Fahad Fazil and Prem Nazir
Fahadh Faasil and Prem Nazir Image Credit: Social media

Malayalam cinema is a strange beast. Kerala is a tiny state in India with its language mostly confined to the state’s boundaries, but the people’s avarice for cinema is phenomenal. Annually, more than 120 films are released in Malayalam, that is, about 10 films a month. And most of them are trash and utter flops at the box office, obviously.

How do people find such huge sums of money to waste is as intriguing as their motives, but through these failed and sometimes successful ventures, one gets to know of the artistic talents in the film-obsessed society; be it actors, singers or technicians. Here’s a quick glance at some of the important male actors who helped emerge Malayalam cinema as we see today.

Fahad Fazil

Fahad Fazil
Fahadh Faasil Image Credit: Social media

Fahadh Faasil is one of the most promising among the younger group of actors emerging in the Malayalam cinema.

His spontaneous and natural acting style coupled with amazing range of characters he was able to present in such a short span of his career has endeared him to all kinds of audiences. There is an easy charm with which he carries his characters, be it a village lad Mahesh in Masheshinte Prathikaram or a complex debt-ridden Dubai doctor Arun who borders on virtue and subtle villainy in Diamond Necklace.

It is obvious that Fahadh Faasil takes immense care in his selection to have meaty multilayered characters with gravitas and possibility. Son of popular Malayalam film director Fazil, he had started his acting career with Kaiyyethum Doorathu and Oh Faby, both of which were commercial and artistical failures. However, he made a come back in Kerala Café, an anthology film. This was after a sabbatical of eight years and perhaps the initial rejection and below par performances have made him more resolute to hone his talent and emerge as force to reckon with in the Malayalam acting scene.

Fahadh Faasil and Aparna Balamurali in Maheshinte Prathikaaram

He garnered public and critical attention with Chappa Kurishu, 22 Female, Kottayam, Diamond Necklace, Annayum Rasoolum, Amen, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Take-Off, Thondimuthalum Druksakshiyum. He has won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.


Fahad has both screen presence and acting latent in abundance. Along with this has also has the star pull that ensures a level of box office success for the film which is essential for the survival of any leading actor in the industry.

His main competitors from his generation are of course, Dulqar Salman, Nivin Pauly and of late Tovino Thomas. All four of them belong to similar moulds and are willing to take up all kinds of roles that do justice to their talent. 

Notable contemporaries: Indrajit Sukumaran, Dulqar Salman, Nivin Pauly and Tovino Thomas

Mammootty and Mohanlal

Mammootty and Mohanlal
Mammootty and Mohanlal Image Credit: Social media

Superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal have been synonymous with Malayalam cinema for almost four decades now. They are undoubtedly, two of the most favourite heroes of Malayalis all over the world.

They started their careers during a golden era when Malayalam films centered on author/director backed roles and they were lucky enough to enact a number of characters that have touched the hearts of both laymen and the critics alike.

1980 was significant for them as it was the year both of them got breakthrough roles in their career. After struggling for a number of years, it is in this year that Mammootty received a starring role in director KJ George’s Mela, while Mohanlal’s career took off with his debut film itself - Manjil Virinja Pookkal. It was also the debut film of director Faazil who will go on to become one of the top directors. The face of the Malayalam cinema was about to change and the shift from the Prem Nazir era had already begun.

Mammootty is a three-time winner of National Award for Best Actor while Mohanlal follows closely with two National Awards and a Special Jury Mention.

Mohanlal is widely recognised as one of the top versatile actors in the country with an effortless, natural style while Mammootty’s style reportedly follow elements of method acting. To their credit, both the actors are sensible enough to not copy their own mannerisms in all their roles, film after film, unlike certain other south Indian superstars.

Both Mammootty and Mohanlal still enjoy a very strong and almost fanatic fanbase of mostly male admirers who are notorious on social media for attacking anyone even mildly critical of their idols.

Mammooty is 67 years and Mohanlal is 58 now but the industry around them continues to churn out film after film featuring them as central characters in much younger roles. In fact both of them, along with another superstar Dileep, exert a stranglehold on the Malayalam film industry through their various film making, production, distribution outfits. Malayalam film industry is now at a transition phase when the mantle is transferred from these two to the next generation. In fact a lot of the industry insiders have termed the crisis in Malayalam film industry is representative of this transfer of power.

Notable contemporaries: Dileep, Sreenivasan, Suresh Gopi, Murali, Jayaram, Sukumaran, Jayan

Jagathy Sreekumar

Jagathy Sreekumar
Jagathy Sreekumar Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Jagathy Srekumar started his acting career at 6 years of age in a film scripted by his father Jagathy NK Achari, who was also a writer and an actor. After graduation Sreekumar shifted to Chennai, initially working as a medical representative. Chennai, then known as Madras, was also the centre of Malayalam film production at that time.

The city was then the ideal destination for those with aspirations in the film industry and it didn’t take too long for Sreekumar to become noticed. His first film in this phase was Chattambi Kalyani and the rest, as they say, was history. He soon became an integral part of Malayalam film and played all kind of roles, mostly with a humorous touch.He was a powerhouse of a performer, constantly improvising scenes from rehearsal to shot. It is said that sometimes it was impossible for his cofactors to keep up with the new elements he adds along the way, which were not part of the original direction, but too original and apt to be removed from the scene now that he has introduced it.

