Actors like Joju George and Lal got to play significant roles in recent Tamil films like Jagame Thandhiram and Karnan. The reverse is also true with many Tamil actors crossing over to Kerala to act in Malayalam films. But there’s a difference. In reverse, it’s more common for Tamil actors to be playing Tamilians themselves in Malayalam films, especially when they dub for these roles, rather than play Malayalis in them. Here’s a look at 15 such roles (and a few special mentions) where these actors stole the show from other actors.
Thiagarajan in Manu Uncle
Almost two decades before he played an over-protective gangster in Siddique’s Bodyguard, this stunt master-turned-actor played two great roles in the 80’s, both in Mammootty films. In Joshiy’s New Delhi, he played another gangster named Salem Vishnu, an important ally to GK’s (Mammootty’s) revenge plans. He later directed and starred in a spinoff based on this character, but it is his role as Gomas in Dennis Joseph’s children’s film Manu Uncle that would perhaps be remembered as his best in Malayalam. He is mysterious but also accessible and you can see why a kid would be intrigued by his cowboy-like demeanour. He’s a bad guy straight out of a Famous Five novel and his affected speech and costumes only helped create the larger than life image needed for this character.
Samuthirakani in Shikkar
M.Padmakumar’s Shikkar is a film that draws a lot of its atmosphere from the halo its ‘villain’ is able to generate for himself. Samuthirakani played Comrade Abdulla, a Naxal leader you immediately start rooting for when we see him in the flashback. And despite the fact that it is his followers that are out to ‘hunt’ down Mohanlal’s character and his daughter, we sort of feel like our loyalties are mixed up thanks to Samuthirakani’s performance. He is subtle, strong and likeable…all traits that help us understand why so many people are ready to both die and kill for him. Despite the film’s weaknesses, his performance remains a strong memory that made the film work for a lot of people.
Pasupathy in Big B
Pasupathy would later go on to get his own films in Malayalam like Vairam and Madurai Bus No.66, but as a character artiste, we had already learnt to follow and appreciate this actor since he played the newly-appointed police officer in Big B. Curiously, his character was named ACP Balaji Sakthivel (the director of Kadhal) and it played a big role in planting Bilal (Mammootty) as a respectable sort of gangster. Also, his matter-of-fact attitude was important to make Vijayaraghavan’s police officer come across as comical in contrast. His heavily-accented Malayalam further added to his character’s originality.
Jeeva in Keerthi Chakra
Although more prominent than a character role, his ‘buddy’ role as Major Mahadevan’s (Mohanlal) trusted sidekick, made him a star in Kerala even before his breakout hits like Ko and SMS. He has a lovely song with Gopika and some fine action sequences. He also got a set of warm moments with friends and teammates, making his eventual death a painful blow to both us as well as its protagonists. So when he went on to become a star in Tamil, he already brought with him a set of fans from Kerala.
Sivaji Ganesan in Oru Yathra Mozhi
Among the legendary actor’s final performances was his role as Anantha Subramaniam in Prathap Pothan’s Oru Yathra Mozhi. His chemistry with Mohanlal in the first half of the film became a cinephile’s dream come true and for young Malayalis, this role would open many doors to discovering the actor’s great performances in Tamil. The freshness of ‘Kakkala Kannamma’, composed by Ilaiyaraaja, is another testament to the film and these two actors.
Rohini in Guppy
Rohini is an actress who we’ve all liked as the heroine in films like CID Unnikrishnan. But as a character actor, she has given us even more reasons to remain her fan. Her role in Diamond Necklace made her a strong support figure for the film’s morally ambiguous hero. She was even better when she herself entered into a moral grey zone in Action Hero Biju. But as Guppy’s mother in Guppy, she was heartbreakingly good, making the film a lot more powerful and intense.
Kovai Sarala in Niram
Kovai Sarala’s performance in Niram is one of the reasons why ‘shukriya’ means something else to Malayalees. She was hilarious as the dudebro domestic help who completely got Aby and Sona’s weird friendship. Her Kovai accent too was a major discovery for some of us who hadn’t yet seen her in films like Sathi Leelavati. Although she was offered some roles later, nothing came close to ‘Rukku’.
