Premam Review: How the 2015 Malayalam Film Affected Me

Eight tall men walk into a shopping mall through the main entrance. At first glance, you would think they have vandalism in their minds, but if you look closely, you will realize all of them are sporting an unusually similar look. Wearing stark black shirts with sleeves rolled up elegantly through mid-arm over white mundus (waist cloths) with black border lining, and sporting fake Ray-Ban aviators with deadpan expressions on heavily bearded faces – you know they are all succeeding in imitating the loverboy of a protagonist of the 2015 smash hit Malayalam film, Premam. This is my review of a film that I have watched countless times since it opened on 30 May 2015 to a boisterous reception.

This particular trend of imitating Nivin Pauly’s character from the film had spread like a wildfire in the nooks and corners of Kerala. While that sounds justified as far as the southern Indian state is considered, what should one deduce from a phenomenon where a budding Engineer like me who was born and brought up in the island city of Mumbai and who has always been repulsed by the very idea of visiting Kerala starts experiencing a fondness for everything Malayalam?

The Premam Effect

You may call it “the Premam effect” similar to “the Narasimham effect” which engulfed Malayalis all over the globe (and chiefly in Gulf countries) in 2000 when Malayalam film superstar Mohanlal hypnotized his audience with his charming moves and a piercing moustache in the film with the same name. Honestly, the film is a big fat 7 (out of 10) for me as I watched it first day first show with my mother in a Mumbai theatre (Cinepolis). The hall was houseful, which is an unusual occurrence when it comes to Malayalam films in Mumbai theatres. Just to put that into perspective, the time when I watched the critically acclaimed 2014 film North 24 Kaatham by debutante Anil Radhakrishnan Menon in a Navi Mumbai theatre (INOX), there were a total of 8 people in the hall, including the two redundant ushers.

I have been reviewing Malayalam films since 2012, but the sheer magical experience that I shared with my fellow audience that day has left me in awe. And now whenever the beautifully sung love-song ‘Malare’ by Vijay Yesudas plays on TV, I lapse into a state of total entrance.

Three months after I watched the film and three weeks after the apprehension of those little lover pirates who shared a preview copy of the film over the web, the so-called “Premam effect” has not winded down. It is chiefly because of the elements used by maverick director Alphonse Putharen in his second feature (after Neram (2013)); the pure native elements of a Kerala district that any malayali can relate with.

Premam Review: A Dose of New Wave

The protagonist’s journey from being a teenager who is head over heels in love with his petite classmate to his fascination with the beautiful guest lecturer in college to finally end up in the arms of an unsuspecting dame is captured in the most appropriate and stylistic way. This is absolutely how real life love stories occur, and if you were to ask any shuffling adolescent at the Kaladi junction or at the Kochi pier or at Lulu Mall to describe about their love life, you will now most obviously be shot with the title of the film as an answer, which translates to “love” in the English language.

Premam review
A poster of Premam designed by Thought Station / © Anwar Rasheed Entertainment

The unofficial political activism rampant in the by-lanes of colleges, teacher-student love affairs, and unsolicited hotheadedness are all marks of the modern adolescent who will take to Facebook to ask that girl out rather than asking her in person. What Premam manages to capture is the intricate details of such a person’s daily life – how it affects his life partially, and how friendship plays a significant role in it.

That is why when I was talking to an old friend of mine about why I now want to often visit Kerala as opposed to my random, infrequent visits, and get more exposed to Malayalam cinema, understand Santosh Pandit’s psychology and philosophy (if any), get married to a girl who is a born-Malayali and in whose arms I would lay and watch the film Premam again for the umpteenth time, he replied, “This is exactly what I have been thinking of lately. The effect is huge.” And this friend was also born and brought up in Mumbai.

Moreover, if a Malayali who was born somewhere outside Kerala and is not much exposed to the essence of Malayali soil, “the Premam effect” will make sure that he starts respecting his roots. There are a lot of people who talk negative about being a Malayali, and smirk at the thought of being counted among them. However, even the most righteous prig will stop and wonder how charming his roots are once he watches it. The film’s photography will make him weak, the songs will make him swoon, and the Kerala exoticism will eventually break him into submission.

