In his forthcoming film Villain, his 333rd as an actor, Mohanlal plays a retired policeman investigating the deaths of eight children. The drama and thriller is typical of the kind of films he has done of late.
But what’s different is perhaps that the 57-year-old Mohanlal is playing his age—interest in the film has been accentuated by the much-discussed rugged look and salt-and-pepper beard. For an actor known to make audiences suspend disbelief when it comes to his real-life age and stature, playing an older person is quite a move, industry experts say.
“I want to do roles that no one else has ever done, which I know is difficult,” Mohanlal says over email, days after he has wrapped up the shoot. “I am always browsing through scripts and hearing wonderful stories. I read script after script and finally say, ‘this is not bad’.”
The much-anticipated Diwali release sits heavy on his shoulders. But Mohanlal, perennially busy with acting, is already away, shooting for an untitled project in a remote location on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. For a month, he will be confined to his van between shots.
“I am not saying it’s the best script ever written, but there are possibilities for me to perform and that is what I look for,” he says about this film.
“Sometimes, it’s the writer whose work I have confidence in. Sometimes, I think something magical will happen on the sets. But above all, I have complete faith in my directors who’ve moulded me according to their choice on screen.”
Some of the “magic” he mentions, quite clearly, is happening.
Nearly 40 years after he first forayed into Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal remains the face of the Malayali superstar. The last year was particularly eventful.
His Telugu action drama Janatha Garage emerged as the highest grosser of the year in that language with worldwide collections of Rs135 crore. Director Priyadarshan’s Malayalam crime thriller Oppam followed suit soon, collecting Rs65 crore worldwide.
It would’ve remained the highest Malayalam grosser ever but the actor beat his own record a few months later with Pulimurugan, an action adventure that notched up Rs152 crore worldwide. It is currently the highest grossing Malayalam film and the third-highest scoring south Indian film of all time.
There is already much in the pipeline. A tribal tale set in the pre-electricity era called Odiyan and a Rs1,000 crore take on the Mahabharata prove that Lalettan, as he is popularly known, has no plans of slowing down.
“There is certainly no focus on quantity (instead of quality). Roles aren't being fitted to actors anymore; actors are being fitted into roles. This means celluloid vehicles designed solely to show off a star’s personality have mostly disappeared and actors are increasingly vulnerable to their material. It’s now time to perform,” Mohanlal says.
“The individual part is not the focus, the bigger picture is. In doing so, I may be the centrepiece of the narrative.”
While big-budget, commercially bankable vehicles have always been a priority for Mohanlal, there has lately been an effort to experiment with different kinds of cinema, as the Malayalam film industry itself undergoes its own metamorphosis with darker, slice-of-life tales taking centre stage.
If Villain sees him play his real-life age, the V.A. Shrikumar Menon directed Odiyan has him portray a young tribal, the last surviving member of a community in the Palakkad-Malabar region.
Past to present
The scenario for the Kerala-born Mohanlal Vishwanathan Nair may be bright and glorious right now but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Until 2000, Lal was the undisputed king of Malayalam cinema along with Mammootty, the other face of Malayalam film stardom.
“In the southern film industry, there is always a polarization between the superstar and the best actor, like say, N.T Rama Rao and Sivaji Ganesan,” says Villain director B. Unnikrishnan, pointing to another era.
There are similarly other rivalries in Indian movies—Tamil cinema fans are split between Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan while Bollywood is divided by the three Khans, Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir.
Mammootty and Mohanlal both entered their film industry in the 1980s and have held sway over audiences since. But Mammootty was known for working with literary writers like M.T. Vasudevan Nair and arthouse filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and T.V. Chandran.
Mohanlal, on the other hand, has always been the popular, people-friendly face.
Quite easily, Mohanlal was the more popular one in the 1990s with the boy-next-door image, much like Nivin Pauly today. He hit his peak from 1986 to the early 2000s, with films by directors like Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan that portrayed him as the likeable, family guy—complete with relatable contradictions, complexities and shortcomings.
