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“Raymond. The Complete Man,” says Shammi, admiring the symmetry of his perfectly groomed thick moustache in 2019’s Kumbalangi Nights. He has assumed the duties of a patriarch upon marrying Simmy and this grooming happens when he’s getting ready to go to his place of work— a salon. He seems to have his life under control, taking charge of both his business as well his house. Yet it is only when he gets his moustache just right that he feels the satisfaction of looking like a complete man. 

The Meesa Methodology: How Malayalam Cinema Uses Facial Hair In Character Design, Film Companion

What about the incomplete man? In the context of the film, brothers Saji, Bobby, Bonny and Franky are perhaps who Shammi would consider incomplete men. Unkempt and poorly groomed, the three older brothers have beards of varying styles and lengths but none of the qualities of a ‘gentleman’ are attributed to them, at least by this “hero”.

In a movie like Action ‘Hero’ Biju, it’s quite likely that its protagonist Biju Poulose (Nivin Pauly) would end up calling any or all of these brothers ‘Freakans’, a pejorative team that spread like wildfire after the film’s release.  

But isn’t Shammi (and Biju) just another reflection of the society, judging people for the way they look? And like how Bobby’s attitude towards his girlfriend changes as they watch Arjun Reddy, don’t you think cinema too does its fair share to propagate biases when it comes to external traits like clothing, hairstyles and facial hair? 

Here’s a look at some of these cinematic cliches that were right under our noses. 

The Clean Shave

If a thick moustache has defined the look of the hero in Malayalam cinema, it’s reasonable to deduce that the opposite of this has oftentimes represented the emasculated man. Every major Malayalam star, right from Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Sukumaran, Jayan to the two M’s have acted predominately sporting moustaches in their films. Which means that their default look in most films would feature minute changes to their moustaches, based on the character, class location and situation. 

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Both Sathyan and Prem Nazir wore thin pencil moustaches that went through minimal changes through their multi-decade-long reign as superstars, largely due to the number of films they would be working on simultaneously. Although thicker, the stars that followed them too continued in the tradition, with beards and stubbles being detours rather than the norm. 

So when a lead character is clean shaven, it is assumed that this detail conveys something important about him or his state of mind, unlike the comic sidekick or the sophisticated villain who could be with or without facial hair. 

Among the present set of stars, the protagonist appearing clean shaven has occurred multiple times when the character is that of a performing artiste. In Suresh Gopi’s National Award Winning performance in Kaliyattam, he plays a Theyyam performer named Kannan. Mohanlal too won a National Award for his portrayal of a talented Kathakali dancer in Vanaprastham. The same was the case with actor Dileep, who appeared clean shaven for his 1999 comedy Deepasthambham Mahascharyam in which he played an Ottamthullal performer. Although it is integral that these characters appear clean due to the facial makeup that’s a part of these dance forms, these films also used the look to convey a certain weakness in their personalities.     

For instance, in Kalliyattam (an adaption of Othello) Kannan plays a weak, doubtful husband who suspects his wife of having an affair with his assistant. Kunhikuttan in Vanaprastham too struggles with alcoholism and poverty and remains heartbroken for not being allowed to see his son. And in Deepasthambham, the dancer remains stuck in a love triangle without the strength to stand up for his true love. 

But the use of this look has been even more interesting in other scenarios. Mohanlal was cleanshaven most recently for his role as a shapeshifting wizard in Odiyan, again because the job of an Odiyan demands masks and facial makeup. This is the case with Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar as well where he was required to play an actor modelled after MGR. Ironically, a Malayali superstar gets to play a cleanshaven character only when he plays a superstar from another state. Or if he is acting in another language like Prithviraj did in Kaaviya Thalaivan, Raavanan and Aiyya.

In the 80’s, Mohanlal appeared in Panchagni in which he plays a supporting lover to a bold female naxalite, out on parole. Also in the 80’s was the fantasy Pappan Priyapetta Pappan, in which he played a brave police officer who shaves off his moustache, but only after he dies and his body is taken over by a younger, gentler ghost. 

As for Mammootty, the look is again used mostly to depict weakness. In Ranjith’s Kadalkadannoru Mathukutty, he plays an NRI who lives off the income of his wife. His plight is often underlined in the film with his inability to find a decent job and as someone whose kids have no respect for. In Bhoothakannadi, he repeated the look again but only once his character in imprisoned.

And since Mammotty has seldom played a dancer, his only other significant cleanshaven role is when he played the mighty DR. BR Ambedkar in Jabbar Patel’s biopic. In the late 90’s, it was a joke that when a Malayali superstar shaved for a role, he would invariably end up with the National Award.

In other films, the same trope gets repeated to convey innocence or even immaturity. In both Thilakam and in Pachakuthira, Dileep appeared clean shaven because his characters were developmentally challenged. He was clean in Mayamohini too, an even more problematic distant cousin of Mrs.Doubtfire. 

As for Prithviraj, he was cleanshaven in Puthiyamugam, but this look was used for deception to convince us of the inherent ‘paavamness’ of the naive Brahmin boy, on his first move to the big bad city college. In films like Premam, the youngest George appeared cleanshaven while his two older avatars are seen with a beard and then a moustache. Even Nivin’s Hey Jude, Fahadh Faasil’s 24 North Kaatham and Dulquer in ABCD played roles in which the look was repeated to convey the innocence of manchildren, before their first major adventure. 