In future, when someone asks me what my story is, to keep it dramatic and filmy, I know I would answer that my adolescent life can be divided into two parts – pre-Premam and post-Premam. That is the solid effect of the film which is arguably one of the best Malayalam films of 2015 and one of the best Indian films of the decade so far.

Have you watched it yet?

The One Thing Common in My 70+ Uber Rides

Last day I was on a road trip with my friends. When I noticed the same thing that I have noticed in almost all of my 72 Uber rides taken so far: the lack of a proper, functioning seat belt in the back passenger seats. That’s around total two days of perilous riding time in the city of Mumbai.

Keeping aside the general public’s reluctance to wear seat belts, what surprises me more is the absence of a proper seat belt system in today’s cabs. Where prominence is given to Wi-Fi and in-car entertainment. Most Uber cabs do have proper belts in place but the problem is that the buckle you fasten it into (female latch) is nowhere to be seen. It is deeply submerged inside the seat or the seat cover, and it’s same for both the seats. Even if you have strong, long arms, good luck finding it, let alone digging it out. And I am not even talking about the third, middle seat.

While this is the most common scenario I have observed a lot more variations.

The Case of Missing Backseat Seat Belts

Some cabs do not even have belts in place. They are either tucked in the front seat cover or stashed in small cavities on the side of the back passenger doors. I have also ridden in cabs where there are no belts even in the front passenger seat. Which troubles me a lot because I usually ride shotgun where there are usually increased chances of finding a functioning seat belt.

Seat belts in Uber cabs
The privilege of seat belts / © Flickr

When asked why seat belts are not in place, drivers often have the same response. They give back a look like they didn’t know such a question would ever be brought up in their career. Some drivers chuckle, blurt out dull excuses, and then go on to fasten their belt sheepishly and reluctantly. But I do not just blame the drivers.

I remember going to a recent client meeting where a colleague told me that he had seen very rarely people using the seat belt when sitting on the back side. Fortunately or unfortunately, that Uber ride was booked through his account, which prevents me from adding it to my statistics. The event of a person wearing a seat belt while sitting in the back seat is seen as an abnormality, which troubles me all the more.

The point is not that today’s cabs are not maintained properly. While they definitely are not, my point is the lack of service check by taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola and other kaali-peeli tax federations. If Uber can keep a check on its drivers and the well-being of their cabs, why can’t this check be extended to the essentials? Seat belts are why you even have a chance at survival in case of an accident (airbags are high maintenance, right?), and if a cab cannot provide that, is it even worth having the luxury of booking a cab through an app in 10 seconds?

Just Not Only About Uber Cabs

It wouldn’t be correct if I do not mention that the case is not just for cabs but also at a personal level. Take the case of the road trip we took last day, where the rear seat succeeded in hiding the female latch end because the owner had just redone the cover. So much priority to how the upholstery looks.

And it is not just one or two instances. Majority of cars I have ridden in my lifetime do not have functioning back seat belts, which supports the alarmingly low rate of people who actually look forward to wearing them. According to The Quint, it stands at 4% in India (2017).

When I bought a second-hand car in 2016, one of the first things that I fixed was the rear seat belts. Yet when I ask my family members to buckle up, they behave like Uber drivers: an eye roll, a scoff, or a trigger of a fleeting murderous instinct. I believe that it is the responsibility of the driver to make sure that everyone in their car follows basic safety measures and etiquette, including themselves. Which although is a bit challenging but doable. My mother still complains when I ask her to wear the belt because “it’s (destination) just around the corner”. But I don’t turn ON the ignition until she does and she has no choice.

