Actor first, star later: Fahadh Faasil’s experiments outside Malayalam cinema

Faasil certainly isn’t the only male actor who has tried to expand his filmography beyond his own industry. What sets him apart is his willingness to reject stardom in favour of roles that allow him to push himself as an actor
Fahadh Faasil
Fahadh Faasil

Back in 2013, when Mohan Raja was making his action thriller Thani Oruvan (2015), he wanted someone who could play the role of a sophisticated villain. His assistant directors (ADs) excitedly suggested an actor who they said was delivering one spectacular performance after another in Malayalam films – Fahadh Faasil.

“My ADs showed me films like Chappa Kurishu (2011) and 22 Female Kottayam (2012). We were amazed by his acting skills. He was so young too. But we were unsure about casting him in a Tamil film,” Raja told Film Companion. The role in Thani Oruvan eventually went to Arvind Swamy, but when Raja was making Velaikkaran (2017), the director turned to Faasil for a villain who would top Swamy’s performance as Siddharth Abhimanyu.

In Velaikkaran, Faasil plays a manipulative corporate criminal named Aadhi. “I’m very proud that I was the first to cast him in a film outside the Malayalam industry,” said Raja. “He was among the most keenly sought after actors in his industry at the time, and I thought having him on board would pressure me – in a good way – to come up with a villain who would impress the audience as much as Siddharth Abhimanyu.”

Sivakarthikeyan and Fahadh Faasil in Velaikkaran
Sivakarthikeyan and Fahadh Faasil in Velaikkaran

Raja wondered how Faasil would handle the language barrier, but the worries proved to be unfounded. “His first shot was actually the last one that appears in the film – when he’s sitting next to Sivakarthikeyan and sizing him up before an interview. I couldn’t bring myself to call ‘cut!’ because his performance was so mesmerising. His eyes conveyed so many emotions. I felt like I understood the film better because of that one shot,” said Raja. 

After Velaikkaran, Faasil did another Tamil film, the black comedy Super Deluxe (2019) with Thiagarajan Kumararaja. He played an aspiring actor who is forced to help his wife hide her lover’s corpse in the critically-acclaimed film. A year later, the pandemic struck and Faasil quickly gained a fan following of film aficionados outside Kerala as audiences shifted to OTT platforms. 

He was seen in Mahesh Narayanan’s C U Soon (2020), a thriller that unfolds exclusively through screens, which was shot during the pandemic and released on Amazon Prime Video. The film is about a couple (Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran) in an online relationship – and things turn murky when the woman suddenly disappears. Faasil plays an acerbic cyber security specialist who reluctantly embarks on the task of helping the missing woman. 

Faasil is a regular for Narayanan, who has cast the actor in three of his four films so far. “We had a big film with Fahadh in the lead, Malik (2021), waiting to be released but that’s when the pandemic started,” said Narayanan. With the film industry brought to a standstill due to restrictions, Narayanan and Faasil decided to breathe fresh life into an old idea and made C U Soon

“During the making of the survival thriller Take Off  (2017), which also has Fahadh in the cast, we watched this video of a maid who had been trafficked. We all found the video to be really haunting. I told him that we should do something with it,” recalled Narayanan, noting that the way the vertical video was shot in a washroom underlined the woman’s desperation. This led to Narayanan telling the story entirely through screens. “I had lots of apprehensions about how the film would be received since it had so much text and information on the screen, especially by the audience outside Kerala. But we got a hugely positive response from across the country,” said Narayanan. 

After C U Soon came Joji (2021), directed by Dileesh Pothan; a grim, contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth where Faasil played the youngest son in a dysfunctional family. The widely acclaimed film (also released on Amazon Prime Video) was called ‘The First Major Film of the COVID-19 Pandemic’ by Richard Brody of The New Yorker. “Joji arrived at the right time,” said Pothan, who has cast Faasil in all three films that he’s directed so far. “The OTT space was opening up, and we also had the pan-Indian film phenomenon. So, people from across industries and journalists covering cinema in other languages were also interested in the film.”

Joji (2021)
Joji (2021)

Pothan pointed out that this was a time when film industries were struggling to make movies, and the praise that Joji won was encouraging to them. “It’s likely that Fahadh’s performance in Joji, and all his other films that people watched on OTT during this period got filmmakers from other industries interested in casting him,” said Pothan.

It’s not surprising then that Telugu director Sukumar chose Faasil for the role of Bhanwar Singh Shekawat in Pushpa: The Rise (2021) when shooting resumed for the film after pandemic restrictions were lifted. Previously, several names from the Tamil industry had been doing the rounds for the role of the antagonist in Pushpa, from Vijay Sethupathi to Bobby Simha, Arya, Madhavan and even Vikram, but it was ultimately Faasil who played the Haryanvi cop with a psychotic streak. 

“During the first lockdown, a lot of Telugu movie buffs and even those who didn’t watch too many movies, discovered Malayalam cinema. These films were so popular that there were discussions on getting their remake rights in the Telugu industry,” said Sangeetha Devi Dundoo, film critic with The Hindu. “By the time Pushpa came out in December 2021, many in the Telugu audience were more familiar with Malayalam cinema than ever before, and there was a lot of curiosity on what Sukumar was going to do with Allu Arjun and Faasil.” 

Pushpa’s tremendous success in Telugu and Hindi meant that Faasil became a recognisable face even in rural pockets of the country where people may not have watched Malayalam films on OTT. 

Faasil certainly isn’t the only male actor who has tried to expand his filmography beyond his own industry. With the craze for pan-Indian films alive and thriving, there are many who are making calculated moves to capture new markets. What perhaps sets him apart is his willingness to reject stardom in favour of roles that allow him to push himself as an actor. 

