Hey, 90s kids! Remember that one lazy weekend morning in the early 2000s when you switched on your idiot box hoping to catch a good movie while having a late breakfast, and how delighted you were to find a Jayaram movie playing on screen?
It could’ve been Veendum Chila Veettukaaryangal, Kochchu Kochchu Santhoshangal, Superman, Aadhyathe Kanmani, Swapnalokathe Balabhaskaran or even Njangal Santhushtaraan. There was something very comforting about watching Jayaram on screen. All his movies were light-hearted, and with the kind of image he built for himself with the characters he portrayed over the years, we’re bound to go through the journey with him. It broke our hearts to watch him suffer, or god forbid, die on screen. One of the reasons I was not too fond of Priyadarshan’s Adwaitham was because it had Jayaram’s character dying.
Moreover, much like how it pushed Mohanlal’s character off the ledge in the movie, it did mine too. The reason why I haven’t been able to watch Moonnampakkam a second time is that the whole plot of the movie is centred on his death. The ending for Siddique’s Friends, as much as I love 90 per cent of the film, is heart-wrenching because of what happens to Jayaram’s character, Aravindan. He’s the big brother you never had, the charming guy next door, or your favourite uncle who’s equal parts funny, stern and inappropriate. Joy back then was hearing Jayaram utter his classic, “Shavam!”.
However, the other day when I was watching Great Grandfather (2019), Jayaram’s latest, I realised midway about how much I did not care about the movie. It narrates the story of a man who’s set to marry a girl much younger than him. He is a projection of a regular Malayali male with an eventful past which has now come back to haunt him and his dear family; in the form of a young girl with a small boy in her arms who may or may not be his daughter.
I understand when comedies are made without the burden to achieve cinematic excellence, but when a movie fails to answer the fundamental question about its very existence, it ends up qualifying as one of 2019’s worst (Malayalam) films with almost zero entertainment value to offer. That too, when Malayalam is having one of the most fantastic first halves so far.
So, what’s happening? Why is one of the finest actors in Malayalam Cinema, a Padmashri recipient, Best actor award winner, the OG Janapriya Nayakan, in such a rough patch? Why does he have such a string of non-successes that are adequate enough to be catalogued and articulated about into an essay?
Let’s consider his movies from this decade – Daivame Kaithozham K. Kumar Akanam (2018), Aadupuliyattam (2016), Achayans (2017), Satya (2017), Thinkal Muthal Velli Vare (2015), Ulsaha Committee (2014), Mylanchi Monjulla Veedu (2014) – and the back-to-back flops in 2012 – Madirasi and Njanum Ente Familiyum – the list is crowded and endless.
What one can infer from this list is that Jayaram has not had a single hit in the last 15 years. Not one movie that gathers excitement for a cinema fan. Not one project that you can look back and boast of commercial and critical success. Unless of course you count the brief bout of success he enjoyed in 2011 with the Multi Starrer pack of Malayalam cinema i.e.; Makeup Man (dir. Shafi) which had Prithviraj and Kunchakko Boban, Chinatown (dir. Rafi Mecartin) which had Mohanlal and Dileep, and Seniors (dir. Vyshak) which had him truly enjoying his time with the likes of Biju Menon, Manoj K Jayan and again, Kunchakko Boban. But almost a decade later and after acting in more than thirty odd films, Jayaram has still not been able to duplicate his success from the 1990s’.
Jayaram: Janapriya Nayakan
Jayaram is a name that slowly crept into the typical Malayali household towards the end of the 80s and established a niche for itself by mid 90s.
He had the charm, he had the likeability, and he had quality films to back it up. He was blessed to make a surreal debut with acclaimed director-writer P. Padmarajan and collaborated with him twice after that resulting in three movies that aged really well. What followed was a decade long collaboration with who’s who of Malayalam Cinema then. He effectively grew and helped many directors find their footing in the 90s. His partnerships with Rajasenan, Sathyan Anthikkad and Kamal birthed classics that Malayali families ate up. Even while enjoying this home run of a career, it always seemed like there’s a stigma surrounding Jayaram, the actor. Because of his comedy and mimicry background, critics always seem to be biased against him and very stringent about giving him his due credits. That’s the curse that comes with “Janapriya Nayakan” title, I guess. As the title transferred to Dileep in the 2000s, the critics seemed to turn blind to his amazing performances in Joker, Chaandhupottu and even Kunjikoonan.