Perhaps the most versatile actor Malayalam cinema has ever seen Sreekumar's fate was to be confined to comic roles, which he did with such perfection that at his peak, he was reportedly acting in dozens of films at the same time, running from one shooting location to another. It was one such frantic run that brought an abrupt end (so far) to his brilliant career of over four decades in which he has acted in more than 1,200 films. The vehicle he was traveling crashed against a road divider and Jagathy suffered serious injuries from which he hasn’t yet recovered completely. He is now mostly confined to a wheelchair.

It is impossible to list his best performance but some of the films with his memorable films include Kilukkam, Meesha Madhavan, Urumi, Pradeshi, Yodha, Meleparmbil Aan Veedu, Kilichundan Mampazham and Udayanaanu Thaaram.

Surendranath Thilakan (1935-2012)

Surendranath Thilakan
Surendranath Thilakan Image Credit: Social media

Thilakan entered the world of Malayalam film acting at a rather late age of 45 years but by the time he left the world at 77, he had created a stage of his own there with his powerful portrayal of hundreds of indelible characters. He had theatre in his veins and even before that earned a name for himself as a young singer of revolutionary songs in his locality. Rough, tough and to the core a Malayali artiste, he won fame and livelihood as a theatre actor and director and was the main force behind a dozens or theatre groups during this period.

His first film was Ulkkadal, in 1979 and it was followed by a significant role in Kolangal; both the films were directed by KG George, another talent Malayalam industry has failed to recognize or honour adequately.

A distraught father whose dream of seeing his son as a police officer shatters when he was forced to kill a criminal (Kireedam); a ruthless liquor baron on a spree of vengeance against the uppercaste people who wrong his father (Kattu Kuthira); a loving grandfather who has to endure the accidental death of his only grandson (Moonnam Pakkam) are some of the shining examples of his talent.

Watch: Thilakan in Kattukuthira 

Famously outspoken in his real life, Thilakan’s last years were rendered less productive due to an undeclared ban against him, which followed his spat with the all-powerful Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) of Kerala.

Directors who worked with him consider Thilakan to be on a level of his own, among the world’s best actors.

Yavanika, Kireedam, Moonnam Pakkam, Spadikam, Kattukuthira, Gamanam, Ritubhedam, Ustad Hotel and Indian Rupee were some of the important films in his career.

Notable contemporaries: Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Kuthiravattam Pappu, NN Pillai

Nedumudi Venu

Nedumudi Venu
Nedumudi Venu Image Credit: Social media

An exemplary performer with more than 400 films to his credit Nedumudi Venu also has a theatre background like most great actors. He is considered one of the most talented Indian actors of his generation, along with the likes of Om Puri and Naseerudin Shah.

He was active in acting, art and music scene right from his school years and later associated with the theatre of eminent director Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.

Watch: Nedumudi Venu and Sree Vidya in Rachana

Venu debuted in Thampu, the third film of eminent Malayalam auteur G Aravindan and there was no looking back. His talent bloomed with Aaravam (Director Bharatan) and Oridathoru Fayalwan and Kallan Pavitran, both directed by Padmarajan.

Marmaram, Minnaminunginne Nurungu Vettam. His Highness Abdullah, Margam, Chamaram, Bharatam, Vidaparayum Munpe and Saira are some of the films noted for his performance.

He has also written the script/story for 7 films and directed one film Pooram.

Bharat Gopy (1937- 2008)

Bharat Gopy
Bharat Gopy Image Credit: Social media

A perfectionist to the core who shattered the stereotypes in Malayalam cinema, the bald, scrawny actor shook the  cinema world like no other with his unconventional looks and an intense, detailed and dedicated approach to acting that was hitherto unknown in the industry.

Watch: A tribute to Bharat Gopy 

Gopy broke and recast the traditional upper-class mould of a filmy hero. Until the arrival of Gopy good looks and fair skin were basic requirements to be considered for the role of a hero. It was also a time when cinema was beginning to address the life of ordinary people for the first time in India and it needed authentic actors with conviction in their art such as Gopy. He won the National Film Award for best male actor in 1977 for his role in Kodiyettam, directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. At that time the award was known as Bharat Award and the title Bharat was forever sewn to his name Gopy.

Watch: Gopy at his best, in Kodiyettam

His other well-known roles include a deaf and dumb artist Nandagopal in Ormakkayi, Shankaran in Chidambaram, trade unionist Krishnan in Aghaat and Tabalist Ayyappan in Yavanika.

Prem Nazir (1926-1989)

Prem Nazir
Prem Nazir Image Credit: Social media

He is the evergreen hero of Malayalam cinema, Prem Nazir is holder of many all time world records in cinema even though he represents the miniscule. Malayalam film world. He played the lead role in as many as 720 films, which is a Guinness World Record. There is also another world record for him; playing opposite the same heroine, which he did with Sheela in 130 films. The amount of star power and box-office pull he enjoyed in his heydays is evident from this fact that he played lead roles in 41 films released in a single year, which of course is another seemingly unbreakable record.

Watch: Prem Nazir and Sheela

Elegant and suave with an onscreen charm suited for that era, Nazir promptly achieved the status of a romantic hero right after his arrival on film scene in early 50s. He was a people’s hero who stole the hearts of both women and men alike, cutting across all social barriers in the society. Apart from Sheela, Nazir was also paired with other top heroines like Sharada and Jayabharati in scores of films. Nazir was the also inevitable choice for Vadakkan Pattu series; a set of heroic tales of martial artists based on folk songs from the Kerala’s northern regions. Nazir’s last film, Kadathanadan Ambadi was released in 1990, shortly after his death in 1989.

Notable contemporaries: Madhu, Soman, KP Ummer