Blessed with thespian skills and a golden voice, Manoj K Jayan is one of the rare actors in Mollywood who charts new territory by taking versatility to new heights and breathing life into the broad spectrum of characters he has essayed so far. In a tete a tete with Cochin Herald, he opens up about his celluloid journey, unforgettable moments and areas of interest
– Renjith Leen
As the sun sets over the placid backwaters skirting Le Meridien Kochi, the soft lights of the splendid high-end hotel are turned on, making the edifice look resplendent like a decked up bride. Into the patio comes actor-singer Manoj K Jayan dressed in his casual best – a crisp dark blue T-shirt and blue skin-tight pair of denims, sporting a bandana, face mask and white sandals. At the very first sight, he appears to be the typical Malayali metrosexual gentleman, who is careful about his looks and wardrobe, as is evident from his well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard that peeks at you from the seams of the mask and choice of attire. As he folds his hands to say namaste instead of the customary handshake to maintain social distancing norms, one can’t help casting a furtive glance at the Apple smartwatch on his wrist, which speaks volumes of his love for smart gadgets.
As he sits down on a recliner for a chat with Cochin Herald, one notices that he has no airs and is down to earth. For Malayalam movie lovers around the world, the very mention of Manoj K Jayan conjures up the image of an actor-singer who is one of the few paragons of versatility in tinsel town. Without an iota of doubt, one can say he is a cut above the rest as he prefers to tread differently.
The path less travelled
He is one of those rare Mollywood actors who minces no words when it comes to confessing his disregard for attaining superstar status. From the time he started facing the arc lights and camera more than three decades ago, Manoj always stood apart from the crowd with his casual attitude towards being in the limelight and hogging the headlines and it reflects in his choice of roles. “I am not a person who signs all the offers I get. Even if it is a big-budget movie, I might not accept it if I am not comfortable with the role. Instead, I might sign up for a newcomer’s movie which has a low budget. However big the offer might be, Manoj is sagacious in choosing his roles and he has the uncanny ability to breathe life into them with jaw-dropping finesse. Little wonder his characters, ranging from Kuttan Thampuran in “Sargam”, Anto of “Chamayam” and Digambaran in the horror flick “Ananthabhadram” to Eddy John Kurisingal in “Big B” enjoy cult status among Mollywood buffs.
The journey of a Rajinikant-Bachchan fan to celluloid
Manoj, who hails from Kottayam, fell in love with celluloid during his childhood days when he used to watch with rapt attention the flicks of his matinee idols Rajinikant, the late Jayan and Amitabh Bachchan. “Thus began my passion to be an actor,” says Manoj, who was born into a family blessed by the muse of music. His father, K G Jayan, and his uncle, K G Vijayan, are known as the Jaya-Vijayan pair in the Carnatic music circuit. But young Manoj wooed the muse of acting and was not at all interested in learning classical music to tread in the footsteps of his father. During his college days in Natakom, his favourite haunts were movie halls rather than campus. He dabbed grease paint and appeared before the camera for the first time in the Malayalam television serial “Kumilakal”, which appeared in Doordarshan in 1988.
““Kumilakal” directed by Adam Ayub was my stepping stone to cinema as my performance was well appreciated in it. Until eight episodes, my character, Rajasekharan, was a dim-wit ridiculed by all. In the ninth and tenth episodes, he shows a marked improvement towards becoming a smart guy and the final two leave me firing on all cylinders,” says Manoj as he goes down memory lane.
He credits “Kumilakal” for giving him the big break in Mollywood two years later in the movie ‘Perumthachan’ scripted by M T Vasudevan Nair in which he donned the role of Thirumangalam Neelakantan, a Brahmin royal official who tries in vain to woo the heroine. His dialogue delivery, mannerisms and eye movement offered the discerning viewer a peep into the actor’s vast talent pool.
Kuttan Thampuran brings home his debut state award
Viewers and fans got a taste of Manoj’s ability to make a character unmatched and unforgettable for the first time in the 1992 movie “Sargam” directed by the legendary Hariharan. His amazing prowess in breathing life into characters was noticed for the first time when he played the role of Kuttan Thampuran, a beedi-smoking, epileptic, brash and violent scion of an aristocratic family who is feared by all, taking that role to new heights. The dexterity with which he essayed that complex character was noticed by the State Film Awards jury, fetching him his debut award for the second-best actor in 1993.
Asked about how he shone in that role, Manoj rewinds to his Chennai days when he was in the set of iconic Tamil director Maniratnam’s “Thalapathi”. “Veteran director Hariharan’s friend called me to say that he was planning a movie with newcomers and that he had a significant role for me, something really complex. I was bewildered as I had done only normal roles so far,” says Manoj. “He said I could do it as he had observed my role of Thirumangalam Neelakantan and showed me samples of the character’s mannerisms. When I repeated it, he was overjoyed and told me to practice at home. Complacent to the core, I did not give it a second thought.”
