The year was 2009. Fahadh Faasil had disappeared following the massive debacle of his debut film Kai Ethum Dhoorathu; Dulquer Salmaan and Tovino Thomas were yet to be discovered; Prithviraj Sukumaran was impressing only occasionally; Indrajith Sukumaran wasn’t getting the offers he deserved; Kunchacko Boban was struggling to regain footing after his hiatus; Jayasurya was irritating with a slew of mindless movies; and Malayalam cinema seemed bleak overall.
The month of August was particularly dull. There was no particular reason for cinephiles to look out for Independence Day. Hence, it took Malayalam cinema by surprise that a film had arrived on August 14, potent enough to change its trajectory for the better, that introduced a couple of actors who would become powerful additions to the industry’s list of performers.
National Award-winning director Shyamaprasad’s Ritu was surprisingly fresh, shockingly unique and splendidly made, featuring stellar performances by a bunch of newcomers, including Rima Kallingal, Vinay Forrt, Nishan and more importantly, Asif Ali, who turns 38 on Sunday. In contrast to Vinay and Nishan, who were alumni of the FTII, Pune, and Rima, who possessed skills in martial arts, was a trained dancer and a former Miss Kerala runner-up, Asif was just a model and video jockey (VJ). Nevertheless, his portrayal of the nuanced character Sunny Emmatty attracted significant attention, marking an ambitious debut for him.
Yet, he couldn’t (or, better to say, still hasn’t been able to) fully harness this opportunity, with his career witnessing tumultuous ups and downs akin to the rugged terrain of off-road trails, despite his persistent assertion of his abilities.
Appalling choices after an ambitious debut
Immediately after Ritu, Asif Ali received the chance to play a key role in the family drama Kadha Thudarunnu, helmed by veteran director Sathyan Anthikad, who was on a successful streak with seven consecutive hits since Yathrakarude Sradhakku. Despite having limited screen time, Asif portrayed his character in Kadha Thudarunnu effortlessly, and his on-screen chemistry with actor Mamta Mohandas was well-received, but the film, not so much.
The same year, he joined forces with his Ritu-mates Nishan and Vinay in Sibi Malayil’s thriller movie Apoorvaragam. Though its plot was fresh, the treatment, and more than that, the performances of all actors, especially Asif, were below par and caricaturish. The actor ‘outdid’ his mediocre performance in Apoorvaragam the same year by delivering an abysmal one in Best of Luck, which was so poor that it raised doubts about whether this was the same Asif who impressed in his debut film itself.
In 2011, for every commendable performance/film he delivered, Asif seemed to balance it out by offering a disappointing one. While he impressed viewers big time in Rajesh Pillai’s landmark film Traffic and Aashiq Abu’s Salt N’ Pepper, his performances in Ithu Nammude Katha, Violin and Sevenes were unbearable just like the movies.
The actor reached a new low by starring in AK Sajan’s Asuravithu (2012), a sequel to the director’s previous film Stop Violence starring Prithviraj Sukumaran. While he may have hoped that Asuravithu would provide him with the same success that Stop Violence gave Prithviraj, showcasing his ability to handle massy and action-packed roles, the outcome was far from what he expected. While the film itself was poorly executed, Asif’s performance and dialogue delivery were artificial and he lacked the swagger required for such a role. Thus Asuravithu became a major blotch in his career which had already begun to fade out, also since he was a complete outsider with no familial legacy to back him up. By February that year, he had delivered his second flop, Unnam, where he appeared alongside his Ritu co-star Rima, giving the impression that his career had come full circle, beginning and ending with the same female lead as a witness.
Taste of success
But just like how Malayalam audiences embraced most outsiders (best examples being Mammootty and Mohanlal) and provided them with ample opportunities that star kids seldom received, in stark contrast to the prevailing practice in many other parts of the country, they showed patience with Asif Ali too and waited for him to deliver, perhaps understanding that he wasn’t lacking in skill but simply lacked the right opportunities.
And true to their belief, Asif stunned everyone with his performance as the do-gooder-turned-villain Bhadran in Sugeeth’s Ordinary (2012). Although, in hindsight, his performance once people realised that he was the villain was ridiculous, he handled the portions showing Bhadran’s naivety effectively.
Not only did Ordinary become a massive hit, but also served as a turning point in Asif’s career as it opened doors for him, leading to a much-needed breakthrough and a series of exceptional roles and films that followed in quick succession.
With Ordinary, Asif experienced the first high in his career with most of his releases that year receiving positive feedback, achieving box office success, or both, establishing him as a lucky charm. Though he played only a cameo role, his very next release, Mallu Singh, also emerged as a blockbuster. Making up for some of the disgraces he earned with Asuravithu, Asif impressed in the actioner Bachelor Party, showcasing all his charm and swagger. He also made a cameo appearance in the blockbuster Dulquer Salmaan-starrer Ustad Hotel before showcasing his true acting potential in Ozhimuri. In this period drama, Asif portrayed with finesse a vulnerable youth navigating his parents’ divorce at an older age, skillfully capturing the ethos of the role.