I am not even debating about the habit of wearing seat belts because there are no two ways about it. For an average person who rides on cabs every other day, not having a seat belt in place is worse than finding out that Twitter is down. While one temporarily stops spying on you or influencing presidential elections the other stops something closer to you. So, it is up to the taxi drivers’ associations, corporates like Uber, and individual drivers to make a case about this and ensure that all commercial cars have functioning belts in all the seats and in good condition. Because it is high time that we talk about passenger safety in public and commercial transport instead of about funding rounds and self-driving cars. Talking about public transit, have you noticed that buses in India do not even have seat belts?!


I usually ride shotgun when I’m not driving and that’s not because I am a decent Google Maps navigator or a phenomenal ‘car music player player’. It’s because I care for my life. My friends don’t know why I choose the front passenger seat while going on a road trip. And they don’t care because after all everyone today is an Uber driver.

Seat belts are a privilege today and I make it a point to this to Uber every time I travel in one of their cabs that do not have one in the rear seat.

PS: I prefer Uber over Ola but I’m sure the case is mutual.

PPS: Lyft or Grab, if you guys are entering India, take notes.

Featured image copyright of Moneycontrol.

Top Malayalam Movies of 2017

The first few months of a new year is always a great time to consider, watch, and evaluate the best of cinema. While you get your life back on track, relax by binge-watching the best films that people enjoyed in 2017. These are the top Malayalam movies of 2017.

Although the international awards season is behind us, it’s wise for Malayali film fanatics like you and me to review the best titles that graced the theaters back in our land in the past year. So that when the topic of cinema comes in, you don’t sit like you don’t know who Tovino Thomas is.

Without further ado, here are the 10 best Malayalam movies that both audience and critics enjoyed in 2017. In a countdown list mode to make it look more dramatic.

10 Top Malayalam Movies of 2017

Out of a list of the 132 odd Malayalam films that released in the calendar year 2017, a measly 25 titles were deemed “watchable” by the cinema-going public and critics. I have listed only the top 10 based on critic ratings and reviews and without considering the inflated box office numbers that production houses circulate on social media.

These are the 10 top Malayalam movies of 2017, according to critics and my personal ratings.

10. EZRA

One of the best horror films to come out of Malayalam cinema is also one of the most well-received titles of the year. Ezra, directed by debutante Jay K, was 2017’s first release of Prithviraj Sukumaran who was gasping for a success since Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015).

Sukumaran plays a troubled nuclear energy specialist who is convinced that his wife, played by the charming Priya Anand, is possessed by an evil spirit. It not only involves the interesting concept of “Dybbuk box” but also has a powerful score that is eerie enough to scare you. Sukumaran acts in his trademark style (something he continued to do in Adam Joan later in 2017) and leads the film written with sufficient amounts of horror and thrills to be called a hit Malayalam movie of 2017.

Ezra is shot beautifully and the crew deserves applause for carving the almost perfect horror film, a genre that is hardly ever visited by Malayalam filmmakers.

Don’t forget to check out the chart-topping songs from the film – “Lailakame” and the surreal “Thambiran” produced by Rahul Raj and Sushin Shyam respectively.

Ezra is available on DVD.


Not many people know that Dr. Biju is a director who uses his films to shed limelight on stark social issues. Neither do people know that the Malayalam parallel cinema, also known as the indie film movement, is still strong as before. And Kaadu Pookkunna Neram is one such example that made those who watched it go ga-ga.

While India sent Amit Masurkar’s mediocre drama about Naxalism, “Newton”, to the Oscars (which consequently lost the race obviously), the fabulous Kaadu Pookkunna Neram spiraled into oblivion. Because it did not run for more than a few weeks and because the makers failed to promote it in a better way; it did not even come under the radar of writers who make lists like this.

Starring Rima Kallingal and Indrajith Sukumaran – two of the most underrated actors in Malayalam cinema – the film talks about a policeman’s journey into the woods in search and for possible apprehension of a Naxalite group. A very simple and straightforward film, it reeks of minimalism and must be seen to understand how the nasty movement actually affects people in the interiors of Kerala.

And while you are here, let me also convince you to check out Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s controversial and therefore multiple award-winning feature film, Sexy Durga, which opened on 23 March 2018.

