The unheralded brilliance of Kay Kay Menon

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The unheralded brilliance of Kay Kay Menon

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Certain actors go through life being brilliant at every step of the way, and yet underappreciated, or worse, untried for the many roles their potential promises to fulfill. When I watched Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi – on a grainy pirated print – I was struck by the raw, nubile magnetism of Kay Kay Menon. As a young activist who chooses to withdraw from all worldly addictions except that of change, Menon’s Siddharth was a fascinating, volatile character. Because Menon arrived belatedly on our screens in the first decade of this millennium he was ushered to the curb by the presence of star acts – actors who had just learned that sporting a six-pack was somewhat, a compensation for their marginal acting skills.

The understated yet big-on-screen Menon would have, in an ideal world, been the OTT revolution’s poster boy, the man who did sophisticated, diverse roles with the aplomb of a lamp illuminating a room that had begun to crumble long ago. A decade and a half on, the actor, easily one of India’s best, remains curiously underused and worse, unheralded.

Because Menon arrived belatedly on our screens in the first decade of this millennium he was ushered to the curb by the presence of star acts – actors who had just learned that sporting a six-pack was somewhat, a compensation for their marginal acting skills.

Even though Mishra’s landmark film about student politics released belatedly in 2005, it was with the more mainstream Sarkar, that Menon truly made a mark. As the cocky, impulsive older brother to Abhishek Bachhan, Menon was quietly comprehensive and even scene-stealing in a role that cast him, plainly as the twisted, half-brother of the good side. Menon’s pleasing gait means the antagonism he has to earn every time he works in a role that stretches the old Bollywood tropes of good and bad.

In Life in a Metro, Menon was coldly brilliant as a cheating, yet conflicted husband. In the same year he displayed considerable comic chops in his role in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd. For his next landmark role, however, Menon had to wait almost a decade with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, where his caustic chemistry with Tabu was a thing to behold.

Special Ops, Hotstar’s surprise hit series cast Menon as Himmat Singh, a no-nonsense, RAW agent with a spine as straight as tomorrow’s morning headline. It has taken almost two decades, but Himmat Singh has ultimately drawn the most out of Menon, in a series that really just toasts his effortless brilliance. Menon has done some challenging and conflicting roles like Gulaal and The Ghazi Attack, but nowhere has he been the centrepiece that everything else moves around.

Belatedly, but deservedly he has been given that platform with Special Ops, a globetrotting series that though hit and miss with its espionage-y tropes, is subsequently a vehicle for Menon’s talents, his ability to De Niro-like speak from the chin and not the rehearsed tongue. The emotion isn’t delivered by animated theatrics but simply by the change of tone, pace or even something as slight as the pitch. In Special Ops you just can’t get enough of Himmat putting corrupt or compromised officers in their place.

Curiously, and perhaps frustratingly Menon just hasn’t been used by the film industry as he should have been.

Curiously, and perhaps frustratingly Menon just hasn’t been used by the film industry as he should have been. Alarmingly, even the OTT space that would at this moment throw a script at just about anyone who was at some point relevant in the industry, hasn’t tapped Menon’s stunning if small repertoire of work to the effect that Special Ops has.

You could argue that the Hotstar show seems the sum of its parts, only because Himmat Singh sits as the overlap of each, making sure the gravity of the moment, but also its tension is never lost on people. Incredibly, Menon achieves all of this by simply speaking into his phone with an earpiece. In its new season, where the series promises a more intimate look at Himmat and his history – with an intriguing role for the forgotten funny man Aftab Shivdasani – Menon will be showcasing a younger self of Himmat, an officer, adored and feared in equal measure.

Whatever this new season of Special Ops offers, it will no doubt play to the tune of a flawlessly magnanimous Menon, quite literally shouldering the burden of an entire project, tying it all together, all of it without the hyphenated transitions from mode A to mode B. So joyous is Menon’s portrayal of Himmat, you don’t care what cases he handles or unravels, as long as he remains in his rebellious yet restrained element.

Can you give a better compliment to an actor than to say it’s him you want to watch something for, and not the other way around? If producers and directors are still reluctant to offer Menon the work he deserves and will most certainly do justice to, then we can surmise that to this diamond of acting, we are all, serviceable rough.

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