defiance of Athira, the moody, unpleasant daughter of a single mother (Manju Warrier) who toiled day and night to provide a better life for her in Udhaharam Sujatha. She followed that up with a mellow and relatable act as Keerthy who keeps a smitten Jaison (Mathew) on tenterhooks in Thanneer Mathan Dinangal. Again, hers is a graph that is similar to Mathew as an actor. But perhaps because her characters have a lot more heft on paper, Anaswara has mostly dodged the trap of duplicity. Having said that she also relies on stock expressions. That was evident in the author-backed role in Super Sharanya, which seemed like an extended and mature version of Keerthy at various points. Sharanya, a teen on the cusp of adulthood, is pesky at home but in college she allows herself to be bullied by everyone including her friends, professor, and toxic admirer. Finally, it is a romance that pulls her back into a space of security. It’s a performance that mostly relies on the character’s relatability than the actor’s and therefore immensely watchable. Clearly, the actor looks uneasy in roles (Aadya Rathri and Pranaya Vilasam) that require her to slip into an older age group, having to deal with the complexity of relationships.
In sharp contrast, Mamita Baiju, who took a while to get noticed, has dabbled in far more eclectic roles. The smart and opportunistic girlfriend in Operation Java and the angry and rebellious student in Kho Kho are characters that perhaps shaped her initial identity as an actor. That’s what led to her most popular character to date—the feisty, rational Sona in Super Sharanya. She is that friend we all need in college for a reality check. Sona is the perfect foil for Saranya’s docility. She is a loner, who has this baffling infatuation for the popular but entitled, toxic boy in college and seems fine that he has a shine for her friend Sharanya. It’s a very spontaneously unaffected performance, with her body language topped with cheekiness, but at the same time, there is a pensiveness in her that no one is privy to. It is her enlivened presence that saves the sketchily written Gopika in Pranaya Vilasam from ending up as a caricature. Again one of those actors who can graduate into a consummate performer in the future.
There is also Anikha Surendran who has been around as a child actor and recently turned heroine in the immensely unremarkable, Oh My Darling, a banal teen romance that also dealt with pregnancy among other issues. Not enough to make an impression as an actor just as yet.
One reason why some of these talented actors are getting repetitive has to do with the lack of freshness in writing. Save for a few, they have mostly been rallying around characters borrowed from the same mould - fairly easy-going, tame depictions that rarely transform into something meaningful and complex.