How Biju Menon And His Brand Of Cinema Found A Place In Malayalam Films In The Last Decade

In his successful films, the characters Menon plays are ultimately harmless, rarely swerve from decency, care about family and friends, and maintain good humour, writes Ashutosh Mohan.
How Biju Menon And His Brand Of Cinema Found A Place In Malayalam Films In The Last Decade

Biju Menon entered films through Puthran (1994) and was cast in several villainous and supporting roles early in his career. He was part of Mannar Mathai Speaking (1995), Azhakiya Ravanan (1996), Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu (1997) and Mulla (2008), and even played the antagonist in Tamil films such as Majaa (2005) with Vikram and Thambi (2006) with Madhavan. 

Looking back over the last decade, one cannot talk about Malayalam films without speaking of Biju Menon: the ever-viable leading man with a seemingly sure audience, with directors writing roles that fall within his range. One of the significant films he starred in just before his current streak began was Marykkundoru Kunjaadu (2010) starring Dileep. Menon's character is a faint, speaking echo of the role played by Vikram in Pithamagan. He barely speaks, and when he does, never more than a phrase at a time. Yet, you can see the signs of the deadpan comedy he would come to be known for. In a scene where he is asked whether there was oxygen in the well into which he had fallen, he says without affectation: 'illa, nyaan ottaika irunu' (No, I was alone).

But the role that set up all of his later ones was in Ordinary (2012), with Kunchacko Boban. Menon plays Suku, an everyday person from Palakkad, a bus driver on a sleepy, uneventful beat around Pathanamthitta. Menon speaks in the Palakkad accent; the sardonic, uniquely intoned 'Oh' included. His performance and nonchalant dialogue delivery keep the first half afloat ('minus degree Celsius' is turned into 'minus degree selfish' and he makes it work). This role might be considered his 'comeback'. He followed this up with Romans (2013), again with Kunchacko Boban. They play escaped convicts who pretend to be priests to avoid recapture. Menon is louder in this film than in Ordinary, but still within his range of subdued, ironic, fumbling humour. The scene where he tries to preach out of a Bible that he cannot decipher is a riot; it works mostly due to his expressions and timing. 

One of the biggest hits in his career is Vellimoonga (2014). In a role tailor-made for him, Menon plays Mamachan, an unmarried, scrambling politician in his forties, with a rather curious case of mid-life crisis: he has decided to marry a girl whose mother he once courted in school. In the scene where the mother's identity is revealed to him — by the girl's father — Menon swiftly goes through a gamut of curious emotions with a deft lightness, without which a lot of comedy in the film would have ground itself down under a pile of rather serious moral ambiguities. His 'ah, flow angu poyee' (I've lost my flow) has entered everyday usage.

The roles that Menon played subsequently almost unfailingly fall under the Biju Menon 'mode', with minor variations that keep them from becoming stereotypes. In many films, the mode has served to elevate the writing (or, sometimes, even make up for much of it). Take, for instance, Marubhoomiyile Aana (2016), an excellent example of a film that works not just because of the writing — which happens to be ordinary — but also because of Menon's unique presence. He plays a disowned member of the Qatari royal family who has fled — to avoid murder charges, nothing less — to Kerala. There is little in the film to establish the simmering quirkiness that is part of this character named Sheikh Sultan Hamad bin Saud bin Khalifa bin Jasim Al Thani Mohammed. It is smuggled into the role by Menon, and without it, you'd have a hard time believing that the Sheik who was introduced outside a Qatari palace walking his pet tiger is the still same Sheik that is cooking up cons to raise some cash back home in Kerala. There is nothing in the writing to explain this, to build up this expectation, but Menon makes it work. 

In Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu (2017), he plays Baiju, a middle-aged government employee and — more importantly to him — a mentor to the boys in his village. He exists in quiet peace without hurry or aspiration, something he sums up in a poignant scene to his visiting friend (who owns three firms in the US); the scene is held together not just by the dialogues but also by the easy, laidback, common-man vibe that Menon brings to the role. You want to be Baiju, you don't want to own three firms in the US. 

In Padayottam (2018), in which Menon plays a mid-level gangster who loves his mother like a little boy, he plays a rowdier version of his mode, but still within range: he still wears a lungi, takes care of the boys, values family, and is generally unsure of himself while also being able to conjure up an inner swagger to cover it up. The film makes good use of his ability to project something simple, while constantly suggesting something deeper.  In Sathyam Paranja Vishwasikkuvo (2019) he plays Suni, a harmless alcoholic. His devoted wife puts up with him against the better advice of her brothers, and if Suni weren't being played by Menon it would have been hard to feel any empathy for the character.

In his successful films, the characters Menon plays are ultimately harmless, rarely swerve from decency, care about family and friends, and maintain good humour. He tweaks it sometimes, though. For instance, in Anuraga Karikkin Vellam (2016), he plays a police officer and a father. Naturally, he is not one of those cops quick to pull the trigger or eager to deliver well-wrought sermons about the moral way to behave in society; this one is just a bit hot-tempered. In a scene where Menon recounts why he became a cop to his colleague, you basically get a nostalgic recollection of things that were done by him for ending up with the one he truly loved, and only tangentially about how to end up in the force; this scene must at least be a distant cousin of the one from Padayottam mentioned above. 

Another variation was Leela (2016) in which Menon played a sybarite with an inheritance, a libido, and an obsession for an elephant tusk; all done within the parameters of good taste, however scandalous the plot line might sound on paper.

The tweaks, arguably, haven't always worked. An even more extreme variation is, perhaps, Rosapoo (2018) where his supporting presence and the comic undercurrent that comes with it were not in line with the rest of the film, in a way that his Lt. Zachariah was in Anarkali (2015). Even a role like Ullas from Naalpathyonnu (2019), a film with a blurb that might read like Anbe Sivam (with its conflict between belief in God and the lack of it) was plainly executed without ruffling anyone in the three hours of harmless escape that Menon's audience has now come to expect from him.

Menon has sometimes relied on debut directors for new ideas within his mode: Sugeeth (Ordinary), Jibu Joseph (Vellimoonga), Rafeek Ibrahim (Padayottam) and Khalid Rahman (Anuraga Karikkin Vellam). In a way, Menon's films are similar in spirit, though certainly not in depth and range, to those written and played by Sreenivasan in the 80s and early 90s. But, perhaps, their closest similarity is not really in the kind of films they made or are part of, but in their audience: middle-class in outlook, valuing family and friends, somewhat nostalgic for simpler times and partial to easy watching. And Biju Menon's characters on screen are mostly all of that, with surprises that are — for the most part — kept pleasant.

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