Kaadu Pookkunna Neram is not available on DVD/VOD.


Director Basil Joseph’s second directorial venture after the comical Kunjiramayanam (2015) was by some looked at as a powerful ode to feminism. While that may or may not be true, Godha is surely as good as Malayalam entertainment can get. Starring the lovely Wamiqa Gabbi, Tovino Thomas (now you know who), and Renji Panicker, it told the story of an aspiring wrestler who finds her way from Punjab into Kerala to realize her dreams.

A quick uplifting watch, Godha takes you to a fictitious village known for wrestling and home-grown wrestlers and tries to break down few stereotypes on the way. With some great performances by the stars and occasional shoots of comedy, it was one of the best-reviewed films of 2017. Check out Shaan Rahman’s wonderful melodies in “Aaro Nenjil” sung by Gowry Lekshmi.

It is one of those rare films that both did well at the box office and made the job of critics a tad difficult. But there were still who compared it with Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal and Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan.

Godha is available on DVD.

7. AADU 2

Called the funniest Malayalam film of 2017, Midhun Manuel Thomas’s second outing of the year after the abysmal Alamara provides more than what it promised. It takes you back to Shaji Pappan and his motley crew of half-witted nobodies as they get embroiled in a conspiracy that they can’t make head or tail of. Destroying the myth that a sequel can never be as good as the first film, Aadu 2 emerged as one of the best Christmas releases in Kerala and was also certified a box office hit.

Sitting like a crown on Jayasurya’s filmography, who enjoyed an almost equal success with Punyalan Private Limited (another sequel film) earlier in 2017, Aadu 2 shows that humor does not always have to be mixed with crass. A combination of slapstick and situational comedy – that is Aadu 2 for you by a talented crew headed by Vijay Babu.

Aadu 2 opened on 22 December 2017.


One of my personal favorites, Parava was highly anticipated mostly because it would mark the directorial debut of the phenomenal Soubin Shahir, known for his perfect comic timing and situational jesting. A man with great number of talents, Shahir took crafty filmmaking to another level with Parava, which talks about pigeon flying, a racing game (and a maddening hobby for some) popular in Mattancherry and Fort Kochi areas of Kerala.

Starring newbies in crucial roles and Dulquer Salmaan and Shane Nigam in supporting ones, Parava is a tour de force that must be witnessed in order to be appreciated. In addition to the extra efforts that must have been taken for filming the pigeons and their movements, Parava boasts of mouth-watering shots of the places it is set in, and altogether delivers a power-packed dose of entertainment.

When it came out in September 2017, I hadn’t experienced anything like it in a very long time. Something that I could relate to the experience I had while watching Alphonse Putharen’s Premam in 2015.

Parava opened on 21 September 2017.


Released in the same month as Parava and another film by a debutante director, Njandukalude Naatil Oridavela is a dark comedy that so effortlessly conveys its message about a serious topic that you will stare in awe even as the credits roll. Consisting an ensemble cast of Nivin Pauly, Shanthi Krishna, Lal, and Aishwarya Lekshmi, it is a delightful piece of life that must be viewed with your family.

Don’t miss the somewhat useless (in the film) yet hummable “Enthavo” sung by Sooraj Santhosh and produced by Justin Varghese.

Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela is available on DVD.


Though not a personal favorite, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is considered one of the best Indian movies of 2017. With realism as his main weapon, director Dileesh Pothan embarks on a journey with two of his most raw characters who meet the third one to wreak havoc in the most natural way.

Working around a gold chain that goes missing, the film aspires to shed light on how the society works, meanwhile also poking fun at police apathy and their piglike attitude. Suraj Venjaramoodu reclaims his stance as an actor who can play any role, and so does Fahadh Faasil, who upset few fans because he is not the main protagonist in the film.

Nimisha Sajayan can easily be called the breakout star of 2017 as she geared up and flourished in her new release, “Eeda”, early in January 2018.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is available on DVD and BluRay.


