The Rise And Rise Of Dulquer Salmaan
From being ‘superstar Mammootty’s son’ to becoming a pan-India sensation, the actor looks back at his decade-long career in cinema
Mammootty didn’t want to saddle his children with the burden of expectation that comes bundled with his surname, and hence picked Salmaan as the last name for his son, as if to put him on a path to help create his own identity. Not only that, the three-time National-Award-winning legend has till date never promoted his son’s films. In fact, Dulquer had a rather unusual debut — for this star kid, who, unlike Fahadh Faasil or Pranav Mohanlal, enjoyed relative anonymity till then.
Reminiscing about his debut, the actor had later revealed in a Facebook post about his fears and apprehensions, especially of putting a dent in his father’s illustrious legacy. Second Show, his first, was a movie with a bunch of new comers nobody knew about. It was helmed by debutant director, Srinath Rajendran, who later reunited with Dulquer for Kurup, the 2021 biopic/crime drama that saw the actor give one of his most nuanced performances till date as a notorious cold-blooded murderer. It was a sure-footed entry.
He bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Male Debut that year (2012), and followed it up with his first Filmfare Award for Best Actor, for a confident and layered portrayal of Faizi in his very next film, Ustad Hotel (2012). The Anwar-Rasheed directorial won three National Film Awards, and today, is considered among the finest specimens of New Generation films (Malayalam film movement started in the early 2010s and is credited for the revival of Malayalam cinema). The film was instrumental in creating a dedicated fanbase for this second-generation actor.
Next came ABCD: American-Born Confused Desi(2013) and then Bangalore Days (2014), one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films of all time. These movies firmly established Dulquer as an actor in his own right in an industry where his father’s shadow still looms large. If Mammootty is credited for being the first superstar of Malayalam cinema to blur the boundaries between the mainstream and the parallel, it is to be noted that over the years, Dulquer has emerged as one of the most exciting actors who is keen on playing interesting characters rather than positioning himself as a star. Their sensibilities as actors also seem to be markedly different. Although he continued to win hearts with his urban, boy-next-door characters, especially with movies like O Kadhal Kanmani, 100 Days of Love, and the more recent Hey Sinamika, Dulquer has consistently attempted the unconventional. He proved his versatility in the 2015 film Charlie; the role had also earned him Kerala State Award for Best Actor. In the 2016 film, Kali, he scorched the screen as Sidharth, an angry young man. In his Telugu debut in 2018, we saw him play late Gemini Ganesan, the legendary actor from Tamil cinema — also veteran Bollywood actor, Rekha’s father — in Mahanati, a biopic on actress Savitri. The very same year, he also made his debut in Bollywood with the Irfan Khan-starrer movie on road-trips, Karwaan. Today, the actor is working in four different industries, has turned producer, and is also set for his OTT debut with the Netflix series, Guns & Gulaabs.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
It’s been 10 years. Tell us how Dulquer Salmaan has evolved, and how Malayalam cinema has changed over the decade.
I had entered the industry with lots of insecurities. Over the years, I have managed to shed a few of those. I finally like seeing myself on screen. That’s the big change. I am more confident and free as an actor now and open to trying new things. The industry has changed drastically, especially with the advent of OTT. There are a lot more avenues for our films to travel. Malavalam cinema is a comparatively smaller industry and earlier, we would just cater to our home audience. But now, it is consumed by not only audiences across India but also around the globe. We are very much aware of this, and working towards putting out more quality content.
You had mentioned that you set out doing every film with a certain amount of trepidation. Has that changed over they ears?
I think a bit of nervous energy is good. Most actors have it deep down. If I find something easy, I get a bit worried. I like a good challenge. Also, it is very easy for actors to get into a comfort zone and take up similar roles. Eventually, you get stuck in a rut, and it becomes difficult to get out of the image. Although I experiment with various kinds of characters, people tend to categorise me in urban romantic roles, and it is my constant attempt to break out of it. But yes, over the years, things have got a bit easier. I have become more confident as an actor and less scared of approaching new characters. But I make up for it by taking up movies in languages I hardly know [laughs]. I think it is important to constantly keep challenging oneself and push the envelope.
Although you have forayed into the Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi film industries, you started off in Malayalam cinema. Why did you choose to start in the very industry where your dad is one of the biggest superstars, and would there be comparisons?
I had a few opportunities to audition here, but also, I wanted to start with the biggest challenge. And it helped. All the work I have got stems from the work I have done in Malayalam cinema. Also, it was an organic process. I didn’t have a proper plan. I didn’t know if this would work out for me, or whether I would get the next film, or even, where I would be by the end of that year. I really took it one film at a time.
So you didn’t plan to become an actor while growing up?
I grew up away from the industry in Chennai as my dad wanted us to have a regular upbringing. Even as a youngster, I didn’t quite relate to the cinema we were making — those were heavily influenced by cinema made in other languages and weren’t really rooted in our culture. Also, it was very verbose, full of heavy dialogue baazi. It wasn’t my scene. But then, most of us eventually want to be like our parents. For me, it was as simple and as complicated as that [laughs]. I had grown up seeing my father work in the industry, I have always loved and consumed cinema. When I was in college, I started conceiving the idea of making a film. I even tried my hand at it with a few short films. It didn’t seem like work and came very naturally to me. I loved the entire creative process of making something simply out of an idea. The more time I spent fiddling with the camera trying to tell a story, the more I realised that this is what I really want to do. Initially, the idea was to become a director.
