The rediscovery of Biju Menon, the actor

Why Ayyappanum Koshiyum is a landmark film for Menon

With Ayyappanum Koshiyum, quite possibly the most talked-about Malayalam film of 2020—till Covid-19 eclipsed cinema among many other things—Biju Menon’s career has come full circle. Now in his 25th year in Mollywood, Menon’s cinematic journey has been a roller-coaster ride, with many highs and lows in a largely unfulfilled career.

As Sub-Inspector Ayyappan Nair, and his alter ego Mundoor Madan, Menon plays his character in Ayyappanum Koshiyum with the kind of subtlety and nuance that ageing superstars in the industry cannot summon anymore. Perhaps that explains why Menon was chosen to play the role in the first place, ahead of ‘bigger’ stars, for a role that any of them would have given an arm and a leg.

Menon is in total control of his character as the empathetic inspector serving in Attappady bound by the rule of law. And, in making his transformation post-interval without ever going over-the-top, Menon is a class act. Perhaps it required a role of such complexity for the dormant actor in Menon to make a re-entry after his career turned a corner albeit largely in comic roles post Vellimoonga in 2014.

Biju Menon’s film career took a severe downturn in the 2000s; viewers would occasionally be treated to his flashes of genius, only for them to be disappointed with the final outcome. Menon was stuck playing the sidekick, villain or character roles when his career would get a second wind in 2012 with Ordinary and, for a while, his odd pairing with Kunchacko Boban kept the box office registers ringing with half-a-dozen hits and superhits like Romans (2013).

Still, Menon’s career remained unfulfilled as he kept playing second fiddle to lead actors. Even after Vellimoonga, Menon was typecast portraying lead roles with a comic touch and not getting the kind of characters that challenged the actor in him. In Ayyappanum Koshiyum, Menon finally got a role worth his ability, and he did not disappoint, holding his own against a superstar like Prithviraj, and coming out trumps as the wronged person.

In fact, despite playing the author-backed character and enjoying longer screen time, Prithviraj comes out second to Menon. Credit is also due to Prithviraj for agreeing to play the part with negative shades and pushing Menon to rediscover his acting range, now almost dormant for a good couple of decades.

From playing angry young cops in films like Asuravamsam (1997), Pathram (1998) to the soft-spoken characters in Ee Puzhayum Kadannu (1996), Pranayavarnangal (1998), Menon’s versatility as an actor was never in doubt. At the turn of the century, with films like Mazha, Madhuranombarakkattu (2000) and Meghamalhar (2001), Menon was marked to scale great heights, only to see his career fizzle out post his larger-than-life turn in Shaji Kailas’ Shivam (2002), which was supposed to propel him to superstardom.

The next decade would see him play roles ranging from second leads to bit roles, almost relegating him to the fringes of Malayalam cinema. Blink-and-you-miss roles like the one in Pranchiyettan and The Saint (2010) would be a case in point. Menon also put on weight and looked older beyond his years in this phase as his career seemed to be on a perpetual slide. Perhaps Menon wasn’t motivated enough to give his best as the roles that came by didn’t challenge him.

It could also be the fact that as his Ayyappanum Koshiyum co-star Prithviraj observed, Menon is a remarkably contented man—someone who is happy to live in the moment and lead a happy life, without being overly ambitious.

But with all the acclaim that has come his way post Ayyappanum Koshiyum, can Menon yet realise his potential that held the audience enthralled in his youth while playing versatile characters with elan?

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