MW Men Of The Year 2021: How Hitmakers Syam Pushkaran, Dileesh Pothan, and Fahadh Faasil Changed The Course Of Malayalam Cinema
How Mollywood’s three musketeers came together, and wove in to form a combination that is commercially and creatively successful — in not just South, but elsewhere in India and abroad.
Kuttappan Panachel, the brawny local millionnaire, is looking out the balcony, turned away from the room’s entrance, when young Joji, stealthily, as if he’s levitating, enters the room from behind. The father, ever vigilant of his sons’ ulterior motives, and the son, very much aware of his father’s eagle eyes, are just a few yards away. Without breaking his attention from his father, Joji’s hand glides to the nearby table, to pick something he wants. Should Kuttappan turn, we know Joji is a goner. In a movie that seemed domestic enough, we witness an unprecedented rise in villainy. Like a show of next-level theatre art. We follow Fahadh Faasil’s carefully poised movements here as Joji, with bated breath.
That was a scene from the 2021 Malayalam movie Joji, a loose adaptation of William Shakersphere’s play Macbeth. Yes, Macbeth in Malayalam. The movie was written by Syam Pushkaran, directed by Dileesh Pothan, and the title character played by Fahadh Faasil — the team we are going to talk about. Depth is their speciality and every emotion they weave into shape, as is their team, is an endearingly amazing result of art collective.
Syam Pushkaran (writer), Dileesh Pothan (director), Fahadh Faasil (actor) — artists who bloomed in different grounds, connected through projects that were the then-masterpieces in Kerala, and finally wove in to form a combination that, over the years, has been both commercially and creatively successful — a rare, fine equilibrium — in not just South, but elsewhere in India and abroad. Joji was the recipient of international accolades like the Swedish International Film Festival and Barcelona International Film Festival, among others. Joji was the trio’s last together; but, let’s go to where it all started.
The first movie that brought them together was Maheshinte Prathikaaram in 2016. Syam wrote the script, Pothan directed, and Fahadh essayed the local photographer who would murder your passport-size photo dreams. The movie, a far cry from the usual award winners, was an eye-opener for both its simplicity, and the depth of characters and scenes that it contained in an endearingly humorous and natural light. Keralites received Maheshinte Prathikaaram with love, but they were oblivious to its award-winning standards, until the realisation struck them next year in 2017, when the State and National awards were announced.
Maheshinte Prathikaaram reaped a flurry of awards, including the Kerala State Film Awards 2017 for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film with Popular and Aesthetic Appeal, and the National Film Awards the same year for Best Original Screenplay and Best Feature Film in Malayalam; Syam and Pothan decorated. It was just the beginning. The same year, the three of them released their second project.
Before that, their style. Syam Pushkaran, 37, prefers stories and characters supported by realism, inspired by real-life personalities, and walks his characters through their natural traits and elegantly simple nuances that you can only observe are beautiful if you take off your biases. 40-year-old Dileesh Pothan is a sensible director who can place a story so grounded and humble, yet create a marvel that can speak directly to your heart. The writer and the director’s visions are lifted by Fahadh Faasil, 39, someone, Keralites believe, ‘can speak with his eyes’; through his poignant acting and unique mannerisms, the man adds an ignite that completes these fantastic contemporaries.
“We have never felt like we are a hit trio. The truth is we don’t let each other down. It can work only through honesty,” award-winning writer Syam Pushkaran tells MW. “Mostly because we honestly tell each other [what they feel], without hurting much, the combination works.”
The combination shined again in 2017, with Thondi Muthalum Driksakshiyum. The movie would be, like the first one, as popular as it is critically acclaimed. Audiences from all walks of life could relate, and if it didn’t sound simple enough, the movie also won three National Awards and two State Awards among a handful of other accolades. In this second movie together, Fahadh joined the club and won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Not his first one though. We’ll get there.)
Kumbalangi Nights in 2019 rolled next. Fahadh played the role of an antagonist (again), and Dileesh Pothan chose to become a joint producer of the film with Fahadh and Syam. The feel-good movie, directed by debutant Madhu C Naryanan, seized the beauty in the contrast of an infamous, shattered men-only family’s ambitions with that of the hypocritic values of a respectable family under ‘the perfect man’, Shammi, essayed by Fahadh. The film was local, but on the contrary — again, opposite poles beautifully working in tandem — this time, was a trendsetter among the youth. Another surprise. Another win.