However, his joy was short-lived as his remaining movies that year — Husbands in Goa, Jawan of Vellimala, 916, Idiots and I Love Me — were equally disappointing. After starting off 2013 too with a flop, Cowboy, Asif found some relief in Vinay Govind’s new-era stoner film Kili Poyi, thanks to its genre, comedic moments and overall freshness, albeit, it cannot be said that Asif’s performance was commendable.
This streak only broke in March 2013 with the release of Red Wine. Despite featuring both Mohanlal and Fahadh Faasil, Asif showcased his acting prowess, refusing to be overshadowed by the industry heavyweights. Two months later, the actor’s career witnessed another box-office success with Honey Bee.
Season 2 of ‘one disappointing performance/film for every commendable work’
However, this also marked the start of the second season in Asif’s career, characterised by a pattern of balancing commendable performances or films with disappointing ones. While the subsequent D Company, Bicycle Thieves and Pakida brought him major heartbreaks, and rightfully so, Mosayile Kuthira Meenukal, Hi I’m Tony and Apothecary earned the actor praise, even though they didn’t perform well commercially. Particularly, the medical thriller Apothecary stood out for its freshness and depth, unravelling healthcare malpractices, and providing Asif with another opportunity to showcase his talent.
While his next film, Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, emerged as a big success, it also highlighted one of Asif’s biggest shortcomings: he excels only in portraying monotonous serious characters who don’t emote much. When tasked with roles involving emotional complexity, Asif tends to falter, presenting a somewhat cartoonish portrayal characterised by a reliance on high-pitch vocal tones and bizarre actions. Nonetheless, his serious demeanour proved effective once again as he delivered a commendable performance in Nirnayakam. Later that year, he ventured into producing for the first time, backing Kili Poyi director Vinay Govind’s Kohinoor, where he also took on the lead role as the petty thief Louis, earning acclaim. Additionally, he made cameo appearances in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s parody gangster film Double Barrel and the comedy thriller Amar Akbar Anthony, in the same year.
Though his character in Khalid Rahman’s Anuraga Karikkin Vellam was again that of a perpetually serious young man with anger management issues, a role that had become somewhat of his comfort zone, it also hinted at his untapped potential to adeptly handle emotional and romantic scenes.
Despite the influx of mindless films like Kavi Uddheshichathu, Honey Bee 2: Celebrations, Thrissivaperoor Kliptham and B.Tech, Asif consistently explored new avenues in his career and used movies such as Adventures of Omanakuttan, Iblis, Kaattu and Sunday Holiday as opportunities to enhance his skills and develop his talents.
Uyare, Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha and more
Exactly a decade after his debut, Asif Ali experienced an almost misstep-free year in 2019, with each subsequent movie showcasing a more refined and unrestrained version of himself compared to his previous work. He began the year successfully with Vijay Superum Pournamiyum, portraying an underconfident averager. However, he disappointed viewers with the lacklustre Mera Naam Shaji subsequently. Nevertheless, his career took a new direction with Uyare (2019), where he portrayed Govind, a youth who grows scaringly possessive of his girlfriend and seeks revenge by throwing acid on her face when she breaks up with him. Asif handled this complex character with skill, effectively conveying its nuances, unlike his past performances.
The actor continued to deliver impressive performances in diverse roles in films like Virus, Kakshi: Amminippilla and Under World. The same year also witnessed his best performance yet, as Sleevachan in Nissam Basheer’s Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha, with Asif excelling as the multi-layered villager. Despite the extremely problematic tone of the movie regarding marital rape, the actor’s remarkable attention to the character’s subtleties, both inward and outward, underscored his immense potential.
Following that, Asif continued to enthrall audiences with his stellar performances in Venu’s segment Rachiyamma in the anthology film Aanum Pennum, Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum, Mahaveeryar and Kooman, despite disappointments such as Ellam Sheriyakum, Innale Vare and Kotthu.
However, Asif Ali reached the pinnacle of his career when he made an appearance in Nissam Basheer’s Mammootty-starrer Rorschach (2022) as a masked ghost, with only his eyes visible. Although the makers initially kept the actor’s identity under wraps, viewers quickly recognised Asif through his eyes and body language, emphasising his enduring place in the hearts and minds of Malayalees — a feat that’s challenging for Malayalam actors to achieve. His portrayal became so cherished that Mammootty gifted him a Rolex watch at the film’s success meet, similar to how Kamal Haasan presented one to Suriya after the success of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram (2022).
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2023: A disappointing year
After a phenomenal journey in 2022, Asif found himself back in a familiar place of disappointment in 2023 with consecutive disappointing performances/films. Starting with Maheshum Marutiyum, he continued this journey with Kasargold, Otta and A Ranjith Cinema before wrapping up the year. Although the historic success of Jude Anthany Joseph’s 2018 brought some solace, it’s worth noting that the movie featured multiple stars and Asif’s performance wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
Despite being considered one of the most talented and possibly the best of his generation, Asif’s reliability as an actor has come into question. As he gears up for Jis Joy’s crime thriller Thalavan, we can only hope that he starts 2024 on a peaceful note, if not a successful one.