Are ‘character’ artists finally becoming more than a mere caricature…

by Mani Prabhu

small is

Let’s begin with a bit of refection. Consider these three – Manithan, Jil Jung Juk and Irudhi Suttru. Other than the fact that they all got a 2016 release, what do you make of this disparate set? What did these very different movies, despite the obvious discrepancies in the perfection of the end product, have in common? No, this is not about the apparent integrity in the handling of the subject in focus. It’s about actors. Actors who? Actors who, despite the limited screen time, had made quite a difference to the final cut by means of their sheer acting flair. Actors who had made a freaking statement yet again… a statement on the magic that can unfold when a talented filmmaker taps the boundless talent hidden deep within…  talent that had been mercilessly blunted in recent years, save for an occasional event, once in a blue moon.

Radharavi – One of our naturally gifted actors, who was typecast as the scheming villain in the late 80s, and denied anything that remotely digressed from that pigeon hole for two long decades! We saw him ‘killing’ the father character in Mysskin’s horror outing a couple of years back. But then, there was a lull. And now, look at the way the man has returned in style to ace seemingly-small supporting roles with authoritative ease, making these otherwise-lost-in-the-star-gaze characters kind of memorable. In Irudhi Suttru, Radharavi as the senior boxing committee member is around only for a couple of scenes, but within that time frame, he almost walks away with the plum punch of the movie where he reels out the exposition about his history with Madhavan in the most matter-of-fact manner. This delicious little piece of writing on paper could have easily fallen flat if not for the senior actor, who handled the role with an air of restraint and calculated poise, not giving away the faintest hint of the well-concealed twist. As the menacing ‘Rolex Rawther’ with a hilarious swag and an even more hilarious back-story for his epithet, he single-handedly keeps the audience watching in the final portions of Jil Jung Juk. And he plays the role of the warm-hearted and super-cool judge beautifully in Manithan, literally pouncing at the opportunity to make a difference on and off the screen. The difference, these brilliant portrayals made to the film as a whole, is there to be seen. And consequently, these roles are no longer small. In a perspective, they are bigger than that of the protagonist.

BeFunky Collagerad

And look at another brilliant actor starved of meaty roles off late, who has shared superb screen space with Ravi in two of the above mentioned films. As the good natured junior coach in Irudhi Suttru and the quirky gangster in Jil Jung Juk, Nasser is nothing but delightful in these two contrasting avatars. The talented actor had mastered many a heinous role in the past, but it is small exciting parts like these that actually tap the best out of him. The ease, with which he brings the loser coach with a heart of gold alive, has to be seen to be believed. But how often is he being offered such small but potential ‘firecracker’ roles? And coming to the other man, Prakashraj, who almost stole the limelight away from Ravi in Manithan with his brash demeanour and calculated hamming, how satisfying it is to watch him live the persona of Adhiseshan after a delightfully restrained act in Thozha! Again, both were not run-of-the-mill supporting characters in black or white. They were being part of movies with rather atypical heroes in the mainstream space, but that only helped them build more emphatically on their character’s arc.

There are a whole lot of instances out there involving several other talented actors that lend strong credibility to my argument. Let me just state a couple more. In the recently released Vetrivel, Prabhu takes on a grey shaded character and with just a handful of scenes (which were solidly written), almost elevates the age-old, cliché-ridden rural drama to something of an engaging affair. Saranya Ponvannan comes out of her loving-mother mould brilliantly in Bangalore Naatkal, toying with the clichés in her mom-who-goes-modern character. Again, both were nice little unconventional roles that made a huge difference to the game, not only because of writing, but also thanks to the way the character was handled. You could say the same of Parthiban in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, who made a interesting detour from his protagonist roles to playing the rip-roaringly witty baddie in style. That such a transition happened so late in his career might be one way of looking at it, but the thing that it happened at least now is worthy of a cheer. Speaking of small roles, who can forget the character of Sivagami in Baahubali, and how Ramya Krishnan made it almost impossible for us to look at anyone else in the scenes featuring her! Was the written role conventionally what you might term as ‘minor’? Yes. Was it made big by the screen presence of the actor? Hell, yeah!

BeFunky Collage2

So, what are these seemingly modest yet powerhouse performances pointing at? If you look at Radha Ravi’s career graph, after years of beating around the same bush, it’s the young directors who have finally exposed his versatile side by unleashing him from his villain cage. Nasser has had better luck in his acting choices, but then, given his amazing abilities, he still remains underutilized. Prakashraj gets a challenging role outside of his ‘chellam’ image trap only as a rare exception. Why aren’t these small yet defining roles, which are neither blatantly good nor bad, written more frequently? Why aren’t promising actors cast in roles which test their apparent comfort levels? If every actor worth his salt has to go through a decade of typecasting, before he is offered variety, how many more talents would we lose? You know the people who can make a difference? It’s the new-generation film-makers – the ones who are making movies also for the joy of making them – as already shown in flashes this year. One way of doing it is by meticulously fleshing out even the minor supporting characters away from their generic casts and offering them to such brilliant actors. Another way is to go bold and offbeat while casting, like the way Mysskin does for most of the movies. That way, we could get a stunner from someone we least expect. All it takes is minimal effort and loads of guts. And some getting used to the fact that small is now the new big.