Manu Balachandran is a writer for Forbes India, based in Bengaluru. At Forbes India, Manu writes on automobiles, aviation, pharmaceuticals, banking, infrastructure, economy and long profiles among many others. He also moderates many of Forbes India's CEO and CXO events and hosts Capital Ideas, a podcast on the most riveting success stories from the business world. He has previously worked with Quartz, The Economic Times and Business Standard in Mumbai and New Delhi. Manu has a master's degree in journalism from Cardiff University and a degree in economics from the Loyola College. When not chasing stories, he is most likely obsessing over Formula 1 (Read: Lewis Hamilton), historical events and people, or planning long weekend drives from Bengaluru
Dulquer Salmaan is brutally honest. Maybe it comes from his father, legendary actor Mammootty, the three-time National Award winner and the reigning star of Malayalam films who doesn’t shy away from telling the truth. Maybe it comes from his years of working in construction in the Middle East where he had a rather tough time often being “told off”. Whatever it might be, Dulquer avoids putting on a guise that often comes with actors.
Over the last few years, particularly as Covid-19 wreaked havoc in the film industry, Dulquer had fewer releases than he would have liked. On OTT platforms, unlike some of his peers who quickly made the switch, the actor didn’t have much to show, raising eyebrows about his future in an industry where you are only as good as your last film. That drought came to an end when, on his birthday in August, he announced as many as five films ready for release or starting production.
“My filmmakers were like, people are beginning to think that these films you’ve signed with us are never going to see the light of day because you’ve not had a release with Covid-19, and you have been very quiet,” says Dulquer. “They said, please, at least on your birthday, can we announce these.”
The announcements have kicked up a storm, with roles ranging from one of Kerala’s long-time fugitives to a cop and an army officer in a Telugu film. “It’s been an interesting time because it’s been a lot of reflection for me. And everybody had releases coming out. I was like what’s happening to my career... no films have come out,” Dulquer says jokingly.
Much of that is because, by his own admission, he is at a peculiar position in the film industry, unlike many of his contemporaries.
Armed with a boyish innocence, Dulquer is juggling five turfs at the moment. There’s the Malayalam industry where he is a reigning star and has come out of the shadows of his father to build a stellar fan base. Then there are the Tamil and Telugu industries where he has been busy making inroads and has been part of some big hits. Add to it, his foray into Bollywood, where he has two films to his credit and is busy shooting one for adman-turned-director R Balki.
To top it all up, there is now the push towards OTT platforms, a segment he has long stayed away from and that has caught his attention.
“I’m in this peculiar position where I’m juggling four industries,” Dulquer tells Forbes India over a Zoom call from Mumbai where he is shooting for R Balki’s yet-to-be-titled film. “Now with OTT and web, that’s almost like five verticals which I have to juggle. And that’s quite a bit. Sometimes I wish I was just in one industry. It’s easy. You can plan, you know your timeline of releases.” Bangalore Days, a romantic comedydrama starring Dulquer Salmaan, became one of Malayalam cinema’s highest-grossing films. The actor has made his presence felt across southern Indian cinema with films such as O Kadhal Kanmani (Tamil) and Mahanati (Telugu), among others
That uneasiness aside, Dulquer has no real qualms when it comes to exploring roles outside of his comfort zone of Malayalam films. He dubs for all his movies in different languages and it’s a love for language and culture that has taken him to the film world outside Kerala. “You get to live only once,” says the actor whose last release was the Malayalam film, Maniyarayile Ashokan, where he was the producer and had a cameo.
“I never sought to become some pan-Indian actor, I still wonder what that term means,” he adds. “But what I do love is languages. I think I get to live different lives in each of these industries, something that I truly cherish.”
Dulquer started acting a decade ago when he signed for debutante Srinath Rajendran’s Second Show, a movie in which he played the role of a gangster. While the movie was a moderate hit, it was his next film, Ustad Hotel in which he played a Switzerland-returned chef who joins his ageing grandfather in his ramshackle restaurant in Kozhikode, that brought him closer to the audience and helped him emerge out of the shadow of his father.
“I think what drastically changed my life was Ustad Hotel,” Dulquer says. “It just endeared me to audiences and kept me in a special place. I know it still is loved as much and I think they’ll forgive if I did a bad film.”
While the audience may be forgiving of some of the flops he’s had in the past decade, the last few years haven’t entirely gone to his plan. In 2020, he had three releases, two in Malayalam and one in Tamil. In the third, he had a cameo. In 2019, Dulquer had two releases, the Bollywood film The Zoya Factor and the Malayalam film Oru Yamandan Premakadha. Neither were superhits.
“It’s not in my hand,” Dulquer says about the fewer movies in the past few years. “I’ve been working non-stop. But things must fall into place. Some are other language films, some of them are waiting for release. I didn’t do those OTT-only films because I didn’t quite understand that.”
