Much like Tamil cinema’s Rajinikanth-- who is a superstar -- and Kamal Haasan -- who is, well, quite an actor -- Kerala has two iconic men who are as different as chalk and cheese. While Mammootty is a superstar like Rajinikanth, Mohanlal is, first and foremost, a performer par excellence. His stardom, which surely does exist, comes later.
In the upcoming Vismayam in Malayalam, Mohanlal is a supermarket assistant manager -- middleclass, down-to-earth and principled. And the story is said to revolve around four people at varying stages of their lives. Now which of them will remain etched in our memory? Vismayam will tell us.
Vismayam opens on August 5 along with the Tamil (Namadhu) and Telugu (Manamantha) versions.
As much as Mohanlal is a legend, Mammootty has his place in the annals of great cinema. One has seen him in the films of no less a master than Adoor Gopalakrishnan. In the three movies of Adoor that Mammootty acted -- Anantaram, Mathilukal and Vidheyan -- he was disarmingly varied and powerful.
But why did Adoor never cast Mohanlal in his cinema? Once when this writer asked the auteur this, he was not exactly forthcoming. Maybe he had his reservations about Mohanlal -- much in the same way that Satyajit Ray had about the Bengali star of the day, Uttam Kumar. He was part of just two of Ray’s films, Nayak and Chiriyakana -- while the other great Bengali actor, Soumitra Chatterjee, was almost an alter-ego of the director.
One supposes that since cinema is such an intimate medium with actor and the director and the cinematographer working in close proximity to one another that a high level of comfort and equation is absolutely necessary. It is quite possible that Adoor never found this vis-a-vis Mohanlal.
But when it comes to nuanced performance and the ability to forget oneself (just push aside the fact that one is a star or actor A or B or C), Mohanlal stands so tall that others cannot hope to even reach his eye level.
As we await Vismayam, two of Mohanlal’s works are etched in memory. He was terrific as the unlettered television cable operator in Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam. With amazing cunning, he takes the cops on a foxtrot after his wife and daughter kill a boy out to blackmail the girl with her semi-nude pictures. It was a kind of acting that had all the ingredients of a master artist, a man who can only be compared -- and favourably so -- with cinema greats like Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Francois Truffaut, Soumitra Chatterjee and the likes.
Drishyam was remade into Tamil as Papanasam (with Haasan reprising Mohanlal’s part), in Telugu as Drushyam (with Duggabati Venkatesh) and Drishyam in Hindi (with Ajay Devgn) -- but none of the non-Malayalam editions matched up to the original. And the key reason for this was Mohanlal. An important Telugu producer and director, Ganga Raju, once told this writer that Venkatesh fared quite poorly when compared to Mohanlal. “Venkatesh could never bring in the finer qualities of Mohanlal to the screen. The Malayalam actor was subtle and almost seductively smart when dealing with the police, giving those men in uniform a hard time.”
Watch the trailer of Iruvar here:
One can conclude from this that Mohanlal has this rare ability to let go himself, to completely transform himself into the man he is called upon to essay. And he has sheer guts to do it. One remembers him in the Tamil remake of the Hindi movie, A Wednesday. Titled Unnaipol Oruvan, Mohanlal portrays Inspector-General of Police Raghavan Maraar (getting into the shoes of Anupam Kher in the Hindi original), and the actor could not care less that his Tamil was heavily accented. But the kind of stature and strength and command he brought to the role was awe-inspiring. Kher seemed to pale in comparison.
There was another Tamil film of his, Iruvar (Aishwarya Rai’s debut), helmed by Mani Ratnam, where Mohanlal plays an actor (modelled on MG Ramachandran, who apart from being a star was the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister) -- infusing the character with mannerisms that reminded one of MGR.
His fantastic ability to disappear into the skin of a character was discernible even when he acted in a school stage play, called Computer Boy. He was in class six then, but he carried the role of a 90-year-old man with great ability. Much like Rajinikanth, Mohanlal in his early days essayed dark characters in a number of movies before he changed tracks. His first feature in 1978 was Thiranottam -- where he was seen as a mentally challenged servant. But it was the 1984 Ivide Thudangunnu that finally saw him as the classic hero.
But Mohanlal has -- even since then -- done many, many films like Unnaipol Oruvan where, despite not being the focal point of the plot, managed to outshine others.