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In the realm of Malayalam cinema, icons such as Mohanlal and Mammootty have long dominated both the screens and our collective consciousness.

However, National Award winner and multiple Kerala State Film Awards winner like Biju Menon have unequivocally demonstrated that there’s always room for actors to thrive and carve out their own niche in a star-led industry.

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Menon,53, isn’t always cast as the leading man, but he consistently proves himself as a reliable, solid actor.

Initially portraying complex antagonists or the protagonist’s loyal friend, Menon began a significant reinvention in the early 2000s with compelling films like ‘Ordinary,’ ‘Vellimoonga,’ and ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum.’

In these movies, Menon formed successful on-screen partnerships with acclaimed actors such as Kunjacko Boban, Asif Ali, and Prithviraj. His impeccable comic timing in ‘Ordinary’ in which he played a benign-but-endearing bus conductor and ‘Vellimoonga,’ in which he played a middle-aged bachelor aspiring to be a politician, his chemistry with co-stars was impressive. His comic timing was on-point too.

In 2020, his authentic portrayal of a surly cop in ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum’, a battle of wills and egos between his character and actor Prithviraj, solidified his reputation as a formidable presence in the industry. In a landscape where some actors shy away from multi-hero projects, Menon has embraced them without hesitation. Whether given a complex role or a simpler one, he consistently leaves a lasting impression.

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Menon plays a cop in ‘Thundu,’ desperate to clear a test and to get some street credit with his peers.

Now, he returns as an ageing cop in ‘Thundu,’ a Malayalam-language feature set to hit UAE cinemas on February 16. Directed by Riyas Shereef, Menon plays a cop on the brink of retirement in this comedy. His character, who isn’t your usual indefatigable larger-than-life cop as seen in movies, is almost on his way out at work but decides to appear for an internal examination to gain some much-needed street credit among his peers.

His character is desperate to clear that formidable test for police officers and therefore contemplates using cheat sheets (Thundu) to scrape through. His school-going kid is also wondering if being unethical will work for him in his exams, making it a comedy about ordinary lives and their small, but not frivolous problems.

“At one point in my career, I remember being slotted and pigeonholed as this cop in a thriller genre. I was typecast and repeatedly offered similar roles. I took a break then and went on a sabbatical to get out of that funk and it worked,” said Menon in an interview with Gulf News in Dubai.

Biju Menon plays a cop on the brink of retirement in 'Thundu'

And in case you were wondering how he seems to have a pulse on playing those uniformed officer roles, he got to observe from the best. “My dad was in the police force … The mood that he went to work in the morning was very different from the mood that he came home with … Let’s face it, the mental stress, the haphazard working hours which meant that you cannot plan to attend marriages or go shopping with your family were all our reality. Sometimes, you begin doing that job mechanically like a robot,” he added.

Excerpts from our interview conducted predominantly in Malayalam with Menon on his new film, nepotism in South Indian cinema, taking a sabbatical, and making it on his own steam …

What should we know about ‘Thundu’? The word on the street is that there’s some double meaning attached to it.

There’s a double meaning to the Malayalam word ‘Thundu’, but we are referring to the good one over the bad. We are referring to the one where it means small cheat-sheets where kids copy answers from them to clear an exam. ‘Thundu’ is an established and effective tool to cheat and our film is also about it. It’s a tale of how an older guy, a cop, gears up for an exam when his peers push him towards giving it a last shot. This is the crux of the movie and we have treated it with a humorous touch. It’s less about him being a police officer and his job, but more about his personal life. In the past, I have taken on cop roles that are serious, but this is distinct as we explore the lighter side of being a cop.

So, the movie explores themes like how it’s never too late to pursue your ambitions like returning to the study table ... 

Just before his retirement, his subordinates egg him on to take this exam. The constant volley of insults from his peers and when his colleague gets promoted over my character, I decide to take the plunge. Clearing that exam would give him a leg up and make him eligible for a promotion that he’s eyeing. He isn’t fully prepared, but he still tries to crack it. The movie explores this predicament in a satirical and witty manner.

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Biju Menon is an award-winning Malayalam actor who has stood tall even when towering talents like Mohanlal and Mammootty dominated the big screens for decades

Your selection of movie roles is intriguing … Do you have a process or a method?

Rejecting scripts is based on what we think our viewers or our audiences want us to play. They expect to see us in certain roles, and we try to toe that line. Rejecting a script is also based on this belief. Our priority is always to entertain the audiences first and also not fall into the trap of playing clichéd roles. I want to do roles that are distinct and different from what I did previously in my career. Agreed, I can make huge blunders and I may end up doing monotonous roles in my career, but the dream is to do roles that intrigue us. I look at roles based on my understanding of what would work for me as an individual and as an actor.

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Malayalam actor Biju Menon in 'Aarkkariyam', in which he played a retired man with a troubled past. The role won him several awards including the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actor

But you have resolutely stayed away from playing that hero or a cop who walks in slow-motion in the first scene … You are more an ordinary person’s hero …

It wasn’t deliberate. Movies that I choose aren’t designed to have heroes enter in slow motion or many kind of dramatic statements. Most movies are closer to the reality we live in than ever. I naturally gravitate towards roles of ordinary men. There are movies that demand slow-motion entries and larger-than-life heroes in genres like investigative thrillers, but my project rarely needs exaggerated type of performances. My roles and movies will remind you of people that you have encountered in your real, daily lives. Trust me, ‘Thund’ — where many employ cheat sheets to help clear exams — will remind you of your fun college times. Trust me, creating a ‘Thund’ or cheat sheet is like an art form and requires great creativity from those who come up with novel ways of cheating. I enjoyed director Riyaaz’s narration because it was full of humour. And the humour isn’t forced.

Do you think Malayalam films work because they are realistic and stay away from fantastical hero-led narratives?

With Malayalam films, there are always budget limitations and constraints unlike Bollywood films. We just don’t have the reach of Hindi films. So grand tent pole blockbuster-friendly movies won’t work out much in our relatively smaller industry. As actors who work in Malayalam cinema, we choose movies that are commercially viable and user-friendly. We look at how a movie will fare at the box-office so that the team doesn’t court losses. Big budget films run the risk of failure. Also remember, that the literacy rate in Kerala is high. People are generally sensible and openly criticise films. There’s a lot of freedom in this industry. You can troll or mock Malayalam films without any fear. But our intent has always been to make the most sensible films.

Biju Menon and Prithviraj in 'Ayappannum Koshiyum', a movie that chronicled the battle of two egos and wills

Is it fair to call you the anti-nepo baby who made it in Malayalam cinema on his own steam?

I don’t know if it’s easy to survive in this industry. To get a break might be easy, but to survive in this field you need to ultimately show your mettle … My father, a cop, also acted in movies including the one directed by Padmarajan (Moonnam Pakkam), so maybe that connect helped. It's possible that I got support initially over his goodwill.  I can’t say I am wholly self-made, but I can say that I am open to innovation and improvisation.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Thundu’ is out in UAE cinemas on February 16