I remember the hullabaloo after the release of Veendum Chila Veettukaryangal, the classic 1999 Malayalam film by Sathyan Anthikad-Lohitadas duo, one of the all-time greatest dramas to come out of the Malayalam film industry. Critics could not fully credit Jayaram for the film, because they considered him to be only one of its stars, by crediting veteran actor Thilakan as its lead. However, when we are forced to recognize Jayaram as one of the factors that propelled the film into a blockbuster; we have to assume it as his film. As a regular member of the audience, I remember watching it as a Jayaram movie, not a Thilakan movie.
And this comes during the highest point in his career too, when he delivered back-to-back hits throughout the 1990s such as Sandesham (1991), Pookkalam Varavayi (2001),Georgekutty C/O Georgekutty (1991), Kadinjool Kalyanam (1991), Ayalathe Adheham (1992), Ayushkaalam (1992), Meleparambil Aanveedu (1993), CID Unnikrishnan (1994), Aniyan Bava Chettan Bava (1995), Thooval Kottaram (1996), Kaliveedu (1996), Sneham (1998), and Summer in Bethlahem (1998) just to name a few.
A string of venerable and well-deserved awards also followed him during this time. Thoovalkottaram was a milestone for him as he received a Filmfare acting honour and a Kerala State Film Award for the movie in 1996 and then followed it up three years later with his performance in Swayamvarapanthal (2000). During this time, when his peers were vying for the larger than life Mega Star statuses, Jayaram kept up with his consistent delivery of qualitative hits like Friends (1999), Njangal Santhushtaranu (1999), Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal (2000), and Yathrakarude Sradhakku (2002). All these movies with the regular cosy, cuddly feel that only Jayaram can imbibe which were a massive success with critics and audience alike.
However, his entry into the 2000s millennium also marked the nosedive of his career graph, with films like Vakkalathu Narayanankutty (2001), Sharjah To Sharjah (2001) and Daivathinte Makan(2000), which were still watchable by the way, bombing at the box office.
Beginning of the Fall
In the 2000s, the effect and perception of films as a source of entertainment slowly started to falter as the general movie-going audience shifted their attention to other life-changing elements like the internet and personal computers and televisions. This shift affected not only our Malayalam film industry, but also filmmakers in industries around the world, which is why I believe that the ‘Best of films lists’ around the web usually cherish the movies 80s, 90s, and then the 2010s, sometimes altogether missing the 2000s. Now, of course, there were always exceptions to the rule, but most releases in that decade did not age well. Our Malayalam cinema too had its fair share of blunders in this decade. You’re too young to be reading this if you don’t remember the Superstar and Shakeela era.
The slump in quality movies in the Malayalam industry started to reflect even in Jayaram’s collective filmography. Movies like Ivar (2003), Njan Salperu Ramankutty (2004), Mayilattam (2004), Sarkar Dada (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2006), Pauran (2006), Anchil Oral Arjunan (2007), and Parthan Kanda Paralokam (2008) and god knows how many; failed at the box office so gloriously that directors and writers started approaching other actors.
However, by then, the ‘new generation cinema wave’ had already reached the Kerala coast and would quickly encase the industry.
Now, it’s not fair to him if we skip the fact that the Tamil film industry gave him some fantastic success in the early 2000s, a decade when he struggled in Mollywood. The effort in Tamil paid off, and it helped win two State Film Awards from Tamil Nadu for his work in K S Ravikumar’s Thenali (2000).
The Cause and the Effect
Jayaram’s movies seem to get panned by critics and audiences alike, and it’s not entirely his fault. Let’s take the case of the 2015 mega-boo boo, Thinkal Muthal Velli Vare. It was primarily supposed to act as a launching pad for singer Rimi Tomy who’s always been the chirpy drama queen even while singing. Now she finally gets to live her dream of acting in a motion picture. The script would have to be cheesy, of course, in veins of the talk show named “Onnum Onnum Moonu” that Rimi hosted on the Malayalam TV channel, Mazhavil Manorama. The script for this fiasco was written by Kannan Thamarakkulam – the same person who directed Aadupuliyattam and Achayans.
