There’s an inside joke among Malayalis that if Hollywood has an idol like James Bond in its arsenal, then Keralites can brandish their on-screen alpha male ‘achayans’ who can neutralise the Western super spy with their masculinity.
Christian Achayans from Central Kerala, in their crisp white cotton tunics and mundus, were a dominant trope in Malayalam cinema in the early 1990s. A-listers like Mammootty, Mohalal and Suresh Gopi took great pride in playing that arrogant and virile rubber-estate plantation owner who ran a tight ship.
These heroic achayans were mostly invariably blue-blooded powerful patriarchs with fragile egos. Their heroism was often couched in misogyny, but their ‘achayans know best’ attitude offset those problematic curves.
Their swagger was as lethal as their anger when slighted.
But like Bond, the relevance of our Kerala on-screen ‘Achayans’ and whether they are outdated figures in this woke world is being fiercely contested now.
But Prithviraj Sukumaran, Kerala’s multi-hyphenate, is keen to revive this fading genre and has joined hands with director Shaji Kailas (the granddaddy of Achayan films in Malayalam) to give it a shot in the arm. Enter ‘Kaduva’, his Eid release that sees him play a larger-than-life Achayan from Pala.
“Although the film and the story is set in the 1990s, it’s a film that very much belongs to today’s times … You are not going to find any misogyny in my character, but you might find that alpha male syndrome in there,” said Prithviraj, as he’s know, in an interview with Gulf News. He adds that the women in ‘Kaduva’ aren’t given a step-fatherly treatment, a charge that has often been levelled against films of this genre in the past.
This award-winning actor, director, producer and singer plays the titular role of the hot-headed and egotistical Kaduvakunnel Kuruvachan. He’s up against actor Vivek Oberoi, who plays a high ranking police official who rubs Kuruvachan the wrong way taking a swipe at his ego. Their tussle snowballs into a war of wills that go beyond their mutual hate for each other.
“‘Kaduva’ is probably an updated take on the 90s nostalgic alpha-male Pala Achayan swag,” promises Prithviraj.
Excerpts from our interview with Prithviraj as we talk bringing Malayalam movies up to speed with other massive South Indian entertainers and more …
Malayalam films featuring those hyper-masculine Achayans were fun to watch when you were younger. They were like our homegrown James Bond … But they haven’t aged too well …
There’s a cool factor associated with them. When I put on that white kurta and mundu, you feel cool. If I had to pick that one Malayali swag symbol, this [an achayan] will feature in that list. I don’t know if they are our James Bond, but that caricature of that very ‘cool Achayan’ is a part of Malayali swag culture.
These Achayans are always dressed in pristine white, crisp cotton attire, but their conduct is often dark …
We are not claiming that our film ‘Kaduva’ has anything that deeply symbolic in its styling. But I don’t play a very morally corrupt person here. The biggest sin that he’s committing is that of arrogance and ego. Even Vivek’s character falls prey to that sin. The plot point is very much similar to my ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum’ or ‘Driving Licence’ where there’s a small tussle between two people and it doesn’t land too well. The issue snowballs into something so big that the ones involved originally lose control over it. Families, townships, the state, and its machinery is dragged into their fight. And, this narrative is told in a larger-than-life cinematic fashion and fits the mass action entertainment bill.
You have always spearheaded the new-age cinema in Malayalam. So your project with director Shaji Kailas came as an unexpected twist …
I am a big fan of Shaji Kailas and even today I believe that he is one of the few directors who single-handedly brought a change in the filmmaking language of mainstream Malayalam cinema. As I listened to this script, he sprang to my mind. More than 75 per cent of my pop cultural references belonged the Shaji Kailas films. But at that point, he was on a long break from Malayalam cinema, but since the script prompted me to relive his iconic moments from his films, I thought of asking him. But he has a more modern filmmaking technology at his disposal and the writing is modern too. The hero is not very verbose like the ones in 90s mass action films. You will not see a hero who spews three-page-long dialogues. But we have moved on from there as a cinema viewing audience. My character won’t be speaking for five minutes straight, and then casting a looking at the camera, only to walk away in slow motion. ‘Kaduva’ is an event-based action film … It’s more updated version.
But don’t Malayalis take a lot of pride in their realistic films …
But is there an unwritten rule that we should not try to make different kinds of movies? As a film lover, I would love to see all kinds of cinema. I love a ‘Pokkiri Raja’ as much as a ‘Kumbalangi Nights’.
I love a ‘KGF 2’ to as much as I love a ‘Charlie 777’ … But I am uncomfortable with the popular narrative in Kerala that if you want to see a big-canvas action entertainer, you will have to see a Tamil, Telugu or Kannada films. I would love to see such films in Malayalam too … And I don’t mean just big budgets and large visuals, but content that makes you want to go to a theatre. Malayalam cinema has not made something like this in a long time and we were missing a film like ‘Kaduva’. Films like ‘Ja Na Gana Mana’ raised many questions socially and a film like ‘Jo and Jo’ did so well too. But we need a film like ‘Kaduva’ for our repertoire to be complete and to prove that we are an industry who can do any kind of films.
At the press conference in Dubai, you sounded a bit disappointed that Malayalam films aren’t gaining as much attention outside their state when a film releases, unlike a Telugu or a Tamil film …
Actors like Ram Charan and Tareq [stars of 'RRR'] made the effort to interact with the media in person. They didn’t sit back waiting for things to happen organically. So for this film I went to every city and spoke to the media there … I hope this will become a template for other Malayalam films. You can’t just afford to sit back in Kochi [Kerala] and do a few TV interviews and assume it’s all good. That won’t work anymore.
Why did you choose Vivek Oberoi to play against you? Biju Menon in ‘Ayappanum Koshiyum’, an intrinsically Malayali actor, was perfect cast in AK — which had two men with gigantic egos fighting it out...
Initially, we had thought of Biju Menon but when ‘Ayappanum Koshiyum’ became a cult hit, we knew we couldn’t repeat the same cast again. We began looking for someone who looked authoritative and was a symbol of power. He had to exude machismo that makes you believe that he could take me down. We went through a lot of names and when I suggested Vivek, everybody jumped at it. His character, Joseph Chandy, is a suave, well-spoken, well-traveled, educated man who’s in the upper echelons of the State Police … And Vivek pulled it off gloriously.
You have been on a roll during the pandemic and after with several back-to-back releases … Are you at peace now?
I am fiercely ambitious for myself and Malayalam cinema. I don’t like being left out when asked when will a ‘KGF’ happen in Malayalam cinema. Long ago, perhaps we didn’t have the money, but now there is no excuse. We have always had the skill and now we have the money … Let’s dream bigger and work harder. If you don’t want to work hard, then learn to dream small. But I am not one of them.
Don’t miss it!
‘Kaduva’ is out in UAE cinemas now.