ANOOP, the army veteran who cannot quite look people in the eye in 2018 until he redeems himself. Wazim, the quarrelsome brawler of the 2022 hit, Thallumaala. And Murali, the goofy superman with his homemade costume, in Netflix’s much-liked Minnal Murali in 2021. Tovino Thomas, 34, has steered clear of playing the quintessential hero. Unafraid to take risks, able to submit himself to the director, and always enthusiastic about doing more, Thomas has emerged as one of the biggest stars of the Malayalam film industry after the multi-starrer movie 2018 made more than `80 crore and counting at the box office.
It’s an unlikely fate for a Coimbatore-trained engineer who once worked for Cognizant before announcing to his family that he wanted to be an actor. From his first noticeable role in ABCD: American Born Confused Desi (2013), which starred Dulquer Salmaan, to his breakthrough film Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015), where he was cast as a villain at actor Prithviraj’s persuasion, Thomas has slowly crafted his filmography, building steadily on each film, quietly outstripping his contemporaries. In an industry where the legendary Mammootty and Mohanlal are still doing four films a year; where Prithviraj straddles the old and the new with his brand of bristling masculinity; where Thomas’ contemporaries like Salmaan and Fahadh Faasil are chasing pan-Indian stardom, Thomas is firmly Team Malayalam for now. “My dream is that all cinemas of the world will be one and we will have a place there,” he says.
And he is willing to do what it takes. Take the long shoot, from 3pm to 6am, for his soon-to-be-released five-language epic, Ajayante Randam Moshanam (ARM), where he plays a triple role—of an 18th-century warrior, a 1940s dark lord/brutal robber, and a 1990s boy next-door. Director Jithin Lal says he has been dreaming of doing this fantasy adventure since he was first assistant director on Ennu Ninte Moideen. He says he wanted Thomas to be stripped of all signs of himself so he requested him to do an acting workshop with Adishakti’s Vinay Kumar for a week. Add to it riding lessons and Kalaripayattu training. “All the emotions, expressions and gestures had to be totally different,” says Lal. “He was very supportive. He has no ego. He wants to evolve.”
For Basil Joseph, who directed him in Godha (2017) and Minnal Murali and acted with him in Dear Friend last year as well as the forthcoming ARM, being with Thomas, for work or pleasure, is a joy. “It’s been a long journey and to see both of us grow together makes me happy.” He adds, “He goes to every extreme for that perfect shot. He believes in practical effects and stunts. He works so hard. He prefers working without a stunt double. He is a perfectionist. And he believes in me, even if I tell him to do something clownish or over the top—like the duplicate T shirts or the Santa Claus costume in Minnal Murali. He was doing childish pranks bringing such an immature character to life. It requires complete trust and utter lack of inhibition.”
While shooting for ARM, Thomas got wounded by a sword on his face, but he remained committed to doing most of the stunts himself, even condensing three days of an underwater sequence in one day, by shooting from 4AM to 10PM. There was an accident when a specific water chamber carrying 30,000 litres of water cracked, but he was unhurt. For good measure, he also used the traditional weapons in Kalaripayattu. It has one of the biggest budgets of a Malayalam movie at `50 crore but Lal says he is not nervous.
Thomas’ work ethic is well known. In 2018, the underwater sequences were shot in a two-acre tank created on a 12- acre set in Vaikom. “It wasn’t easy,” says Thomas, in an understatement. “Of the 49 days I shot for, 35 were underwater.”
It’s a film he almost didn’t do, given his own volunteer work during the devastating Kerala floods of 2018, “I didn’t want people to think it was a PR stunt. My hometown was also affected. I did whatever I could do as did 90 per cent of Kerala’s youngsters,” he says. But when he read Jude Anthany Joseph’s script, he felt he had to do the film. “It took me back to the floods. Every single one of us felt connected to each other like never before. The last time something like this happened was 1924. My generation had not seen anything like this. I remember looking out of the window day after day wondering when the rain would stop. We thought the whole of Kerala will drown,” he says.
Film scholar CK Venkiteswaran says Thomas has come at a time when the milieu of the movie matters, unlike the movies of the 1990s, which were centred on the male heroes. Now even so-called side heroes like Suraj Venjaramoodu and Chemban Vinod Jose can play lead roles. “Where Thomas scores is that unlike Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salmaan, his contemporaries, he is ready to play the vulnerable guy, the loser, the anti-hero,” he says. For instance, in Dr Biju’s forthcoming Adrishya Jalakangal, he plays a nameless man, and in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Vazhakku (2022), he plays a divorced lawyer caught up in an unknown woman’s complicated life. Thomas is able to play a range of characters, change his body and body language accordingly, from aggressively masculine in the wildly experimental Thallumaala (2022) to almost feeble in Neelavelicham (2023) as an elderly Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. He’s one hero who has wriggled out of typecasting.
“The script of 2018 took me back to the floods. Every single one of us felt connected to each other like never before. My generation had not seen anything like this,” says Tovino Thomas, actor
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Thomas remains firmly rooted to his home. He still lives in the house he was born in, with lots of birds, fish and a dog, in Thrissur, in a joint family. When he took a month off in April, he first went on an African tour of four nations Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, with his wife and two children, and then to Europe (Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia) with 14 members of his family, including his parents who played with snow like children. “My family keeps me grounded,” he says.
As much as the 2018 floods brought Kerala closer, teaching them compassion and selflessness, Thomas believes the pandemic-induced lockdown changed that feeling of oneness. Suddenly people retreated into their homes, were suspicious of one another, secluded themselves, and became obsessed with social media. “It’s only now that things are reverting to normal,” says Thomas. He enjoyed the radio silence, using that time to become disciplined about his diet, his physical exercise, even exercising his eyes to make them more expressive.
And he read, books by Jeyamohan, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and M Mukundan. In English, he read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Ikigai, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. “I sat and talked to myself,” he says. “I realised I am an actor. My job is to finesse my craft and not worry about the box-office success. Also my success need not be similar to that of another.” He realised his only goal was creative satisfaction. He weeded out scripts he didn’t want to do, choosing to keep movies such as Kala (2021), Kaanekkaane (2021), and Dear Friend (2022). The range is impressive. In Kala, he plays Shaji, a thoughtless and beastly farmer engaged in a battle for survival. In Kaanekkaane, he is Allen who may or may not have killed his wife, while in Dear Friend, he is Vinod, the most unreliable friend of all.
Actor Darshana Rajendran first worked with Tovi, as he is called, in Mayaanadhi (2017) where he played Mathan, a criminal on the run. “I was closely watching everything he was doing. I was very much in awe of how he was growing in his career and paving a path for himself. And not just that, how much fun he was having while doing so. What I really like about him is that he is very grounded, very self-aware. But he doesn’t hesitate to celebrate his wins, something all actors can learn from,” she says. She got to know him as a person and actor through Dear Friend where they bonded over food and travel and became close friends.
To which Thomas simply says. “I am living my dream, and following in the footsteps of the pioneers.”
About The Author
Kaveree Bamzai is an author and a contributing writer with Open
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