Arguably one of the best actors south Asia has produced in recent history, the Malayalam movie star has evolved with the times, but he could have done better.

SERGIUS: I am surprised at myself, Louka. What would Sergius, the hero of Slivnitza, say if he saw me now? What would Sergius, the apostle of the higher love, say if he saw me now? What would the half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here?” — “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw

History has been kind to Mohanlal. When he arrived in the Malayalam film industry in 1980, the scene was ‘clash of the titans’. Sweet rogues such as MG Soman and Sukumaran were at the peak of their careers. In fact, their presence looked so formidable then that there was hardly any room left for a newbie dilettante like Mohanlal, who neither had the looks nor the skills to make the cut in the star-lit industry. Just to put things in perspective, just in 1980, Soman acted in more than two dozen films and Sukumaran did more than 20 films.

Mohanlal’s entry flick, Manjil Virinja Pookal, a romantic thriller produced by Navodaya Appachan and directed by Fazil, did reasonably well at the box office but his role was nowhere near the ones that would make him famous in the later years. And that year, he didn’t release any other movies. But 1981 saw nearly eight movies by Mohanlal hit the theatres. In 1982, nearly a dozen films came to the cinemas with his credit and the next year, he almost doubled the tally. Ever since, there has been no looking back.

Actor, producer and more

The 1980s and 1990s saw Mohanlal make his mark as one of the best actors in India, along with Mammooty, who had also, technically, debuted in 1980. Even though Mammooty had entered the Malayalam industry in the 1970s itself, his first credited role came only in 1980, with Vilkkanundu Swapnangal, written by the legendary M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Year 1980 also saw the release of Mela, the first film in which Mammooty played the lead.

Interestingly, Mohanlal’s evolution into a star was completely unlike his predecessors’. While Mammooty donned many roles that resembled the ones Sukumaran or Soman had taken up in the past (and bettered them all with elan), Mohanlal managed to create a niche by playing characters that broke away from the tradition and straddled a wide spectrum of acting. He played the irritant lover, irresponsible sibling, lousy partner, ambitious village lad, broken romeo, gullible gangster, fallible journalist, perilous politician, cunning conman and, above all, the affable Malayalee boy next door almost everyone in a typical middle class family could easily relate to.

Mohanlal’s legacy is actually built on the dividends from these characters he did in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of his great works came during these two decades. From Kireedam, Bharatham, Chithram, Nadodikkattu and Thoovanathumbikal in the 1980s to Devasuram, Kilukkam, Sphadikam, Iruvar, Vanaprastham, Sadayam and Kaalapani in the 1990s, Mohanlal’s transformation into a versatile actor has been quite amazing by any yardstick. Soon, he started financing movies and his home production, Aashirvad Cinemas, set up in 2000 by close confidante Antony Perumbavoor, produced some of the biggest blockbusters of Mohanlal, though these films didn’t do justice to the quality of work he did earlier.

In fact, Mohanlal’s transformation from an actor to a star coincided with the growth and spread of new capital in Kerala society. He started growing with the Gulf boom, a period that marked Kerala’s transformation into a remittance economy, and its impact on the state’s culture and politics. Mohanlal’s characters represented the woes, whims and fancies of the average middle-class Malayalee and catered to their curiously convoluted socio-cultural interests. Obviously, such films — Varavelpu, Vellanakalude Naadu, and many more — became mega hits. Mohanlal’s characters depicted Malayalee’s class complexities with enchanting alacrity. Be it Aye Auto — in which the star is an auto driver romancing a girl from a rich family — or Kilukkam in which he plays a street smart tourist guide who meets and falls in love with a crazy girl, almost all of his characters played to the Malayalee psych’s myriad tribulations. And, undoubtedly, hardly any of them have failed at the box office. 

Toxic Malayalee masculinity

But an unfortunate fallout of this spell of incredible success was that Mohanlal and his producers grew overconfident of the actor’s ability to pull off blockbusters out of thin air and started churning out films that targeted only the mass market. This coincided with the arrival and the growing acceptance of economic liberalisation in India. The middle-class was spoilt for choices and there were enough incentives for them to splurge money in shopping centres and cinemas. The boom helped Mohanlal’s films, too. In fact, the growth of new capital bailed out many bad films of Mohanlal and helped cement the false confidence in his Moustache Movies (where the actor usually donned macho roles, seen twirling his now-famous moustache — a symbol of Malayalee masculinity).

But soon, the false confidence wore off. Mohanalal’s films started becoming a bore. Bereft of soul and substance, they were infested by misogyny, toxic masculinity, perverse display of materialism, in-your-face contempt for politics and democratic norms, loud endorsement for feudal mores and, above all, right-wing ideas masquerading as progressive moves. Clearly, these were the lost decades of Mohanlal. Most of the films didn’t do well — from Thandavam to Udayon, the list is big. And those who worked financially, such as Narasimham and Ustad, were filled with hollow rhetoric and exuberant exultations of Macho Mohanlal.

The period coincided with Mohanlal’s visible tilt towards the right-wing of the political spectrum, which at the outset seemed a career hara-kiri in a state where Hindu nationalism or right-wing ideas didn’t have much clout. But Mohanlal seemed to be ahead of his peers in his ambitions and his films openly promoted some of the most worrying social trends of the decades — faux religiosity, market-friendly spirituality, aggrandising nationalism (From Aram Thampuran to Baba Kalyani), unflinching admiration for military and jingoism (Keerthi Chakra, Kurukshetra, Kandahar, 1971-Beyond Borders) — which helped install the current government at the Centre and assisted the right-wing political dispensations to polarise Kerala’s secular society. 

Seemingly remorseless, as all signs suggest, Mohanlal continues his sociocultural journey, happily vindicated by the platitudes and distinctions showered on him by fans (a formidable army who admirably call him Lalettan or Big Brother Lal and whose presence and activities online an offline is a case study in itself) and friends. Sparing a few sparkling performances, the recent years of the actor have been rather barren and, sans a miracle, he is unlikely to surprise his well-wishers with a substantial role in the near future, considering the current market dynamics and the clout his stardom commands in movie making and distribution. Still, those who have observed his acting career keenly, having enjoyed his incredible performances expect the actor extraordinaire to start acting his age and time and produce films that would take Malayalam cinema to unseen heights.

Happy Birthday, Mohanlal!

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