I asked Syam, wouldn’t such continual bouts of success create ego barriers between the three of them, and he honestly agrees, “With success, our hearts get bigger; and our ego, too.” He then says, “So we tactically handle each other understanding this fact,” and adds, “We know we need each other, so it is not a big problem.” The trio combined last for Joji in 2021. We know about that already. “Some ideas stay. And some of them, with time, end up feeling cheesy. The ideas that stay longer become cinemas.” The ideas are nurtured organically. Syam says he gives them time. “It was in 2014 that we first discussed Kumbalangi Nights. First time we spoke about Shammi.”
Their growth was organic as well. Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran first met when they worked as assistant and associate directors for the 2010 Malayalam flop movie, Ringtone. For a genius duo in the making, their next together bore a result on the same lines, but their company flourished: “Then Char So Bees. We were friends like that,” Syam says. “Maybe that’s why we started a company in partnership. We have known each other for a long time.” He’s all smiles as he explains his nature of fondness for Pothan, “The guy’s very smart. Very practical. Pothan brings many things that I can’t. We compliment each other well.”
After 2010, the next episode of their collaboration was a massive shift in standards. Syam co-wrote the hit movie Salt N’ Pepper with Dileesh Karunakaran (some people call these two writers twins) for director Aashiq Abu, a film-maker who’s considered one of the best in business in Kerala. Here, Dileesh Pothan entered as an assistant director for the film. Also, he made his debut as an actor in it.
“Aashiq Abu is a fabulous director, no doubt. He has an old school training with a new attitude, perspective, and top technical knowledge. He wouldn’t take an extra shot.” Syam says their association with Aashiq Abu helped them a lot. Dileesh Pothan would become a permanent in assistant and associate direction for Aashiq Abu’s flicks thereon. Syam found the writer’s seat — especially with Dileesh Karunakaran among other writers — and made it a habit to create blockbusters for Aashiq Abu. Here, Fahadh’s journey would coincide.
Let’s look at Fahadh’s start. Fahadh has a strong lineage, being the son of famous Malayalam screenwriter and director Fazil, but his debut performance as an actor under the umbrella of his father’s direction in Kaiyethum Doorath in 2002 fizzled out. The movie failed, and the media trolled his performance mercilessly. He was not to be seen on screen for the next seven years.
A completely different Fahadh emerged in the 2009 Malayalam anthology, Kerala Cafe. In 2011, the actor won his first Kerala State Film Award for Chaapa Kurishu. Gone was the boy with rose cheeks and sugar-coated smiles, and came forth the character expert who landed in Aashiq Abu’s den, where Syam and Pothan worked, in 22 Female Kottayam.
Today, Syam and Pothan successfully run a production company — Bhavana Studios. Fahadh is a partner of one, too — Fahadh Faasil & Friends. But if you think of this gang as serious, immersed in creative discussions in swirling smoky rooms, well, you’re wrong; “Because we have a production company, we meet and discuss about the future.” He is quick to add, “Otherwise, everyone’s busy. Pothan acts. Fahadh acts. I am the only one sitting at home.” So much for the creative genius. “When they [Pothan & Fahadh] act together is when I go and meet them on the sets. That’s that.”
Because I wrote the question in my notebook, I went as far as asking Syam if he can think of the trio’s combination as something close to the Martin Scorecesede Niro types. To this, Syam laughed a lot, before replying, “No. No. No. I can’t think of the ScoreceseRobert de Niro combo and all. We have only done 3-4 movies.” From the eyes of a down-to-earth Keralite, he adds, “At least 5/10 of what Mohanlal and Priyadharshan were (in Kerala) would be very satisfying.”
Fahadh Faasil has had a slew of blockbusters, has many in the pipeline in different languages and genres, and is on the way, we can say, to becoming a Pan-India star. Pothan is busy doing character roles — so far he has acted in 40+ movies — and he seems to be taking his time out for the next slam dunk in direction.
“In Bollywood there is a saying,” Syam says, “‘Parde pe chadi bhi dikhta hai.’” The writer believes that an artist’s politics and true nature will surely transpire on screen, and if what Syam says is to be right, the beauty of relatability and minimalism in Syam and Pothan’s creation, and the discipline, dedication — and “the unlimited excitement and surprises” as Syam puts it — in performances essayed by Fahadh is what has hogged this trio the spotlight of respect and love from movie buffs. With the rise in OTT, it has only become easier. If it was just Kerala before, now, we should say, the world waits for their next adventure together.