Narayanan, in fact, said that Faasil was insistent that his co-stars Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran were on the poster of C U Soon too despite OTT platforms generally wanting to project the biggest star in the cast in their promos. “He was very clear that C U Soon wasn’t just about him but all of them. It was the story of Darshana’s character and he wanted to give the role the prominence it deserved,” said Narayanan. 

In Malayalam, Faasil has played a wide range of roles but he has especially excelled in playing the anti-hero – be it in 22 Female Kottayam (2012) where he plays a despicable man who lures women into the sexual games of his boss; Kumbalangi Nights (2019) where he plays a mentally disturbed ‘perfect man’ or Trance (2020) in which he is a charlatan who goes into drug-induced, psychedelic trances. This is perhaps why Faasil has found it easier to be cast in negative roles outside the Malayalam film industry, unlike other stars like Dulquer Salmaan or Nivin Pauly who usually play the hero. 

Fahadh Faasil and Nazriya In Trance
Fahadh Faasil and Nazriya In Trance

Faasil has had four releases outside Malayalam so far – Velaikkaran (2017), Super Deluxe (2019) and Vikram (2022) in Tamil, and Pushpa: The Rise (2021) in Telugu. Maamannan, his fourth Tamil film, will hit the screens on June 29th this week. In this Mari Selvaraj directorial, loosely based on the blockbuster film Thevar Magan (1992), Faasil is playing a dominant caste man who appears to be the prime antagonist. 

Film critic Neelima Menon pointed out that Faasil has been “very astute” in picking such roles outside Malayalam cinema, knowing that he won’t be the main draw for the theatre-going audience in those states, but will still leave an impact. “I really liked him in Super Deluxe, and felt he handled the Tamil as well as the complexities of the character well, with a touch of wry humour that was interesting to watch,” said Menon. 

Similarly, in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s action thriller Vikram (2022) – currently the second highest grossing Tamil film ever – Faasil had another impactful role. As Agent Amar, an undercover officer, he had the lion’s share of the screen time in the first half of the film that also starred Kamal Haasan and Vijay Sethupathi. He continues to be part of the cinematic universe that Kanagaraj is building around Kaithi (2019) and Vikram

Talking about his knack for picking complex roles outside the Malayalam industry too, film critic Subha Rao called Aadhi of Velaikkaran a “smiling murderer”. “He’s a success in society’s eyes, but inwardly, he’s the worst kind of person. This duality is seen in Vikram too — outwardly, he’s the undercover cop who kills and exits, but his morals are intact. The same with Super Deluxe’s Mugil — he’s a conundrum. All his characters so far have been difficult to classify,” said Rao. 

Perhaps it’s because of his reputation for experimentation, Hombale Films, the producers of Kannada money-spinners like the KGF films and Kantara (2022), suggested casting Faasil in Dhoomam (2023) to director Pawan Kumar. Kumar, who has previously made successful Kannada thrillers like Lucia (2013) and U Turn (2016), had written the script for Dhoomam in English, and later decided to make the film in Malayalam because the Kerala audience is considered to be more open to experimental films than the other south Indian states. The thriller, which was released last week in Malayalam and Kannada, is about a marketing head at a tobacco company who is forced to confront the consequences of his actions.

Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam
Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam

Kumar, who has watched several of Faasil’s old and new Malayalam films like Artist (2013), C U Soon, Joji and Malik (2021), observed that he’s not someone who limits himself to a particular genre. “A month ago, his release was a feel-good film like Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum and now it is Dhoomam, and they’re both extremely different. I wanted someone who’d put himself through the journey of the film without restricting himself to what his fan following wants or how he thinks of stardom. He’s a free actor,” said Kumar. 

Despite his willingness to devote himself to a film, Faasil still has his share of detractors with some calling him an “OTT star”, a snide reference to his inability to bring crowds to theatres unlike, say, a Dulquer Salmaan. While he’s almost always commanded rave reviews for his performances – in Malayalam and otherwise – this hasn’t quite converted to box office success. Neelima Menon said that this may well be because of the kind of films he’s associated with rather than the audience’s liking towards him. 

Fahadh Faasil in Maheshinte Prathikaaram
Fahadh Faasil in Maheshinte Prathikaaram

Faasil has also been criticised for being ‘cliquey’ – he has worked repeatedly with directors such as Mahesh Narayanan and Dileesh Pothan, for instance. But Narayanan said that it wasn’t about being in a ‘comfort zone’ but rather a ‘conviction zone’. “When I go to pitch a film to other actors, I go with the complete screenplay. But with Fahadh, I can discuss ideas. He knows everything I’m doing next and he gives me feedback. He tells me about the films he’s doing as well,” said Narayanan, calling Faasil his “creative bounce board” for all the difficult films that he likes to make. 

That said, Faasil’s next release, Maamannan, is unlike anything he has done so far – a role so rooted in the sociopolitical landscape of Tamil Nadu, and that too, a film that heavily references an influential Nineties blockbuster like Thevar Magan. It is for this reason that Faasil fans are eagerly looking forward to the film. 

Fahadh Faasil
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“It’s lovely to see people use the powerhouse of talent he is and cast him in roles where his eyes are not the main distraction,” said Subha Rao. In the trailer of Maamannan, Faasil is seen as a violent and power-hungry man, possibly modelled on Nassar’s role as the antagonist Mayan from Thevar Magan. Rao finds the casting to be exciting. “If we are speaking of Thevar Magan and Maamannan, there’s the nose too. If we are to recall a fiery Nassar and his brimming-with-anger nose, who better than Fahadh Faasil?” she said. Who indeed? 

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