I was scared to come in front of the camera and take up acting as a career. But then again, I always end up doing things that scare me the most. Also, I was shy as a kid; I was scared of the stage and petrified of public speaking. I remember, I was the president of a students’ club and was supposed to give a speech in front of my classmates. I just couldn’t do it. Nobody ever thought I would eventually decide to face the camera. That was my big achievement.
Unlike most star kids, you didn’t have a big-budget launch. Tell us about your debut film.
First thing, I never thought I deserved a launch by any stretch of anybody’s imagination. Except for being my father’s son, what credibility did I have? I didn’t even know if I could act at all. When I came back from Dubai and decided to give acting a shot, my father was categorical that he will not be the one making phone calls for me or promoting me in any way; if I want to do this, I had to figure it out on my own. I don’t think he thought that I would actually go through with it [laughs]. But I had no clue how to go about it. First thing I did was to enroll in an acting course. Then I thought of hitting the gym or taking dance lessons to prep myself physically. I still didn’t have a plan in place. But as luck would have it, there was a whole bunch of new comers with zero connection in the industry, trying to get a movie made, but no established actor would even listen to their script. They had this brainwave and thought of approaching one of the star kids. So, that’s how I got my first script narration. While we were shooting Second Show, I landed Ustad Hotel. They needed to cast someone who looked straight out of college, and most of our leading men then were much older. I got that film because they weren’t able to cast anyone else. And that changed my life.
Over the past two years, especially since the lockdown, Malayalam cinema has found a pan-Indian audience thanks to the OTT boom.
Yes, and this is the time I am doing cinema in other languages [laughs].
What do you think is the reason, especially since it used to be a much smaller industry?
I think we tell rooted stories that are content-driven. We do have commercial cinema as well, but even that has to be well-written and structured. Our audience is used to quality cinema right from the ’80s. Also, as makers, we are used to quicker formats; we wrap up films in 35/40 days. So, our cinema is topical. The short gestation period really helps. It is my personal logic though.
With people across the country looking up to Malayalam cinema, is there more pressure?
Pressure always drives you to do better work. But I don’t see us changing our stories or adding frills to it just to appeal to other audiences. Our stories are still rooted in our culture, and speak our language. Subtitles have made them accessible to everyone.
With OTTs coming into the picture, our filmmakers have the courage to experiment more, provided it is packaged well, and they don’t blow an exorbitant amount of money on it. You don’t lose as much money on OTTs, so it has become much safer.
Do you think OTTs are also creating a space for Hindi content that is not Bollywood, and more actors from other industries are opening up to it?
With OTTs, there are more opportunities and diverse ones. There is a lot of content that is being made, and they also want actors from other industries to get more audience. Also, the fear of box office is not there. Earlier, if one film tanked, their offers would start to dry out. So, you would think twice to take that risk, especially if you already have a successful career in one industry.
What do you think makes actors who enjoy huge stardom in regional cinema averse to making the shift to Bollywood? And how has it changed, if at all, from your father’s generation to yours?
A lot of it has to do with language proficiency. If you are conceiving a film in a particular language, your characters need to sound authentic. You need to be convincing with the language. Also, stars down South are huge, and they have better opportunities in their own industries. Their calendars are usually chock-a-block, and it is difficult for them to juggle between industries.
O Kadhal Kanmani was remade into OK Jaanu. Do you think OTTs will eventually make South film remakes — which is almost an industry in itself — redundant?
I think any good remake that has worked is usually an adaptation, rather than a scene-by-scene copy. But I think it has got trickier now, especially if it is a popular film. It is just there and accessible to everyone, thanks to OTT. But do we reallv have a dearth of stories to be telling the same ones twice?
With OTT, it seems the idea of a star is somewhat losing its sheen. The new generation is looking at playing interesting characters instead. How do you see this shift?
Pratik Gandhi, for me, is a star. He was fabulous in Scam. For me, a star is someone you love to see on screen. I don’t think the idea of stardom should be only associated with box office numbers. In fact, there are more stars today than ever. OTTs are giving birth to so many wonderful actors, which might not have happened traditionally. It took longer to get the recognition. Today, people retain names and remember performances much more, thanks to repeat viewings.
Ten years, and you have created your own space, and not only in the Malayalam industry, because you are considered a pan-India star. Has it become any easier to be in the same industry where your dad is considered a superstar?
Firstly, I don’t even like the word pan-India. Films of actors like Mr Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan or Rajinikanth have always travelled. Nobody called them pan-India stars then. This is a fickle industry. You can be a star one day, and obsolete the next. We all have this fear that drives us to constantly do better and reinvent ourselves. It no longer matters what my dad is doing, or that I have this family name or lineage. I feel a responsibility towards their reputation or the legacy they built and passed on, but I think the pressure I put on myself is created by me.