If you’re not from Kerala, or a Malayalam film buff, Suresh Nair introduces you to the reigning male deity, Mohanlal.
When Ram Gopal Verma signed Mohanlal to play a top cop in his new film Company, I broke the news on the front page of Bombay Times. It was enough to make the prolific filmmaker burst out laughing and say, “You are a biased Malayali!” “No,” I protested. “I am a biased Mohanlal fan. He is the greatest actor in the country!” Of course, Verma laughed a little more. Months later, on the sets of Company, I find Verma not laughing at all. Instead, he quietly watches Mohanlal on the monitor, playing Joint Commissioner of Police Sreenivasan with seemingly effortless ease, despite his obvious difficulty in spouting Hindi dialogues. “He is unbelievable,” remarks Verma, who then turns around and finds a ‘didn’t-I-tell-you-so’ expression plastered all over my face.
Later, I find Mohanlal sitting quietly in a corner, mugging his lines like a school kid on exam day. “I am doing okay, no?” he asks me in all humility. Well, he’s asking the wrong person. For I can’t recall the Malayalam megastar, and winner of several National and State Awards, ever having struck a false note since he began his acting career in 1980 with Manjil Virinja Pookal. “My first film was actually Thiranottam,” he corrects me, “but it never got released.” That’s history. He’s had over 250 releases in the last 20 odd years. But try telling anybody outside Kerala that the most literate state in the country has been held spellbound for over two decades by a man who weighs a little more than he should and is no Adonis in the looks department, they will find it hard to believe.
Mohanlal is now making an effort to be recognised outside the land of backwaters and snake boats. Five years ago that would have been unthinkable because he was determined not to stray outside Malayalam cinema. “Acclimatisation may become a problem for me if I decided to move into Hindi films,” he had once told me. “Or for that matter any other language. And then there also has to be the lure of an irresistible role. Otherwise, what’s the fun in doing an ordinary role, especially after all the trouble I will take to adapt to a different culture or language.” So it seemed unusual when he crossed the state border and did a fictitious MGR for Mani Ratnam in the Tamil flick Iruvar. “But then I haven’t done any other Tamil film,” he points out now. “I did that one film because the role was good, and Mani Ratnam!”
The same logic also seems to hold for Ram Gopal Verma’s Company. “I liked the way he narrated the script and my character.” That apart, Lal can’t recall having seen any other Hindi film in recent times except Satya.
While he appears as an actor who makes smart choices, Lal admits that he’s never had a game plan. After all, he became an actor because his friends responded with his photographs and bio-data to an advertisement in a newspaper by a production company, inviting youngsters to act in their film. It resulted in his debut as a baddie in Manjil Virinja Pookal. “Nothing was ever planned in my life,” he reasons. “I don’t plan anything. I am just floating with the current, with the events. In fact, I have learnt from life that you can’t plan or predict anything. So why should we plan so many things when we have no idea at all about what will happen next? I believe in fate, though it doesn’t mean I leave everything to it.” It’s probably this calm acceptance of life that gives Lal the courage to experiment. Like playing Karna in a recent Sanskrit play called Karnabharam or put his money as a producer on a critically acclaimed but commercially rejected film on the trauma of a Kathakali artiste titled Vanaprastham.
“I don’t know Sanskrit,” he confesses. “And I had so little time to prepare for Karnabharam before it was staged in Delhi early this year that I sat and mugged Sanskrit on the sets of Priyadarshan’s Kakakuyil.” As for Vanaprastham, Lal didn’t learn Kathakali, but he believed in the film so much that he had no qualms about sitting for almost six hours at a stretch on the sets of the film in his heavy costume. “And on the last day of shooting I had to sit for nine hours!”
Mohanlal seems quite unaffected by the fact that Vanaprastham didn’t do well at the box office. “I can only do what I can do,” he explains. “Every film comes with its own horoscope. There is little control you have over what will happen to a film before or after its release. So what’s the point in feeling upset about a film’s failure? Likewise, I never get too happy over the success of any of my films.” This sense of detachment came out most solidly in a television interview of Lal’s parents, where his mother recalled how her son sounded too calm and least excited about winning his first National Award for Bharatham.
Lal’s career has seen some very enduring friendships. Like the one with director Priyadarshan, who is among the first to visit the actor on the sets of Company. “I have been there at every turning point in his life,” says the director who’s scored such hits with his friend as Chithram and Kilukkam. In fact, Lal even made a fleeting walk-through appearance in his latest Hindi film, Yeh Teraa Ghar Yeh Meraa Ghar. A smile escapes Priyadarshan’s lips as Lal delivers his Hindi dialogues.
“Mohanlal spoils you,” he says. “After working with him I am just not satisfied with any other actor. There just seems to be nobody as good as him.” Another friend the actor desperately gets in touch with during his brief visits to Mumbai is cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan, who had edited his directorial debut Halo in Lal’s house in Chennai. “He always teases me about not casting him in any of my films,” jokes Sivan, who recalls Lal asking what role he could play in Halo. “I told him the only role left to be cast was that of the dog in the film!”
Much has been made out in the Malayalam media about the supposed rivalry between Mohanlal and the other Malayalam superstar, Mammootty. But ask the latter about it and he laughs. “What do you mean by rivalry?” he asks. “Do you think we beat each other up every time we meet? We work well together. I even did a cameo in Mohan Lal’s Narasimham last year. Of course, there is healthy competition between us and that’s restricted to doing good quality films. By the way, I am glad that he’s doing Ram Gopal Verma’s Company. It’s time we Malayali actors stepped out into the national arena.” True to his career, the shy and modest Mohanlal isn’t entertaining any unrealistic ideas about making a career in Bollywood. “I don’t think I fit in here,” he says, “neither by way of my looks or style of acting.”
This article was first published in the November 2001 issue