It was September 1997 when I first watched Chandralekha in a theatre. In one scene, Beeranikka (Mamukkoya) is counting notes when Appukuttan (Mohanlal) comes behind him and takes a pen to write on a notepad. Beeranikka turns back and starts scolding Appu. But we cannot hear anything. Also Appu has no change of expression on his face. The camera angle now widens and we see there was a glass all the while in between them.
I still remember how amused I was at the clever trick the filmmaker employed there.
Let us also rewind to a few scenes earlier. Alfie (Anil Kapoor) shows up at Appukuttan’s door. Just as Appu leans towards him in shock, you see his image on Alfie’s sunglasses. Alfie asks “How do you know my wife?” and the word 'Interval' appears on screen. 20 years have passed since. I don’t recall many other occasions when I had wanted a movie to resume after an interval so eagerly.
Priyadarshan borrowed the plot idea for Chandralekha from the 1995 Hollywood movie While you were sleeping. But the two scenes discussed above are among a lot of other things that were not in the American movie.
These were just Priyadarshan things.
While you were sleeping had a run-time of only 103 minutes. Chandralekha was 2 hours 52 minutes long. Yes, you read that right. Today, it is rare not to feel bored during such lengthy movies. But when Priyadarshan added an hour to the movie from which he sought inspiration and turned it to a rollicking comedy, we didn't complain.
In While you were sleeping, Lucy (Sandra Bullock) brings an unconscious Peter (Peter Gallagher) to the hospital and is mistaken to be his fiancee. She continues to pretend to be the fiancee so as not to not hurt the feelings of the family whom she meets. But she gets close to Peter’s brother, Jack (Bill Pullman) and falls in love with him.
In Chandralekha, Priyadarshan made his protagonist male. Appukuttan lands up with Chandra(Sukanya) in the hospital, but against his will. He goes on to fall in love with Chandra’s childhood friend, Lekha (Pooja Batra), but not before she gives him several headaches.
Priyadarshan retained the romantic plot but placed his hero in a bigger web of lies because the motive now involved money. Priyadarshan knew it had bigger scope for comedy. In While you were sleeping, Lucy and Peter arrive at the hospital within 10 minutes from the start. In Chandralekha, we are taken to the hospital only after 30 minutes. Priyadarshan uses all this time to introduce and establish his characters in his trademark style. None of these characters go wasted without having a connection to the story later.
Appu’s brother-in-law (Augustine) happens to be the manager in the firm of Chandra’s father (Nedumudi Venu). He becomes part of an extremely hilarious scene when he is in a room with Chandra's father, Appu and Nooruddin(Sreenivasan). The bank manager (Maniyanpilla Raju) who denies Appu the loan at first becomes the reason why Appu decides to lie and act as Chandra’s husband. Noor’s uncle, Beeranikka then keeps chasing Appu for the money he owes him.
Priyadarshan’s genius lies in not missing out on even a single chance to make his audience laugh. The word “Contessa” is a lifeline in the movie for Appu to escape from difficult situations and a device for Priyadarshan to leave the audience in splits.
Noor asks Appu repeatedly- “Still where did Alfie go?” Appu repeats to his house owner - “I will give you the money in 2-3 days”. This repetition brings out the maximum humor from a situation. Even the name of Sreenivasan's character,“Noor” (which means 100 in Malayalam) is not spared when he meets Iravikuttanpilla (Innocent) or Shankarakuruppu (Kuthiravattam Pappu).
Mohanlal gave arguably his finest performance in a comedy movie in Chandralekha. His expression when he is jammed between the attendants and nurses when Chandra is rushed to the operation theatre is priceless. As it is when he tries to open Chandra’s suitcase or when the bank manager informs him he would sanction the loan or when he is caught red-handed before an injured Beeranikka.
Mohanlal’s energy and timing during the whole “Nee ethra bhagyavathiyaanu, Njan ethra bhagyavanaanu” sequence is a difficult act to replicate. As is the bit where he keeps laughing out loud non-stop to flee from Lekha’s difficult questions.
Even the simplest gestures like how he slips on the floor when the doctor (Soman) takes him to Chandra’s family or how he slides through a railing to save Noor from the police bring a smile on your face. Mohanlal formed a great team with Innocent, with both trying to outsmart each other in every frame. Who can forget Iravikuttanpilla’s expression when he tries to sneak out of the hospital room after Chandra becomes conscious?
Priyadarshan and Mohanlal never made a movie as good as Chandralekha later. It was after Chandralekha that both had a change in their priorities as well. Mohanlal did Aaram Thampuran three months after Chandralekha and it spurred a string of his larger than life movies and characters - a phase which lasted for a long time.
The actor has given memorable performances since then, but the ease and flexibility with which he did comedy was never again like what you saw in Chandralekha. Priyadarshan made Hera Pheri in Bollywood in 2000 and immediately found himself busy remaking several other movies from Malayalam. In Kakkakuyil and Oppam, they found decent results but still they did not come close to Chandralekha.
Chandralekha which completed 20 years this September 4, is also one of those movies that has aged well with time. A portion that particularly looks fresh is when Appukuttan narrates how he was finding his feet in Mumbai. Mohanlal’s voice has his signature calmness. Cinematographer Jeeva, who did a terrific job in the movie, slowed down his frames and captured the beauty of the locations. S.P Venakatesh’s background score was soothing. Priyadarshan combined all these perfectly to bring serenity in a movie that was otherwise an out-and-out comedy.
Like I said before, these were just Priyadarshan things.