Parthiban in Narendran Makan Jayankantan Vaka
Parthiban managed to become a household name by acting in just one Malayalam film. He got to play a real character without any of the exaggerated affectations that were common when writing a Tamil character. He was rooted and straightforward in the performance, making his no-nonsense character a joy to watch.
Sarathkumar in Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja
There were rumours that the role of Edachena Kunkan was supposed to be played by Suresh Gopi, making Hariharan’s Pazhassi Raja a big multi-starrer. But when he was later replaced by Tamil superstar Sarathkumar, many feared the magic would be lost. That fear lasted only until the first shows of this blockbuster with Kunkan emerging as a highlight. He got his own mass scenes and the actor’s physique and charisma contributed tonnes to making the film a true multi starrer. Even though he would get roles in films like Christian Brothers, it would not come close to his role in this epic film.
Prabhu in Kaalapani
At first, the decision to cast Prabhu in this historical drama was seen as appeasement for the film to appeal in the Tamil market. But as the ultra loyal roomie (or cell-mate) with a mega appetite, Prabhu became a favourite, liked for both the lightness his character provides apart from the large action scenes. The fight between him and Mohanlal in the Islands appealed to kids as much as they did to fans. When he returned in films like Malayali Mamanu Vanakkam, a lot of the fondness we felt for his character was a result of his role in this Priyadarshan film.
Vinu Chakravarthy in Meleparambil Aanveedu
As the formidable Gounder in Meleparambil Aanveedu, we got a character that begins as a dreaded villain, only to slowly transition into a loveable father figure. In that sense, it’s a character that got its own arc and his look in the film would go on to define how Pollachi-based landlords would behave in future Malayalam films.
Nassar in Olympian Anthony Adam, Butterflies
Although the actor played important roles in films like Mukham, the first image that comes to mind is that of Colonel Devan Nambiar with a machine run, walking in the rain to avenge the assault on his daughter in Butterflies. He was dignified and powerful and it was a role that was both soft and intense. Many years later, he would play an eccentric OTT supervillain in Mohanlal’s Olympian Anthony Adam. The film integrates Nassar into the writing so well that it is finally the shape of the actor’s nose that leads to his character’s eventual doom.
Raghuvaran in Manthrikam
Raghuvaran got many unforgettable roles playing the protagonist in films like Daivathinte Vikrithikal, as the broken magician who wants to return to his homeland. But in character roles in Malayalam, he is best remembered as the sober computer wizard in Thambi Kannanthanam’s Manthrikam. For most of the film, he is simply locked up in a jail cell (with an AC) but we felt that he was doing something mighty important. It involved national security and some coding but he could surely pull off the role and those shaggy blazers.
Napoleon in Devasuram
Among Malayalam cinema’s greatest villains is Mundakkal Sekharan in IV Sasi’s Devasuram and its sequel Ravanaprabhu. For people who grew up on this classic, it would be impossible to realise that this was being played by an actor who spoke no Malayalam. His brutal ways made you hate every inch of him. So when Mangalashery Neelakandan chops off his right hand, it’s scary how badly you want it too. When he returned a second time to play an aged version, it was his quality as an actor that he could match Mohanlal’s iteration of the now weaker feudal lord.
Bobby Simha in Neram
The beta version of what would later become Assault Sethu was his role as Vatti Raja in Alphonse Puthran’s Neram. Although a bi-lingual, his OTT performance as the loan shark created many fans for him right from the word go. So when he made a surprise cameo in Oru Vadakkan Selfie, the theatre exploded in joy to welcome back an actor they were missing.
Special mentions: Jayaprakash in Ustad Hotel, Prakash Raj in Anwar/Elektra, Rajkiran in Shylock, Prabhu Deva in Urumi, Ranjith in Rajamanikyam, Delhi Ganesh in Manoharam, Suhasini in Nammal. What roles would you add to this list?