If Aadu 2 rose as the box office hit of the Christmas season, Aashiq Abu’s effervescent romantic drama Mayaanadhi ruled the critic circles. Starring Tovino Thomas (wow, again!) and the resplendent Aishwarya Lekshmi (wow, again!) as lovers, it is being called a love story that talks about “being in love”. Not the superficial courting or the gooey aftermath – just plain romance that is so much missing from this world.

Written by the talented duo Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair, Mayaanadhi is easily one of the subtlest Malayalam movies of 2017. It’s devoid of gaudiness and that’s why it works.

Mayaanadhi opened on 22 December 2017.


A festival favorite and more popular as the Malayalam film hailed by Anurag Kashyap, Lijo Jose Pallissery’s Angamaly Diaries is the rawest Malayalam film of 2017. A brief look at the trailer is enough for you to get hungry for the whole film.

Known for its gritty storyline about street gang wars in the Kerala town of Angamaly and starring mostly new actors, it received international acclaim for a variety of things including the minutes-long single take climax. If Nimisha Sajayan was THE breakout star, I think we can at least name Antony Varghese as the breakout male star of Malayalam cinema of 2017. He will be next seen in Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil (2018).

Don’t forget to listen to its weird soundtrack, notably “Theeyame”, “Thana Dhina”, and the love number “Do Naina”.

(Having said all that, I’m still curious about Pallissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau, which got a preview screening sometime in November and then disappeared.)

Angamaly Diaries is available on VCD and VOD.


A theme recently sampled by Ali Abbas Zaffar in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), Take Off took me by surprise. Director Mahesh Narayanan delivers a breath-taking view into the ruins created by ISIL-controlled states as he chronicles the lives of a few nurses who find themselves held captive by the unforgiving terrorist outfit in Syria.

Parvathy won accolades for her mature performance as the leader of the nurse gang as she both tries to contact her husband, played by Kunchacko Boban, and awaits help from her Indian embassy chief, played by Fahadh Faasil. Narayanan has left no stone unturned with Take Off as you dissolve into the stupendous performances of the lead stars who act like they are living the characters. It completes the top Malayalam movies of 2017.

Take Off is available on DVD.

Malayalam Cinema in 2017: Year in Review

It is often very difficult to create such lists containing the best cinema has to offer but for 2017 it was very easy. More than 60% of the films that released last year were turkeys, some of which were huge disappointments such as Ajai Vasudev’s Masterpiece and Bejoy Nambiar’s Solo. However, there were titles that deserved much more love from their audience. And few such honorable titles are listed below.

If I could add ten more films to this list of top Malayalam movies of 2017, I would add Minnaminungu, Kaattu, Ramaleela, Udhaharanam Sujatha, Varnyathil Aashanka, Rakshadhikari Baiju (Oppu), C/O Saira Banu, Karutha Joothan, Munthirivallikal Thalirkumbol, and Veeram. Few other personal favorites are Aakasha Mittayee, Theeram, and Role Models.

But, I am happy to close the year with the fact that 2017 saw films that had women in prominent roles and almost half of the above 10 films had lead actresses, Godha and Take Off to name just two. Now let’s move ahead with more roles for women in the production side too. We start with Roshni Dinaker’s My Story coming up in early 2018.

For a detailed analysis of these films and to know how I came up with this list, check out my blog piece.

Here’s to a new year filled with better Malayalam films.

The Rise and Rise of Soubin Shahir

With his shirt sleeves folded back mid-arm to just cover the tattoo of four roadway arrows on his right hand that perhaps show his love for machines and travelling, he sits for the interview with absolute grace. No one else is in the frame – not even the interviewer – as he answers questions about his career and his then most recent film, CIA: Comrade in America (2017) which stars his close friend Dulquer Salmaan. He has never played the lead in a film yet, and now even when he is at the center of a frame, he only exudes humility. Hinting at the secret to his rise in Malayalam cinema. This is the story of actor Soubin Shahir and his unmatched charm that has enhanced the appeal of comedy in Malayalam films since 2013.

