Why Dulquer Salmaan is the pan-India hero Bollywood needs

By Poulomi Das

After successfully foraying into Telugu and Tamil cinema, Dulquer Salmaan, a bonafide Malayalam star, is making his Bollywood debut with Karwaan. His soaring fan-following that defies language and age barriers is because he feels like the realest actor we’ve witnessed in a long long time.

In the last six years, Dulquer Salmaan has made 25 films and four debuts, including his first Hindi film appearance in Akarsh Khurana’s upcoming Karwaan. A road trip multi-starrer comedy that has been in the works for a long while, feels like an unusual launch vehicle for a bonafide Malayalam star like Dulquer. It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that a Karan Johar-backed celebration or a Yash Raj rendezvous would be more appropriate, because he is, after all, the son of Malayalam superstar Mammootty.

But Dulquer’s decision to foray into Bollywood with an unconventional film, where he isn’t playing the solo lead and which doesn’t feature any A-listers, is symptomatic of the kind of path the actor has carved for himself. To him, stardom is neither a family gift nor does he have the luxury of considering himself a celebrity – a belief that extends to his film choices as well. It’s almost as if the actor detests the idea of playing it safe.

Back in 2014, Dulquer’s first Tamil film was Balaji Mohan’s Vaayai Moodi Pesavum, a romantic drama laced with biting social commentary, which had a largely silent second half. Despite the box-office validation, it would’ve been a risky gamble for any debutant, especially for someone who had already established himself as a bankable lead in the Malayalam film industry. Four years later, Dulquer chose another atypical role for his Telugu debut: Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan in Ashwin Nag’s Mahanati, the widely anticipated biopic of Southern actress Savitri. In the film, he wasn’t only playing second fiddle to Keerthy Suresh’s terrific Savitri, but was also essaying an immensely polarising character, with ample shades of grey.

And in Karwaan, Dulquer’s first Hindi film, he essays a geek instead of a hero, sharing screen space with Irrfan Khan and Mithila Palkar. To discerning Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil audiences, he needs no introduction, yet it’s evident that when he’s entering a new industry, Dulquer arrives as the newcomer. In this hyper-competitive, overcrowded stardom of this era, it’s exhilarating to see someone like Dulquer, unafraid to give smaller roles a shot and not be possessive of lead roles.

In the last couple of years, he’s had an enviably consistent track record of experimenting with film choices, deftly showcasing his versatility. Admirable, considering that formulaic mass entertainers are a shortcut to superstardom in our film industries, Bollywood or regional. It’s a route Dulquer consciously eschews. Instead, like his contemporaries Nivin Pauly and Fahadh Faasil, the actor’s career graph is littered with smart, unusual choices that highlight his chameleon-like ability to get under the skin of starkly different characters. But more importantly, they also give a realistic and relatable face to the modern, urban Malayali, candidly speaking to them about their fears and ambitions.

Dulquer Salmaan gives a realistic and relatable face to the modern, urban Malayali. Image credit: RSVP Movies

In Charlie, Dulquer embodied the sexy Mallu man with as much ease as he played the lost millennial in Ustad Hotel or in Bangalore Days. His helpless good looks, coupled with the innocent loverboy image and efficacious charm that he honed with O Kadhal Kanmani guaranteed that he became the default choice for the new-age romantic lead. But to ensure that he wouldn’t be typecast in romantic films, Dulquer has in the last six years, played a husband with anger management issues in Kali, a small-time thug in Kammattippaadam, a man on a mission to extract revenge for his wife’s death in Theevram, and starred in Solo, a controversial anthology in which he played four characters.

In a way, it’s exactly what affords the 32-year-old actor the leeway, headspace, and eligibility to be that rare successful pan-Indian actor. His ease with languages (he is fluent in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi) and his boy-next-door appeal also guarantees that it’s impossible to bracket him as just another “Malayalam actor”. Most interesting of all, he’s also quietly redefining the very definition of a “pan-Indian actor”: For one, he isn’t looking to attempt a complete crossover. Dulquer has gone on record to claim that the success and frequency of his Hindi films won’t ever be an inclination for him to pack his bags and relocate to Mumbai. To him, the stardom attached to Bollywood blockbusters is incidental. Instead, what assumes priority is this innate need to reinvent himself and hone his craft, and truly, what better way to do that than to slip between languages, emotions, and film industries?

To be fair, much of his freedom is also a result of the new generational makeover that Malayalam cinema is witnessing. And the fact that he comes at a time when streaming platforms are steadily making regional films more accessible than they were back in the day.

But more than anything, what I feel explains Dulquer’s soaring fan-following that defies language and age barriers, is that he feels like the realest actor we’ve witnessed in a long long time. Unlike the flashiness of most stars, he’s shy, soft-spoken, and incredibly apologetic about his lifestyle – he has labelled his car collection “elitist” and that posting about them is showing off. He’s also painfully honest and humble: He credits Mani Ratnam for people knowing of him in North India because “Everyone watches Mani Sir” and confesses that Irrfan Khan was the reason he signed Karwaan. And refuses to take credit for his eclectic film choices, because “anyone would have signed the films that I have signed”.

You have to constantly remind yourself that his Instagram account – a common icebreaker with most of his interviewers – is that of someone on the cusp of superstardom. There are few markers of it in his pictures of his young daughter, goofy hashtags, or the house that he lives in. It’s also what makes him deeply watchable: In an episode of Son of Abish last year, the actor appeared with Vidya Balan where he proceeded to discuss stretch marks with the host as casually as he’d talk about cars.

It’s telling then that Karwaan, the film that takes Dulquer to Bollywood revolves around a road trip that involves a journey to the South. It might as well have been about him.

The article was originally published in Arre.

Poulomi Das is an author at Arre.