Mastering the art of ‘parakayapravesham’
The surprising element is unlike most actors, Manoj shuns practice or ‘homework’ as he has the uncanny ability to get into the skin of the character after contemplating it for a short while. “It was in front of the movie camera that I once again stepped into the shoes of Kuttan Thampuran. My first scene was okayed in the second take and since then, there has been no looking back as it gave me the confidence to do complex roles,” he says.
Even today, many of his fans find it hard to believe that he does no rehearsals or homework to chisel a character to perfection. In a light vein, Manoj says it is similar to ‘parakayapravesham’ which in occult lingo means a spirit possessing a human body. “When somebody discusses a story thread and if I feel I can do that particular role, I relate to that character instantly and make mental sketches of that personality. That’s it. It stays there and when I face the camera, the character comes alive,” he says with a smile.
“Chamayam” becomes the whetstone of versatility
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Manoj is one of the few actors in Mollywood who took versatility to greater heights setting new benchmarks and his roles speak for themselves. The invitation to act in Bharathan’s “Chamayam” was a godsent for Manoj who feared being typecast in elite, upper caste roles. The quantum leap to the far end of the acting spectrum to play a happy-go-lucky fisherman who goes to sea during the day and acts in historical dramas at night, proved that Manoj was wet clay which can be moulded into any form. “The character Anto came with action, romance, action and above all humour. It was a big turning point in my acting career proving to the masses that I can do any role effortlessly,” he says. “I am one who hates stereotype characters. Moulds are meant to be pulverised and recast and Anto helped me achieve it.”
The unbroken spell of Digambaran the sorcerer
Throughout his celluloid sojourn, it is the character of the fearsome, yet charming, sorcerer Digambaran that movie critics and fans point out as the pinnacle of Manoj’s versatility and thespian skills. Without an iota of doubt one can say that in the 2005 dark fantasy “Ananthabhadram” scripted by horror novelist Sunil Parameswaran, it is Digambaran who looms large and sways the audience making the hero pale in comparison throughout the flick. With kohl-lined eyes and markings on his forehead, Manoj took the character to a sublime level and his eye movements and agile hand and finger movements literally left viewers spellbound.
The story of his transformation into Digambaran is all the more fascinating. Within a few hours after winding up the shoot of Bhadran’s “Udayon” in Pollachi in which he plays the role of an ugly, dumb person named Pottan Pathro, Manoj straightaway drove to Ottappalam where the set of “Ananthabhadram” was set up. When makeup man Pattanam Rashid was changing me into Digambaran, he was still wondering how to take the character to a different level as he had not even glanced through the script, another unique trait of his. “One look at the mirror before facing the camera and I was struck by the change to my visage….the painted eyebrows, the dark patch of kohl beneath the eyes and the marks on the forehead… That moment I felt I was transforming into the black magician,” says Manoj.
Manoj goes on to narrate how he could not attend the release of this much-acclaimed movie as he was bedridden with fever for three weeks. Those close to him blamed it on the evil eye as his performance in it was matchless. “That made me sort of afraid that I dared not watch the movie,” he says. It took him another two years to finally watch his magnum opus during a Vienna visit for a stage show. “I was staying with a Malayali family and they coaxed me to watch its CD with them and I obliged,” says the actor who has acted in more than 170 movies in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi.
Hands of destiny become manifest
Manoj is a firm believer in destiny and he has enough reason to substantiate it. “My first state award was for Hariharan Sir’s “Sargam” and it was destiny that fetched me a role in his movie a second time and bringing yet another state award,” he says. “This time it was for the 2009 biographical action movie “Pazhassi Raja” starring Mammootty based on the life of the celebrated freedom fighter. I won the award for second best actor for my role of Thalakkal Chanthu, the trusted tribal commander of the valiant king. Many are unaware that I was first asked to do the role of nobleman Kaitheri Ambu, an aide of Pazhassi Raja. But later, Hariharan told me I had been given Chanthu’s role… From a nobleman to a tribal. But later when I read about him, I realised how big a role it was… a privilege. If it isn’t destiny, what else is it?” asks the actor.
That was not the end as destiny had more in store for him. After winning the state award for the role in “Pazhassi Raja”, he was invited for the inauguration of the Thalakkal Chanthu museum in Panamaram, Wayanad, near the Koli tree where the hero was hanged by the British. “I got goosebumps when I saw thousands of Kurichya tribals cheering me with bows and arrows as I proceeded to the venue. As the ceremonial plaque under the tree was unveiled, I suddenly looked at the branch above from where Chanthu was hanged. I had an out-of-this-world feeling when I saw my name carved in stone with the names of other dignitaries. Fate brought the reel-life hero to the monument of the real-life hero. My name will be there as long as the stone remains by the Koli tree,” he says with animated gestures.