Born and brought up in a household where one parent was a film production controller, it was a mix of passion and predilection towards cinema since childhood that made Shahir decide that that was going to be his bread and butter. With a dream of directing a film, at around the age of 18 he entered the industry with raw energy, mild support, and a twinkle in his eye.

More Than 17 Years in Cinema

For someone who has just started watching Malayalam movies, Soubin Shahir may seem like any other comedy actor. Who enters the industry with a breakthrough role after flourishing in a less glittery industry like that of theater or mimicry, enjoys their period, and then slowly fades into oblivion. Much like comedian Bijukuttan who broke into the Tinseltown after appearing in an Asianet weekly skit called Five Star Thattukada in the mid-2000s, enjoyed his halcyon days from 2008 to 2010, and then struggled for many years before reappearing in smaller roles. Shahir’s case is slightly different. He never wanted to be an actor. He is, in fact, afraid of it.

Soubin Shahir
Soubin Shahir had always dreamed of directing a film / © Soubin Shahir

Soubin Shahir began his career as an assistant director, first associating with director Fazil in late 2001 for the 2002 box office bomb Kaiyethum Doorath starring his friend and future frequent collaborator Fahadh Faasil. While he also played a tiny role in the film, no one noticed his presence – neither in front of the camera nor behind. Everyone associated with the film dispersed to think things through while Shahir continued assisting directors. At the time, the Malayalam film industry faced a huge slump, only to be revived by the rise of the new wave in the early 2010s. More than 13 years later, he would be a part of this wave and play a key role with his co-star to create the best Malayalam movie of 2016.

Although his fear of acting was aggravated by the 2002 debacle, his discomfiture didn’t prevent Rajeev Ravi from trying something out.

Scattered Beginnings

It was in cinematographer Ravi’s directorial debut Annayum Rasoolum (2013) that Shahir first played a considerable character. A shady guy who does odd jobs to earn a living, watching it today in retrospect clearly shows his rookie acting. The film was, therefore and however, more known for its raw style and a raunchy sequence involving Fahadh Faasil and Andrea Jeremiah.

A few more films happened in the next two years before he landed the breakthrough in 2015 when Alphonse Puthren asked him to play a college professor.

Facebook-il Indo?

Comedy films in Malayalam work largely because of the dialogues and their delivery. While Shahir’s role in writing is minimal to non-existent, he samples one-liners and improvisation to create an impact.

His first memorable dialogue was actually a ‘dubbing filler’, the boon and bane of Malayalam cinema. It is a two-word remark that Shahir’s character – a super extra – blurts out at the speed of light when the protagonist walks by in the segment Kullante Bharya in the anthology film 5 Sundarikal (2013). Like a typical Kerala loverboy, the character asks “Facebook-il indo?“, meaning “Are you on Facebook?” which summarizes the basic theme of the short. Shahir cannot be seen while he is uttering it, but it was enough to make the crowd chuckle.

To have freedom and confidence to experiment with this type of jest in films intended for a mainstream audience is a privilege. Which Shahir credits to his friendship. He is close friends, and even spent few years living with, Amal Neerad, who helmed Kullante Bharya, Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014), and CIA: Comrade in America.

More quotable dialogues and appearances came when Puthren released Premam in May 2015. Originally sought as an actor to play a professor who teaches a serious subject, it was decided three days before the shoot that Shahir would play a PT master (physical trainer) instead. And he smashed it.

Soubin Shahir as PT maash in Premam
Shahir and Forrt in Premam / © Soubin Shahir

One iconic scene that really got the Malayalam film viewers talking was the scene involving Renji Panicker. While most of the talking is being done by Panicker and Maniyanpilla Raju in that scene, what people also remember is Shahir’s timely whistling just after the former finishes his high-octane retort. It’s a classic Malayalam film scene with the background score borrowed from K Madhu’s 2004 hit crime thriller Sethurama Iyer CBI.

