A chance encounter with an Irrfan Khan DVD inspired him to take a second stab at Malayalam films. A decade later, Fahadh Faasil is among India’s most successful and versatile actors.

Malayalam star Fahadh Faasil must infuriate fellow leading men everywhere. He is only 5’5”, suffers from rapidly spreading male pattern baldness, but is already a phenomenon among thinking movie-watchers across the country, thanks to the extended reach of OTT platforms that has made regional cinema accessible. He is famously media shy, and rarely talks to the media, even when promoting his own films. “I feel very incomplete about my films, and I don’t know when’s the right time to talk about it. I usually try to talk about it after a year,” he said in a recent interview. Of course, his films speak for themselves, particularly about his ability to disappear into a character in the wide range of roles he takes on. The characters he portrays in each of his films stand out for their nuance and complexity, and you are left wondering at the uncanny ease with which he inhabits them.

Take, for instance, Shammi — the antagonist in director Madhu C. Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights released last year. It was a seemingly hard-to-portray role of a psychotic and misogynist barber who would go to any length to prevent his sister-in-law from marrying her lover. Faasil, who is among the biggest stars in South Indian films, not only produced the film, but also had no qualms about playing the negative role in it, which he pulled off with consummate finesse. Though he modestly credits writer Syam Pushkaran for creating the character, anyone who has seen the film knows that it is Faasil who brought it alive. His creepy smile and unblinking eyes when he walks into a private conversation between his wife (played by Grace Antony) and sister (Anna Ben), captures the menace that is waiting to unfold in just a single shot. Juxtapose that shot with the one in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), where he plays a petty thief (he won a National Award for his supporting role) who effortlessly breaks into a verdant, mischievous smile when he knows the jig is up. From the geek with OCD in North 24 Kaatham (2013), to small-time photographer who gets caught up in a village fight in the acclaimed Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), or the imposter priest in Trance from earlier this year, his vast and unconventional oeuvre stands out both for its breadth and depth. Faasil is the kind of actor who gets involved in fine-tuning the part he plays, and takes it to the next level,” says Narayanan. Faasil, though, is characteristically modest and understated when asked about it. “I have six reactions that I play around with to avoid repeating myself,” he told an interviewer recently, adding that if he repeats any of those reactions twice, people will get bored.

Faasil is 38, and has already done 50 films, despite being a relatively late starter. He had a disastrous start to his career, and it would be years before he was able to put things back on rail. He is the son of the famous Malayalam film-maker Fazil, and started life as Fahadh Fazil, before changing his name. He had his first taste of acting as a child artiste in 1992, before making his debut at the age of 19 in Fazil’s 2002 film Kaiyethum Doorath. The movie tanked, and with that, evaporated Faasil’s passion for cinema. It was a time when the Malayalam film industry was going through a crisis of confidence, when good films were few and far between, and the emergence of a new generation of writers and directors was still a few years away. Faasil has refused to criticise his father for his early disaster, saying that it was his mistake that he came into acting without any preparation. And then going on to say in interviews that “If that film had worked, I wouldn’t have come this far.” Disillusioned, he moved to the US to study engineering and then philosophy at the University of Miami. Following actor Irrfan Khan’s death in April this year, Faasil shared a social media post that revealed the reasons that compelled him to come back to Kerala after five years to try his hand at acting once again, saying that he owed his rebuilt career to the Hindi cinema legend: “I feel obliged to him. I feel like I owe my career to him. I don’t think I would have come this far if I hadn’t picked up that DVD (Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota), and watched an actor who changed my life.”

Call it serendipity, his comeback to the industry roughly coincided with the start of a new age of Malayalam films. The blockbuster years of the likes of Mammootty and Mohanlal had given way to stronger, narrative-driven films on the back of a profusion of talented young writers and directors, who were creating a new kind of cinema, the kind that had provided Irrfan Khan his vehicle in Hindi films. He made his presence felt almost immediately, with a stand-out role in producer Ranjith’s 2009 anthology film Kerala Café despite the presence of big names like Mammootty, Suresh Gopi, and Dileep. The role rebooted his career, and after a bunch of passable films, his big break came in Sameer Tahir’s Chaappa Kurishu (2011), which provided him the first opportunity to realise his new approach to acting. A year later came Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam (2012) where he played a pimp, a role that consolidated his new reputation as an artiste with substance. He won the Filmfare Best Actor Award for the film, and followed it up with another impressive role in Lal Jose’s Diamond Necklace the same year.

Having tasted success at his second attempt, Faasil has not looked back since. His talent is matched by his ability to work hard. His filmography reveals that he acted in as many as 12 films in 2013, and more than a dozen more films over the next four years. North 24 Kaatham (2013) and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) brought him two more Filmfare Awards for Best Actor, and the latter his first National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor. Artist (2013), won him the State Award for Best Actor, his films like Bangalore Days (2014), and Njan Prakashan (2018) were among the highest-grossing Malayalam films ever produced. Away from his home turf, Faasil made his Tamil debut with Velaikkaran in 2017. But it was his short role in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s brilliant 2019 film, Super Deluxe, that got him noticed for the first time by fans outside Kerala. The famous Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi was the star of the film with his portrayal of a transgender, but Faasil managed to create an equally lasting impression as the husband of a cheating wife who helps transport her lover’s dead body for disposal in their car. Particularly memorable were scenes between the two in the car, when he is ruminating over his own inadequacies as a husband. Faasil has been quoted saying that he did the movie just for those scenes. “It’s not a scene that’s given to every actor. Those kind of scenes actually find an actor,” he said.

Faasil’s acting prowess extends to his remarkable use of his light brown eyes to convey the intensity, or the lightness of his expression. Critics and fans agree that there is something about his eyes that stand out. Longreads are dedicated to it, comments pop up often about his gaze on YouTube and elsewhere. The eyes now have a cult following of its own — a fact that was effectively used by director Dileesh Pothen in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. Faasil thrives on reinvention and innovation. Fahadh Faasil and Friends, the film production company that he runs with his actor wife Nazriya Nazim, is the actor’s vehicle to make films that push the narrative envelope in terms of storytelling and production. The much acclaimed Kumbalangi Nights from last year, about the strained relationship between four down and out brothers in a fishing village, is a good example. It won the Kerala State award for the Best Film with Popular Appeal and Aesthetic Value, and Faasil the Best Character Actor honour, and was a big hit for Amazon Prime.

When the Covid-19 pandemic stymied the film industry, Faasil and Malayalam film director Mahesh Narayanan of Take Off fame were the first to see a creative opportunity. C U Soon, the film, which was produced by Faasil and his wife Nazriya, was shot entirely in the first few months of the lockdown, and released in early September on Amazon Prime to warm reviews as India’s first ‘computer screen film’. Shot entirely on iPhones, the movie explores the social issue of trafficking, much of it projected through text messaging and video chats, besides engaging performances of the three lead actors. That Faasil would personally fund and star in such an experimental film is a window not only into his creative frame of mind, but also of his courage in taking risks for the sake of the cinema he believes in. It is not something you would expect from many other Indian film superstars who are forever content in the formulaic films they produce and act in.

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