An enticing spectrum of memorable roles
Manoj yet again proved to the discerning viewer that he can deftly handle comedy too with his character Rashid Munna in “Seniors”. The flirtatious, naughty Munna, who leaves viewers in splits, was a tough nut to crack, says the actor. “After handling complex roles with ease, I found it difficult to slip into Munna’s shoes as he reminded me of my younger days.” It was his rib-tickling performance in “Seniors” that landed him a handful of movies like “Neram”, “Mallu Singh” and “Thattathin Marayathu” where he essayed roles liberally sprinkled with humour and wit.
Asked about his best villainous character other than Digambaran, pat comes the reply – Sub-Inspector Sebastian, who embodies lust, hunger for money and bloodlust, in Mammootty-starrer “Phantom Paily”.
Manoj tested new waters and won critical acclaim for his performance in the 2012 movie “Ardhanari” in which he is a transgender with a male physique and persona of a woman. “Never have I undergone so much mental strain as the transition from manliness to feminine charm took a toll. The challenging character of Manjula becomes manly in the presence of a woman and vice-versa,” says Manoj, adding that it did not fetch him an award. “A member of the jury told me the performance was amazing but the movie lacked quality,” says the actor.
But the same year, the third state award came calling for his coruscating portrayal of a Kathakali actor in “Kaliyachan”. Manoj’s eyes twinkle with excitement when someone mentions “Big B”, the trendsetter of new-generation Kochi-centric movies, as his role of reformed gangster Eddy John Kurisingal has cult-like status and die-hard fans even today although the movie was released more than a decade ago.
Its sequel “Bilal” was slated to be shot in the middle of March when the pandemic struck. “The youths are just dying for the movie to come out,” says Manoj, who has had the privilege to work under the stalwart directors and scriptwriters in the industry. “I acted in four movies scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair Sir, three by Lohithadas, three flicks directed by Bharathan and four by Hariharan Sir and one by world-renowned Adoor Gopalakrishnan.”
Bleeding feet, bruises for the stamp of perfection
What makes him really special among actors is his ability to bear any amount of stress, be it physical or mental, to polish his character to perfection. He recounts his harrowing experiences during the “Pazhassi Raja” shoot. “It was the most physically demanding role I have ever done so far,” he says, recounting how the action sequences in a forest in Kannur left his body bruised and wounded from the thorns and brambles and his feet were bloody at the end of the day after running barefoot over sharp rocks and pebbles on a river bed.
“Equally challenging was the shot where I run away from approaching British troops on horseback. One has to have an idea of the speed of the horse and maintain pace or else the animal can trample you.”
The hanging scene was shot in Madikeri, Kodagu, in bone-chilling cold weather. “I was suspended from a tree and there was artificial rain. It was a superhuman feat to remain still without shivering or even flinching a toe while the camera tightly pans the ‘corpse’ of Chanthu. Shots were repeated and I ended up in bed with a raking fever for three days,” he says.
Stage show sensation
The actor, who is blessed with a mellifluous voice, often finds it hard to convince fans that he has not studied classical music despite being the son of a maestro. “I cannot identify ragas in classical music and I dare not sing classical or semi-classical numbers when people request me to do so during shows,” says Manoj who has done scores of stage shows around the world in which he has belted out a few hit numbers.
Of Swiss watches and Apple gadgets
Asked if he is fond of gadgets like many of his ilk, Manoj says without batting an eyelid that he is a die-hard Apple enthusiast. When i Phone 6 Plus entered the global market in 2014, he was the first person in Kerala to get a handset, which he managed to buy with the help of a friend in the UK ahead of its launch in India.
Running his fingers over the Apple watch on his wrist, Manoj confesses he is an avid collector of classy high-end watches. “I am crazy about watches, especially Swiss watches. I do not mind splurging on elegant classy timepieces such as Tag Heur, Mont Blanc and Omega Seamaster. But of late, I prefer to wear my Apple watch as it is smart and tracks even my fitness,” he says.
Heart is where the hearth is
The loving husband of Asha and the doting dad of Tejalakshmi (Kunjatta), who has completed BA Communication & Media, English and Psychology from Christ University, Bengaluru, and Amrit, a Class 3 student of Choice School, Tripunithura, Manoj is a family-oriented man who has no qualms in admitting that home is his comfort zone. “I’m a dedicated family man who rushes home after shoots and I have no other entertainment avenues. I don’t socialise and I am not interested in it as I love to be with my family as much as possible,” says the actor who has shed his complacency to become more active on Instagram and Facebook since the pandemic outbreak to interact with fans and followers.
He signs off saying that he is game for more challenging roles.