Premam was an influential film and helped enhance and start the careers of a lot of yesteryear actors. Shahir’s was just one of them. But there’s an important reason why PT master Shivan and his performance clicked with the audience. Premam was entirely directed and edited by Puthren himself, which meant that he had seen all the shots. And it was his decision to add Shahir’s expressive face as he blows air into his whistle, making the scene all the more appealing. Had it been another conventional film crew, Shahir would have to wait for Crispin, the Photoshop expert, to arrive to get his stars aligned…

Soubin Shahir has himself revealed to Manorama in the interview how most of his comedy should be credited to the writers who ask him to say the words exactly how they want it to be and the editors who add it in the final reel. He has uttered a lot of funny remarks in a lot of films, but most of them have got lost in the editing room. Premam, thankfully, was not one of them.

Soubin Shahir, the Performer

Malayalam film comedy is largely characterized by slapstick and horseplay. When you think of comedy, for instance, of the golden era of Malayalam cinema, you think of Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu (1986) or Aram + Aram = Kinnaram (1985). Although jest had a big role to play in them, horseplay was the primary driver of laughter. And the difference between jest and horseplay is in the quality of the comedy. A type of forceful infestation of dialogues in the script so that viewers don’t get bored of all the peripheral drama was the key substance in these films. Today, the type has changed to situational comedy and character-based improvisation. Of which Soubin Shahir is a pioneer.

So, when a man comes in who can say things in a comical way without putting much effort and without being in the focus of a frame, people indeed take notice and giggle. Because the Malayali audience largely go to the movies to laugh and be entertained. In that regard, Shahir is a kingly performer. For instance, again take the example of Premam, where Vinay Forrt plays a meatier role than Shahir. Yet, it is Shahir’s idiosyncratic character that is more striking even though comedy is equally supplied by both. Dialogues like “Simple aayitolla step enikya arriyilla, Sir(“I don’t know simple dance steps”), delivered as part of a conversation are what contributed to his breakthrough.

When an actor can showcase his portrayals as effortless, it automatically makes them a better performer. Shahir, who thinks acting is easier than direction, has had to take several takes in films such as Premam and Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016). His dubbing routines have been tiresome as it is difficult to clone an accent when one has spoken another for more than 30 years. If one looks at a few sequences in Maheshinte Prathikaaram, the Crispin character flushes with embarrassment. Shahir says that those are natural expressions, a result of being embarrassed in front of the whole crew.

The mark of an experienced actor is said to be their ability to stay in a character. Shahir, on the other hand, rushes at his job. He is afraid and shy of acting, evident in some of his sequences, and works harder in the dubbing room instead.

The Rising Parameter

Effortless comedy almost never goes unnoticed, but what waters the plant is the writing. Comedy is only as good as the writing, and Soubin Shahir’s rise in Malayalam cinema should be credited to the writers who write his films.

Syam Pushkaran wrote Maheshinte Prathikaaram, and it was his idea to add the ‘kummattikka juice’ song. Although the song, “Juice juice juice, kummattikka juice! Mammootty-ikya ishtapetta kummattikka juice!” is a Kochi export whose variation young kids use to sing in the 80s and 90s, it became popular only when the trailer of the film was uploaded on YouTube on 11 January 2016, less than a month before the film’s release – enough for people to take notice, sing along, and wait for the scene when watching the full product later. In the interview, he also jokes that after the film’s release he even felt like he was the brand ambassador of ‘kummattikka juice’ (watermelon juice).

While Premam triggered Shahir’s rise, it was the Crispin character that really swayed the boat. People who knew him began to use the film’s references while talking to him. There’s even an incident where Mammootty himself used the reference to congratulate Shahir.

Hero’s Friend

In CIA: Comrade In America, Shahir plays Joemon, a close friend of Salmaan’s character Ajjippaan. While the comedy is intact here, how it is different from his previous movies is in the writing. There’s a scene where Ajjippaan highlights the presence and importance of family members and close friends in his life. When a hero says something like that, the audience subconsciously think about these characters and the actors who play them. So, Salmaan’s fans automatically become their fans. And that’s where Shahir actually rises in and out of the screen.

