It’s difficult to have a conversation about movies with a Malayali. Start telling us about that profound Korean film you watched and we’ll tell you, “All that’s great but did you watch that Mohanlal film I asked you to watch? No? First watch that and then talk.”
As a people, we’re convinced that Malayalam movies are the best. My long-suffering Telugu husband will attest to this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t enjoy films made in other languages. Tamil movies, for example, are enormously popular in Kerala and when I watched “Kabali” in Pune, it was a row full of riotous Malayli IT boys who were cheering the loudest. Stars like Vijay, Suriya and Ajith have huge fan followings and their movies take excellent openings in the state.
However, the average Malayali holds the quintessence of the average Malayalam film close to their heart. Films where we love not just the hero and the heroine but the many RK Narayan-esque characters who walk in and out of the story. Films where we meet the stars as ordinary people with human failings, endearing themselves to us as they go about their mundane lives. Films where there is so much detail to the story that we understand the characters and their motivations as if they are family. Films where the humour blends seamlessly into the script and doesn’t stand outside, begging you to please laugh.
Mohanlal pretty much ruined all other kinds of movies for me for the longest time. His ability to shapeshift into any character was so astounding that I simply couldn’t keep myself from comparing other films to his and finding them lacking. I liked Mammooty too. He was way more handsome than Mohanlal but the latter, with his twinkling eyes, disarming smile, and soft stomach, still somehow won all the brownie points.
As a Malayali who grew up outside Kerala, I watched most Malayalam films on TV. Afternoons spent with Asianet for company. I’ve cried, laughed, and introspected with Mohanlal films. I still cannot watch “Kireedam” without feeling like someone has punched me in the gut. The way Sethumadhavan’s face changes when he realizes what he has done by slashing Kireekadan Jose, even as people around him celebrate his victory, is an Othello moment of truth. The subsequent unravelling of his life and his family’s dreams is so real, you need to remind yourself that it’s absurd to feel so much grief for people who don’t exist.
Years later, he made me wince the same way again when I watched “Drishyam” where he plays the role of a simple family man who is dragged into a frightening nightmare from which he must emerge using all his wits. There are many scenes in the film which could have turned hyperbolic if not for Mohanlal’s restrained performance and his remarkable ability to make the audience feel his raw emotions. I watched re-makes of the film in other languages and found them to be parodies of what Mohanlal brought to the table.
As an actor, Mohanlal constantly pushed his boundaries. In “Thanmathra”, he plays Ramesan Nair, a government employee who becomes an Alzheimer’s patient. The hesitant fumbles, the absent-minded rambling, the blank stares – Mohanlal brought Ramesan Nair to life with such ease that you’d think the man has spent a lifetime at the hospital with these lost souls who smile absently even as others lament their fate. And Mohanlal appeared naked in the film…as a man who even forgets how to make love to his wife. While superstars in other industries try to outdo each other in proving their virility onscreen, here was an actor willing to appear in all his vulnerability only because the scene adds so much more poignancy to the story.
“Bharatham” is another favourite of mine. A film about two musician brothers where the older, more established one (Nedumudi Venu) starts feeling resentful about the growing popularity of the younger sibling (Mohanlal). Mohanlal as Gopi struggles to pacify his brother’s ego even as the latter’s alcoholism worsens. The film had splendid music that moved even a tone-deaf person like me, especially the “Ramakadha” song which won Yesudas his 6th National Award for Best Male Playback Singer.
Mohanlal also has impeccable comic timing. Whether it is films like “TP Balagopalan MA”, “Mithunam”, “Chithram”, “Mukunthetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu”, or “Akkare Akkare Akkare”, there’s so much nuance that he brings to the roles, inviting you to laugh at him and with him. When he appears in combination with Sreenivasan, especially, a belly-ache is guaranteed. These films are not entirely comedies either – there are shades to the story, bits that will make you weep even. In “Mithunam”, for instance, when Sethumadhavan drops his hard-earned wad of cash into the drain, I have to physically turn away from the TV.
There are many more Mohanlal films that one can write about but that will take several pages. His later films (other than “Drishyam”) haven’t transported me so convincingly into those small towns and endearing lives as his previous films. I’ve intensely disliked his gangster avatars and attempts to imitate larger-than-life heroes. But though I cannot stand to watch those movies, my loyalty as his fan remains untouched.
So yes, please give me your recommendations from world cinema. I have my own list that I will stubbornly stand by.