Why Are Women Going Gaga Over “Unconventional” Malayali Actor Fahadh Faasil?

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Why Are Women Going Gaga Over “Unconventional” Malayali Actor Fahadh Faasil?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

I’m going to go out on a limb and be the person who says this: Kumbalangi Nights is an exquisite yet exceedingly hyped film. It is undoubtedly good, but it isn’t among Malayalam cinema’s best. What it does have though is Fahadh Faasil, who is unquestionably among Malayalam cinema’s finest. 

In Kumbalangi Nights, a film he has also produced, Fahadh plays Shammi, the villain. In fact, the entire climax of Kumbalangi Nights could be a twisted metaphor for Fahadh’s career. Shammi is a conventional alpha male who is ultimately baited  and trapped – quite literally – by his own masculinity. Fahadh is the opposite: He is brazenly unconventional; even in a film that he has produced, he chooses not to hog maximum screen time. He is a performer not trapped by any notions of hyper-masculinity or herogiri, freeing him up to make fearless career choices. 

In another memorable climactic moment in Kumbalangi Nights, Shammi tells Saji and Bonnie that he will show them what a real man can do. In that one proclamation, he and Fahadh could be the same person. Shammi doesn’t quite succeed in defining masculinity on screen, but Fahadh has. In his films, he is man enough not to be a man.

I stumbled upon Fahadh Faasil quite by chance. A few years back, a friend concerned by my Bollywood insularity gave me a DVD of 22 Female Kottayam. This is a movie which was inspired in spirit by Sriram Raghavan’s gem, Ek Hasina Thi, and which made Raghavan’s film look like a breezy entertainer. In 22 Female Kottayam, Fahadh plays Cyril, a guy who allows his girlfriend to be sexually violated twice by his boss and remains completely unrepentant even when she castrates him in an epic act of revenge. Pardon my poor pun, but it takes balls to harbour leading man aspirations and still do this role. 

What stood out for me was how Fahadh got under the skin of a decidedly evil character and yet played it normal. If Saif Ali Khan made evil look suave and cool, Fahadh made it look regular and middle-class. It’s this ability to slip effortlessly into a character that Aravind Nair, a communications professional and my Malayalam movie companion swears by, “What sets him apart is the seeming ease with which he slips into roles that are quirky… to describe him as a versatile actor is a sorry cliché; his skill would be the manner in which he managed to evolve as an actor over a relatively short span of time.”

Pardon my poor pun, but it takes balls to harbour leading man aspirations and still do this role.

Fahadh’s evolution as an actor is a critical and visible part of his filmography. He made a disastrous debut in 2002 with a film called Kaiyethum Doorathu. The newcomer from a film family (his father is a filmmaker) was dismissed as a total dud. He fled to the US to study and the industry assumed that it was the last they had seen of him. But Fahadh wasn’t one to play by convention: He came back, smarter and stronger and chose to give his own spin to masculinity.

In an industry and at a time that is obsessed with perfectly sculpted appearances,  Fahadh has a receding hairline, no six pack, and painfully regular looks. He looks like everyone and anyone. The devil is in the smaller details; for Pallavi Suresh, a self-confessed Fahadh Faasil fan, it’s how the actor’s eyes can make any love story crackle with chemistry, “He makes you believe that perfect love stories are possible with imperfect bodies and faces, like in Maheshinte Prathikaram, where he has a receding hairline and even a small belly and yet you want to be romanced by him.” Sunita Vinod, another friend who has contributed to my love for Malayalam  films coos, “He is a man, not a boy. Right from the first shot, he doesn’t care two bits about what people make of him. That makes him hot.”

Incidentally, Maheshinte Prathikaraam is written by Syam Pushkaran, who also wrote Kumbalangi Nights. I’d rate it higher than Kumbalangi Nights. Masquerading as a revenge saga, this film again turns on its head, the conventional tropes of masculinity. It teaches you what Shammi couldn’t – what a real man should be. Even when Fahadh’s Mahesh is driven by petty vengeance, he doesn’t remain petty. He eventually exacts vengeance but forgets about it almost immediately. No gloating, no swagger – just what a man has got to do. 

If you are still curious about the widespread Fahadh Faasil virus, especially on women, chances are that you haven’t watched him in Bangalore Days where he plays a closed, indifferent husband burdened by a tragic past. The film manages a casting coup of sorts, by also starring Dulquer Salman and Nivin Pauly, his incredibly talented peers in the Malayalam film industry. When we talk of Fahadh, Monika Nautiyal, a television producer I know, talks about a film I haven’t watched yet: Last year’s Varthan. In the film, Fahadh plays a man who has to deal with his wife’s rape and according to her, what makes his performance  stand out is how he chooses not to stand out. “There is a normalcy in how his emotions shift… he doesn’t behave like how we are conditioned to believe men react. The way Bollywood heroes do – showy and melodramatic.” 

It’s not entirely surprising given that Fahadh rarely behaves like a “hero”. The evidence is littered across his filmography, especially in the Tamil neo-noir Super Deluxe, where he plays an aspiring actor and a conflicted husband who helps his wife dispose off the body of her ex-lover. It’s a comically aware performance that doesn’t sacrifice emotionally vulnerability either. One of my favourites however is, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, where Fahadh plays a chain snatcher who gobbles up his booty and some part of the film is devoted to the police trying to get him to poop out the chain. It’s as absurd as it sounds, but it still manages to be real. Fahadh was awarded National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie and yet he chose not to show up for the awards as a mark of protest when it was revealed that the Indian President would not be handing out the awards to each and every winner. 

In a climate where actors fawn over the establishment, Fahadh continues to go by what he thinks is right. Maybe just for that reason alone, Fahadh Faasil is the hero Indian cinema needs.