Growing up, it was routine at their home in Iranjulakuda, Thrissur, north Kerala, to watch movies.
Tovino Thomas's parents were movie lovers, and even when they stopped going to theatres after the birth of his sister, his father would rent a video cassette recorder for the weekend for the entire family to binge on movies. There would be many film shoots in their area, and he would often accompany his father, waiting patiently in the crowd for the actors to emerge, observing the process.
Though he went on to study engineering at the Tamil Nadu College of Engineering, Coimbatore, and even worked for a year at Cognizant — an American multinational information technology services and consulting company — in Chennai, he realised life in a cubicle with a laptop and a lanyard was not the stuff of his dreams.
He quit and started looking for work in the Malayalam film industry. He faced many insults, rejections, and discrimination in the beginning. He was told he didn't look like a Malayali, or that good-looking people didn't know how to act.
There was a time in 2012 when he was one among several character actors, trying to attract the attention of the camera sandwiched between four-five actors in a crowd. "Now, I've three to four cameras trained to capture my emotions. It's not a bad position to be in," says Tovino.
Indeed, after playing a sweet superhero in Netflix's Minnal Murali, Tovino finds himself amongst the foremost actors, heralding a new wave in Malayalam cinema even as the two giants Mammootty and Mohanlal continue to excel. Minnal Murali combines the earthiness of Kerala with humour that needs no subtitles. Stopping a fan with his bare hands, putting rings on household objects at a circus stall, and giving up the American dream to protect his land. "It was a dream project for me," says Thomas, who at 32, has already acted in 40 movies.
He had to maintain the continuity of his look over two Covid-19-induced lockdowns, but that process changed his life, he says, "in how the chubby, narcissistic Jason becomes the smart, sharp Minnal Murali".
Since the Malayalam film industry doesn't have big budgets, it has to focus on emotional drama, with good directors and actors, he says. The visual effects (VFX) are minimal. The story unfolds in a small village in Kerala and not in New York, so there are no skyscrapers, cars, or bikes. "The only vehicle we have is a bus, maybe one or two cars, and cycles. We wanted a common man turned superhero, so we had to put a lot of thought into it," says Thomas, who shares a good rapport with fellow actors Dulquer Salmaan, Prithiviraj, and Fahadh Faasil.
Using trainer Asghar Ali, who was national champion in the triple jump, before he joined the Indian Army, and then trained the UAE special forces, he worked on his physique for Minnal Murali. "I'm learning about my body now, about different diets. But I don't want to look good; I just want to look relatable. If I've huge muscles, I'll be cast as a villain," he says with a laugh.
Thomas, like his contemporaries, works non-stop. While working on Minnal Murali, he completed the thrillers Kala, Kaanekkaane, and the forthcoming Naaradhan, where he plays a journalist. Even as we speak, he is shooting for a new film, Vaashi, a courtroom drama, with Keerthy Suresh, produced by her father So, does he have 48 hours in a day? No, he says, with a laugh, just a lot of grit, determination, and many espressos.
Prithviraj is his inspiration, he says, and he has much gratitude for the former's persuasion which led to him being cast as the villain in Ennu Ninte Moideen in 2015.
"People knew my name after that," he says and it led to many offers of lead roles. Guppy (2016) was a turning point, a failure at the box office, but one that got a lot of love on DVD. Since then, there has been no stopping him, whether it was Aashiq Abu's Virus (2019) or Manu Ashokan's Uyare (2019), with whom he continues to collaborate.
Content and quality have never been in short supply in the Malayalam film industry, but visibility was. That's sorted out now, thanks to the proliferation of streaming platforms.
So, get ready for a lot more of Thomas.
(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')
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