The big plunge
Over a decade in films and Dulquer is as shy as it can get. “I am still a shy person,” he says.
A week before he has an award function, an inauguration, or address a crowd, the 35-year-old becomes anxious and has a rather tough time. It’s only when he wraps up the function and gets into the car does the actor find peace. He doesn’t see the likelihood of that changing in the next 20 or 30 years. That’s probably why cinema was never his first choice.
Dulquer Salmaan with Sonam Kapoor in The Zoya Factor, a 2019 Bollywood film
“I think it is something that I shied away from for the longest time,” Dulquer says. “Because of what a legend my dad is. Also, I think when I was in school or finishing school in the late 90s, Malayalam cinema wasn’t what it is today. It wasn’t as relatable and it was going into this Tamil-Malayalam crossover commercial kind of cinema that I didn’t quite understand. So, I didn’t see myself in the movies at that time.”
Then, there was the fear of disappointing his father who recently completed 50 years in the film industry. Malayalam superstar Mammootty has three National Film Awards for Best Actor, seven Kerala State Film Awards, and 13 Filmfare Awards South in a career spanning 400-odd films.
“I used to be so afraid of stepping into his boots directly,” says Dulquer. “I was initially thinking that if I ever get into cinema, I’ll do something behind the camera. Maybe I’ll direct or write.”
After finishing his MBA with a specialisation in marketing and finance from Purdue University, Dulquer came back to India and dabbled in setting up a business in Chennai. “I wanted to replicate certain ideas that I saw in America because I find the economies to be quite similar,” Dulquer says. “We’re both largely driven by a very large middle class.”
He soon set up an online automobile trading portal, along the lines of eBay Motors, and even put together a team for that. “But it wasn’t easy to get it off the ground at that time and the dealers weren’t ready,” he adds. “Today, it has become a lot easier, and people understand. But, at that time, I think I was too early.”
That’s when he got an opportunity in the Middle East to work in construction dewatering. “It is very lower down in the construction of a building. If you think about it, we are right before foundation work,” Dulquer says. “I had to really deal with people from all walks of life who’d be frustrated if work was delayed. They’d tell me off.”
It did, however, help that the community in the Middle East comprised largely Malayalees who loved his father, who would often remind him that films were his calling. “I spent a lot of time patiently waiting on a side being told off, getting shouted at or waiting for payments,” Dulquer says. “I just thought acting wasn’t an option.” Today, he credits his time in the Middle East for his patience, a trait that has come to characterise him on film sets.
About three years into his construction job, the global economic recession of 2008-09 forced him to take a relook at his career. “I was thinking if I keep doing this, before I know it, I’ll be 40 years old and too late to try,” Dulquer says. That’s when he decided to take the plunge.
The conversation with the family, of course, wasn’t an easy one. “My mother was more encouraging,” Dulquer says. “My father, on the other hand, said, ‘This is not something I can do for you. You have to do it yourself. I can’t come and act for you. What people see on camera is going to be entirely you. So, if you’re good, then great. If you’re bad, you know you’re going to fail spectacularly and very loudly for that matter’.”
Dulquer then spent three months in Mumbai, trying to understand the nuances of acting, before coming back to Kerala for his debut movie. “In the film industry, if your son fails, everybody knows. So, I always knew that was not an option,” Dulquer says. “The makers of the film, also newcomers, were looking to have one of the star kids, either Mammootty’s or Mohanlal’s, to join them in the film.” A movie with newcomers meant that the pressure wasn’t entirely on Dulquer.
“If you see my first few films, I wasn’t a very uninhibited actor because of this fear,” Dulquer says. “You can’t pressure yourself when you’re performing to every take. It doesn’t work like that. But, over time, with experience, you overcome it.” While his first three films were box office hits, the next three didn’t do well. “The failures humanised me quite a bit. Not that I was riding any high.”
Since then, Dulquer has gone on to make his presence felt across southern Indian cinema with the likes of O Kadhal Kanmani directed by Mani Ratnam, Mahanati, his Telugu debut, where he portrayed legendary actor Gemini Ganesan, and Bangalore Days, an ensemble romantic comedy-drama that became one of Malayalam cinema’s highest-grossing films.
“Dulquer’s a warm and wonderful gentleman as a person and, as an actor, he is very instinctive and responsive to directors,” says Anjali Menon, who wrote the script for Ustad Hotel, and directed him in Bangalore Days. “He is all heart when it comes to acting and I found he becomes putty in the director’s hands. I really like his lack of self-awareness before the camera and believe it allows him to be the character.”
Going the long way
Now, as he completes a decade in the film industry, Dulquer is only getting started. Of course, he isn’t in any hurry to emulate his father, rather charting his own path or not choosing films with shades of macho masculinity that had once come to define Malayalam films.