Soubin Shahir is close friends with DQ
Soubin Shahir and Dulquer Salmaan in CIA / © Soubin Shahir

Soubin Shahir is every man’s comedian. He is close friends with most of the veterans he has worked with, and that definitely improves his appeal. Being in the industry for more than 17 years definitely has its benefits, but Shahir maintains that he has never requested a chance in a film. His focus always has been direction. And in September 2017, it happened. His name appeared beside ‘direction’ on the credits roll.

Using the Director’s Megaphone

Most debut directors prefer to take a foolproof approach to directing, using a safe story to start their career. Shahir depended on his personal experience and imagination and aimed for the sky, literally. His debut feature film, Parava, opened on 21 September 2017 to critical acclaim. Narrating the story of two streetwise friends from the rough lanes of Mattancherry, Kochi, Parava focused on the unusual competition of pigeon flying. A very rare combination of novelty and charm, the film was based on real-life events that Shahir had experienced as a child loafing around in Kochi with his friends while his other friends paid attention to their teachers at school.

Soubin Shahir's first film as a director
A poster of Parava / © Soubin Shahir

A below-average student, Soubin Shahir was mostly caught up in sports and theater in his teenage, never satisfying his teachers or parents when it came to studies. Following a hard yet successful try at a Bachelor’s degree, supported by his father who sensed talent for mimicry and mono-acting in his son, Shahir entered the Malayalam ‘padam’ business. (Interestingly, it is only after a while that Shahir and his elder brother understood that all the props that their father used to bring home were from the film sets he worked in and not from Dubai.)

From an assistant director who helmed rainy sequences in films in 2002, it definitely has been a long road to the director’s chair. The connections and exposure that Shahir amassed through the decade and a half of his career so far trickled down to Parava’s craft. Critics mostly used superlatives to describe the film, with Lensmen reviewing it as a “compelling emotional tale.”

Even while working on his dream, Shahir was occupied with acting work in films such as Martin Prakkat’s Charlie (2015), Sameer Thahir’s Kali (2016), Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam (2016), and Khalid Rahman’s Anuraga Karikkin Vellam (2016). These would help him cement his position as a rising comedian, with the media even comparing him with Aju Varghese and other contemporaries like Salim Kumar and Suraj Venjaramoodu.

Glory After Parava

Parava flew as Shahir dreamed, but he was only starting up. The next logical step was to work on another project. But, instead of direction, which most audience still do not associate him with, he pumped up his acting credits. Playing small roles in films – with an average of 3 films a year since 2013 – improved the confidence in Shahir, who likes to think of himself as a better director than actor.

Five years after his actual debut, long-time friend and producer-director Thahir and cinematographer Shyju Khalid would cast him in Sudani from Nigeria, his first film in a starring role. The closest he came to acting in a lead role previously was in Aneesh Upasana’s 2016 dull comedy, Popcorn, opposite his bestie Srinda.

Sudani from Nigeria, which also stars Nigerian actor Samuel Abiola Robinson, opened to critical and commercial success. According to critics’ aggregated score, it quickly surpassed some of the biggest hits of 2018 so far including Venu’s Carbon, Prajesh Sen’s Captain, and Kamal’s Kamala Surayya biopic Aami. Social media scrambled to praise Shahir’s and Robinson’s performances, writer-director Zakariya’s warm take on the power of kindness and harmony, and the overall feel of the film. If Popcorn can be considered a one-off affair that didn’t work out, then Sudani from Nigeria definitely reinforced Shahir’s talent as an actor.

Malayalam cinema hardly pays attention to films that have new or lesser-known actors in the lead. Zakariya’s debut uses a mixture and still hits gold. Only inferring the rise of Soubin Shahir, a refined Malayalam actor and director, who is about to take the industry by storm. Or, maybe, already has.

Sudani from Nigeria opened in Kerala on 23 March 2018.

(All images, including the featured one, copyright of Soubin Shahir and associated photographers, sourced from Facebook.)