The talented Malayalee comedian Salim Kumar has turned serious, and with enough conviction to bag a National Award for best actor
They are generally considered lesser mortals. Comedians in south Indian cinema live on the fringes of the hero-centric, essentially casteist film industry. So this year’s National Award winning best actor, Salim Kumar, has never been bracketed with the superstars of Malayalam cinema. Like most other comedians, Salim Kumar’s roles, too, are usually limited to mimicry and burlesque comedy. Despite glimpses of his extraordinary talent in a handful of films, the industry did not give him an opportunity to break out of the stereotype.
And then came Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, the son of Adam). In this, he plays an old Muslim man struggling to earn a living for his family, but desperate to go for Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Kumar won a National Award for his performance, and the film itself has bagged the prestigious Suvarnakamalam Prize for best film. Kumar’s work was crucial to this achievement, says director Salim Ahmed. For the film, he also received the best actor’s trophy from the Kerala state film awards jury.
Kumar has steadily been attempting to make a mark with serious roles. In 2005, he even bagged the state award for best supporting actor for his performance in Achanurangatha Veedu (The Home Where the Father Never Sleeps). In this film, he essayed the role of a father whose daughter is brutally gangraped.
“Adaminte Makan Abu is a good film,” says Salim Kumar. “It is good primarily for the reason that the Muslim character in this film is neither a villain nor terrorist.” And with this, Kumar makes his political thinking clear as well.
Amal Neerad, a noted director in Malayalam cinema, was also a batchmate of Kumar in Maharajas College, Ernakulam. Neerad, who was chairman of the college union, remembers how Kumar was always at the centre of attention.
“At fests, we counted on him very much. He did everything: mimicry, fancy dress competition, tableau and drama.” A couple of decades later, as director, Neerad’s view remains unchanged. And Kumar has justified this faith with a couple of amazing performances in Amal’s films in which he was more than just a comedian.
Anwar Rasheed, another successful filmmaker, did not think twice before casting Salim Kumar in the protagonist’s role in his short film Bridge, which received critical acclaim. As a man who gives up his mother on the street, Kumar’s portrayal of the anguish and helplessness of a son strangled by poverty was superb.
Kumar took five years to complete his three-year Bachelor’s degree course in Malayalam language and literature. “He did everything but attend class,” remembers Professor CR Omanakkuttan. As the teacher in charge of youth festivals and arts programmes, Omanakkuttan was very close to Kumar, a student who brought several medals to the college.
One of his favourite memories is of how Kumar tried to bring a live python to college. “Somebody told me he had gone to Malayattoor, a hill station in Ernakulam, to bring a python for a tableau.”
Kumar was playing a tribal hunter and he wanted his performance to have a big impact. “I was scared, how would I manage a python on campus! Luckily, Salim did not get it,” says Omanakkuttan. But Kumar subsequently also refused to perform in the absence of a python.
It is this drive, this quest for whatever it takes to give his role a vivid edge of realism that has made it possible for this brown-skinned, not-so-handsome comedian to bag the biggest award in Indian cinema.