Now the established norm is that no prominent actor wants to be paired with a newcomer despite their popularity in another field. The makers must have felt obliged to cast a familiar actor rather than going for two fresh faces. Because frankly, I don’t see how Jayaram might have fallen for Thamarakkulam’s proposition. It must have been either about the money or the friendship, and I am inclined to believe it was the latter. The film eventually made it to the screens, and we had to sit through two hours of.. whatever that was. The number of cringe-worthy sequences that the film possesses would put an amateur director Diphan’s Satya(another Jayaram “film”) to shame. However, the primary reason why the film failed is that for a comedy film it lacked tolerable comedy. Jayaram suiting up and trying to make us laugh as Mickey Mouse amidst torturous slapstick is not funny.
That brings us to the next point:
Lack of willing, bankable Actresses
The fact that he was cast opposite Rimi Tomy in her debut film shines light into another reason behind Jayaram’s fall. Leading ladies say no to him. They don’t seem to want to act with him unless they are trying to land roles.
Sheelu Abraham, Iniya, Sarayu, Muktha, Rachana, Meghana, Poonam Bajwa, Haripriya, Parvathy Nambiar, Ramya Krishnan, Kanika, Kadambari, Divya Pillai… these are some of the actresses he’s worked within the last decade An average movie-goer would not recognize most of the heroines cited in this list, yet they were the leads in Jayaram films. Considering Kanika or Meghana as leading actresses of the industry would be inaccurate. The exercise here is not to measure these actresses’ success. Now, I’m sure Iniya and Poonam are successful in their own right. But this list shows that bankable actresses are not entertaining Jayaram.
It’s hard to pinpoint whether he lost the appeal to the leading ladies with his string of flops, or whether he gained the string of flops with a lack of bankable leading ladies — real Chicken and Egg situation here.
Which might shine some light on our next point:
Jayaram needs co-actors who can keep up with him
There is this video of legendary actor Ian Mckellan on the verge of a breakdown on the sets of the Hobbit Trilogy, where he must act opposite green screens, alone. “It’s not what I do for a living. I act with other people, I don’t act on my own”, he laments. And that breaks my heart to this day. I believe something similar is afoot in Jayaram’s career right now.
Jayaram is a true artist. Moreover, one of his biggest strength lies on how well he works when he plays off of his co-stars.
Just close your eyes and try to remember a Jayaram movie that you enjoyed. Did you? Cool, now remember all the funny scenes from the movie? There’s always a funny co star who can keep up with all the jokes, the improvs, the high manic energy that most Jayaram movies carry. The co-star in your mind could be Jagathi, it could be Kalabhavan Mani. It could be Indrans, it could be Prem Kumar. It could even be veterans like Oduvil or Thilakan. As opposed to his peers, even his female co stars were given a lot to work with. Remember how well he conjures up chemistry with Manju Warrier in Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakaalath, or even in Summer in Bethlehem (even when she’s not paired opposite to him!). That’s why his multi-starrer movies work better than his solo films. That is why even with such a hollow story, a movie like Happy Husbands still trigger laughter.
And as opposed to the other Janapriyan in our industry, Jayaram is still very much likeable. He’s one of the few actors whose energy and enthusiasm and even comic timing have remained consistent over the years. The reaction he amasses anytime he’s on stage as himself is a testament to that. It’s still the reason why he’s one of the most sought after guests in various reality shows. However, when most of the co actors whom he once set the screens on fire with laughter with are now retired, too old, or dead; he’s stuck working with what he’s given.
Current successful filmmakers are not casting him
Consider these directors and their films: Kannan Thamarakkulam (Or LotusPond as trolls call him) with his flops; Shajoon Kariyal; Benny Thomas; Diphan; and one-hit wonder Akku Akbar, the occasional Kamal when he decides to experiment. The directors who worked with him in the 90s are either dead or are not making films, and the good ones who are still relevant now are not interested in him.