The Stubble

Although more an aesthetic choice rather than one that’s integral to the script, lead characters sporting stubbles are far more common now than earlier. Unlike the clean shave, the stubble is a look that has the potential to cover the entire gamut of characterisations, right from simple to complex, meek to wild. Of these, the most loved is perhaps Mammootty’s look in Big B. With a thin beard and even lighter moustache, he played an Uber macho character that had more style than the dozens he played with the repetitive moustache that had become tiring by then.

The same director Amal Neerad would use it again when Prithviraj played a similarly heroic character in Anwar. Dulquer too has played roles with stubbles in every shade ranging from ultra light in Jomonte Suvisheghangal to dark in Solo and Kali. Other newer stars like Shane Nigam, Sreenath Bhasi and Neeraj Madhav too appear in this look in several films.

But given the ability of this look to suit a variety of roles, it is likely that the stubble would soon become the default look in the future, taking the place away from moustaches. 

The Moustache

Malayalam cinema’s ability to connect machismo and the moustache is nowhere close to dying anytime soon. In the yet-to-release Dulquer film Salute, he debuts as a massy police officer in and it’s another look where the moustache is repeated for a traditional sort of appeal. In fact, it’s highly rare for a Malayali star to essay any role of a uniformed officer without sporting a moustache. Entire franchises such as Inspector Balram, The CBI Series, Bharat Chandran IPS and The King featuring high ranking officers have invariably always had characters with a moustache. 

Lal It is the same with the role of Army officers too. From Nairsaab to Megham, Mohanlal’s roles in the many Major Ravi films to even Dulquer’s segment in Solo, the moustache has received closeups in every film set within a military background.

Moustaches have been commonplace even in the Everyman roles played by Jayaram, Dileep and Kunchacko Boban as well, just that the moustache itself isn’t any point of interest in these films, expect that they are the default looks of the middle class man. 

But the moustache is most notorious/famous when they are associated with the twirling, also knows as the ‘meesa pririkal’ movies. In Meese Madhavan, for instance, the twirling of Dileep’s moustache is a myth with his character having vowed to steal if ever the moustache is twirled. 

As for Mohanlal, the ‘meesa pirikal’ became a sub-genre of his own starting from the 1987 anti-hero blockbuster Rajavinte Makan. With other blockbuster emerging in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the act of twirling because ritualistic in the making. The sequence got its own background score, and SLO-MO shots and if you were the bad guy, you knew hell was coming your way.

To this day, this phase of mass action films of the 2000’s are associated with terms revolving around the moustache. This phase is said to have ended only when these ‘meesa pirikal’ Mohanlal films started to fail, one after another.

But with the moustache making a comeback in films of the new generation of stars like Kurup, Malik, Thuramukham and Salute, it looks like the trope will stay for much, much longer.  

The Beard

Even more common today than the moustache for the new Malayali hero is the beard. Every actor today has acted in at least one movie with this look and it only hints at how the industry has moved away from the stereotypical ways in which it was used early on. 

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Back in the 90’s or earlier, like the clean-shave, there was a purpose to show the lead with a beard. If it was Mohanlal, he must be a great sculptor (Rajashilpi) or a great dance teacher (Kamaladhalam). In Kanmadham, his rough beard conveyed the secrets he was hiding and the bitterness of his life and in Nirnayam the beard adds layers for a grieving husband trying to prove his innocence. Even in Summer In Bethlehem, his cameo appears with a beard but only because he’s a prisoner. 

Until recently, it was rarely an aesthetic choice (expect for one song in Ustad) in his films. So it’s a new phenomenon when you see Georgekutty sport a beard in Drishyam 2, even though he didn’t have one in the first film. His perfectly groomed beards are now common even in comedies like Ittimani: Made in China and in the ultra successful action drama Lucifer. 

For Mammootty, though, the beard has often been a sign of sophistication and wisdom. In New Delhi, he sported a beard as the much older newspaper tycoon, out to take revenge. In Samrajyam, again, an older role, he essays a gangster with style. In Ore Kadal, the beard accompanied him in the role of a genius professor who has a meaningless affair with an innocent middle class woman. Much like Mohanlal, it’s with the more recent films like Great Father, The Priest, and Pathinettam Padi that the beard is more style than an indication of his character.  

In the same way, beards have also traditionally been used to convey tragedy, as though the character is hiding an inherent sadness. This is true even in recent films like Guppy where it’s only much later that you learn that the beard isn’t just hipster swag. In Ayyapanum Koshiyum and in Kala the beards are stylish but it also added an element to show the power and prosperity of its protagonists. But these beards also become masks in the way that it is used to hide their weaknesses. In a sense, the beard in such movies are being used exactly like the clean shaven look was used a couple of decades ago.

In Premam, George’s heartbreak resonates stronger because we’re conditioned to feel for the bearded lover. The beard worn by Jomon Panachel in Joji works as a counterpoint too. At first, the beard adds to his look of a buff strongman who probably has no heart. Yet the film uses our own judgement of his look to shock us when we learn that he’s perhaps the most loving son of them all.

Either ways, the use of facial hair in new Malayalam cinema has changed from good or evil binaries, with its sophisticated uses aiding more complex characters and their mindsets. Clean shaven doesn’t mean weak anymore, just like how a man with a beard can very well be a ‘complete man’. But with a mix of the new and old, it will be interesting to see what the industry throws up, when a character twirls his moustache next time.     

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