“I’ve always felt responsible about selecting my movies and I have always wanted to approach cinema as somebody who loves cinema, and not as someone trying to become an overnight success,” Dulquer says. “I don’t think I can be choosy about doing only a hit film. It usually backfires when you do that. You’ve got to go with your gut. If you believe it’s going to be interesting as a cinematic experience, as a viewing experience, I think it’ll do well.”
And he certainly has the potential to carry a film on his shoulders, industry experts say. “He has a very good pan-India presence,” says Sreedhar Pillai, film critic and industry expert. “His market looks good and is popular in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. He is very saleable and has long emerged out of the shadow of his father.”
Yet, even as he explores newer frontiers in different languages, Malayalam remains his home turf, where he has the maximum freedom to do the kind of cinema he wants. “I can attempt any kind of movie, be it big, small, commercial, non-commercial, or art house,” says Dulquer.
It also helps that the Malayalam film industry has found wider acceptance, thanks to the entry of OTT platforms. “Malayalam [content] is at its peak and doing really well right now, so it’s also probably not the best time for me to not be there entirely,” Dulquer jokes. “But I live only once. I don’t get these opportunities all the time. I weigh it out based on my offers from each industry. The culture experience is my goal in working in a different industry.”
Over the past few years, Malayalam cinema has found a fresh lease of life with a surge in OTT film releases and has been at the forefront of new releases during the pandemic. Movies like Drishyam 2, C U Soon, Home and Joji were among the biggest hits during this time. “Traditionally, the Malayalam film industry has been small compared to other industries and budgets have always been less,” Dulquer says. “But now, with OTT, satellite rights, and overseas market, there’s at least some guaranteed opening.”
Even then, Dulquer didn’t jump the OTT bandwagon very quickly. “It’s tricky,” Dulquer says. “I’ve believed that I want to do the films that I believe in, and I can’t suddenly change this lineup and say, wait, I’m going to do this quickie for OTT and then I’ll come back to it.”
“During the pandemic, he may not have had many releases compared to other actors,” says Pillai. “But that should never be a concern, since he has marketability and that’s the most important aspect. His father never launched him in movies, and he managed to grow very organically.”
Now, with theatres across the country set to reopen as Covid-19 cases decline in India, there is also much uncertainty about where the industry is headed, especially when it comes to star-centric films that had come to define the industry in the past. “We’re all having to adapt a little bit because we don’t have the theatrical numbers,” Dulquer says. “I keep hearing from different industries about the way forward. I think that people will always want to see their superstars. You love them for that experience and those goosebumps. It’s 100 percent more fun when you are throwing ticket stubs or dancing together with random strangers coming together to celebrate their hero.”Dulquer with the late Irrfan Khan in Karwaan. The actor is juggling five turfs at the moment—Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu industries, as well as Bollywood and OTT platforms. The star, who says you live only once, has directorial ambitions too
But, for a shy person, can Dulquer pull off something like that, especially since his father had done similar roles in the past, and remains a superstar? “When I find the perfect balance of content and mass element maybe,” Dulquer says. “But I don’t know if I have the bandwidth for that because I don’t have the style, the elements that our superstars have to say a line with panache. I don’t have the confidence to do that. So, it has to be very content-driven.”
“It’s great that he is doing multiple languages, but I do believe he has much more to give in terms of versatility,” Menon says. “Dulquer has an interesting fluidity and is open to being pushed out of his comfort zone, but I don’t know if all directors are doing that with him. My films are usually built with ensemble casts and Dulquer very quickly adapted and fit in beautifully with the collaborative energy—he just becomes the character, in the frame and outside.”
The angel investor
It isn’t just the movie world that Dulquer is taking by storm. Even though his debut business venture didn’t quite take off, Dulquer has now forayed into production, and that has already produced two films with two more lined up for release.
“I’ve always wanted to introduce new talent, produce films of other actors, then turn it into a production house that is a brand on its own, separate from me or my dad,” Dulquer says. “For now, it might take some handholding where I might have to be in the movies for like 30-40 minutes. It’s still not reached a stage where Wayfarer Films can just make a film with newcomers and then sell it viably.”
Then there is Dulquer, the angel investor who, as part of a fund with his friends, has made investments in startups across the country, like Ultraviolette which recently launched India’s fastest electric bike.
“It’s almost like producing a film,” Dulquer says. “You are investing in a new idea, and then see it take its course. We’re mostly investing in deep tech, electric vehicles, medical advancements, and space. India is doing a lot of interesting things like rocketry and privatised space launches. A lot of them don’t know that I am there. The team looks at over 400 investments a year.”
So where does Dulquer go from here? “I want to pursue cinema not for the money,” Dulquer says. “That should happen on the side, and I should be able to do whatever movies I want to for the love of it. It is tricky to balance that, and you can sometimes easily be influenced by the money side of cinema. That apart, I want to direct at least one film. That’s a promise to myself.”
Will we see the father and son duo on screen for the first time anytime soon? “He has to agree to it,” Dulquer signs off with a big smile.