Despite this significant dip in his career, he did manage to stay afloat with a handful of quality films like Kadha Ithu Vare (2012), Swapna Sanchari (2011), Baagyadevatha (2009), Veruthe Oru Bharya (2008), Manassinakkare (2003) and recently Lonappante Mamodeesa (2019), and some of these also bagged him one or two awards. Also, the Indian government decided to improve his spirits, honouring him with the Padma Shri in 2011. A well-deserved honour for Jayaram, an actor with such influence and talent, but even that did not help him secure better roles in the decade that started with mega-hits for his contemporaries; a decade when true experimentation was afoot in the industry.
It wouldn’t be wrong to appropriate Jayaram’s last few characters to the comical identity of a jester, a clown. Take for instance: Sir C. P. (2015) or Onnum Mindathe (2014); both apparent dramas that portray a relevant, social theme but are advertised as comedies, probably just because they credited Jayaram as the lead. The only watchable film from Jayaram in the last half decade is the comedy-drama Mylanchi Monchulla Veedu, and the recent Lonappante Mamodeesa. Out of which I believe, Mylanchi Monchulla Veedu worked only because of the ensemble cast and sufficient support from Asif Ali and other relevant actors. Two other examples of Jayaram staying afloat would be Aakashamittayi (2017); Tamil actor Samuthirakani’s debut Malayalam directorial feature and fellow mimicry artist Ramesh Pisharody’s Panchavarnathatha (2018). However, none of these seems to bring back the glory Jayaram enjoyed back in the day.
Early in 2014, Jayaram teamed up with veteran filmmaker and Cannes’ Golden Palm nominee Shaji Karun to make the tragic drama Swapaanam. The film was poorly written and poorly executed using an empty, hollow story, which again the actor should have thought twice before putting his bet on it. During the time he also did Kamals’ Nadan, which used to be an example I brought to prove my point that Jayaram, the actor, is not to be written off yet. However, a severe lack of reasonable movie offers (and better ‘script-choosing’ ability on his part) from filmmakers who are vying for young and successful talent is playing against him. However, if that was the case, then how does one comment about Mammootty’s enthusiastic stint? He does way too many films each year and comes up with great ones [Munnariyippu (2014), Pathemari (2015), Peranpu(2019) and even the latest Unda (2019)] occasionally. Same is the case with Mohanlal (with a Drishyam and Lucifer for every Pulimurugan and Odiyan).
I remember the craze before the release of Jayaram’s Aadupuliyattam regarding his salt-and-pepper look. For his fans, I agree with the enthusiasm, but it does not aid a bit in increasing the appeal of the film. I mean, people kept hoping that it would be a return to form for Jayaram. However, I never felt so. Jayaram fooling around in his grey beard is the same as him fooling around in a beard dyed black or sans beard. A significant change in one’s looks for a film with a hollow story and clueless execution may please many die-hard fans, but it does not guarantee any box office success or critical acclaim. Sure, maybe the members of the All Kerala Jayaram Fans Cultural and Welfare Association are set to see all his future films and voluntarily fill the seats in the starting week, but that is not how you fix cinema. A movie should ignite and enkindle a feeling in a person when he’s least expecting it. And most of Jayaram’s films in this decade, or the previous, have even remotely succeeded in doing that.
Jayaram is a talented mimicry artist, comedian, percussionist and actor, no doubt about that, but after watching Great Grandfather, I couldn’t stop myself from writing this feature. For someone who braved the industry during its golden age as an underdog, I respect him for giving the world some great comedies and dramas (the 90s), for being an influential career-starter for many newcomers, and for collaborating with some of the greatest minds in Mollywood. But I want him to be back as a force to be reckoned with. I want him on the award shows, with him accepting recognition for his work that year and not his regular Kamal Hassan and Prem Nazir impression.
Moreover, I hope that this current rough patch of his is just a phase. It gives me hope that a Sathyan Anthikkad movie starring Jayaram is in the works. However, what worries me is that there’s also a Lotuspond movie that’s set to release around the same time. Either way here’s wishing him good luck for his future endeavours.
The inspiration for some points stated in this article was drawn from Tejas Nair’s post on the same subject.