Mohanlal: From Narendran to Kunjali Marakkar IV, a Journey to be Admired

With all of us being confined to our homes for nearly 2 months or so, all thanks to the Covid-19 outbreak, we have seen our lives getting altered in ways that we had never anticipated and looked forward to. I have been someone who generally preferred the experience of watching movies in cinemas, not getting lured by the abundant content (films, web-series and much more) available on the numerous OTT/digital platforms that we have access to. Every few months I would ponder over trying to embrace the OTT platforms, but kept delaying the inevitable, only for this lockdown to finally bring in the transition in my case. So thus, I have been getting my daily fix of entertainment at home in the last couple of months, watching film after film, series after series. And in this process, I also watched Ranjith’s Drama (2018), a rare Mohanlal film in recent times that I had missed watching in a theatre.

I then remembered that I had attempted to watch Drama on a couple of occasions earlier as well, failing to move past the initial few scenes. It would bring back memories of the brickbats (largely) that came in from both the audience as well as the critics, post the release of the film. But this time around I persisted with the film, and no I would not lie by saying that I went on to enjoy the film. But what certainly happened was that the film did manage to make me chuckle at a few places, also to ponder as well at times. And it is no surprise that almost all these scenes/moments had Mohanlal in it, in fact without him the whole film crumbles completely. Certainly, an indication of how talented Mohanlal is, managing to leave a mark in what is otherwise a very ordinary film.

It is difficult to encapsulate the 40-year film career of an artiste of Mohanlal’s caliber in just one article and hence this is not an attempt to do so. However, what I would attempt is to showcase what makes him special and relevant even today at the age of 60 and what I have thought of him over the years while I have been watching him perform in film after film. Probably the first film of his that I vividly remember in terms of his performance must be Bharathan’s Kattathe Kilikkoodu (1983). I remember his portrayal of Unnikrishnan very distinctly, even though he was not the protagonist. But despite being in the shadow of talented actors like Bharath Gopi, Revathi and Srividya, Mohanlal clearly managed to ensure that we took notice of him. For a good part of the 80’s, as a school kid I remember seeing a lot of his films, but back then to be very honest I was not yet enamored by Malayalam cinema. An aspect that is ironical, considering how much I have fallen in love with it over the years.

I have seen a lot of Mohanlal’s 80’s films during my school days, many of them directed by I.V. Sasi where he shared the limelight with Mammootty and Rahman, but clearly left his mark. I admit that I discovered or enjoyed some of his really good works from the 80’s only much later in my life. This includes films like Uyarangalil (1984), Deshadanakkili Karayarilla (1986), Thoovanathumbikal (1987), Season (1989) etc. This scenario continued for a while in the 90’s as well as I initially missed out on some of his really good films like Thazhvaram (1990), Sadayam (1992), Aham (1992) etc., before getting to watching them much later on.  But even during my school days there were some memorable Mohanalal films that impressed me back then. I certainly remember watching films like Boeing Boeing (1985) which was funny, Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu (1985) that left me emotional, Panchagni (1986) which was impactful, despite Lalettan (as he is fondly referred to by his admirers) playing second fiddle to Geetha, Sukhamo Devi (1986) where for me the film lost its charm after his character dies, Irupatham Noottandu (1987) which was entertaining, Nadodikkattu (1987), a film that I absolutely adore, Chithram (1988), among my all time favourites, His Highness Abdullah (1990) and Bharatham (1991) which made me appreciate Carnatic music, Kilukkam (1991), a near perfect mainstream film.

It was only when I entered college and with a better awareness of Malayalam cinema that I gradually began to look forward to watching new Malayalam movies in theatres. Films watched during that phase and which remain etched in my memory would include Thenamavin Kombath (1994), Spadikam (1995), Kaalapani (1996), Chandralekha (1997), Aaram Thampuran (1997). By the time I went on to watch Lalettan’s popular films like Olympian Anthony Adam (1999) and Narasimham (2000) I knew that I had long become his fan. Perhaps only this can explain why I liked his larger than life avatars when done right in case of films like Narasimham, Ravanaprabhu (2001), Chotta Mumbai (2007) etc. films which were nothing great as such, but made memorable nevertheless by Lalettan. Similarly when a lot of his films turned out to be misfires, the disappointment that I encountered was genuine. I can think of films like Praja (2001), Onnaman (2002), Thandavam (2002), Udayon (2005), Flash (2007) and a few others in this period.

But it is definitely interesting to note that even as the quality of Malayalam cinema had taken a dip post the mid 90’s and with Mohanlal attempting so many larger than life films back then, there was still a silver lining in the cloud. A few writers and directors managed to come up with some good output from time to time, luckily Lalettan managed to also reap the benefit pretty frequently. Which is why films like Udayananu Tharam (2005), Thanmathra (2005), Vadakkumnathan (2006), Paradesi (2007) and Bhramaram (2009) appeared as a whiff of fresh air back then.  As a film critic I would say that some of my memorable reviews of his films would include Christian Brothers (2011), Spirit (2012), Peruchazhi (2014), Pulimurugan (2016), Odiyan (2018) and Lucifer (2019). These may not feature among the best of his performances (though he was pretty good in Spirit) or films, but there was something enjoyable about the experience of watching the film and/or penning down my thoughts about them.

Also enjoyable for me was writing about Kireedam (1989) on it is 25th anniversary and sharing my thoughts on the fantastic Dasanum-Vijayanum (Das and Vijay) trilogy-Nadodikkattu, Pattanapravesham (1988) and Akkare Akkare Akkare (1990). I find it both boring and funny when people keep cribbing about Mohanlal and Mammootty’s need to continue acting even today, competing in a way against their own sons as well. I say this because both are legends who know what’s best for them. In case of Mohanlal , for every recent dud like Big Brother (2020), 1971: Beyond Borders (2017), Lailaa O Lailaa (2015) or Koothara (2014), he manages to balance the same with a Drishyam (2013), Oppam (2016), Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol (2017) or Lucifer (2019). If I were to talk about his popularity among the masses, then I need not talk of his recent box office breaking blockbusters like Drishyam, Pulimurugan or Lucifer. Instead I would like to draw our attention towards Rosshan Andrrews’ Kayamkulam Kochunni (2018) where Lalettan’s extended cameo as Ithikkara Pakki was not only popular, it also helped an otherwise average film to become a huge commercial success.

As Mohanlal turns 60 today, I wish him all the very best for his future and expect him to choose his forthcoming films in such a fashion that it would make us look forward to them eagerly. I need to also express a personal gratitude of sorts to the legend, after all it is thanks to his memorable characters in films like Kireedam, Chenkol (1993) and Mithunam (1993), all of them named Sethumadhavan, that I started taking pride in my own name.

Wishing you a very Happy Birthday Lalettan, may you continue to bring before us many, many more memorable films. For now, I will look forward to Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham eagerly.

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