What also tipped the scales in favour of Mohanlal was his acting talent; he was always known as the better and more nuanced actor despite mainly commercial outings. “In Malayalam cinema, the biggest superstar and the finest actor happen to be the same person. Mohanlal is an incredible combination of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth,” Unnikrishnan says.
Also, unlike Mammootty, who is the more modern, better-looking actor with a deep baritone, Mohanlal has a stronger, native Malayali identity off-screen.
Though neither actor’s dominance at the box office has been threatened, they seem to be adapting themselves to changing times. While Mammootty, for a long time, faced criticism for not playing his own age, he changed that with more recent films like Puthan Panam, The Great Father and Thoppil Joppan.
Towards the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mohanlal too grew out of his own image with massy, action films like Ravanaprabhu (2001) and Aaraam Thampuran (1997), where he played the moustache-twirling mundu-clad Hindu Nair, leading to an overkill of the oft-repeated strategy.
“A lot of people started using the same formula and it became an overdose. A couple of films that followed fell flat on their face and there was a huge slide in Mohanlal’s career,” says Parshathy Nath, a film writer with The Hindu. “Here was a guy who had held records, his films guaranteed a certain box office (earnings) and then came a time when there was a whole debate on whether the janapriya nayagan (people’s actor) had lost his charm and magic.”
It took more than a decade to bounce back but the resurrection has been substantial. Director Jeethu Joseph’s drama thriller Drishyam became the first Malayalam film to cross the Rs50 crore mark at the box office in 2013. It spawned remakes in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi, as Mohanlal bounced back, albeit with similar strategies.
“In the last four to five years, he’s only been going for safe movies and roles,” says contemporary Malayalam writer N.S. Madhavan. “It, of course, started with Drishyam, an unexpected hit and has continued with films like Pulimurugun.”
Madhavan says the actor has borrowed from commercial Tamil and Telugu hits, but has still undoubtedly left an impact. “He’s an actor with tremendous ability.”
While Nath points out that superstars like Mohanlal and Mammootty still guarantee a certain box office that helps the precariously positioned Malayalam film industry survive, their own longevity, in turn, has been aided by the evolving media landscape. Industry members say they still work with budgets of less than Rs10 crore—an actor of Lal’s stature would command about Rs3 crore, definitely low by Bollywood or even south Indian standards.
“By the mid-1990s and early-2000s, television came in and all old films of these actors took over,” says film critic and documentary maker C.S. Venkiteswaran. “The Kerala film industry doesn’t depend on the box office revenue model but on television that sustains them. The satellite rights are sold based on star value where people like Mohanlal figure at the top. So any film with them is automatically bought and it makes its money back.”
Social media has undoubtedly helped too. The actor, who maintains personally handled active Facebook and Twitter accounts, commands a grand following on social media (2.28 million on Twitter).
“Digitization has altered the nature of the film industry,” Mohanlal says. “Social media, especially, has become a decisive factor in determining a film’s box office success.”
“Independent distributors can now break away from the rigid singular value chain that dominated the industry, and adopt personalized release strategies that are tailored to the individual needs of each film. It has also resulted in the emergence of a new group of technology-savvy consumers who primarily consume media products via the internet.”
Even as his son Pranav readies for a film debut later this year, the challenges for Mohanlal is to remain relevant as Malayalam cinema dislodges the perceptions it comes with.
Since 2011, a host of next-generation directors like Aashiq Abu (Salt N’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, Gangster) and Lijo Jose Pelliserry (Double Barrel, Angamaly Diaries) have taken Malayalam audiences to the dark, cosmopolitan underbelly of cities like Kochi. This is a change from the erstwhile cinema that focused primarily on middle-class identities, embodied to a large extent by Mohanlal himself.
“Kerala society has changed a lot and it’s full of youngsters who are exposed to world cinema. There is a growing demand for alternative films even from the commercial industry. Even with stars like Mohanlal, they don’t want the same stuff to be rehashed,” Nath says.
“Like Amitabh Bachchan, they should do different roles and work with new filmmakers. The same roles are not going to work anymore. That’s the only way to go about it.”
With at least six films already announced or on the floors, Mohanlal does seem to be going about it.
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